Monday, April 20, 2015

SON OF THE BRIDE OF THE NON-MONSTROUS DEMIHERO

My most recent review on NATURALISTIC (ETC), was for the 1944 film THE CLIMAX. In the course of the review, I noted that it was structurally the opposite of the film that inspired it: the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The earlier film followed the dominant pattern of the American horror film, focusing on "the twisted nature of the monster, mad scientist, etc," as he menaced various victims, who are usually demiheroes as I defined the category here.

Demiheroes, even on the occasions where they triumph against their opponents, don't really choose to stand or fall, because they are governed, just like their monstrous counterparts, by a different form of will than one sees in the heroes and their villainous counterparts.

I later refined the name for this "form of will" as the "existential will." It is that force that urges demiheroes to exert themselves in the name of pure survival, in a manner parallel to their negative counterparts-in-existential-will, "the monsters." This is in contrast to the ways in which "heroes" and "villains" work, given that their function is to exert themselves in the name of the "idealizing will," be it for good or evil.

In horror-films that are centered-- as most are-- upon the figure of the monster, the monster's victims-- almost always demiheroes-- are usually not given much depth. But THE CLIMAX is interesting for inverting the pattern, though not without any increase in character-depth. That is, the real star is not top-billed Boris Karloff as the malefic Doctor Hohner, but singer Susanna Foster's character Angela, of whom I wrote:

the "climax" of the movie is that [Angela] triumphs over [Hohner's] attempted repression even without ever knowing what he did to her.
Now, as I said in the review, THE CLIMAX could do this easily because it wasn't really a horror film like PHANTOM, but an "uncanny murder-mystery."  And yet, this may have been a little glib. Certainly there are other mystery-films in which demiheroes become the stars of the show, as one can also see in Hithcock's THE LODGER, But though there are probably more demihero-centered mystery films than there are demihero-centered horror films, the majority of mysteries at any given time are more likely to center upon either serial heroes (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan) or upon the source of the mystery, who like the star of the horror-film is often a monster (not sufficient to stand) or a villain (choosing to fall, as it were). As it happens, in this review of two unrelated films, I touched upon two such films, with 1993's SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER supplying an adequate example of "the murderer as a monster" and MURDER BY DEATH forming an excellent illustration of "the murderer as villain"-- a villain so formidable, by the way, that he confounds several hero-detectives, all of whom are spoofs of famous figures like Holmes and Chan.

It would be more accurate to say, not that works in the mystery-genre are characteristically dominated by demihero-personas, but that they're simply much more open to all four persona-types. The purpose of the horror genre is to fill the audience with what I have called "antipathetic affects," and for that purpose, the "monster" is better than any other persona, though I've noted in various essays that the dominantly positive personas of the hero and the demihero have their negative manifestations. Though Angela of THE CLIMAX reaches heroic heights in overcoming Hohner's influence-- though not in the service of a greater ideal, as would be the case with a genuine hero-- some demiheroes exist to be defeated. In the 1964 suspense-film DEAD RINGER Bette Davis' character registers as a demihero because she propounds the existential will in a negative fashion but lacks the more profound traits of "monstrosity" found even in the crappier monsters, like the featured "axe murderer" of the Mike Myers film mentioned above.

One of the few subtypes of horror film that allows for greater latitude in the use of personas is the comedy-horror film. Though in PUMPING THE PRIMACY I was addressing a different subject-- that of the NUM theory rather than the subject of personas-- I mentioned that it was possible for the demihero star of a comedy-horror film to be the main focus of the narrative, rather than whatever spooky phenomena he encountered. I cited Bob Hope's 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY. However, this pattern was not meant to be determinative either, for in the same essay I also mentioned another comedy-horror film-- 1941's THE SMILING GHOST-- in which the plot followed the same pattern as the "serious" horror flick, making the titular monster the narrative focus.

