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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, September 29, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: ALL-STAR COMICS #4 (1941)

In the first part of STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY, I wrote:

Comic books used to be "weak continuity" in practice, and for the same reason: no publisher could be sure that his juvenile audience would buy even two Superman comics in a row (though there were some early experiments that used continued stories, often in the "cliffhanger" format from movie-serials). But I'd maintain that "strong continuity" was their *in posse* storytelling strategy, simply because they were in a mode that combined pictures with words that had to be read and absorbed.

I also wrote yesterday that I'd been trying to think of a mythcomic for my 100th post that was at least indicative of the superhero genre's "deeper potential," but that I didn't want to focus on FANTASTIC FOUR #1, even though I believe that first issue did the most to open that potential. Thus I found myself casting about for, so to speak, gateways that led to the "gateway drug."

It thus occurred to me that there would have been no FANTASTIC FOUR if there had been no JUSTICE LEAGUE-- and equally, that JUSTICE LEAGUE was in essence a recapitulation of the 1940s JUSTICE SOCIETY title. Maybe on some level I just wanted to descant on a fresh topic for post #100, but in any case, I found myself drawn to the first official "superhero team" in comic books.

The story in ALL-STAR COMICS #4-- "For America and Democracy," written by Gardner Fox and penciled by a small horde of artists-- is not a mythcomic, but a near myth. Nevertheless, even a near myth can open new possibilities.

As superhero historians all know, the ALL-STAR COMICS title began as just another anthology title, and the stories in the first two issues are completely unconnected to one another, following the "weak continuity" paradigm of most published comic books as described in the quote above. The third issue convenes the Justice Society of America, possibly the brain-child of editor Sheldon Mayer, but the setup just barely promotes the idea of a continuity between several of the features published by DC Comics (or, to be specific, one department of DC Comics, though I won't get into that now). There's only minimal interaction between the heroes, except for comic business provided by Johnny Thunder, and the main idea is to have all the heroes tell stories about their completely separate adventures, as if they were spinning tall tales at a meeting of the Elks Club.



ALL-STAR COMICS #4, however, takes full advantage of the Justice Society's potential as a "gathering of great heroes" myth.  A mysterious personage billed only as "the FBI chief" summons all of the heroes to Washington, where he charges them all with a mission: to unearth the many spies and fifth columnists taking advantage of American social freedoms.

Now, I can't say that any of these missions are, in themselves, deeply symbolic. "For America and Democracy," published in April 1941, is a propaganda comic book. It's primarily aimed at juveniles who were aware of the perilous state of the European and Asian war-fronts, and of the possibility-- realized in December of that same year-- that America might be drawn into that conflict. The story thus pursues a very straightforward course in terms of having the eight Society members, seen on the cover above, root out a variety of ilicit espionage activities, entirely associated with people who sound German but are not explicitly identified as Germans.




Propaganda comics can of course be mythic, but usually only if a particular artist channels his imagination into an obsessive demonization of a particular phenomenon. Jack Cole's 1947 story "A Match for Satan," myth-analyzed here, shows how an artist could demonize such a phenomenon, in this case that of "crime," and make it seem positively Satanic. But while Fox possessed one of the greatest imaginations in the history of the American Golden Age of comics, here he's just resorting to the most obvious cliches about manipulative German Bund operatives.

What makes the story a "near myth" is that it does focus upon the "gathering of heroes" as a mythic act. The superheroes are summoned to a mysterious rendezvous by an unnamed mentor. True, his assignments are just penny-ante investigations of espionage and sabotage. Yet, prior to "For America and Democracy," the occasional crossovers of superheroes lacked a sense of sharing a great mission, and even the next major crossover of this type, "Daredevil Battles Hitler" (July 1941), is no more than an assortment of separate stories in which the various featured characters of DAREDEVIL COMICS took shots at the Fuhrer's dignity. There was in "DBH" a shared sense of purpose, but not a shared sense of greatness.

