“The conflict between workers and capital is more intense than ever, and the wealth divide will only get much, much larger in the digital era”
SEPTEMBER 2018 \ ADRIANO FORTAREZZA
“The conflict between workers and capital is more intense than ever, and the wealth divide will only get much, much larger in the digital era.”
SEPTEMBER 2018 \ ADRIANO FORTAREZZA
More than a million visitors per month, 400 000 followers on Facebook and 200 000 on Twitter. These figures do not correspond to the last summer hit but to a webcomic on philosophy. Existential Comics, created by Corey Mohler (Portland, 1985) in 2013, has managed to make dense and obscure authors closer and accesible to an audience that might have never shown any interest in them. As a computer engineer, he has managed to attract people from completely different backgrounds who follow him seduced by the hilarious adventures starring Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Beauvoir or Hegel. Great novelists like Dostoyevsky, whose work lies outside philosophy, are given a voice as a part in the history of philosophy (in Dostoyevsky’s case, for instance, as a precursor of Existentialism).
What originally started in the internet forum Reddit, is already a weekly publication with more than five years running, acknowledged for its educating role and popular among people with little time but keen interest in all these matters. We talk with him a year later after its publication in Spanish.
Where it started your interest in philosophy?
I first got interested in philosophy from reading the Existentialist Novels. In particular, Camus, Sartre, and Hesse. From there I read a book that was a textbook for a philosophy 101 class (although I didn’t take the class) called “Does The Center Hold?”. It actually used cartoons to explain the concepts, so who knows, maybe that somehow stuck with me. I loved pretty much all of it, having thought about that stuff on my own, but finding the ideas so fully formed in the history of philosophy.
You work in the field of computer programming, what role do you think has philosophy in programming and internet language? Do you think in Silicon Valley they are into Kant, or they are rather fans of Mr Wonderful?
Philosophy is in a crucial stage in computer science and technology right now, but unfortunately it is badly ignored. Technology is governing more and more of our lives, and very little thought is going into how it should or can operate. We’ve seen privacy and artificial intelligence talked about in very bad ways by non-philosophers, and even more than that, really the conversation is dominated by billionaire venture capitalist that have no interest in the greater good, or the truth. Some of the solutions, actually, are quite obviously, but never arise in the media or popular thought. Facebook, for example, should not be permitted to own our data. Nor should anyone. Social networks should be run as a federated networks, like GNU Social. This means that each person controls their own data directly, basically in the same way email works. So Gmail is an email provider, and they certainly can and will abuse the information given to them, but if I don’t like it I can leave Gmail and still email people using Gmail. That’s because email is a standard that anyone can use. Facebook and Twitter don’t work like this, so they have total power over our data, and we can’t opt out meaningfully if we want access to the network. Like most things in my life, I’m rather an extremist, and think this should not be permitted at all. In fact, proprietary software is probably not legitimate at all, but again, this is never discussed because it would hurt business (although it would greatly benefit humanity in general, of course).
You have probably watched a recent video in which the AI makes up an institutional speech by Obama taking from previous existing speeches, resulting in a totally new and invented discourse. Have philosophers dealt with problems like virtual/mixed reality (realistic avatars that replicate really existing people, its potential influence in politics, etc.)? Do you think this new environment will influence a whole new school of philosophical research? Or we will rather go back to the classical philosophers in search of answers to the new problems?
It’s very hard to predict the future of philosophy. I would lean towards it generating new fields though, rather than reexamining old ones. There will hopefully be a lot of collaraboration between philosophers, A.I. researchers, and neuroscientists. People need to remember that both neuroscience and A.I. research may seem advanced to us now, but both fields are almost certainly in their infancy, and are very poorly understood. As the science makes more progress, the philosophers will be able to explore new questions that perhaps don’t arise for us today.
What do you think about cryptocurrencies? How many of them have you earned thanks to Existential Comics? (laughs)
Cryptocurrencies are dumb.
You started sharing Existential Comics at Reddit, the renowned microthread online platform, how important has it been for you? How different it is from sharing your work at Facebook or Twitter?