Of parallel interest is the way in which the narrative focus changes in Universal's "monster-mash" films of the 1940s. There's not much question in my mind that in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and HOUSE OF DRACULA, the monsters are the stars of each film. Yet, when Universal chose to put paid to the continuing sagas of their "starring monsters," the story chosen put the emphasis upon the comedians. Arguably this was because Abbott and Costello carried more clout for the audiences, just Bob Hope's name carried more than cachet than "the Cat," the monster who arguably starred in the 1927 version of CAT AND THE CANARY.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

ADLER PATED PT. 2

I've often referenced Alfred Adler's theory of compensation on this blog, particularly in the series COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS, beginning here. In the first of those essays, I loosely compared Adler's idea of "positive" and "negative" forms of compensation with the two forms of fictional "escape" Tolkien references in his essay ON FAIRY STORIES: in the sense of "escape from responsibility" and of "escape from a prison"-- implicitly as much a conceptual prison as a physical one. I considered expanding on that thought for a full essay, but felt that I needed to study Adler a bit more than I have since I wrote this 2009 essay.

I chose to read THE INDIVIDUAL PSYCHOLOGY OF ALFRED ADLER, an overview of his work  edited by one Heinz Ansbacher, with copious excerpts from Adler and explanatory notes form Ansbacher. I did not find the main thing I was looking for: a single Adler essay in which he expatiated at length on his two forms of compensation. However, this idea definitely appears in his first work on the subject, 1907's "Organ Inferiority and Compensation." In this essay Adler sets the groundwork for his conviction that pathological psychological conditions may evolve out of a subject's perception of personal inferiority: "The inferior organ is not a pathological formation, although it represents the basic condition for pathology." As a negative example of overcompensation, Adler posits a situation in which a paranoiac is so impelled by "the drive to see" that "the weakness of the overcompensation expresses itself in hallucinatory fits and visual appearances." Adler is certainly not saying that all paranoia evolves out of imperfect visual apparati-- he states that he does not offer his examples as "complete proof"-- but puts his examples forth as a tenable explanation for certain cases.

In contrast to this, Adler gives a positive example of a documented writer with poor vision: Friedrich Schiller, who exorcised his nearsighted demons by creating a fictional hero reputed for faultless aim and vision: William Tell. Current elitist criticism generally deems this form of compensation to be "negative." I mentioned in COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS, Jerry Siegel himself portrayed himself as the weakling who couldn't get lots of girls, and "compensated" by creating a mighty hero who easily attracted the female of the species.

What does it mean, that Adler deems this form of "artistic exorcism" as a positive response to perceived inferiority? Ansbacher notes that about the same time Adler broke away from Freud's circle and his doctrine, Adler took a palpable influence from the now-forgotten philosopher Hans Vaihinger. Ansbacher says of this author:

Fictions, according to Vaihinger, are ideas, including unconscious notions, which have no counterpart in reality, yet serve the useful function of enabling us to deal with [reality] better than we could otherwise.

Adler's former mentor Freud could not place any value on such fantasies, and he stands as one of the greatest influences upon the tendency of 20th-century intellectuals to devalue fantasy and/or "the pleasure principle" in favor of a supposed "reality principle."  Whereas Adler eventually wrote "I began to see clearly in every psychological phenomenon the striving for superiority" his old mentor wrote pessimistically that all should "abandon the belief that there is an instinct toward perfection at work in human beings." Most amusingly, Freud is so pessimistic that for him there could no future evolution along the lines of Nietzsche: "[The leader of the primal horde] at the very beginning of mankind was the Superman whom Nietzsche only expected from the future,"

Now, so far as I can tell from the Ansbacher book, Adler did not write of "negative compensation" in terms of literature. As he was a psychologist, he was most concerned with the ways in which human beings became psychologically dysfunctional. I have no idea if he had any particular feelings about the popular fiction of his day, though if he validated Schiller's personal fantasy of a far-sighted archer-hero, I would posit that he might not be entirely hostile toward the pop-fiction "supermen" of the early 20th century. At worst he might consider them in the same terms as Vaihinger: useful fictions that help one deal with reality.

In elitist criticism, it's a given that all escapist fiction is by its nature a "negative compensation" that insulates the audience from reality, as I've noted with respect to Theodor Adorno in particular. "Positive compensation," if one could put the elitists' convictions into Adler's terms, would presumably be the sort of "high literature" that validates the intellectual's struggle for personal meaning.