Only once or twice does Fox really get beyond simple rhetoric, and portray something with symbolic potential. After the almighty Spectre finishes his task, he is arbitrarily attacked by "vampire globes" from another dimension that have absolutely nothing to do with his mission. However, what saves the Ghostly Guardian from extinction-- which he himself longs to embrace-- is his sense of patriotic duty.



When your cause is just enough not only to cause the living to sacrifice their lives, but also the dead to sacrifice eternal peace, you know you're dealing with something pretty damn special.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

TURNING A HUNDRED

This week I should produce my hundredth formal "mythcomics" entry. I've provided one entry each week since the first week of July 2015. These weekly postings were also supplemented by 32 earlier posts on diverse myth-analyses, as explained here.

Since it's now a year and two months since the official project started, I'll admit that there's not much chance that I'll ever reach 1001 full entries. I still think there are probably enough mythic stories out there, many of which have gone unheralded by ideological critics. But time and tide being what they are, I suppose I'll be lucky to make it to 500-- especially since the online fan-press won't even notice this particular milestone.

I wondered if I ought to choose something "special" for post #100. On reconsideration I decided that it wasn't enough of an event to do so, but I decided to post some thoughts on what might be deemed a "really significant" mythcomic.

A lot of superhero references tend to focus on origin-stories, and while many of these succeed in capturing the complexity of mythic discourse, there are just as many that qualify only as "near myths"-- notably that of Batman, which I plan to scrutinize at some future date.

A notable exception-- and the one candidate I originally deemed possible for "Number One Hundred"-- is FANTASTIC FOUR #1. I won't do FF #1 this week, but my reasons for considering it are as follows.

The ideological critics worked with might and main to conceive a model for the comics-medium that stood independent of the image of the superhero genre; one that could in theory stand as a canon of mature, worthwhile comics. as with COMICS JOURNAL's 1999 list of the best English-language comics. Thus this list was heavy on works that possessed, or appeared to possess, lofty intellectual credentials.

It's my considered opinion, though, that the constructions of the intellect always arise from the primary foundation of the imagination. The intellect needs the imagination for depth, while the imagination can get by without the intellect, though it's arguably more successful with a sense of direction provided by intellect's discursive nature.

FANTASTIC FOUR #1, while just as directed toward juvenile audiences as SUPERMAN and BATMAN, is one of the first mythcomics in which the imaginative elements are being subtly guided by the intellectual concerns. These concerns were dominantly those relating to thinking about the image of the superhero and how it might function in a more melodramatic context-- one dealing with romance, money troubles, and so on. The actual story of FF #1 has been described as opening the door of the routine comics medium into a new world, and I would agree. The best war stories of Kurtzman were no better than war stories in prose had been; the best horror stories of EC Comics might rank alongside the best prose horror-stories, but they couldn't exceed that level.

Comic-book superheroes technically belong to a wider spectrum of combative heroes in many different genres, ranging from THE MARK OF ZORRO to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but the narrow genre of superheroes, while it had been imitated in other media, had never been exceeded by those media. When the Fantastic Four came up with a new model for the superhero genre, it provided not just a door, but a gateway-- some would say a "gateway drug"-- to deeper potential in the genre.

Whatever I choose in the next two days for #100, it will be indicative of that potential.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: ASTERIX AND THE BIG FIGHT

At the end of Part 5 of TWO SUBLIMITIES HAVE I, I came to this conclusion with respect to the differences between the two sublimities.

I've stated before that the three phenomalities are absolutely equal in terms of their potential for mythicity-- defined as the complexity of symbolic discourse-- and in terms of their potential for what I now define as "dynamic sublimity."  But I'm reversing myself on the first of these. The sublimity of combinatory power is not one where equality reigns.  The marvelous possesses the greatest power of this kind, followed by the uncanny, with the naturalistic possessing nothing more than the power to  recover "the freshness of vision."

But although the phenomenenality of the marvelous possesses the greatest "power," in the actual world power not used is only "potential." No one would be surprised by the observation that there exist thousands of marvelous texts whose combinatory power is almost never used-- but I'm sometimes surprised to see works that almost go out of their way not to use that power.



