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It Ain’t So Bad Being Black and White, Rorschach: Thoughts on Determinism in Watchmen

What I like about Rorschach is that, on the most superficial level, he embodies the antithesis to utilitarian compromise, a "black and white" perspective in a morally indifferent universe.

I’m sure we’re all glad to join the renewed discussion of Watchmen in light of tonight (last night’s!) premiere. Zillions of tweets are exploding all over the interwebs as I write this, and the compulsion to contribute to all the noise is, perhaps, all-too-human.

All-in-all: The movie adaptation is as faithful frame-by-frame as we could ask for, I think. True fans of the original may be as embittered with the movie as is Alan Moore (for whatever reasons… there are too many to enumerate here), but I’m not complaining; we don’t end up with disintegrated Professor X shortly before the credits roll (Although when I saw the preview for Wolverine, I thought, God I wish this was Wolverine the Musical). My favorite character still dies. The sex scenes were way too long, but the glory of the opening credits make up for it. And the ending of Watchmen delivers the morally unsatisfying conclusion we expected from the get-go, whether or not a psychic squid is involved. But is that what we really wanted?

What I like about Rorschach is that, on the most superficial level, he embodies the antithesis to utilitarian compromise, a “black and white” perspective in a morally indifferent universe. Part of the conflict in Watchmen stems from, as we all know, an inability for normal human beings with human limitations to grapple with a “complete” vision of justice in a fundamentally amoral world. The vigilante in the comic book world represents the incarnation of human agency at the very moment when the ethical boundaries (those systems of justice) human beings have constructed to constrain their own limitless desire become limitless themselves, taking into account all lives while forgetting to take into account each life. The flesh-and-blood hero, who must wear a mask to transcend his own limitations in the minds of his enemies, is designed to resolve one crime at a time, defeat one enemy after the other, his or her every action a completed action. The actions and the consequences of the masked hero are nearly 1:1, blow for blow.

But the “super”-hero, who needs no mask to disguise her transcendence, can contemplate the infinite, because her actions are always incomplete. And I think this is the moral dilemma super- “heroes” like Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias face. Their limitless power (or intelligence) has deprived them of their human agency, because infinite future knowledge makes them subject to the doom that is determinism, which nullifies ethical law. Neither can act because all paths open to them are already taken; they can only compromise because they foresee no other alternatives. In the same way, bizarro-world Nixon’s hands are tied—the systems of justice the Cold War have created are limitless, overreaching, unable to think or act in terms of individual human lives or completed actions. The decision to instantly destroy one human being, or one million, for fear of intangible future consequences, becomes a mere calculation. We’re forced to ask: Is human courage or psychic distance from the human condition required to reduce human lives to calculations?

I know Rorschach’s answer. What about yours?


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