For a pluralist like myself, the matter is more complex. Though I prefer works with symbolic complexity to works without it, I can't state outright that the latter are "inferior organs" next to the latter. Even a story that works as nothing but a good "thrill-ride" fulfills, for me, Tolkien's definition of fantasy as an "escape from a prison," i.e., "positive compensation."

So is there a principle that works across the spectrum of "art-fiction" and "popular fiction" that parallels both Adler's "negative compensation" and Tolkien's "escape from responsibility" (which, to be sure, is not something Tolkien himself endorses; he's simply explaining the position of his opponents). The closest I can come is to repeat what I said in JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 4.  Both types of fiction are fundamentally defined by the activity of "play," though "art-fiction" is play turned to the purpose of "work," while "pop fiction" is play for play's sake. In that essay I said that I found that DESPAIR, a work of "thematic realism," was inferior to Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST because the former had too little "play," while THE CLANSMAN, a work of "thematic escapism," was inferior to GONE WITH THE WIND because the former showed too little "work." This, then, would be my criterion for both "negative compensation" in literature and the only ways in which fiction can be correctly seen as escaping responsibility. Only when a given work of a given mode fails to be true to its own mode would it be "escaping" from anything in a negative manner; that of escaping from its own potential as fiction.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS

In a recent post I gave some thought to reviving the "1001 Myths" feature I instituted back in 2011. For anyone who's interested, here's the original rationale. I don't plan to follow the same schedule I followed at the time, nor will I necessarily use the format I used before. Whether I do or not will depend on how well I think the format elucidates the meaning. The topic here, the 1985-6 limited series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, requires a little more flexible handling.  This being one example--

_________________


I don't have as much of a problem with commercial art as do the more ideologically minded critics. In tune with my loosely Jungian beliefs, I consider that the commercial artist's sheer need to come up with something that might sell can *sometimes* play the midwife to a breakthrough in creativity. There's no guarantee that the creative lightning will strike more than once, of course. The same commercial artists who gave birth to Superman also gave birth to a lot of unexceptional features, like "Slam Bradley" and "Doctor Occult."

That said, I generally prefer that commercial artists maintain the illusion of storytelling for its own sake while they entertain me: that is, not injecting anything that strongly reminds me of the commercial status of the work, such as advertisements for the publisher's other publications. In the early Silver Age Marvel Comics managed to perfect the device of "the crossover," so that the company could advertise other works without seeming too blatant about their commercial motivations in, say, having Spider-Man meet Daredevil. That brings me to one of my biggest problems in reading CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (henceforth COIE for short)-- for often the appearances of the hundred-plus heroes who answer the "call to crisis" are often so perfunctory, so nugatory, that I can't think of them as anything but advertisements for the history of DC Comics.

I don't know how COIE would read to someone completely unacquainted with that history. The limited series was clearly meant to be an insider's thing: one could not appreciate it unless one were "universe-versed." And the most important message COIE had to convey was that DC Comics was undergoing a massive universal sea-change.

Whereas Marvel Comics had in essence 'started fresh" with the publication of 1961's FANTASTIC FOUR, DC Comics's history involved a tremendous number of franchises, some of which were originally intended to stand as part of a loose "continuity," while others were not. When DC began reviving the basic ideas behind some of its once popular Golden Age heroes-- particularly the Flash in 1956 and Green Lantern in 1959-- they initially intended to "start fresh," without making references to other aspects of continuity. However, both the FLASH and GREEN LANTERN features were more heavily invested in science-fiction concepts than their forbears had been-- and this led to both features' greater use of the concept of "parallel worlds."

GREEN LANTERN was first to evoke a parallel universe in its second,October 1960 issue, as the hero encountered denizens from the anti-matter universe of Qward. The original story did not make any special references to past history, but over time, Qward's central world would be re-fashioned as the anti-matter counterpart to Oa, the planet of the Guardians, who mentored the law-keeping forces of the Green Lanterns.



Roughly one year later, FLASH #123 (which shared the same writer and editor as GREEN LANTERN #2) featured a different parallel-world concept. Though the first FLASH story was written as if the Golden-Age version was just a comic-book character, #123 established that the Golden Age Flash occupied his own world, "Earth-2," which existed in a dimension parallel to that of the Silver Age Flash, who termed his own world "Earth-1."




