11 September, 2016

W Isn't Crazy - It's Just Philosophy

What is reality? No I really mean that. What is reality? Is it a sum total of your experiential knowledge, both conscious and unconscious? What are your thoughts/ideas/beliefs about the soul? Is there life after death? Is Harry Potter real? Is Siri real? Is Jane Austen real? I ask these questions because I've seen a lot of people say W is totally crazy, that the writer is just throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, that it doesn't make sense, that it's stupid, that it's become derailed, but then I watch and I think, this is an interesting take on reality and poses interesting questions about self-determination and free-will. Okay, now with that intro, I really want to get back to this question about reality.

We live in an age where we spend a large amount of time online. People play all sorts of games together with people they have never met, but they "know" them or interact with their avatars. People talk with and have conversations with Siri, and the whole field of AI continues to expand and develop (and there are all sorts of interesting dystopian novels, films, and TV shows dealing with AI in particular). We spend time chatting on Twitter and sometimes meeting in real life, but often not, and while our personas on Twitter and online are real and a part of us (and perhaps a distillation of who we are), they are perhaps not the full person. But are we still "real" when we interact online? I don't know if I really have an answer to that question, but I think that reality isn't perhaps just a corporeal knowing - an ability to hug the person in front of you or to feel them.

Take for instance, Jane Austen. We know she was a real person who lived. She wrote amazing novels and lived a full and interesting life, yet we know very little of her private dealings, as her sister Cassandra censored so much of their personal exchanges via letter. Of course we still know many details and we can paint a picture of who Jane Austen was and what her life was life, but is she fully real to us? As she is dead, we cannot go up to her and talk with her and have a "real" conversation with her, and yet she is real, just as you and I are real - though some philosophers have posited that we actually cannot know if we are real - but that's another whole can of worms. Jane Austen though can have and has had a very real effect on people's lives. Her writing about society, relationships, women, people, has had a great impact on many circles - though the simplification of Jane Austen into chick-lit about swooning women does diminish her genius and undermines what she was trying to do and write about (so peeps please don't over simplify her).

And then let's look at the Harry Potter example. Is Harry real? Is Hermione real? Can we see parts of ourselves in them? I think many of the people I interact with online feel great affinity for Hermione and see within her parts of themselves - intelligent, misunderstood, plucky, awesome, I could go on. Now Hermione, I guess I want to write about Hermione and not Harry now, but this still counts for Harry too, it's not like I can invite her over for tea and chat with her. She isn't a corporeal being in that sense, but because I have read the Harry Potter series, and watched the movies, and talked about Hermione, and can share anecdotes about her, or apply her thinking and make jokes, and talk about her with friends, she is in many ways a real influence, a real person, albeit somewhat in the realm of thought and imagination. But does this make her not real? Is imagination not real? Even if you don't like the Harry Potter series (and you don't have to, but don't get started on bashing it just because it won't win a Pulitzer), it has had a great impact on society and pop culture (for good or ill). One incredibly awesome effect it did have was to encourage young people to read again. I like that. I appreciate that. It has had a very real world effect and yet it is fiction and for some that means not real.

So with that, let's chat about W for a second. From the get go, the writer has created a story where slowly the line between reality and fiction has become more and more blurred. Even within the manhwa there are dream thoughts and what ifs toying with situations that could become reality. Imagination in both the manhwa and reality drive what happens in the drama - so thoughts and imagination turn into reality. Now of course "reality" in the drama also isn't "reality" in the sense that it is a drama, but putting that aside for a minute, the drama has been incredibly invested in this idea of what is real and what is not. We often feel like the main character in our own life story, and philosophically or however one may look at it, all the rest of humanity can seem like supporting characters. Of course, for each and every other human, they might see me as a supporting or background character. I will never meet the other 7 billion people on this planet, and yet I believe that they are there. But there is a limit to how much I can truly know that they are real. I mean, you can't really even know that I am real, even if you were to meet me. Perhaps I am a figment of your imagination. So Kang Cheol has lived a very, for him, real life. He feels like he has made choices and done things but when he realises that he isn't "real", his whole world falls apart, literally. He also particularly bothered by the idea that because he is a fictional character, that he has lost his self-determination, his free will.

