Friday, October 31, 2008


As it's Halloween today, mad critics must go the extra mile to do what both they and mad scientists do on a regular basis: take something that's a living whole, tie it down, dissect it, and make it into an unholy thing. (Or maybe, to venture a bad pun, "un-whole-y.")

But despite the Frankensteinian comparison, my subject here is his sometime compeer Dracula, who is the "moveable feaster" of this essay's title. Specifically Stoker's novel is the "living whole" from which I'll be dissecting, though today I'll confine myself to one small part of the Dracula mythos: the aspect of Dracula's earth-filled coffins, which makes it possible for Dracula to move from place to place and menace respectable English Victorians.

Stoker's vampire is certainly not the first vampire who was able to move about freely, in contradiction to folkloric revenants who usually had to return to their graves by daybreak. John Polidori's Lord Ruthven, conceived in the same Romantic jam-session that spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, seemed immune to the call of the earth, and walked about in day or night regardless. But Stoker apparently had a very specific set of ideas about how vampires might function. And though many aspects of Stoker's vampire myth have been mined by later authors, Dracula's reason for needing to repose in coffins full of native soil seem to have been forgotten by later vampire-mythographers.

Early in the novel, Dracula tells Jonathan Harker:

"Why, there is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders."

Naturally, at that point in the novel, the vampire does not dwell on how this "blood-enriched" earth is going to make it possible for him to pick up stakes (so to speak) and invade merry old England. But much later in the novel, Van Helsing goes into greater detail about Dracula's literal need for earth that has been sanctified (as well as ensanguinated) by the past:

"There have been from the loins of this very one [Dracula] great men and good women, and their graves make sacred the earth where alone this foulness can dwell. For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good; in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest."

So in Stoker's mythos the sacred earth of Dracula's Transylvania is replete with both "the blood of the heroic dead" and "memories of great men and good women." Blood, then, is not just plasma and platelets in Stoker's cosmos, but rather the objective correlate of life itself, a sort of vitality that doesn't vanish with the deaths of individual humans but which seeps into the earth and sustains the life of a vampire quite as much as feeding off the blood of the living. This "sacred earth" explanation may explain how Dracula and his vampire brides managed to survive without exsanguinating every last mortal left in the region, especially given that Stoker's Transylvania often seems like a barren Hades-on-Earth, lacking the vitality that Dracula praises in past generations of his land. Stoker, in formulating this notion of the vampire needing to take his native soil with him when he departed for other climes, was thus overcoming the folkloric notion that a vampire had to return to his grave. Thanks to Stoker, Dracula could take his grave with him as he travelled.

To be sure, Stoker never has any scenes which directly prove Van Helsing's assertion about Dracula's dependence on Transylvanian soil-- that is, scenes like having Dracula try without success to sleep in English soil. But apparently whatever "blood-memories" in Dracula's native soil nourish the vampire, that vitality can be trumped by a greater vitality, as Van Helsing uses holy wafers, presumably blessed by the Catholic Church, to make some of Dracula's earth-filled coffins useless to him. (Side-note: the "holy water" device popular in many later vampire-tales appears nowhere in the original novel.) Still, the original folklore-limitation does crop again with respect to Dracula's only vampiric convert in England, for apparently Lucy Westenra can't just go anywhere she likes, but is obliged to return to her mausoleum at daybreak. Stoker does not emphasize her dependence on being close to English soil, but one must presume that she has some such dependence on returning to her original grave.

To be continued in MOVEABLE FEASTER, PART 2--

Thursday, October 30, 2008


As long as I'm reading Murdoch, I may as well quote her slam against what I've called the naive positivists:

"Of course there are neutral scientific or scholarly or legal disciplines and procedures and states of mind, and these, often to be thought of as ideal limits, are essential and without them we would indeed 'perish and go to ruin.' But they represent one aspect only of the idea of truth, and occupy a smaller area than is sometimes suggested by those who conjure up a vast world of facts in contrast to a small specialised activity of evaluating."

I will say that I disagree on some of her insights on "truth:"

"It seems to me that one cannot 'philosophize' adequately upon the subject [of ethics] unless one takes it as fundamental that consciousness is a form of moral activity: what we attend to, how we attend, whether we attend."

For me the moral nature of consciousness (which roughly parallels the nature of the "ethical criticism" I discussed in MERIT RAISED) is not the whole picture, any more than is the aesthetic sense that underlies "aesthetic criticism." Both of these aspects of consciousness, the moral and the aesthetic, are secondary responses to the power of personal mythopoesis, of the mythic identities that human beings choose to project. Such identities are not just facile comparisons to archaic myth-figures (as Murdoch assumes in her pooh-poohing polemic against Jung), but modern myths as well. The man who thinks "I am a realist" is living no less a myth than the one who thinks "I am an idealist;" the two merely use different moral, aesthetic and philosophical justifications in order to articulate and communicate said identities. The moral certainly impacts upon those identities, but it's not a primary function. But to get at that primary thing would be beyond the scope of this short piece...