In time DC found the "alternate Earth" paradigm to be a convenient way to account for other franchises that the company acquired, notably those of Fawcett Comics and Quality Comics. There was never a clear distinction between the "alternate Earth" concept and the "matter/anti-matter" concept, but COIE depends greatly on this distinction, more or less taking the position that all of the "alternate Earths" belong to a universe of "positive matter," while only Qward belongs in the universe of "negative matter."

Unfortunately for DC, twenty years after the birth of the Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics had become the leader of the comic-book market. And since Marvel's universe was more or less unitary, COIE was conceived to boil down all of DC's unruly universes into one conceptual cosmos. They did so by orchestrating a massive conflict between two immortal being: the Monitor, the representative of the "positive matter" universe, who could call on all the heroes of all the Earths for aid, and the Anti-Monitor, the representative of the "negative matter" universe, who wishes to destroy everything but ends up doing the will of the extra-diegetic series-creators, killing off only what they want killed.

The job of becoming "hit men" to the old DC multiverse went to writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez. As commerical artists, part of their job involved persuading comics-buyers to invest in the new cosmos without feeling that the new one had displaced all the beloved aspects of the old one. Thus COIE follows a loose plot that allows for maximum appearances of almost every then-current DC character, as well as guest-shots from characters who were no longer published, such as the cave-boy Anthro, who only enjoyed seven appearances in his 1970s series. Very few characters were strictly necessary to the plot, which somewhat resembles those of old movie serials. Villain launches Plan X, heroes prevent Plan X, villain appears defeated but then launches Plan Y, and so on. With such a structure, no single character was vital to the story. Even the series' much-ballyhooed "celebrity deaths" of the Barry Allen Flash and the Kara Zor-El Supergirl could have been written out had that proved necessary, with no damage to the overall structure of the plot.



So in my re-reading of the series, its commercial motives are even more clear than they were in 1985: loose plot, innumerable guest-stars, and an extra-diegetic reason behind the cosmos-shifting changes. But even if all of these audience-stroking devices make COIE less than pleasurable to read, do they exclude the series from the realm of the creative "breakthrough?"

They do not, though the symbolic complexity of COIE is certainly compromised by all the commercial stuff. In this essay I pronounced a particular CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN story as "inconsummate" because, although it had some interesting mythic content, the story was rather half-assed, so that "the gears of the symbol-making machine" appear to be "a little out of whack." But I must admit that COIE, unlike a lot of the apocalypse-tales that emulated it, has a sense of the pathos involved in trading old worlds for new.

By "pathos" I'm not referring to Wolfman's tortured prose or Perez's frequent head-shots of characters' faces distorted in horror. I'm referring to the creators' references to figures of Judeo-Christian mythology, as seen through a lens superheroic, as evinced by the following:

(1) PARIAH. This is the first character who speaks diegetically within the COIE storyline. He is the only survivor of the first positive-matter earth to be destroyed by the series' villain, the Anti-Monitor of the negative-matter universe. He believes himself to be responsible, due to certain scientific investigations, for having unleashed the Anti-Monitor upon the positive matter dimensions. Late in the series, Pariah is exonerated of this crime. Nevertheless, as a consequence of his special destiny he keeps flitting from parallel world to parallel world, presaging the destruction of each world he visits, so that he becomes something of a conflation of the Biblical Jonah with the extra-Biblical legend of the Wandering Jew.



(2) THE HARBINGER.  This character is an orphaned Earth-woman raised as an adoptive daughter by the Monitor. Long before the COIE series officially began, the two of them were seen endlessly researching the affairs of DC Comics heroes, and COIE was the pay-off to that continuing mystery. However, only in COIE was it revealed that Harbinger's destiny was to become enthralled by the Anti-Monitor so that she would kill the Monitor. This destiny, however, turns out to be more or less stage-managed by the Monitor, much as Judas' betrayal of Christ is destined to accomplish the Crucifixion. Obviously, the Monitor's goals are far more secular in nature-- he wants his death to liberate certain energies to use against his enemy, sounding more like Obi-Wan Kenobi than Jesus. But this consideration doesn't nullify the potential symbolism of the Judas-archetype.



