Friday, November 21, 2008


About a month ago, Dick Hyacinth wrote a blogpiece about the current trend at the Big Two comics-companies for indulging in "earth shattering events" at the expense of story values, and another blogger, Todd C. Murray wrote this in response:

"I think Marvel is also handling these EARTH SHATTERING EVENTS in a way that invites a kind of pseudo-interactive excitement. The books themselves are not so much story as little Lego blocks of main ideas that have been well executed conceptually (even though, as story, many of the blocks are poorly executed). It’s like D&D when I was eight… you’d buy a module because of all the cool stuff in it and to imagine playing it, and talking with your friends about how exciting this or that design or trap was, more than actually playing it, which often we never got around to. In fact, I think you could enjoy Secret Invasion quite a bit without reading any of it (maybe more than if you did)."

I agree with Murray more than with Hyacinth, but I'd take it somewhat further, in the direction of asking two questions:

(1) Is the preoccupation with "earth shattering events" as new as some think it is,

(2) Is there something fundamental to human nature that causes the human species to invest in games that have no real narrative to them-- something more fundamental than the modern example of D&D games?

Taking the second question first, I would say that there's no way to make any useful correlation between a modern form of literature/paraliterature and a modern game without whether or not the same relationship inheres in some or all forms of literature and game-playing. I don't have space here to go into critical approachs to literature in terms of game theory, but suffice to say that the most telling resemblance between literary works and games lies in their essential purposelessness. One can certainly impute some indirect purpose to both activities, and many theorists have done so, but in terms of what fruits the activities themselves directly yield, well, Oscar Wilde could have been speaking of games as well when he asserted, "All art is perfectly useless."

The best-known indirect product of both actitives is what we loosely term "recreation," though one will immediately get different theoretical answers as to why humans need, or think they need, such recreation. Between games and literature, however, looms the shadow of didacticism, for while games are difficult to structure (honestly) in order to deliver a message, it can be done with varying degrees of subtlety in literature. This lends to literature the appearance, if not the actuality, of having a "useful purpose" in culture and/or society, and the most "useful" forms of literature are usually those which have or are thought to be works of *thematic realism* insofar as they comment with the same varying degrees of subtlety on man's real-world situation.

And yet, despite the greater acclaim of the thematically-realistic works which make up most of what we deem "canonical literature," few of these are popular with a wide audience in any given time-period. The works that seem far more perenially popular in any given time-period are the ones that seem steeped in *thematic escapism,* and are therefore closer in structure to the irrational rationale of games.

Anthropologist Lee Drummond took an approach somewhat akin to my notion of *thematic escapism* in this excerpt from his book AMERICAN DREAMTIME, which attempts to deal with modern movies (STAR WARS in particular) as expressions of cultural myths:

"...the figures of myth do not live solely by virtue of the operation of a collection of sentences woven into a 'plot'... The critical thing about the doings of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, R2D2, C3PO, and the rest is the elemental level of crisis-- identity crisis-- that lies right at or just beneath the surface of their actions: Will the Force or its Dark Side triumph? Will R2D2 survive? Will Luke discover the awful truth of his paternity?"

Aside from Drummond's coincidental but felicitous employment of the term "identity crisis"-- which term became associated with one of comics' "earth-shattering events"-- the important thing he's emphasizing here is the independence of so-called mythic figures from the strictures of plot as such. I'm a little more in line with structuralism than I think Drummond is, but I recognize that what he's talking about might be well compared with Joyce's notion of the *kinetic,* that aspect of literary elements that causes extreme sympathy or antipathy. I would not say that the plot of STAR WARS is as unimportant as Drummond does, nor is it unimportant for the "event serials" in comics to have the appearance of some vast Pynchonesque plotline. But Drummond is right in saying that the type of works he's talking about-- which *I* have termed "thematically escapist" works-- the fine points of the plots are not as vital as the story's ability to engender "the elemental level of crisis" through whatever characters the reader recognizes as important, particularly in terms of their sufferings.

And to answer the first question, now: no, all that's new about this method of compelling quick identification through making travesties of the fictional characters' lives is the aforementioned attempt at Pyncheonism. Here's how Mort Weisinger, the first true master of the soap-opera appeal in comics-- not quite eclipsed even by his "pupil" Stan Lee-- handled it:

I chose this Superman "death-scene" because it too shows a "crisis" of elemental proportions, though one that will be undermined in order to bring the Superman mythos back to square one-- just as every game, when finished, is still survived by the rules OF the game, which make possible yet another game with different parameters played by the same rules.

None of this analysis necessarily states that the various "event serials" out there now are especially good even judged by the criteria of the best escapist works. However, I do find it interesting that while many comics-critics celebrate the works of Grant Morrison, not many seem to have twigged to the fact that his work shares this sort of near-plotless aesthetic common to many lesser escapist works, but given an overlay of symbolic complexity.

