Shot Behind The Theatre

A whimsical and readable blog

Watchmen: the problem with critics

Who-Watches-the-Watchmen-watchmen-14960175-1440-900Watchmen is a novel where one agent of authority needs another agent of authority to monitor the decisions of the first and, if need be, steer it in the right direction. The monitoring agent is a “watchman”. The watchman will interfere if the authority is about to do wrong or a problem could not be solved without their intervention. The situation in the novel is that the American government, a watchman of the American people, is in a Cuban missile crisis-like situation with the Russians and are about to initiate an attack that will hopefully wipe out the Soviets with “acceptable American losses”. You’ve heard this buzzword if you’ve seen Dr. Strangelove. However, in order to avert nuclear war, Ozymandias, a self-proclaimed superhero, devises a plan with his money and intelligence to prevent a confrontation, and manages to sacrifice a few million less than originally projected for the greater good. Ozymandias is the watchman for the American government who is also a watchman. The moral implications are obvious—what gives the American government the right to sacrifice a part of its population for the greater good? Ozymandias finds the moral solution for them.  The problem arises when Ozymandias has no watchman himself—who watches the watchman? The reader is left with this question at the end of the novel.The discretion of one watchman over another watchman should itself be subject to scrutiny from another watchman. Who is to judge that Ozymandias’s decision was just? Who is to evaluate that evaluator? And so on and so forth.

The problem is the recursive idea of a watchman always needing to be watched by another above him. It’s a similar and opposite to the turtle and the earth problem. Someone asks, “what keeps the earth in its place?” and a naïve old woman responds, “it sits on the back of a giant turtle.” But then what keeps that turtle in place? “Another turtle”. An infinite stack of turtles holding the earth going forever downwards. Logically, this is no satisfying explanation to the initial question. The nature of recursion is that the problem is caused by the first turtle. Eliminate the first, and the endless stack ceases to be. But can the first watchman be eliminated? To get rid of the first watchman means getting rid of the first bastion of authority which in Watchman is the American government. Eliminating the government essentially is an argument for  anarchy. How can any authority legitimately make decisions when their moral compass can always be called into question? This same question can be applied to critics. I am thinking mostly of critics of writing and art.

If we want to know more about the works of Shakespeare, we may turn to a critic to guide our understanding, Coleridge for example. Coleridge writes a criticism about Shakespeare. This criticism cannot possibly include every single aspect or perspective of Hamlet but it can highlight a few that Coleridge himself finds important. Therefore, to understand Coleridge’s criticism of Hamlet, we need a critic to analyse his criticism. And another to analyse that critic. And the stack of turtles returns. A criticism is a unique perspective that includes some but cannot possible include all aspects of a piece of writing or work of art. It’s subjective and cannot possibly try and say anything objective or final because it ultimately cannot, with one watchman always being able to put them to question. So where do we get reliable criticism from? Or, in Watchmen, where do we get our morality from in order to make decisions? If the watchmen can’t provide it, then from where? If critics can’t provide reliable criticism, what’s their point? Why is their personal opinion worth any more than anyone else’s?

In Watchmen the character Rorschach says, “Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after starring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.” The watchmen we choose to impose are random. Attempting to find solid, universal objectivity to them is meaningless according to Rorschach’s logic. His mask reflects the psychological ink spatters that psychiatrists use in association tests—we subjectively identify what we see in a random order or images. We create the meaning ourselves based on our own subjective experiences. Coleridge’s criticism of Hamlet is just that—Coleridge’s experience. We choose to give authority to governments. Democratically elected authorities could not exist if it was not for the meaning we give them. However, just because we give them meaning and authority does not mean they cannot turn around and betray us. Ozymandias saw a betrayal with the governments of the world threatening their people with nuclear apocalypse and acted to prevent that. But, in becoming a watchman for a watchman, he started the recursion problem which only compounds the principle question of one authority having the right to arbitrate.