(3) ALEXANDER LUTHOR JR. Like Pariah, this character is a survivor of one of the worlds destroyed by the Anti-Monitor. He is the child of Lois Lane and a good version of Lex Luthor, but he survives via a method copied from DC's favorite Messiah, Superman. The child-- who grows to maturity in short order, like many folkloric "wonder-children"-- combines "positive matter" and "negative matter" in his body without their imploding. This "alpha and omega" constitution is, like the Monitor's sacrifice, principally a chess-move that can be used at a certain point to counter the villain's efficacy. Nevertheless, though he is the son of one Earth's Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, he vanishes from continuity by going into another (spiritual?) world, along with the original Superman and Lois Lane from the Golden Age. It might have been a good commentary on the "father, son, and holy ghost" trope if the creators hadn't decided to have a stray alternate-world version of Superboy go along for the ride.



These three characters all play roles that bear a striking resemblance to characters associated with the Christian Passion. This observation does not speak to what either of COIE's creators thought about religion. COIE is a secular comics-story and all the Judeo-Christian allusions are secular as well, just as were (Jewish) Marv Wolfman's uses of Christian mythology in the TOMB OF DRACULA series. But the fact that Wolfman and Perez invoked such complex associations at all speaks to the likelihood that they were attempting to endow their commercial endeavor with the significance of a great mythic tale, rather than just tossing together a crock-pot full of super-dudes and letting the chips fall where they might. COIE is at best a jumbled mosaic, and I frequently don't feel that the whole was more than a sum of its parts, any more than DC's "new unified world" turned out to be.

But at least some of the parts proved interesting, which is more than most DC epics can say.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

PLENITUDE: IT'S NOT JUST FOR THE END-TIMES ANYMORE

I'm going to try like heck to make this my absolute last essay that owes anything to the HOODED UTILITARIAN post to which I first alluded here. But I have the usual excuse: Noah Berlatsky has a way of bringing into focus exactly the issues that distinguish elitist critics from pluralist critics.

NB, in response to a comment by me about what I termed Sigmund Freud's reductive nature, made an odd comment about something he called "plenitude:"

I don’t see that tradition as particularly reductionist. It tends to argue that authors mean more than they say (and/or say more than they mean.) It’s a criticism of plenitude. People resist it because they dislike the implications of excess, in my experience. 

I won't repeat the thread's discussion regarding the definition of "reductionism," except to say, of course, that I was right. I quizzed NB on the provenance of his term "plenitude" and he said he wasn't "quoting anyone re: Freud." NB's syntax is jumbled, but he seems to be associating Freud's investigatory process as revealing the unvarnished truth beneath what they say or even think they mean, and thus he concludes that anyone who objects to Freud "dislikes the implications of excess." 

I have to assume, then, that "plenitude" and "excess" are linked in NB's mind. A quick Google search confirms that NB is at least familiar with Georges Bataille's use of the term "excess," though if NB is associating that idea with anything in Freud, he's certainly seeing a very different Bataille than I do. I quoted this Bataille passage a couple of months ago, from his 1957 EROTISM:

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.

Freud, of course, would never have countenanced this extreme liberalism. Freud believed explicitly in the sublimation of "the pleasure principle" in favor of the "reality principle." Again, it's hard to tell because NB bobs and weaves so much, but I think he's got the idea that "excess and/or plenitude" are not just "wild impulses" that everyone shares. I suspect that he's reading Freud through an ultraliberal lens: plenitude is everything that Straight White Males have traditionally renounced as inferior to their superior existence.

I have a much less ideologically oriented view of plenitude. expressed in this 2009 essay:

Ideological concepts are always spun off from what Northrop Frye terms "secondary concerns," which are no more than the assorted mental strategies humankind devises whereby they get or secure the "primary concerns," which are humankind's primary conduit to both sustenance and its concomitant pleasures. I suggested that the "primary concerns" come down to what some pagans termed the "four F's"-- flags (housing), flax (clothing), fodder and frig. 