The French album-comic ASTERIX rates as one of the best-known postwar European comics, with a total of 36 volumes to date. I've read the series in a spotty fashion, and it always seemed a pleasant, if repetitive, comedy. But did any volumes qualify as "mythcomics?"

I still have not read the full ASTERIX corpus, but I did take samples from both early and late phases, and-- it all reads pretty much the same. The series takes place in pre-Christian Gaul (later France), at a time when the Roman Empire has dominated most of Europe, and almost all of Gaul-- except for one tiny village. Within that village, the local druid has perfected a serum that confers super-strength upon all those who drink it. Thus, whenever Roman soldiers seek to add the village to their conquests, they are simply beat to shit by the superhuman Gauls, who are usually led by diminutive warrior Asterix and his dumb-as-a-post friend Obelix.

Comedy is of course not at all hostile to myth, as I've shown in assorted posts here. But even though ASTERIX does reference bits and pieces of druid lore, it's always in a predictable sitcom manner. Most stories begin with the Gauls being threatened by the Romans or some other force. Asterix and his allies sally forth, and while they're not clobbering adversaries, they're making wry comments on other nationalities. Even with explanations, my taste for this sort of repetitive "insider" humor is limited.

The 1966 volume ASTERIX AND THE BIG FIGHT is, of those volumes I've read, the closest the series comes to a mythcomic. The authors apparently delved a little deeper into Gaulish customs than usual, setting up the action by declaring that a new chieftain can depose the chief of another village-- such as that of Asterix-- if he challenges him to single combat. The Romans arrange to have a "Gallo-Roman" ally issue a challenge, and then try to fix the fight by eliminating the druid who supplies the village with its super-serum.

The primary asset of this tale, though still pretty uninventive, does manage a few jibes at cultural appropriation in the form of fashion-conscious Gallo-Roman Crassius. But nothing is very well developed.

Friday, September 23, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN (1986)



“Let mind and soul give way to bone and blood”—Jonin of the Hand

“You only want to fire that very large gun of yours”—Elektra

With the possible exception of Dave Sim, there’s no one that ideological critics, ranging from Gary Groth to Whatisname from Seekfart, have disparaged more than Frank Miller. Sim tended to get castigated for having renounced his comparatively liberal early tendencies in favor a conservative, religiously informed stance. However, critics may have most disliked Miller for his tendency to take ideological concerns lightly. In other words, Robert Crumb was always funny because he took his biggest shots at the Right. Miller took shots at both Left and Right. Clearly that made him a reactionary, and reactionaries can’t be funny.

But though Frank Miller is best known as a maker of hardboiled crime tales and wild superhero adventures, he's much funnier than almost all of the underground cartoonists put together (except maybe Gilbert Shelton). ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, appearing about three years after the culmination of the “Resurrection” arc in DAREDEVIL and in the same year as THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, proves this by taking a quirky ironic take on one of Miller’s signature characters.

Readers of this blog will know that I never use the term “irony” in a casual manner. Although all previous stories with Elektra resonnate with the dominantly serious mythos of adventure, this eight-issue “limited series” aligns with the ludicrous mythos of irony. It is not a comedy, in which silly things happen to people in a more or less normal world. In an irony, the whole world is fundamentally crazy, no matter how characters try to make sense of it, or how they may strive to be heroes.

That said, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN is not nearly as dark an irony as some. Miller’s sardonic tone is well complemented by his collaborator, penciller Bill Sienkiewicz. If I had to compare the Miller-Siekiewicz collaboration to that of the preceding Miller-Janson work on DAREDEVIL, it might be that while one is slightly expressionstic within a cosmos dominated by realistic representation.
ELEKTRA reverses the formula. Siekiewicz began his career emulating the extreme “photo-realism” of Neal Adams--




--but he quickly moved toward an expressionistic mode, with more affinities with Surrealist Art than with the “house style” of Eighties Marvel Comics.

