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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, May 29, 2008

PHENOMENOLOGY OF COMPLEXITY

As mentioned earlier, I recently read a collection of two long Husserl essays, but I tend to think Husserl's hyper-rational approach to phenomenology is not quite what I'm looking for. However, having recently encountered Roger Brooke's 1991 study JUNG AND PHENOMENOLOGY, I'm more optimistic about seeing the subject matter of Jung (and, by extension, his sort-of follower Joseph Campbell) reified through the Heideggerian take on phenomenology.

In his opening chapter Brooke cites several rationales for trying to view Jung-- who called himself a phenomenologist at one point, however accurately-- through the lens of the phenomenalist philosophy. The one that most impresses me is where Brooke stresses the need for "an anthropology according to which the adequacy or relevance of Jung's various metaphors can be measured. To say that all knowledge is perspectival or structured through an imaginative vision of the world is not to say that one metaphor is just as good as another. But if some metaphors are better than others, which seems obvious, then the basis on which such judgments are made needs to be clarified."

"Mythicity" is of course my own take on sussing out the reasons why some metaphors (which is also to say symbols, since metaphor is impossible without a symbolic process), so I'm intrigued to see how Brooke will approach the problem of this "anthropology." I tend to favor Campbell's four functions, which will certainly be far outside Brooke's concerns, but it's at least worth noting that Heideggerian phenomenology is reputed, far more than Husserlian, for its emphasis on the meaning of "being embodied in the world." Arguably Campbell does something like this when he avoids allegory, so time will tell whether or not Brooke touches on any of the same points...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

FORMULAS RACING

One side-benefit to my having read Ashley's STUDY OF POPULAR FICTION was that one of the essays therein made reference to "Frank Cioffi's concept of the anomaly"-- which sounded intriguing enough that I sought out the work cited, a book titled FORMULA FICTION?: AN ANATOMY OF AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION, 1930-1940 (published by Greenwood Press in 1982). I had read the book long ago and didn't remember much about it, but due to my current concern with defining the concept of the "metaphenomal" (see last essay), Cioffi's use of the word "anomaly" for a narrative element that disrupts the status quo of a narrative situation sounded applicable to my system. I'll probably end up using the term in future, but serendipitously, I also see Cioffi's work as exemplifying some of the critical trends I'm writing against here, particularly in my "Myths of Sociology."

(Incidentally, Cioffi's approach to his topic-- early pulp-era SF-- is closer to structuralism than to post-structuralism according to Ashley's definitions, but Cioffi is just as overinvested in sociological mythology as any post-structuralist. So much for Ashley's definitions.)

Cioffi's thesis is that science fiction is a wide-ranging genre with "aesthetic potentialities" all its own despite its cross-pollination from other genres, and that the genre can be broadly divided into three categories: "status quo SF," "subversive SF," and "other world SF." I don't propose to address his categories as such here, but only the methodology by which he divides them: that of separating certain works according to what might be called their "sociologically redeeming value." From my modest knowledge of trends in SF criticism I would say Cioffi's theory didn't find many if any adherents, for all that his preference for "subversive" forms of fiction strongly situates him alongside the many Marxist SF-critics whose dialectic proved popular in both the 70s and 80s. Cioffi should certainly be seen as separate from the more elitist SF-critics: he notes that "Stanislaw Lem and Darko Suvin... hold that 95 percent of all science fiction is unworthy of criticial attention," and then gives his reasons for choosing to be less "parochial" in analyzing "the literature that has been passed over." That sort of statement certainly endears his work to my pluralist heart, as does his overview of the pulp magazines in which American science fiction took shape as a recognizeable genre.

There is, to be sure, some degree of elitism in Cioffi's theory, too, given his clear preference for the subversive forms, but unlike the more blinkered critics he at least recognizes many of the connections between different forms and modes, as in the passage where he leads into defining the concept of the anomaly:

"I divide the large amount of SF that appeared in the [30s] decade according to its treatment of the relation between these two major components: a picture of 1930s social reality and some scientifically explicable change in that reality. Some of this interaction between a given world and an altered world mimics that found in other popular forms. For example, other genres often show characters in relatively stable situations disrupted by an adventure, a crime or a love affair in much the same way that the initially stable social reality of an SF story is jarred by some chance intervention of a wonder drug, an invasion from another planet, or a miraculous invention."