Reddit is even dumber than cryptocurrencies.
Since you joined Patreon, you receive roughly 1500 dollars per month for your work. Has this influenced the way you work since then? Did you feel any pressure after people invested so much money on your work?
I let the $10 patrons pick a philosopher they want to see each month, but no, there is no pressure. Most people don’t seem to care too much about the rewards, honestly, and just seem like they want to support me, which is great.
Existential Comics is, in a way, a pop approach to philosophy. Comic strips are full of references to TV series, music, video games… It is precisely this non-elitism one of the reasons of your own success. Is philosophy far from the interests of common people? Is philosophy interested in reach out a wide public, or its target is rather a tiny minority?
I once read that the majority of people reading xkcd didn’t get the jokes. It’s a pretty weird phenomena, but people actually do like reading jokes that they don’t understand. I think most of my comics will still be somewhat funny if you don’t know who the philosophers, but a lot of people read them to get a taste of different philosophers, not because they already know everything and will get every reference. Comics, in this way, can be a great popularizer. A huge number of people will never be interested in reading an article on, say, the conflicts between 12th century Islamic philosophers Averroes and Al-Ghazali. But hundreds of thousands of people were willing to read my two page comic about it. People are just much more willing to give comics a chance, regardless of what they are about. And of course if they are interested, they can read what I wrote underneath.
Who do you think are the most relevant philosophers for nowadays problems?
Karl Marx. The conflict between workers and capital is more intense than ever, and the wealth divide will only get much, much larger in the digital era. People can now form enormous business using only technology, that serve billions of people. Who owns this technology is going to determine an enormous about which path we are going to go down. It can either be owned by the workers who built it, the tiny number of people who financed, or the public.
Do you find appealing to be a communicator, like those you mention in your comic strip explanations, or you would rather be a philosopher endowed with a philosophical system of your own?
I have a huge ego so I would much rather be a big shot philosopher, but the chance for that to happen has long since passed. I would have had to go through the University system into an elite PhD program.
Any philosopher you honestly hate? Apart from Rand, of course.
Nah, I love everyone, generally. I guess I’m pretty easy to convince, but I often believe whoever I read last about a lot of the problems. I can’t say there are two many philosophy books I’ve read that I really dislike, although I think some people’s writing style is very bad, and harder to understand than it needs to be.
In your comics writers enjoy a prominent role, particularly those who have influenced philosophers, like Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. You’ve said somewhere that the latter was even a pioneer in Existentialism (particularly his work Notes from the underground). Do you feel appealing to deliver ideas through characters and fiction stories, or rather prefer the rational approach of essays and papers?
I think a mix of both is good. The most powerful thing that literature can do is open your mind up to the experience of being someone else, and seeing the world as they do. Philosophical arguments, strangely, often fail to convince us as much as an account of a person who holds those philosophical views. Dostoyevsky, in particular, was extremely skill at writing ideas so powerful that you found yourself sympathizing with quite extremely actions. For example, in The Idiot, there is a very important scene where Nastasia throws an enormous amount of money into the fire on a whim. When you first read it, it just sounds mad, and you can’t understand what she is doing. By the end of the novel, however, when her psyche is fully revealed, you can almost see how she had no choice BUT to throw the money in the fire. The ability to fully understand another person and another perspective like that is very difficult to achieve outside of literature, and that ability is a very important part of trying to understand humanity, in my opinion.
France, and Paris in particular, has been the capital of the world for several centuries, but beyond that there seems to be a special inclination towards philosophy in French culture, do you think there is a reason for that? I am thinking particularly in Existentialism.
Well, I’m sure the true answer is very complication. One thing we can say about France though is that they seem to have a culture of respecting intellectuals, and even treating intellectuals like celebrities, that America does not have. People like Derrida, Foucault, and Sartre were household names, whereas most people in America can’t name a single American philosopher. That culture allows for more philosophy to happen, because people respect it more, and more people want to do it.