Frye's assertion of the primacy of the sensuous is, I believe, much closer to Bataille's meaning than anything written by Freud. It also relates strongly to what the word "plenitude" means to me personally, though with a slightly more Jungian air. Jung regarded the human capacities for "sensation" and "intuition" as "mutually compensating functions." Plenitude for me is the interdependence of the senses with the mind's first attempts to understand them through symbolic action.

If as I believe NB has conflated plenitude with The Things Straight White Males Don't Want to Think About, then the only way this plenitude will ever be realized is in some distant future, a Marxist "end-times" when all the old fictions of Capitalism and Imperialism will be overthrown for good.

If that's the truth NB wants to embrace, that's his business. But as I've said in A BEDROCK OF CHAUVINISM,  I think the sins that elitist critics like to attribute only to Straight White Males are implicated in all peoples in all cultures and at all times. 

To rephrase Luke 17-21:

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, plenitude is within you!




A BEDROCK OF CHAUVINISM

"Too many people warp the word 'heritage,' Monica. They use it to mean superiority-- when it is only meant to give one-- identity."-- The Black Panther as written by Don McGregor, JUNGLE ACTION #8, 1974.




The situation that prompts this Panther-assertion is one in which his Black American girlfriend Monica has just intruded upon a sacred Wakandan rite, resulting in her being roundly condemned by the king's right-hand man W'Kabi.  One might fault the hero's sentiment for being a little too preachy, but I've always considered this one of McGregor's best stand-alone lines. I'd criticize its philosophical stance only in one respect. Unlike McGregor, I don't think "heritage" was essentially "meant" to be either benign or malign, though I find it easier to picture the phenomenon beginning in the latter phase, that of superiority, as in "Those Hill People aren't as good as us Rock People," etc.

In fact, I don't think that it is possible to express pride in one's heritage without making some degree of comparison to some other perceived group that doesn't possess the same traits. For my purposes I choose to express this range of ingroup-pridefulness via an adaptation of the familiar word *chauvinism,"

To do so, I have to regard these meanings from Merriam-Webster as indicative of nothing but a negative form of ingroup-pride: (1) excessive or blind patriotism, (2) undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged.

It is, fortunately, possible to feel pride in one's own group and yet not actually disparage others, even if one doesn't necessarily feel any strong interest in the culture of the perceived others.  I recall an anecdote from a British doctor who worked amid East Indian tribes for many years. At one point, one of the old women, who wished to express her appreciation of his services, wished him what she considered the best possible fate: that someday he might be reincarnated as a Hindu.

From the tone of the anecdote (whose source I have forgotten), the doctor was not offended by this cultural temerity, nor do I think most persons would be. This is what I would term "benign chauvinism." There's no question that the speaker of the sentiment is entirely wrapped up in the pride felt for an ingroup, but only a noob would bother trying to correct the speaker's benign prejudice. The one exception would be if the speaker were a white person wishing that some person of color might be reincarnated as Caucasian, for that would be perceived as racism, though only by persons of limited intelligence.

Malign chauvinism, in contrast to the benign type, is not content with merely asserting ingroup-pride. Malign chauvinism is indicated by an overt attempt to claim or prove the superiority of one's group, not a mere expression of preference. This is actual racism, but contrary to the opinion of some pundits, it did not simply come into being with the rise of European colonialism. I won't deny that the earliest systems of "racism-as-psuedo-science" came into being as Europeans spread throughout the globe, seeking both profit and explanations of the racial variety they encountered. But the core of racism has always been in the human heart, and it traces from that desire to find one's own group unstintingly superior to all other groups.

Having defined chauvinism as a spectrum of possible responses, in my next essay I'll seek to define what this bedrock phenomenon means to a culture that should endorse pluralism.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

POSSE COMIC-TATUS

  1. A child living is in esse, but before birth is only in posse.-- from Your Dictionary's definition of *in esse.*
I should qualify one aspect of my recent screed against the ideological critics who so often cry "fascist" against superheroes, "crime comics," or whatever they find ideologically suspect. Though I think that Frye's "wall of play" usually throws a veil of unreality over popular fiction's usages of violence, there may be cases where the ideological critic's tendency to "cry fascist" may luck onto the real thing.