Cioffi then asserts that the early SF-genre came into being in the pulps with a great deal of influence from other genres (for instance, "western stories" being recapitulated as "space westerns"). However, he argues that early SF possessed "aesthetic potentialities" that went beyond "the usual focus of popular fiction-- the fate of individual characters." In tried-and-true Marxist manner, he finds that the social values that supposedly attracted the readers of other genres-- "the family, the love ethic, manly heroism, the American Way, and the like"-- failed to have much effect upon the more "skeptical, disenchanted" audience that began to rally around the SF-banner.

Cioffi says very little about the other two major metaphenomenal genres, horror and fantasy, except to put them aside as irrelevant to the SF-genre insofar as their metaphenomal aspects are not explained in terms of scientific plausibility ("The creation of a monster in a laboratory, as in FRANKENSTEIN, is science fictional, while the unexplained existence of monsters in, say, BEOWULF is not.") Though I myself see this as a major deficit in Cioffi's theory, one need not bring in these content-related genres to see flaws in his contrast between science fiction and other generic forms. A little before the period Cioffi covers, Dashiel Hammett began writing his "Continental Op" detective stories, of which I've read several, and I see no reason to think that they are inferior in subversive content than any of the SF stories Cioffi champions.

I won't touch here on Cioffi's particular interpretations of the SF-stories he uses to make his case for his categories, except to say that he obviously read widely in his chosen area of expertise, and many of his examples are well-chosen to fit his sociological theme, which one would expect to find in greater concentration in SF than in other genres. But even as I applaud the pluralism of this approach, I have to find him guilty of subscribing a little too quickly to a different sort of "status quo:" that of the representations used by literary elitists to justify their works over others. In summing up the differences between serious and popular literature, he writes:

"'Mainstream,' or 'serious,' literature generally resists imitation and replication; the subtle tones, moods, nuances, and multifaceted characters it employs are difficult to describe and define, and even more difficult to imitate."

This is certainly a good summation of how literary elitists like to view their chosen 5% of good stuff, but in truth imitation in literary circles is a little more prevalent than Cioffi claims here. For instance, a close reading of West's DAY OF THE LOCUST will disclose a fair number of tropes lifted from one of West's favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And although West may be considered to have grown beyond simply imitating Fitzgerald, one could equally say the same of any number of popular authors whose influences are clearly discernable, be it Raymond Chandler doing his take on Hammett or Robert Bloch on Lovecraft.

Moreover, FORMULA FICTION seems to promote this view as a means of riding the coattails of "serious literture," implying that of all the genres that Cioffi considers, only science fiction comes close to the highbrow heights, though the author never comes right and says so. Thus it's impossible to rate Cioffi's work as showing any thoughtful appreciation for the nature of formula fiction itself. But then, given the querlous question mark following the title, perhaps such appreciation was never really part of Cioffi's outlook from the start.

Monday, May 19, 2008

STALKING THE PERFECT TERM: THE METAPHENOMENAL

"Metaphenomenal," a word which one can find tossed off on various websites but has no entry under the Onelook Dictionaries, is in all likelihood a neologism that various people have tossed out for various reasons.

My independent invention of the term (at least as I remember coining it) was a take on Kant's famous distinction between the "noumenal" and the "phenomenal," where "phenomenal" indicates everything that can be identified through its physical presence and "noumenal" as everything that cannot.