Like the Sienkiewicz art, the story behind ELEKTRA ASSASSIN is just as subversive of “the Marvel style," though without any of the posturing self-importance of Crumb and his ilk.  In all eight issues the internal title page supplies the series with the subtitle  “The Lost Years.” Thus the series purports to tell the inside story of what happened to Elektra between the period of the character's college years, when her father’s death caused her to leave Matt Murdock, and the period in which she came back into the life of Murdock / Daredevil in the persona of a bounty hunter who eventually becomes a paid assassin.

But the subtitle is a clever hoax. In terms of tone alone, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN exists in a different world than DAREDEVIL. Yes, most of the boxes are duly checked off. Elektra as a child experiences an erotic fixation upon her father, which will later make her incapable of dealing with his death. She seeks out a substitute father in Stick, the same mentor who trained Daredevil, and he rejects her. She tries to infiltrate the criminal ranks of the Hand, and they turn the tables on her, enhancing in her the potential for evil action. But Miller has no interest in dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s of Elektra’s continuity. Even though Miller mixes in a few standard Marvel support-characters—notably Nick Fury and his SHIELD agents—the author also elevates a reprobate to the position of the President of Marvel’s United States of America.



The cult of the Hand is very different here than in their DAREDEVIL appearances, as well. They register as little more than garden-variety “bad ninjas,” who seem to operate with no particular end except to do bad things. Here, Miller and Siekkiewicz posit that they have always been servants of a demonic figure, “the Beast,” who plots the destruction of Earth. The Hand’s leader says, “No one is innocent,” and it’s no surprise to hear a villain make this sort of pronouncement. When Elektra herself echoes it, it’s plain that the traditional superhero ethic of protecting innocents doesn’t apply in this world.

Perhaps because of the Hand’s magical influence upon her, this Elektra is not just a skilled martial arts fighter, but a super-woman, capable of punching through metal or emitting sonic screams. In other words, this is an Elektra who could never have been slain by a mundane opponent like Bullseye—but more importantly, she is Frank Miller’s meditation on the unholy joy of super-humanity.



To be sure, Elektra is still an emotional basket case, and her meditations make her sound more than a little insane. Yet, because it’s an insane world, this proves to be an asset in battling the Beast and its adherents. By dumb luck Elektra forms a mental link with the aforementioned reprobate: a ruthless, hard-ass SHIELD agent named John Garrett.





Garrett starts out as a human being, and is turned into a Six Million Dollar Operative after Elektra almost kills him. Yet because Elektra now has vast mental powers, she can dominate Garrett, virtually enslaving him as the Hand tried to enslave her—and in time, he comes to take a quasi-masochistic pleasure in her dominion. Romance as such is impossible between two such amoral, messed-up characters. However, faced with the threat of worldly destruction, they do become one of the foremost examples of the “oddball partners” trope.



The series’ closest link to DAREDEVIL is that the combination of sex and guilt follows Elektra wherever she goes. Yet in ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, their confluence is not tragic, but ironically humorous. A psychologist examining Elektra concludes that she had a “stringent Christian upbringing,” which she rejected in favor of Eastern mysticism: all of which sounds like Miller dissecting his own character as a “lapsed quasi-Catholic.” For good measure, Miller also introduces a supporting adversary, SHIELD agent Chastity McBryde, whose very name denotes sexual ambivalence, and who appears at one point dressed as a sexy nun. 

In addition, one telling exchange strongly suggests that none of Elektra’s Asian disciplines have vanquished her Christian demons. Some time after escaping the Hand, but before launching her campaign against the Beast, the lady assassin meets with a client who wants her to kill a South American president. The client comments that the official has invited in so many outside interests that he’s made the country “as a popular as a two dollar whore.” He then asks Elektra what she wants to assassinate the President, and she answers, “Two dollars.”

I mentioned the storyline’s many satires of Left and Right, but I won’t cover them in detail. I must, though, allude to the visual absurdity of American Presidential candidate Ken Wind, who has the face of a Kennedy newspaper-cutout but who secretly serves the Beast. Political passions, as much as sexual ones, are a morass of delusion-- and even an individual's attempts to dispel delusions just lead to other delusions.



