February 26th, 2021

📝 Losing the Plot — Ethics and The Big Lebowski

What kind of hero is the Dude?

When I find myself in some weirdly funny situation, deep into some scheme that's hard to say if it's ridiculous or just unconventional, having forgotten the overall point of whatever project I'm pursuing, the question "What am I doing with my life?" might occur to me, or I laugh nervously and point out that the genre of my current narrative is Stoner Noir.

I learned about this concept in a great blog post from 2014, by the presumably pseudonymous Tristan Eldritch, called 📰 Inherent Vice: Robert Altman, Thomas Pynchon, the Coen Brothers, and the Evolution of Stoner Noir.

In basic terms, stoner noir is exactly what it says on the tin: a detective story [...] where the protagonist happens to be a pothead. *

The pinnacle and prototype of Stoner Noir is The Big Lebowski, whose protagonist "the Dude" seems to have become, in Eldritch's reading, "some kind of modern archetype, comparable in significance to Hamlet."

Vast sociological desertions and studies might be written about precisely why The Big Lebowski struck such an indelible chord with a fairly large sub-set of the film-viewing public – particularly men of a certain generation. *

One of the best things about The Big Lebowski is how it makes fun of the complex plotlines typical of noir screenplays. I always get disoriented trying to follow those narratives, and in stoner noir the protagonist is also dazed and confused.

The idea of plots — complex, puzzling, sometimes illusory — ties together the various strands of this story like a good Moroccan rug. *

So the film has Plot itself as an ironic theme. It's hard to remember the actual plot of the film because it's so convoluted, digressive, and random. Like the Dude says:

"This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you's. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man."

But isn't this more lifelike than the neat stories of classic Hollywood movies? I guess it depends. How would you describe the plot of your life?

As Eldritch points out, the word Plot usually refers to the coherent narrative that a typical screenplay needs, but it's also characteristically used by conspiracy theorists and potheads to refer to an illusory Pattern projected on the world's Nebulosity.

In a sense, the idea of a plot has always connected the world of the detective and that of the stoner — the good detective story requiring a plot above all else, and the stoner often being subject to the conspiranoid intimation that everything might be some kind of plot. *

Narrative in Alasdair MacIntyre's 📙 After Virtue

The Narrative nature of human life is maybe even more central to 📙 After Virtue than the very concept of virtues. In a way it seems more like a book of "narrative ethics" than a book of "virtue ethics."

It's a basic rule of screenplays that every line of dialogue should carry the Plot forward. In drama, acting mostly means talking. But a film narrative is made up of words and actions. In a central paragraph, MacIntyre writes:

Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. *

When we act in the world, we are "speaking" within the cultural syntax of intelligible behavior. For a child, hearing stories is a way to learn not just the language but also this Grammar of actions. For MacIntyre, that structure is the basic fabric of Ethics.

I am presenting both conversations in particular then and human actions in general as enacted narratives. *

Actions in a plot are not atomic behaviors but parts in larger adventures. Life is like that, but this is sometimes not recognized in philosophy. Ethical theories like utilitarianism tend to focus on isolated actions, having nothing to say about the narrative structures in which they are intelligible.

That particular actions derive their character as parts of larger wholes is a point of view alien to our dominant ways of thinking and yet one which it is necessary at least to consider if we are to begin to understand how a life may be more than a sequence of individual actions and episodes. *

The critical argument of 📙 After Virtue is that we now generally suffer from a disrupted ability to make sense of our lives as coherent stories within larger common stories. In some way Modernity has lost the plot.

We are in what David Chapman calls the Atomized Mode:

Meanings do not hang together. They are delivered as bite-sized morsels in a jumbled stream, like sushi flowing past on a conveyer belt, or brilliant shards of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. Or—to use the thing itself as a metaphor for itself—like Twitter. *

I'm out of time for today, but I'd like to expand on these themes in the future. What I managed to write about After Virtue here today feels very fragmentary. I still have a very undudelike approach to writing.

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