This struck me as being broadly applicable to the situation within a fictive universe. Some fictive universes depict only representations of what our culture calls its consensual reality; the things that a majority agrees on as being real. Other fictive universes depict things that may never exist, or which do not yet exist, and this requires the author to describe such things largely from imagination rather than experience as such. This struck as me as a loose parallel to Kant's "noumenality" in some ways but not in others, so I discarded his term and substituted one for purely literary purposes: "the metaphenomenal," meaning "beyond the phenomenal." I consider it a better catch-all for all things that owe their existence to mankind's imagination than the usual catch-all employed in academic studies: "the fantastic." There's both logic and tradition to using the latter term, yet it seems at times cumbersome when dealing with phenomenon that go beyond phenomenal limits within a given universe, and yet are not supposed to be regarded as "fantastic" within that universe even though they may be to the majority of readers. "Metaphenomenal," to my mind, efficiently takes in both the viewpoints of readers and of the characters designed for the story as to whether a given element is within the sphere of ordinary phenomena or not.

In my next post I'll be using my chosen term on occasion, so this is essentially a quick-and-dirty explanation of said term for the purpose of the upcoming essay.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

FOREIGN TO CORRESPONDENCE

As I originally formed this blog for the purpose of preserving certain ideas or articles, I haven't felt moved to reminisce about my history as a comics-fan or any of my experiences with comics-professionals. I don't expect I'll do much in future, though anything's possible.

During the 80s I wrote various reviews and essays for THE COMICS JOURNAL, which led me to review Dave Sim's CEREBUS in JOURNAL #67 (Oct 81) -- specifically, the first two issues of HIGH SOCIETY. I later met Dave himself at a handful of conventions and signings, and wrote occasional letters to the CEREBUS letters-page.

Fast-forward to the present: as of this month, Dave Sim (who now calls himself "the Pariah King of Comics" due in large part to his writings on feminist topics) feels so embattled that he has asked potential correspondents to sign a petition stating that they do not believe he is a "misogynist." If they sign, then Dave will correspond with them: if not, then not.

Much has been written about Dave Sim's state of mind when he made this demand, but I don't propose to discuss that here. My sole purpose here is to point out that this is not the first time Dave Sim has chosen to cut himself off from correspondence.

Without having issues of CEREBUS or actual correspondence to hand, I have to guess on dates, but there was a period-- I believe whenever Dave was working on the Hemingway section of CEREBUS-- when Dave had been engaging in regular correspondence but wrote at least three "regulars"-- one of whom was myself-- that he would have let all discussions hang fire for some undetermined period because of the intensity of the work he was doing.

This is, to be sure, a strong consideration that all artists have; the fact that time spent to any activity secondary to the art-- be it meeting fans, corresponding with fans, or anything similar-- is time taken away from the art.

And while many speculations have arisen as to Dave Sim's motives for demanding the petition-signing as a prerequisite for correspondence, one motive-- that of simple time-constraints-- has been omitted, though not by Dave. On 5-10-08, he wrote this to two of the participants of the Cerebus Yahoo group:

"The bottom line for me was: there just aren't enough hours in the day. I looked at the pile of 60 or 70 letters that had built up overthe last three months and I realized NONE of those people was willingto stand up and say they didn't think I was a misogynist. So why would I invest three or four days of work answering all of them?"

The full text of the message is here:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/cerebus/messages/148682?threaded=1&m=e&tidx=1

I am of course not claiming that this motive for the petition-- to reduce his backlog of correspondence-- is Dave's only one. I can't know that. I'm not even sure Dave, or anyone else in a similar position, can know that.

But I wanted to point out that it's not the first time he's taken an unusual route to reduce that backlog. For that matter, even the Hemingway-era retreat was not the first: there's a period in the 80s where Dave simply stopped writing answers to letters in his own lettercol, and pretty much left the fans to talk amongst themselves.

And that, aside from all other motives, is why I would say that Dave is constitutionally--

Foreign to correspondence.

Friday, May 9, 2008

THE MYTHS OF SOCIOLOGY

I recently read Bob Ashley's THE STUDY OF POPULAR FICTION. This book was designed purely as an overview of the prevalent theories regarding the criticism of popular fiction, and presents an assortment of essays and extracts organized into chapters under those theory-headings. Ashley writes intros to all of these to explain their advantages and disadvantages but as it is an overview he rightly does not try to attempt a synthesis of the various theories (though in one place his personal preferences does come out). The main theories analyzed are "mass society theory" criticism, structuralism and post-structuralism, with his preference for the latter of the three showing itself in his intro to that chapter.