There’s an interesting rapport between heterodox, individualistic writers and political thinkers: quite frequently, they admired and read each other. For instance, Benjamin Tucker (the American heir of Proudhon) kept correspondence with Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Later on, Henry Miller read and quoted Tucker, and the beats seem to share most of the same influences. What do you think is the relationship between literature and politics?
Well, I think the best literature tries to answer the philosophical question “what does it mean to be a human?” Or perhaps if you like, “how should we live?” So in this sense, literature is closely tied to a certain part of philosophy which, since the Greeks anyway, is often neglected in philosophy itself. Those questions are really the most important questions that we have to ask ourselves. so reading literature and getting different perspectives is very important.
In Spain, Gustavo Bueno, founder of “philosophical materialism”, has been one of the most widely known philosophers in the last thirty years. His book The myth of culture has been translated into many languages, and he has frequently appeared in TV shows to discuss superstition or power with pop stars, tarot card-readers and athletes. His debate against the historical Communist Party dirigent, Santiago Carrillo is widely remembered. Do you think philosophers should dirty up to deliver their message to a wider public?
Yes, I absolutely think philosophers as a group should deliver their message to the public, but every individual philosopher is certainly not bound to do this. Philosophy is a technical field, and there is nothing wrong with people working to solve the hard problems and only publish for other philosophers. That is how the field will progress, and it is how other fields progress as well. Most of the science that gets done is not accessible or understandable to the public, and there is nothing wrong with that. People need to be working on those problems. But, of course, you also want the public to have some understanding of science, so science educators and popularizers are important. It’s the same with philosophy. It’s important that it is popularized, but not important for ever philosopher to be a popularizer.
Let’s talk about the creative process itself. How do you get your scripts written? Beat’s automathic prose, Balzac’s compulsiveness, Chandler’s famous thoroughness, are all different approaches to the same thing. Akira Kurosawa used to say that the main attribute a writer needs is patience. How do you tackle the blank page?
I prefer Frank Herbert, who had this to say about writer’s block:
A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You’re there now doing the thing on paper. You’re not killing the goose, you’re just producing an egg. So I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It’s a matter of just sitting down and working. I have never had the problem of a writing block. I’ve heard about it. I’ve felt reluctant to write on some days, for whole weeks, or sometimes even longer. I’d much rather go fishing, for example, or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not. But, later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.” There’s no difference on paper between the two.
It’s a job, you have to do it. For me, also, the key is thinking about it throughout the day. I remember Seinfeld once saying that the job of a comedian never stops, because analyses every situation in the mode of “how is this funny? how could this be material?” I do the same thing, but instead of being at the pharmacy trying to work out jokes, I listen to philosophy lectures trying to work out jokes. If you do this throughout the week, when it comes time to write a comic at the end of the week, you will have material. If you don’t have material, you simply having been putting in the mental work.
How do you inform yourself before writing a strip? Do you always go back to the original works?
I would like to, but I rarely have time for that. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the thing I use the most to get a trusted overview, and standard interpretation of the text.
You’ve admitted somewhere that your favourite comic strips are the true existential strips, those stories in which fiction characters created by you, like Sanus and Amentia, serve to convey a philosophical message. In those stories you are less humoristic in the shake of the message. Why did you chose the comic format instead of, say, the novel to tell stories? Some stories are so fresh and original that could have been filled a whole novel or an essay.
The answer is quite simple. People will read comics. I’ve always wanted to write, but if you put a short story online no one is going to read it. For whatever reason people will give comics a chance. My very first comic got probably ten thousand views from being spread around online, and I was totally unknown at the time. If I had written the same thing as a short story I would have been lucky to get a hundred.
Do you find those existential strips easier to write about?
The serious comics are what I’d really like to write, but it is hard to find the time and energy. Ideas do not spring to your mind in a flash of insight, but are the culmination of long hours of thinking through different problems in life, and imaging other ways to live. My ideas are usually fairly consciously inspired by other works, and what their consequences would be in different settings. The Machine, for example, is what would happen if someone were to take the idea of death occurring every day absolutely seriously. The person taking it seriously, however, is basically Herman Hesse. The story parallels many of his novels where the protagonist must go through different stages of life before coming to understand a sort of enlightenment.