To be sure, Miller and Sienkiewicz mount a lot of violence-scenarios to please the fans who expect them from a Frank Miller work. But even these are often a little off-kilter compared to action-scenes done through a representational lens. The explosions and gun-battles here have the same cartoonish intensity as Elektra’s distorted memories.




 Early in the first issue, Elektra mentions that at some point she conceives of her mother—slain by terrorists long before her father’s death—as Clytemnestra, and her father as Agamemnon. Since the mother-figure dies first, Elektra’s backstory can have no direct points of comparison with the initiating action of the Greek Theban Cycle, as this starts off with wife Clytemnestra slaying husband Agamemnon, and so incurring the wrath of Elektra. But one other parallel suggests itself. In the Greek cycle, daughter Electra dominates her brother Orestes and guilts him into doing the dirty work of killing their murderess-mother. In essence, Garrett is as much a pawn to Elektra  as Orestes was to his sister. However, Orestes’ reward for following his filial duties was to be pursued by the Furies. Garrett may not get any romance from his harsh mistress, but he does reap a much more pleasant reward than Orestes. In the world of ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, even though no one is innocent, the people who get the best toys are the ones who are in on the whole cosmic joke.

Monday, September 19, 2016

LOST IN SPACEFIGHTS PT. 1

I'm returning once more to a topic raised in the second part of THE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE: on what occasions is it possible for a given series to achieve the combative mode, less because of an emphasis on the continual encounter of megadynamic forces than because of an emphasis upon the outward *form* of such an encounter? In the aforesaid piece I noted that the majority of the Golden Age Spectre's adventures pitted him against mundane crooks, as opposed to devils or demigods-- yet the crooks did have the effect of being "the evil that forces the undead avenger to keep up his crusade." By way of exploring this "outward form" possibility further, I'm going to devote a series of posts to a television series whose status with regard to the combative mode has always been dubious to me.

In my various reviews of STAR TREK episodes, I've made no bones about labeling the entire series as "combative," even those episodes that don't climax in combat-scenes, Few persons familiar with pop culture would doubt that the series stressed the image of Captain Kirk, and occasionally other crewmen, heroically battling super-psychics and lizard-people and so on, all firmly in the "superhero idiom."

The 1965-68 series LOST IN SPACE seems more ambivalent. In contrast to TREK, which was clearly a series with military overtones, SPACE followed the travails of a group of castaways as they bounced around various planets, sometimes resolving their conflicts through spectacular violence, sometimes not. I've decided to examine all the episodes purely in terms of how often they used spectacular violence. If an episode used such violence in a manner typical of the "superhero idiom," it will fall into the combative mode; if not, it will fall into the subcombative mode. Since I'll only talk about the climaxes, it may be possible to get through all three seasons with dispatch. "C" meets combative; "SC" subcombative.

---------------

"The Reluctant Stowaway"-- The sabotage of the Jupiter 2 culminates in the Robot going berserk and seeking to destroy the ship: there's some violence as the Robot fends off the male space-jockeys but it is defeated when Major West pulls off its power pack. (SC)

"The Derelict"-- the ship is trapped inside a derelict and must blast its way out. (SC)

"Island in the Sky"-- Jupiter-2 makes planetfall, and their land-chariot is attacked by an electrical tumbleweed. (SC)

"There Were Giants in the Earth"-- the spacefarers must fend off a gigantic Cyclops with their ray-weapons. (C)



"The Hungry Sea"-- the spacefarers seek to escape devastating waves of heat and cold on the planet (SC).

"Welcome Stranger"-- the spacefarers meet their first oddball human: Hapgood, an astronaut who preceded the Jupiter into space. Hapgood and West have a brawl but it does not occur at the climax nor influence the main plot (SC).