In my essay TORTURED, PROSAICALLY, I largely defended the trope of inquisitorial torture from the usual attacks on it, but noted two exceptions, in which the television programs 24 and HAWAII 5-O indulged in the trope purely for the sake of showing the hero in the position of doling out violence without restraint. These shows were in part bad because there was no sense that the authorities involved might face any consequences for their actions, and in part because they were, in Sadean terms, stupid and unimaginative. At least when a Mickey Spillane hero tortures someone, there's a sort of brain-fevered fascination with the act itself, and I've often thought that Spillane's ideological posturings were just an excuse to bring about retributive violence. In other words, like Sade Spillane esteemed violence for its own sake, not as a means for preserving the police state.

Now, given that I myself unleashed the *in posse, in esse* distinction in this essay, I wondered whether or not this logic could apply in any degree to the argument of the ideological critics cited in WORKING VACATIONS.  Naturally, Adorno, Wertham and the rest don't admit of any exceptions in their characterizations of the American pop-hero. Superman, Sherlock Holmes and Donald Duck (that one's from Adorno) are fascist power-fantasies *in posse,* and they never had the option of being anything else.



I prefer the reverse formula. Batman always employs violence and occasionally utilizes torture, but as long as that "wall of play" is there, he's only a fascist *in esse.* Frank Miller's twist on the theme, in which Batman quite obviously enjoys inflicting pain ("The scream alone is worth it"), plays a darker form of the pulp-hero game as articulated by Bill Finger and his contemporaries, but there is, in my opinion, still a sense of freewheeling fantasy in the mix.

Given the philosophy I've expressed here, is it possible for Batman to be a fascist *in posse*?" I would say yes, though the only story known to me that comes close to being an overt jeremiad is Andrew Vacchs' heavy-handed BATMAN; THE ULTIMATE EVIL, in which the Caped One goes on a crusade against child pornography-- but even this doesn't seem quite as much of an advertisement for the benefits of a police state as the aforementioned 24 and HAWAII 5-O.




My conclusion, then, is that *in posse* fascism is a possibility within popular fiction, but in contrast to the insistence of the ideological critics, it's a rare phenomenon, and occurs only when the creator of the character forgets that he's playing a literary game, and enters the mental state of someone who's using fiction as a means to promote particular means and ends.


Monday, March 30, 2015

WORKING VACATIONS

I recently posted this simplified summation of my work/play concept on a forum-thread dealing with the question of whether or not superheroes were intrinsically juvenile.


"Escapism" is an important concept here, because on occasion (not necessarily on this thread) people sometimes conflate it with all things juvenile, which is not the case.
On my blog I've frequently contrasted two modes of literature which can be constructed for both juvenile and adult audiences. There's "escapism," which I consider "the literature of play," and "realism," which is "the literature of work."
Playing games means accepting a prescribed set of rules and limitations that aren't based on real-world means and ends, even if they might be loosely patterned after them (RISK, STRATEGO). But there's no real-world benefit from playing games. In a way, the player accept the game's fictional limits as a means of escaping the real world of limitations like inconvenient death, romantic loss, etc.
Work is all about means and ends, and the literature of work, "realism," is all about getting its audience to come to terms with mortal limitations. We may think of juvenile works as being only about escapism. But if someone writes a book for kids, aimed at coming to terms with the loss of loved ones, then that's both a "realist" work and a juvenile work.
Not that one has to be only within a naturalistic world in order to be "realistic." Lewis's Narnia books are aimed at kids, but their intent is to give the young audience a simplified grounding in the author's ideas of Christian philosophy. That's aimed at achieving a particular end by a particular means, and so I consider Narnia "realistic" in its thematic sense, even though it's a fantasy-- just as I do WATCHMEN and a handful of other "mature superheroes."

I've also occasionally asserted that the literature of thematic escapism functions as a "vacation from morals," moral prescriptions being the primary cultural manifestation of limitation: of what a member of a society must or must not do to remain a viable member of that society.

Early in THE ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, Northrop Frye discusses the ways in which types of melodrama-- he mainly references the detective story and the "thriller"-- can invoke in their audiences feelings of moral indignation, which might under different circumstances might involve the ideal of work in its sense of "means and ends."

