Saturday, December 8, 2012

Western Philosophy, Pilgrim

The Philosophy of the Western is a misleading title on an interesting book. For one, it's more like several philosophies instead of just one, as it consists of essays by a variety of authors that reflect on Western movies in light of different philosophical concepts. For another, although there are several characteristics that many Western movies share, they have enough differences that it's tough to pin down "the" philosophy that they rest on.

That being said, the book, edited by Jennifer L.McMahon and B. Steve Csaki and part of "The Philosophy of Popular Culture" series, still provides a lot of food for thought. The best art is about the human condition, and philosophy has as one of its primary tasks reflection upon just that subject. The different authors use some of the better and better-known Westerns as the touchpoints for their work and focus on movies. Television Westerns and books are, with one exception, left out.

Chances are pretty good that the moviemakers involved with these particular titles didn't necessarily think in terms of philosophical schools of thought. But that doesn't mean that some of what they did doesn't fall within those schools. One essay examining the essence of the Western hero uses the way that the two different versions of 3:10 to Yuma describe masculinity and in so doing, show the influence of John Locke on American thought up until the middle of the 20th century. Another uses three iconic John Wayne movies to discuss pragmatism, and others explore the idea of how a society orders itself using the TV series Deadwood and the Sam Peckinpah classic The Wild Bunch.

Not every essay's a hit. Some consume themselves with identity politics and drown in silly deconstructionist verbiage. Western depictions of women and of Native Americans offer a lot of room for reflection, but none of the essays covering those areas actually bothers to reflect. Or if they do, they've thrown in so much postmodern jargon that it's a very dull reflection indeed. An essay about revisionist Westerns by Deborah Knight and George McKnight isn't much more than a name-check of Westerns and philosophical writers.

But enough of the book is interesting to make it worth the read for people who like to 1) Watch movies, especially Westerns and 2) Think about the stuff that they watch.

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