"My Friend, Mister Nobody"-- Penny befriends an invisible cosmic force. When she's hurt, the force goes berserk and attacks the other spacefarers. The Robot discharges energy at the creature but the group is only spared when the creature backs off. (SC)

""Invaders from the 5th Dimension"-- aliens try to take Will Robinson away, to use his brain as their new computer: they're defeated not by force of arms but because Will's humanity undermines their devices (SC).

"The Oasis"-- Doctor Smith temporarily changes into a giant (SC).

"The Sky is Falling"-- an alien family lands on the planet; mutual suspicions lead to a ray-gun fight but the quarrel is obviated by peacemaking overtures (SC).

"Wish Upon a Star"-- Smith acquires a wish-fulfilling machine; an alien comes to reclaim the machine and does so with no violence (SC).

"The Raft"-- Smith and Will are held prisoner by a plant-humanoid, who is summarily killed when John Robinson shoots the creature with his raygun. (SC)



I note that "the Raft" comes close to the combative in presenting a menace that is vanquished by violence. However, said violence is over and done with so quickly that I tend to label it "functional violence." In contrast, the incidents in "There Were Giants" shows a dramatic buildup, in which the spacefarers face considerable menace from the giant before they defeat it with their lasers. This "buildup" is essentially what I'm looking for in terms of exploring the "outward form" of the combative mode.



Saturday, September 17, 2016

THE AMAZING TRANSITIVE MEDITATIONS

Currently I have only three entries listed under the rubric "transitive effect," but said effect has been implied in many of my posts throughout the years. In this post I'll try to bring some of these jumbled concepts together, starting by repeating my favored definition of "transitive" from the Free Dictionary:
 
Expressing an action carried from the subject to the object;
requiring a direct object to complete 
meaning. Used of a verb or verb construction.
Without re-reading my blog from the beginning, I would guess that the earliest post in which the transitive effect was mentioned, but not specified, came about when I tried to decide whether or not within a given fictional work the mere presence of an *agon,* a major combat-scene, determined that the work would belong to the mythos of adventure. The 2010 essay DOMINANCE, SUBMISSION drew comparisons between two works by the author Rider Haggard: KING SOLOMON'S MINES, which does feature "a battle at the center of the plot-action," and SHE, which has some very invigorating fight-scenes but "does not center around a final battle between a hero and {an] antagonist." To reword this argument in new terms, KING SOLOMON'S MINES clearly falls into the mythos of adventure because the climax forms a "transitive effect" between the subject-- that is, the "significant value," or theme, behind the story-- and the object, consisting of the "narrative values" of plot and characters. In contrast, though, 

Though in later essays I would debate as to whether the later Haggard work SHE qualified as an "adventure" or "drama," in this essay I still favored the idea that it was an adventure-story. Yet I observed that:

...the agonistic radical in SHE has become relatively submissive compared to its manifestation in KING SOLOMON'S MINES-- though of course the agon-radical of SHE is more pronounced than it is in a work dominated by another radical. 

Or to restate it in current terms: despite all the elements that give SHE the semblance of an adventure, the possibility of a climactic conflict becomes "submissive"-- I would say "intransitive" now-- because there's a greater emphasis upon the titular character meeting her fate through sheer hubris. Thus the narrative values of plot and character, which suggest the culmination of adventure, are undermined by the significant value, the theme of Ayesha's hubris. 

I continued over the years to emphasize the importance of judging the completion of the myth-radical in terms of the narrative's climax, best epitomized by my 2013 essay-title PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX. At the same time, I've also pointed out how elements that are established at the beginning of a given work can also have an "intransitive effect."  I devoted three essays-- here, here, and here-- to the topic of 'subcombative superheroes," which is to say, characters who might seem to participate in the combative mode of the "normative superhero" but who do not do so. Part 3 is of particular interest to the manifestation of the "intransitive effect" in that I dissect three superhero comedies-- one of which is truly combative, one which is subcombative because it lacks the significant value of the combative mode, and one which is subcombative because it lacks the narrative value of the combative mode.