The Sniper, which I feel I didn’t not express well at all, was almost 100% based on a single moment in The Lord of the Rings, when Sam stood over Frodo believing that Shelob the spider had killed him. It was the darkest, and most powerful moment in Sam’s entire life. His entire being was overwhelmed with grief, and at that moment of pain he noticed that Frodo’s sword, Sting, was glowing. This meant, of course, that orcs were near. This moment I was quite obsessed with for some time, and I’m sure Tolkien didn’t put a ton of thought into it, but how it relates to French Existentialism is quite interesting (although we do know that Tolkien read Simone de Beauvoir).
In Existential Comics we see a profound evolution from the first drawings, like The Machine and the Sniper, and the following. What’s your approach to drawing? Is there a specific technique behind your style? Was there any a priori thought?
I don’t really consider myself first to be a visual artist, so my approach has generally been: “how can I make this look halfway decent.” Besides that, from a comedy perspective, you have to think about how the joke works with the image, and this is quite an advanced subject matter in some cases. The Adventures of Fallacy Man, for example, was intentionally drawn badly, because I thought that would be funnier (even though the drawings were pretty bad at the time even when I was trying to be good). Like most things, it is just something you have to learn from experience, and developing a technical skill.
Last year you started outsourcing the graphic aspect of your comics to Noah Latz, how do you think this has influenced your work?
It definitely changes the visual component, but the writing is the same. It also has opened up the possibility of really great art in serious comics. A few of my early serious comics had very good writing, I think, but the art just didn’t live up to it. With Noah doing stuff like Mad Marx you see a bit of how much better it can be, because I couldn’t really have done that, but some real serious ones are in the works that will be much better.
Just out of curiosity, how did you meet each other?
I work with his brother at my day job, and I really wanted someone local that I knew, rather than just online so I could meet them in person.
Was the change well received among readers?
Yes, most people I’ve talked to actually didn’t notice a change, which is great. So the art looks better, but it kept in line with the style very well. Which is great because it makes the continuity great.
Having no editor nor boss, and taking into account that this is not your main job, how do you deal with publishing one comic a week? Takeshi Obata, Tsugumi Ohba’s workmate at Death Note and Bakuman, said he has even passed four days without eating nor sleeping to deliver his weekly assignments.
Luckily a comic isn’t nearly as much work as a novel, so I haven’t had a hard time, especially now that I have an artist to help me out.
And to finish off, some quick questions: say 5 novels, 5 essays, 5 films, 5 videogames, 5 board games, 5 comics, 5 songs and a single deep quote.
1. Brothers Karamazov
2. 100 Years of Solitude
3. She Came to Stay
4. The Stranger
5. Lord of the Rings (this is the true #1 for me personally, since I’ve loved it for so long)
Essays (I’ll just interpret this as philosophy books, since these are longer than “essays”, chosen fairly randomly, it’s hard to pick five):
1. The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir
2. The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn
3. Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault
4. Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein
5. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume
Honestly, I hardly read comics at all. Kind of weird, maybe, considering that I have a webcomic. Alan Moore’s work is amazing though. The other webcomics that I like are linked at the bottom of my site.
Despite it being a recurring theme in the comic, the only board game I really play is chess. I played a lot of D&D in high school though.
1. Baldur’s Gate II
2. Final Fantasy 6
3. Breath of the Wild (only game I love that isn’t based on nostalgia)
4. Link’s Awakening
5. Final Fantasy Legends II (the Gameboy one, probably the first game I really loved)
1. The Princess Bride
2. Taxi Driver
3. Star Wars
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
5. Lord of the Rings (double dipping on that one, and again this is probably the real #1)
1. White Squall, Stan Rogers
2. Idiot, Stan Rogers
3. Mary Ellen Carter, Stan Rogers
4. Barrett’s Privateers, Stan Rogers
5. Concerning Charlie Horse, Great Big Sea
 Corey forgot or wanted to forget about the deep quote thing. (Interviewer’s Note) ▲