Rorschach continues his logic, “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us…The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world” (p. 26, Chapter 6). Rorschach has already realized the recursion cannot happen. There is no authority that can legitimately guide us through the swamp of moral dilemmas. There is no singular steering wheel, we are all “rudderless”. It is up to us, individuals like Rorschach, to create meaning for ourselves. Rorascach’s argument is for one of individualism and the power within, an idea long thought to be particularly America. At the end of the novel, when Ozymandias reveals his plan to Rorschach and Nite Owl, Rorschach leaves to tell the world about what Ozymandias has done, despite that it will harm the recent nuclear armistice. Jon follows him and tells Rorchach that he cannot let him leave for the sake of the peace. Rorschach doesn’t attempt to escape or change his mind, he insists that Jon do what needs to be done. Rorschach lives true to his philosophy to the very end, he does not waver in the meaning and values he has decided for himself and because of this, Jon, being able to see what Rorschach will do in the future, is forced to kill him. Had Rorschach changed his mind or altered his value system, that would throw his entire philosophy off balance—it would destroy the moral compass he has made for himself and without that, there is nothing, only the void that shatters his illusions. By associating his mask with a set of values, he accepts that their artificial nature and decisively chooses to live within them, knowing full well they are still constructs. The psychological importance of this is apparent when his mask is taken away by the police during his arrest and why he so desperately wants his “face” back. By losing his mask, he loses his values and principles that he has carved out for himself, only to wear the vapid, empty, meaningless unprincipled face he was born with. An unpleasant thought for anyone. Interestingly, the illustrator changes the ink marks on the mask in every frame Rorschach is in. Never does the image appear the same. Clearly, the ink is not actually moving on the cloth, the reader is meant to see something different on Rorschach’s face. We interpret his face and put meaning on them just as we do his actions. He is in a morally grey area with his methods of interrogation and his values of right and wrong, but at the very least, he has values. And he sticks to them. That much is reliable.

The critic is the same. They wear a mask where we can read and interpret their thoughts however we want but there is not one absolute set of criticisms. Underneath the writing, you have the author, but like Rorschach who under the mask has a face like anyone else, whose expression is unavoidably subjective. Rorschach’s objectives informed by his values and meaning pushes him on a personal journey, but what is the point of a critic writing for other people to read if his opinion is ultimately just derivative of himself and no more or less subjective than any other opinion? He doesn’t attempt to rule the world like Ozymandias does and Ozymandias ends up being incorrect in his assumption there is an “end” to what he’s done. Jon correctly tells him there is no end. There is no end to the recursive watchmen, no end to critics and their criticism.

Critics have more in common with Rorschach than they do Jon or Ozymandies. They have their own unique set of values that they stick to and therefore have no right to claim intellectual, moral or mental superiority over anything. They are part of a web of conversation, not an ivory ladder of climbing opinions where the highest is the king of the hill. Rorschach seems the most at ease with himself throughout the novel–he’s remarkably calm, cool and collected. Whether or not that could be interpreted as happiness, it’s certainly not the kind of emotional pain felt by several other characters. I would argue that it’s Rorschach’s individual set of values that he sticks to, that he calls his own, that are unique to him, that make him such a respectable personality. He doesn’t claim omnipotence like Ozymandies, only to be disappointed with its outcome at the end, nor does he actually possess the God-like powers of Jon to control the world around him. He lives through his principles to the very end which, I would argue, gives him satisfaction.

A leviathan of moral and intellectual consideration, discussing Watchmen can be as recursive as the concept it exposes. But in the end it espouses this message: live to your principles, stick to yourself, do not try to dominate others, find your own way.

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3 comments on “Watchmen: the problem with critics

  1. calmgrove
    January 15, 2014

    If it doesn’t sound too patronising, this is one of most intelligent discussions of Watchmen I’ve seen online, getting to the heart of one of the dilemmas the novel poses. Thank you for this.

  2. calmgrove
    November 19, 2014

    Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:
    A stimulating analysis of some of the big themes in the graphic novel Watchmen and a critique of criticism and its relativism.

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This entry was posted on January 5, 2014 by in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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