Why's 'existential detective' funny?
June 9, 2005 12:25 PM   Subscribe

What makes the job title of 'Existential Detective' from 'I Heart Huckabees' so funny?

A good friend, who is getting his PhD in Philosophy, found this hilarious. Unfortunately, not being familiar with the field, the joke was completely lost on me. Anyone care to explain?
posted by whatitis to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total)
I don't get existentialism at all, but I thought it was funny just in it's absurdity. I mean, watch the trailer — it's all there.
posted by rafter at 12:45 PM on June 9, 2005

I could be way off, but it seems to me the joke is that, say, your classic gumshoe detectives seek direct, simple paint-with-a-broad brush good/evil sort of answers, exactly what Existentialism, a way of thinking centered around a subjective universe where the individual is unique, and hence so is every individual experience, is not.

Sort of like being a vegetarian shark.
posted by dong_resin at 12:50 PM on June 9, 2005

I assumed it was partly inspired by "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" by Douglass Adams (of "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" etc fame). That was a funny concept because a detective who believes that all things are inter-connected doesn't search the crimescene for clues, since clues to it are in all other things as well. More to the point, it means that in finding a local lady's lost pooch a few blocks from her house, he get's to bill her for a $25,000 trip to Sweden because it was vitally connected to solving the case - in a holistic sense. (Details in the book may differ - it's been over 10 years since I read it)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:03 PM on June 9, 2005

I don't want to start a philosophy debate here, but while I agree with the first part of Dong's theory, I don't think his definition of existentialism is correct and therefore I don't think he's nailed the joke. My understanding of existentialism is that each individual in the universe is NOT unique, precisely in that there is no meaning to be found in anything that occurs in life or the universe and that striving to find meaning or to differentiate oneself from the end result of death and nothingness is meaningless and pointless. In which case being an Existential Detective is a pointless endeavor in that the answer is always the same. Maybe it's been too long since I read Camus, I dunno.
posted by spicynuts at 1:05 PM on June 9, 2005

I have no idea how an apostrophe inserted itseld in "gets", but am suitably penitent.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:06 PM on June 9, 2005

On the surface, it's contradictory. Detectives look for tangible proof of something to provide as evidence. Existentialists (or at least in Sartre's definition) believe in the subjectivity of human perception, and that it is impossible to find tangible proofs. Yet nearly any philosopher could be said to be an existential detective, investigating and outlining the principles of reality with logical proofs; it's a gentle poke at the quixotic nature of your friend's chosen field, which is why he laughed.

It's funnier in the context of the rest of the film. I Heart Huckabees deals with dichotomies which would appear to be contradictory, but are actually fact necessary. Albert and Brad discover they're two sides of the same coin, even though they're at odds. The existential detectives need Isabelle Huppert, their nihilistic detective rival, to help solve the case. The characters tend to orbit each other, the contradiction propelling them forward; that kind of weird duality is at the very heart of the film.
posted by eschatfische at 1:21 PM on June 9, 2005

Upon further research, looks like I'm dead wrong. The Donger had it.
posted by spicynuts at 1:26 PM on June 9, 2005

Sartre says: What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.

More Sartre: I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.

And more: ...man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

--from "Existentialism"

So, existentialism is based on discovering for yourself what existence is, making individual choices based on that perception, and being held responsible for those choices. Hiring a detective to figure this all out for you would be a cop-out and counter to the basic principles of existentialism.

I think.
posted by Crushinator at 1:33 PM on June 9, 2005

Odd. I watched this this very weekend. And for the first time I actually completely apprehended what is meant when Sartre defines us as "holes in being." We interrupt pure being with our desires, conflicts, and our provisional selves. All of that from two men punching one another in the face with red plastic balls.
posted by Verdant at 2:14 PM on June 9, 2005

I think the movie is funny because the existential detectives don't like nihilists! Their reaction to Huppert alone cracked me up.

Also, Crushinator is pretty right on.

Sartre would also add that existence is agonizing, because we never asked to be here, and now we are faced with choices and the responsibility that those choices entail. Hence the agony. And stuff.
posted by tweak at 2:14 PM on June 9, 2005

Yes, Crushinator is on the right track. The idea is funny because you wouldn't subject the kind of deep questions posed by Albert to any sort of private investigator and clue gathering and note taking. At the same time, the idea makes a lot of sense because it's precisely what philosophers do--though, ideally, philosophers wouldn't focus exclusively on the details of a single person's life. (Indeed, there are philosphers out there that try to pass themselves off as psychologists.) This not-quite-absurdity creates a kind of quirky tension the same way Russian bureaucracy jokes are funny. It's silly and even a bit contradictory, but on the other hand it makes a kind of sense.

On a similar note, I used to have some business cards that labelled me as an 'Investigator in All Manner of Strange Happenings'. I'd pass this out to people and some people would glance at it and begin asking me serious questions about my current caseload or telling me about their childhood.
posted by nixerman at 5:01 PM on June 9, 2005

And I can tell you, every philosopher I know loved the movie and found it similarly hilarious. Partly because it makes fun of what they do.
posted by nixerman at 5:03 PM on June 9, 2005

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