I've also devoted a great deal of space to the transitive or intransitive effects of characters who are only allies to the central heroes, rather than belonging to an ensemble of featured characters. PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX makes reference to the final scenes of Tim Burton's 2012 DARK SHADOWS. The film ends with the main character Barnabas being defeated  by his foe Angelique; however, that villain is then destroyed by forces that are strongly allied to the protagonist. Another example appears in my review of the 1968 film BARBARELLA. The heroine displays an efficient level of dynamicity when she shows off her ability to fight off foes with a ray-gun, but it is the rebels she inspires, rather than her personally, who defeat the main villain.

However, in these examples the transitive effect is only possible because the main protagonists demonstrate that they participate in the highest, "megadynamic" level of dynamicity, even though, going by the categories established here, Barbarella would only be on the "exemplary" level of megadynamicity, while the Burton-Barnabas would be on the "exceptional" level.

In contrast, I have repeatedly demonstrate an "intransitive effect" when the main hero is not megadynamic, even if he or she is aided by megadynamic allies, as seen in this essay. where the "underperforming" protagonists of DOCTOR WHO and of MIGHTY MAX receive aid from megadynamic assistants, respectively "K-9" and "Norman." The same principle applies to stand-alone works like 1962's THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES, where the titular strongman is outfought by a modern muscle-guy allied to the weakling Stooges. The sense that the central hero rates only as a mesodynamic or microdynamic figure undermines the significant value of the combative, even when said hero may briefly command megadynamic forces, as seen in my analyses of the "genie-allies" seen in the 1934 film BABES IN TOYLAND and the 1961 film THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN.  The latter film is of particular relevance because its subcombative conclusion is clearly derived from the climax of the 1924 THIEF OF BAGDAD-- which is, of course, maintains a combative mode because the hero himself is of a megadynamic nature.



Friday, September 16, 2016

AFFECTIVE FREEDOM, COGNITIVE RESTRAINT

                    
 In my 2013 essay AFFECTIVITY, MEET EFFICACY, I focused upon Ernst Cassirer distinction between “causality” and “efficacy.” Causality, the philosopher said, represented humanity’s ability to think about cause and effect in a rational, discursive manner, and from this we get the first stirrings of early philosophy, and later, the developments of science. Efficacy, however, belonged to the language of myth: it depends on a blurring of the distinctions between the objective and subjective worlds.

 “…the world of mythical ideas… appears closely bound up with the world of efficacy. Here lies the core of the magical worldview… which is indeed nothing more than a translation and transposition of the world of subjective emotions and drives into a sensuous, objective existence.

One mythical idea to which Cassirer refers occasionally is myth’s view of the origins of the world. Some mythical tales hold the world comes into being only because some giant being—Ymir in Norse stories, Purusha in Hindu stories—is torn apart, so that the different parts of the giant’s body become the earth, the seas, the moon, etc. Within the scope of these narratives, there is no attempt to provide a rationale as to why the world had to made from the flesh and bones of a giant. It is true purely because it confers the aura of human associations upon the whole of creation, even those aspects of creation that may seem entirely alien to human experience. This is what I’ve called “affective freedom,” humankind’s ability to imagine almost anything, whether it accords with experience or not.

Rational conceptions of causal relations, of course, could not care less about the aura of subjective emotions and drives: the desire is to extrapolate a closed system of relations that depend entirely on physical force: CAUSE A exerts FORCE B upon OBJECT C, resulting in RESULT Z. This tendency to rely exclusively upon material experience is one that I’m now terming “cognitive restraint.” Just as in psychology “the affective” and “the cognitive” describe complementary aspects of human mentality, “cognitive restraint” exists in a complementary relationship with “affective freedom.” In other words, human beings are entirely defined by neither: we need both the ability to imagine what seems impossible and to discourse about what we believe to be immediately possible.