I have been called (and am, in some respects) a formalist. Webster's online defines formalism as "marked attention to arrangement, style, and artistic means (as in art and literature), usually with corresponding de-emphasis of content." I don't think that in *practice* those who tend toward formalism are bereft of interpretation, but I understand why a simple dictionary-definition would see that as the centerpiece of the *theory.* Ashley makes it himself in the chapter on post-structuralism/deconstruction, which quite inevitably follows the chapter on structuralism per se:

"Many readers have emerged from a first encounter with structuralism in a confused frame of mind. Much of the analysis seems helpful-- 'correct' even-- and yet there remains a problem: somehow the experience of reading doesn't feel like this."

So far as it goes, this statement is true. Whenever one devotes most of one's attention to the formal structure of the story, it's a given that one is not capturing the experience of reading, wherein the reader feels sympathy or antipathy for characters or gets caught up in the author's appeals to the senses. But I doubt that any structuralist critic ever considered his discipline as a means of capturing the way reading "feels:" clearly, structuralist analysis is a post-mortem on a story that, having been read, is now a little bit "dead." I would argue that post-structuralism is no less a post-mortem than its predecessor. Given that post-structuralism concerns itself with multiple interpreted meanings, it may even be "post-ier."

Ashley goes on:

"The misgivings commonly focus two problems: firstly, structuralism is felt to conceptualize the reader as an overly passive recipient of narrative meanings; secondly, in its emphasis on the formal qualities of narrative, structuralism ignores the cultural context within which reading takes place. Post-structuralism deals far more adequately with the process of reading."

On the first part, I might have some limited agreement with Ashley. Even Northrop Frye occasionally cited this or that archetype in his myth-critical studies with the suggestion that its meaning might be static for all societies. This is obviously a potential problem with both structuralism and formalism, as evinced by Webster's definition above. However, I don't see any reason that a skillful structural reading HAS to ignore cultural context, even if it's asserted that some of the fathers of the movement (Claude Levi-Strauss, for one) may have been guilty of such a sin. And when one looks at some of the examples of post-structuralism supplied by Ashley-- Barthes in particular-- one may conclude that the post-structuralists may be guilty of OVER-interpretation; of seeking to fit all works into a common theme, usually one with a heavy ideological base. (Ashley does treat the deconstructionists as having some strong tendencies that run counter to the post-structuralists, but here I'll treat them as essentially drawing from the same well because Ashley himself does so.)

The problem with most ideological analyses is that they draw upon but one of Joseph Campbell's knowledge-organizing functions: the sociological (hence my title), and ignore the influence of the other matrices. For instance, here's a sentence where Ashley summarizes one of the reprinted essays by one Tom Moylan:

"Moylan reads utopian narrative as a process which opens up the imagination to the existence of the space which may be subsequently be occupied by oppositional social critiques."

Most of the essays/excerpts reprinted in STUDY take much the same approach to popular fiction, be it science-fiction utopias, romance fiction or girls' magazines: defining the works in terms of what sociological patterns they display, often as a strategy to show how such patterns show the works' power to suppress or foment "oppositional social critiques." Without descending into the maelstrom that is Marx, I will just say that whatever patterns these writers find may have some objective (Husserl might say "intrasubjective") validity. But they are far from being the only patterns worth dealing with, and it is here that the formalist/structuralist approach may proven superior.

For instance, it's true that "utopian narratives" by their nature are going to possess a great deal of sociological content, given that utopias are all about the evolution of ideal societies. But it would be a mistake to think that there are no other patterns in them but the sociological. For instance, BRAVE NEW WORLD concerns itself with the effect of psychotropic drugs upon the human animal, not only in the societal sense (though that is there), but also in terms of the physiological and psychological. Following Campbell, I would consider all physiological effects to come under the heading of "cosmological myths," at least insofar as a given author tries to depict their real-world patterns as a source of symbolic complexity. Later, Huxley will change his "cosmological myth" regarding the effects of psychotropics following his real-world experiences with them, as seen in his final work ISLAND. But in both works Huxley is not purely dealing with sociological patterns in his attempt to suss out the nature of psychotropics-- and so, a purely sociological analysis is misleading.