Free will, philosophically, is something many people find fundamental - whether to deny that we as humans have it, or that it is what makes us human. Kang Cheol is so determined to assert his free will that he changes the manhwa, much to the frustration and mental collapse of writer Oh Seong Moo. For Kang Cheol, even before he knows he is a fictional character, he actively works to make sure he can keep his free will intact. We first see it on the bridge where the writer wants to make him commit suicide and then of course in other instances in the drama. He is so determined to maintain his free will, and thereby his claim to humanity, that he is willing to shoot Oh Yun Joo (though he know she probably won't die) and then later, to prove to the writer, he shoots and almost kills Oh Seong Moo. I know that I have personally had experiences where people have told me that they "know me" and then generally offer advice on how they think I should behave (which really is them being bossy and and trying to assert their power over me). Needless to say, that doesn't go down well with me. I don't like people telling me what to do. I want to feel like I have a choice in what happens to me. Unfortunately life is such that we don't often have choices about what will happen to us, but we do have some level of choice, depending on our circumstances, and Kang Cheol clings to that.

Another thing that Kang Cheol is determined, and Oh Yun Joo also shares this desire, their desire is to have a happy ending. So often in life we also try as hard as possible to find happiness and to make it happen - it is a very human thing to do. By Kang Cheol and Yun Joo being so determined about it, they also show their humanness - and for Kang Cheol, that is also him trying to prove he is real. Even before Kang Cheol had his moment of self-realisation that he was a manhwa character, he has been fighting for justice, for happiness, for his life not to be a sad ending.

And that also brings in the question: what is the purpose of life? In the drama, it's been really interesting to watch how certain characters, including Kang Cheol and now writer Oh, start to disappear when they lose their "reason for being". I really appreciated Kang Cheol helping make sure that Yoon So Hee's existence wasn't tethered to Kang Cheol's - he in essence made her real by making her have a complex reason for existence and not just to be his future wife or whatever the drama outset was. For us to be real and human, we have to have many reasons and ways to be who we are. No one is just one thing or has only one characteristic - we all have a multiplicity of reasons to exist and carry on, though sometimes we can lose sense of that and feel like we are failing in our own life story if we don't see certain things fulfilled in our lives.

We also see this conversation about duality happening in writer Oh, who in the manhwa world, has taken on the memories and character traits of the killer. The writer is definitely playing with the idea that thoughts can be powerful and that eventually can lead to action. Now that doesn't mean we will all become homicidal maniacs, but no human is purely good or evil. We all within us have seeds to be good or evil and to do both good and evil. We all have the potential within us to kill and to become murderers, and for some depending on life experience, desperation, career choice, etc that becomes easier for some than for others. The writer is also highlighting that once we cross a threshold of action, in this case writer Oh actually killing the nurse, that he has more fully embraced the evil within him. Whether or not he can return to the real world, I think that will haunt him because it isn't as if he wrote a scene killing someone, he actually strangled her and killed her, like he actually stabbed Kang Cheol.

Anyway, this has been a long, rambling post, but for me, W has been a really interesting take on asking questions on what is real? what is free will? are we real? what is self-determination? is fiction another element of reality? etc. It can be really fun and interesting to tackle these questions and to have them play out in a fantasy setting where one can bend the laws of physics and manipulate choice and consequence. I'm really interested to see how the writer will resolve the story because I'm sure many of us want Kang Cheol to be with Oh Yun Joo in the "real world". The question is, has the writer convinced us that Kang Cheol is truly real and how will his story be told in such a way that he can live and stay in the real world?

◀ #StarringJohnCho, Racism, Whitewashing & Reasons to Watch Asian Dramas

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