Wally West and Heidegger in the Tower of Fate
By Matthew William Brake
For those of us who grew up watching Batman the Animated Series and a slew of other animated shows based on that continuity, affectionately referred to by fans as the “Timmverse” of “Diniverse” (after two of the main creative influences, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini), it was hard finding a DC superhero show to replace the quality storytelling after the last episode of Justice League Unlimited aired in 2006.
Then in 2010, something incredible happened. Cartoon Network aired the show Young Justice, which quickly became the heir apparent to the former DC Animated Universe. Creators Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman recaptured the imagination of DC fans, who missed the smart storytelling of Timm and Dini (as least until Young Justice was cancelled on a cliffhanger in 2013).
The episode that cemented Young Justice as something special in my mind was episode seven of the first season entitled “Denial.” In this episode, Kent Nelson is kidnapped while searching for a replacement to take up his former role as earth’s sorcerer supreme, Dr. Fate. When Red Tornado tasks the team of young heroes (never actually called “Young Justice” in the show) to find Nelson, Wally West (Kid Flash) scoffs at the doctor’s supposed mystic might, saying, “More like Dr. Fake. Guy knows a little advanced science and Dumbledores it up to scare the bad guys and impress the babes.” However, Wally’s tune changes as soon as he finds out Miss Martian is a believer in magic. He then claims to be a “true believer” too and gladly volunteers for the mission to make sure that the Helmet of Fate is safe.
Enter now the famous (and a little infamous) philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). If Heidegger had been a part of this conversation, he might have suggested that Wally’s disbelief in magic is endemic of the threefold onset of modern science, which is the dominant way of thinking in the modern age. This onset includes 1) the projection of a ground-breaking schema, 2) experimentation, and 3) ongoing activity or research.
To speak of the projection of a ground-breaking schema is to speak of “the projection within some realm of what is—in nature, for example—of a fixed ground plan of natural events” (118). The projection of a ground-breaking schema means that there is an underlying context that “sketches out in advance the manner in which the knowing procedure must bind itself and adhere to the sphere opened up,” which allows for a securing of “its sphere of objects within the realm of Being” (118). In other words, something must already be known about how the world will look that will then be filled in by scientific knowledge. The schema is “that which man knows in advance of his observation of whatever is” (118). It stipulates in advance “what is already known” and decides what can “be nature” (119). In Wally’s case, magic does not fit into his “schema” or the “fixed ground plan” he uses to determine the nature of reality (118).
In experimentation, one encounters the diversity of particular facts. However, “the facts must become objective” (120). Heidegger writes, “Experiment begins with laying down of a law as a basis” (121). This law guiding experiment is that of the ground-breaking schema or the “ground plan [which] furnishes a criterion and constrains the anticipatory representing of the conditions” (121). In some sense, what the scientist expects to find in nature is already “sketched into it” (121). Experimentation is guided by the ground-breaking schema, and through it, “a sphere of objects comes into representation” and makes explanation possible (120-121). Heidegger clarifies, “[E]xplaining means reduction to what is intelligible” (123). All facts must be integrated into the schema. If something can’t be integrated into the schema, you can’t say that it in fact “is.” Science in modern thought identifies what is and isn’t. It leaves what “isn’t” out.
This force of explanation and the way in which experimentation renders all things that “are” intelligible is taken up by Wally when confronted by Artemis about his skepticism about the possibility of magic in spite of his ability to run faster than the speed of sound. Wally is quick to point out that his abilities are based in science and that he simply recreated the conditions of the experiment that gave the Flash his powers. Such experimentation ensures for him that all that was once thought magical will be shown to be nothing but a misperception or a trick. Wally concludes, “Everything can be explained by science.” There is nothing beyond the scope of such scientific explanation that can truly be said to exist.
Ongoing activity or driven activity is that activity whereby “[m]ore and more the methodology adapts itself to the possibilities of procedure opened up through itself” (124). Heidegger writes, “This having-to-adapt-itself to its own results as the ways and means of advancing methodology is the essence of research’s character as ongoing activity” (124). As possibilities are opened up through ongoing research, the results of research become unsurveyable, “an essential necessity of science as research” or ongoing activity. In other words, there is so much information that a person cannot remember it all in one’s own memory. This requires, as its foundation, that research be specialized, and in being specialized, it is also institutionalized (123-124). In this way, modern science takes “possession of its own complete essence” such that it “[makes] secure…the precedence of methodology over whatever is (nature and history), which at any given time becomes objective in research” (125). The goal of science is thus to objectify all that is and to possess what is and isn’t allowed into its institutions. There is no room for the mystery or faith that believing in magic requires.
Projection, experimentation, and ongoing activity constitute the onset of modern science. The goal is to bring “whatever is to account with regard to the way in which and the extent to which it lets itself be put at the disposal of representation” (126). Nature, which is “calculated in advance,” and history, which is taken to be “verified as past,” become the means by which representation is possible. They are “set in place” as trustworthy and used to establish those things that can really be said “to be,” or as Heidegger puts it, “Only that which becomes object in this way is” (127). He says later, “We first arrive at science as research when the Being of whatever is, is sought in such objectiveness” (127).
The end result of the research that is entailed in the three-fold onset of modern science is that things do not count as real unless they can be objectified via integration into the schema. The way man represents nature to himself becomes the way of explaining the world. Representation, or setting-before, “aims at bringing each particular being before it in such a way that man who calculates can be sure, and that means be certain, of that being” (127). However, nature does not make itself “amenable to experiment” because it “intrinsically is of this character” (xxvii). As William Lovitt explains, “rather it happens, Heidegger avers, specifically because man himself represents nature as of this character and then grasps and investigates its according to methods that, not surprisingly, fit perfectly the reality so conceived” (xxvii). Being the one who establishes the schema, modern man is able to find the world he is looking for because he has determined how it will appear instead of letting reality “presence itself” to him as it is in itself (xxvi).
After entering the Tower of Fate, Wally’s dishonesty about his belief in magic almost gets the team killed, and he comes clean about his honest feelings about magic, calling magic “the real lie.” Later, Miss Martian asks Aqualad why it seems that Wally has a need to believe that magic does not exist, and Aqualad replies by stating that Wally’s strong adherence to science (at the expense of belief in magic) is his way of controlling what he does not understand. He needs the certainty about what is and isn’t.
Wally’s certainty is put to the test when Kent Nelson is killed before donning the Helmet of Fate. With his dying breath, Nelson challenges Wally to “have faith in what you can’t explain. Believe in what you can no longer deny.” Wally, going against his scientific sensibilities, dons the helmet, and Dr. Fate takes control of his body, saving the day.
While Heidegger was certainly not a fan of magic or dogmatic religion (what he called onto-theology), his diagnosis of modern science nevertheless speaks to Wally’s experience in the Tower of Fate. His understanding of science affected how he represented the world to himself. This blinded him to the dangers present in this adventure as well as the benefit that Dr. Fate’s help afforded to him.
Maybe we should all learn a lesson from Wally (and Heidegger) and consider the possibility that reality is capable of presenting or “presencing” itself to us in ways that we might not expect or imagine through our current schema.
Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1977.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He is a big Young Justice fan and really, really, REALLY wants you to #KeepBingingYJ on Netflix with the hope that WB will cave and make a third season.