In other words, Morrison may be the only one in comics who understands the full meaning of the rules of the game-- but he's still playing by them.


Charles R. said...

One can certainly impute some indirect purpose to both activities, and many theorists have done so, but in terms of what fruits the activities themselves directly yield, well, Oscar Wilde could have been speaking of games as well when he asserted, "All art is perfectly useless."

Well, yes and no.

Gene Phillips said...

By quoting Wilde I'm giving a "necessary" definition of art; one that avoids contingencies like the ones I consider the imposition of didactic purpose.

You might remember that on a Comicon thread I raised the possibility of defining superheroes (or their overall idiom) partly in terms of the radical of the fight-scenes that appears in most superhero stories. As I recall, you rejected that definition by arguing that fight-scenes did not appear in all superhero stories and thus was not necessary.

Without repeating my answer to that exchange, I'd say that one also can't frame a necessary definition of art in terms of the "work" it's meant to do. Critics like Wayne Booth are justified in bringing up art's rhetorical side, but if one is going to consider art in all its historical manifestations, it would surely evolve from play, not work. (I assume that early man is of a piece with modern man; playing when he can and only working when he has to.) So a necessary definition of art would begin its irrational uselessness in contrast to any goal-oriented purposive activity.

Charles R. said...

As with all Wildean quotes, a good deal of truth is achieved on the way to being definitively wrong. And I suspect he'd have a chuckle at anyone trying to take him for an analytic philosopher.

Art certainly isn't useful in the way eating is, but what's the point of eating if all it does is lead to another day of eating? Might be good for evolution, but it'd kind of suck to live like that, unless the mind is only capable of being used in a crudely instrumentalist fashion. Whether games are closer to art, or closer to eating without the benefit of survival I'll leave for another day.

Anyway, I'm not sure what your point about the necessity of superpowers is (but I do vaguely recall the prior discussion), so I'll just skip over that part.

As for defining art by its use, a good deal of it is so defined, and for good reason: modernism, surrealism, neo-realism, etc.. The reason one can define such art in such a way is because it largely aesthetically accomplishes what it purportedly set out to do. I'm not so sure I'd call overturning previous aesthetic criteria didactic, but there is an element of that involved.

Where I'd agree that art should remain "useless" is in the realm of instrumentalism, or the pragmatico-ideological. An artist might have a clear ideological function in mind (such as my example of Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata No. 2"), but there's really no necessary causal connection between the ideology and reception (but for a shift in the dominant-mainstream mode of reception, authoritarians could've used Ligeti's piece against the anti-authoritarians). However, as long as a dominant aesthetic ideology is in place, any rejection of it will form a basis, a set of criteria, for classifying the outré art. On the other hand, if an artwork remains consummately tied to an ideology (be it of the dominant or counter-alignment kind) through generational changes in interpretive modes, it'll wither on the vine, since it's sole purpose, one true love, is long gone. That's what makes Eisenstein a chore to watch, even if one can still appreciate and learn from his technique. Ligeti's music is ideologically ambiguous; that's what keeps it fresh and continually renewable. It still has ideologies to conquer. Appreciation of his music will never give way to complacency.

Art that's consumed by ideology is what gives us the majority of the crap in mainstream modes, and I'd agree that in this way it should be useless (one might even call this an ideological purpose).

Gene Phillips said...

It sounds like you're using "art" only in the sense of the art fit for the Canon; the kind that gets the academic designations of neo-realism and whatnot. I've used the word in that context elsewhere here but I've also used it in a context that's more inclusive, and that's the one I'm using here. Thus I'm defining art as everything from cave paintings to comic books, which seems pretty far from the thrust of your own essay.

Naturally I disagree with the notion that "mainstream" art is fundamentally ideological. I think the mainstream uses "fake ideologies" as a means of propelling stories, as seen in the Commie-baitings of Ian Fleming and Stan Lee. Real ideological positions come from authors attempting to be "serious," though those who are more playful may end up undermining the positions that they themselves consciously advocate. Eco might be an example, given his rather half-hearted Marxism.

Charles R. said...

No, I was talking about all art.

I don't know if I'd call mainstream art "fundamentally ideological," just ideological. That it's mainstream already entails an ideology. Without ideology, there would be no mainstream, just art.

Ian Fleming was faking his anti-communism? I've never heard that. He always sounded pretty committed. Regardless, the intention of the artist doesn't have to line up with the artwork's.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Gene Phillips said...

Since I responded to the notion of ideological content of art in a thread, I've now reprinted my comments with some elaborations in IDEOLOGY VS. MYTH *OR* THE WHIP AND THE BODY.

Season's greetings.