I’ve written a lot on my blog about the concept of freedom, and it’s a major reason as to why I’ve devoted so much blog-space to such obscure concepts as “the combative mode” and the various forms of phenomenality, sublimity, and so on. But freedom without a complementary form of internal restraint is, as Janis Joplin sang, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even in fiction, where the boundaries of affective freedom *may * sometimes exceed those of religious mythology, cognitive restraint is necessary to make the essentially mythic ideas relevant to living human beings.

Human beings, we may fairly deduce, relate to the world in different ways than other animals. We cannot know what goes on in the head of a lion when it stalks a bird, and then fails to catch the bird because the latter flaps its wings and flies away, We can fairly guess that the lion is frustrated, and possibly with its limited mentality it might entertain the wish to continue chasing the bird into the air. But that would seem to be as far as a lion’s imagination could go.

We also cannot really know what thoughts may have passed through the mind of a Neanderthal hunter in the same situation. Maybe our caveman stalker had no thoughts at all when his prey escaped. Yet we can at least reasonably suspect that the primitive fellow may have entertained the idea of what it would like to be a bird: to sprout wings and chase the bird into its own territory. And once he had this thought—say, for argument’s sake, that no one had entertained the thought before him—he might not be limited to thinking only about filling his belly with bird-flesh. He nay have started to think about what it would feel like to fly, to be a bird; to soar above the limits of other cavemen. At this point he probably doesn’t  think about imitating the bird by designing his own pair of wings, but he may decide to translate this vagrant imaginings into a mythic form. The caves at Lascaux attest to some sort of mental alchemy that combined man and bird, even if today we can only look at drawings of bird-man hybrids and label them “portraits of shamans.”  They may have been just that, but their original context may matter less than their role in determining humankind’s affective freedom.

In one conversation I mentioned that humankind’s advancements in powered flight would have been impossible without this sort of internal, subjective appreciation for the possible thrill of flying. My opponent simply said something along the lines, “Yeah, but powered flight wouldn’t have been possible without science and logical thinking.”  Quite true; as far as achieving an effect in the physical world, wishing never makes it so. But my opponent in my opinion missed the point: the wish makes everything else thinkable. To the earthbound human who can only run and jump and swim, the idea of flying cannot be imagined as having some practical applications—not even just that of catching birds—until *after * it has been re-imagined as something that the earthbound human can imagine bringing into his own “sensuous, objective experience.” 

One of the greatest “myths” propounded by empiricist-types has been that of the “caveman-engineer:” the primitive who instantly sees some practical advantage in making a new type of spear or a rooftop, because he’s so much more attuned to the scientific principles in the physical world, even if he doesn’t have a scientific system as such. This very selective conception of the early scientist was of course an anachronism: an imagining of some 18th-century scientist born before his time; one who would be in no way influenced by the myths and religion of his time. This was one of many verbal strategies used by empiricists to tout the supreme importance of cognitive restraint, of valuing only practical cause and effect, and to consign myth to the dust-bin of “failed science.”

The mistake of utilitarianism—that the only things that matter are those which have a defined use—is one that depends upon the formulations of cognitive restraint. A utilitarian might allow some niggling truth to my “flying caveman” example, but he would view the caveman’s “fancy of flight” to be relevant to the human condition only because it did lead to a useful development. In contrast, the utilitarian would not be impressed by, say, Tolkien’s example of “arresting strangeness:” of imaging a world with a green sun. Even in the world of fiction, the world of the green sun would have no relevance unless it illustrated the restraints on physical life expressed through scientific fact. Thus, if autrhor Hal Clement devoted a book to explaining the makeup of a fictional world that happened to have a green sun for some scientific reason, then that, and that alone, would have relevance to utilitarianism.

What I’ve repeatedly emphasized that the world of affective freedom is a whole package: that the ability to imagine impossible things is crucial to human nature, whether it leads to specific inventions or not. Depicting a shaman as a bird-human hybrid may not have led directly to any fantasies of personal flight, and thus the shaman-dream might have no relevance at all to the development of powered flight. I argue, rather, that whether the subjective outpourings of myth and fiction do or don't lead to useful developments, all of them are equally important in determining the meaning of human freedom.