For these and other reasons, then, I would reject Ashley's championing of the post-structuralists, though as with most disciplines one can sometimes reap benefits from even a narrow but concentrated field of study.

Friday, May 2, 2008

RAYMOND'S RACIAL MYTHOS II

Following up on some of the thoughts expressed in "Raymond's Racial Mythos," here's the most substantial item I could find in FLASH GORDON's first year that suggested the racial mythologizing that gives the strip its greatest claim to symbolic complexity. In the sixth 1934 FG strip, villainous Ming threatens to subject Dale to a "dehumanizing machine" which will make her like the races on the planet Mongo. He even specifically says "We on this planet," not just his own Chinese-looking race. He claims that Mongo has "progressed far beyond you Earthlings. The reason for our success is that we possess none of the human traits of kindness, mercy or pity-- We are coldly scientific and ruthless."

Since the dehumanizing machine never appears again in FLASH GORDON's first year, I doubt Raymond and/or Moore ever brought it up again. In terms of what mythicity the machine has, it clearly fits Joseph Campbell's "sociological" matrix of meanings, since the machine is a device to explain the contrast between the ruthless society of Mongo and the civilization of Earth, which in theory lives by the very traits Mongo renounces.

This opposition was certainly not original with Raymond and Moore. Since the rise of the "Yellow Peril" concept in Europe and the States, works in this category showed a particular fondness for portraying American characters as the salt of the earth-- essentially kindhearted despite being able to beat bad guys to jelly-- while the foremost representatives of the Yellow Peril, the Chinese, were often seen as both hyperintellectual and devoid of mercy. Raymond and Moore could easily have derived this conception from the early books in Sax Rohmer's FU MANCHU series; certainly they follow Rohmer's idea of naming a Chinese (or Chinese-looking) villain after an entire Chinese dynasty.

But just how complex is this sociological myth? Not very. Indeed, it may be the closest one can get to the state of null-mythicity without losing any claim to complexity whatsoever.

It's not just that the use of this narrative device is brief. I've noted in "Dragon Lady Dreams" that Milton Caniff put forth a single Sunday strip in which the Dragon Lady claimed to be a literal incarnation of a Chinese dragon. The explication of this idea occupies no more or less space than the bit about the dehumanizing machine does, and it too is a narrative element that is probably never visited again by the author. Yet I would say that the TERRY strip possesses a high degree of mythicity.

The reason is that the essence of symbolic complexity is its propensity to create resonances between different parts of a narrative, particularly one that develops in a serial fashion. The dehumanizing machine is a typical enough sci-fi device to explain a sociological disparity between Earth and Mongo-- the sort of thing Edgar Rice Burroughs might have used in similar tales-- but if FLASH GORDON kept coming back, again and again, to the sociological disparity, even if the machine itself never appeared again, then the resonance would have been consistently developed. And based on my scattered readings, I don't think that the strip does so in any significant way. Indeed, Raymond and Moore didn't even keep their own notion of the disparity consistent within the next few strips, for, as I noted earlier, Flash garners his first alien ally, the lion-man Thun, because he wins Thun's sympathy with the tale of Dale's imprisonment. Clearly not all races of Mongo have been dehumanized, and indeed many of those who look inhuman are more humanistic than the Asian-looking "Mongolese."

In contrast, the sociological myth of East vs. West is generally consistent in Caniff''s TERRY, and the one strip about the Dragon Lady's supposed inhuman credentials is merely a small part of that larger mythos, and her mythic characterization does not vary the way various FLASH characters change at the author's fancy. Therefore within TERRY's first year that strip expresses high mythicity while FLASH's remains pretty low at the start. That Raymond's art greatly improves over time goes without saying, but I would have to subject the rest of his oeuvre to further analysis before I could say whether or not Flash proves more than a mythic "flash in the pan."