In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.

We should have to say, then, that all forms of melodrama, the detective story in particular, were advance propaganda for the police state, in so far as that represents the regularizing of mob violence, if it were possible to take them seriously. But it seems not to be possible. The protecting wall of play is still there. 


Frye was IMO completely correct in assuming that the violent aspects of these "thrillers" is insulated by "a wall of play." However, he was wrong is assuming that it was "not possible" for critics to take violent melodramas "seriously" enough to believe that they were indeed "advance propaganda for the police state." About thirteen years prior to the publication of Frye's ANATOMY, Marxist Theodor Adorno attacked all products of the so-called "culture industry" as manifestations of a new fascism, though his analysis of the relation of violence to its audience may sound more Freudian than Marxist:


In the very first sequence [of a story] a motive is stated so that in the course of the action destruction can get to work on it: with the audience in pursuit, the protagonist becomes the worthless object of general violence. The quantity of organized amusement changes into the quality of organized cruelty. The self-elected censors of the film industry (with whom it enjoys a close relationship) watch over the unfolding of the crime, which is as drawn-out as a hunt. Fun replaces the pleasure which the sight of an embrace would allegedly afford, and postpones satisfaction [until] the day of the pogrom. Insofar as cartoons do any more than accustom the senses to the new tempo, they hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.

In 1949, Gershon Legman self-published his book of essays, LOVE AND DEATH, which in part assailed comic books as institutionalized fascism, virtually duplicating Adorno's argument about how it served the ends of an implied "police state" that wanted citizens to fantasize about venting violence on scapegoat victims so that said citizens would then accept any punishment the government dished out.

And of course, there's the debbil-doctor himself:

Superman (with the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and "foreign-looking" people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasize themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them—by force.


And, lest anyone reading think that these views no longer have currency, here's reliable Noah Berlatsky, from the comments-thread in which I recently participated, taking the POV that all superheroes are essentially cops, representatives of a police state:

 superheroes function as a kind of paramilitary right wing law and order force; they’re doing the dirty work of justice that even the police can’t do. That’s a lineage that goes back to the KKK; I don’t think it gets out of the dynamic I discussed. I think that applies to a lot of the lone badass against the system narratives too. 


What all of these individuals have in common is that they have refused to give the melodramatic entertainments they attack the credit for being "play." Thrillers, comedy cartoons, and superheroes are all defined by the "work" that the culture industry wants them to do, whether it's to create admiration for the forces of law-and-order or to provide "bread and circuses" so that the citizens won't notice how beaten-down they are by the forces of authority. Escapist melodramas might provide vacations from whatever morality these elitists tout as superior, but since the melodramas are working for authority, they only supply "working vacations."

Clearly I'm with Frye in believing that the consumers of these fantasies, violent or not, have the awareness to know that they're engaging a playful activity that doesn't represent the way the real world works. It can be fairly stated that concerns of "realism" do appear in any work, no matter how "escapist," be it a story set in the audience's own world or in some "Dungeons and Dragons" universe. But the element of play generally takes precedence, though permutations do arise in both the escapist mode and the realistic mode, as discussed more fully here.

The biggest problem of the "heroes are fascist" argument is that it soon becomes entirely tautological, like Freud. In Freud's opinion the Oedipal theory was validated whether or not  a man did or didn't marry a woman like his mother. A man who married a woman like his mother confirmed Freud's theory directly; a man who married a woman completely unlike his mother was undergoing "displacement," which in some roundabout way still validated the Oedipal theory.

Similarly, most of the "heroic fascist" arguments fall into the same circular arguments seen above. Does the hero work directly for the government? Then he's a fascist. Does the hero work on his own, reporting to no authority? Then he's "a kind of paramilitary right wing law and order force." Is the hero a badass fighting against the system, like (say) Snake Plissken? The argument will admit of no meaningful exceptions: the badass fighting the system is a fascist too. In other words, everything proves what the theory's proponent wants to prove, and the few exceptions the advocate may provide, if he provides any, simply happen to appeal to his or her particular moral system.