Friday, October 24, 2008


Right away let me lay down my prejudices regarding villains.

In the annals of popular literature (which automatically disincludes anything in the realm of the canonical class), there are only Three Great Villains.

Rider Haggard's SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED (1887)

Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1897)

Sax Rohmer's FU MANCHU (1912)

Other prominent villains-- Captain Nemo, the Wicked Witch, Joker, Doc Doom, Darth Vader-- are at best "near greats," and most of the not-so-prominent may be "good," "interesting," and so on down the line. Only the Big Three-- all, not coincidentally, born from the medium of prose-- possess the quality Henry James called "density of specification." James was applying this concept to the density of realistic detail in a work, but though that verisimilitudinous idea does somewhat apply to these prose-villains-- or as much as it can, given the parameters of popular fiction-- I'm really thinking of the density of mythopoetic associations one finds in each of the Big Three; a density that puts all other villains to shame.

Of course, even if these villains were not fictional, few if any of them would be capable of shame. To borrow flagrantly from the psychological model of Big Sigmund Freud, shame belongs to the "ego," experienced thanks to the never-ending battle of the shameless "id" and the shame-inducing "superego." There should be no need to point out which of the latter two most resembles the archetypal comics-villain and which the archetypal hero, but who's the ego? One might suppose that it's the reader of the hero/villain struggle, who both enjoys the villain attempting all sort of transgressive desires (meant here more in the sense of Bataille than of Freud) and the hero's prosocial efforts to batter the villain into submission.

But what happens when the heroes are all gone and the villains, those icons of the id, are on the loose? That's a question suggested by the setup of the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones limited series WANTED-- but do Millar and Jones really let the dogs out? Attend.

Mark Millar is not unique in attempting to break down his readers' tender egos with a villain-centric world. Of the Big Three cited above, Rohmer's Fu Manchu, by promoting his favored fiend within an ongoing series of books, did the most to put readers in the Oriental slippers of an undefeatable evil. Stoker wisely (given his talents) killed his demon off in one book, while Haggard, having killed off his demoness in the first book, had to strain to launch one okay sequel and two mediocre prequels. So Rohmer is certainly one of the first creators who managed to make a villain into the star of the show.

Comic books also experimented off and on with villain-centric features, but few within the superhero idiom enjoyed much success (horror characters did somewhat better). I believe the first feature to be devoted to a large team of supervillains continually striving against their heroic enemies was 1976's SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER VILLAINS, where the villain known as Gorilla Grodd (a "pretty good" malefactor, if you're curious) helped organize a bunch of standard DC evildoers into a force for evil. Though SSOSV was a pretty crappy feature, it had one inspired line, where Grodd tries to give his criminal compeers a reason for forming an alliance, saying that they should do for the same reason they do anything: "enlightened self-interest!" Even given the ritual nature of the hero-villain dance in superhero comics, it's practically mandatory that the villain should have an id-oriented reason for trying to foment chaos, or his whole rationale-- and that of the id/superego dance-- collapses.

However, it's a rationale that I found wanting in, uh, WANTED. One might think that in a world where the supervillains have successfully killed off all of the superheroes (and even wiped out humanity's memory of the event), one might see the supervillain in All His Glory: might see all sorts of weird, perverted, diabolical id-impulses on display. But I see more "id-iosyncracies" in an average issue of BATMAN than in this facile antiheroic tripe.

To borrow Freud's horse-and-rider imagery regarding the id and superego, the hero in mainstream comics is the rider, who guides the narrative to closure, but the villain is the horse that provides the plot's motive force. For the villain to do so, the creator must give the villain's nature center stage for some time, and this often has the effect of making the villain a little more humanly relateable than the superegoic hero, and maybe even more individualistic. The Joker and the Riddler may overlap in terms of narrative functions (both supercrooks leave behind clues that possess a comical tonality), but for Batman to defeat them he must figure out the different ways they think and act, anticipate what they will do, and determine how to use their strengths against them.

There should be no reason that, without the presence of the heroes, the villains should not still be as perverse and transgressive as they are in books with heroes. And yet the Millar/Jones work gives us nothing but pale imitations of the id-icons brought forth by the sublimely-trashy mainstream. Here's a Red Skull ripoff, here's a Clayface copy (appropriate!), and here's a pastiche of the Puppet Master (GREEN LANTERN version). Even in triumph, Millar's villains have all the individuality of ducks in a shooting-gallery.

Which I suppose is the whole point. Millar's antiheroic hero Wesley (supervillain name: The Killer) begins as a tedious office drone who is awakened to his murderous abilities by other villains and who proceeds to use his killing talents on as many of society's sheep as he finds satisfying. Later, it is other villains who become the targets in Wesley's rogue-shooting gallery, but neither their personalities nor their powers are any challenge to him.

Within the overall action-genre (which naturally subsumes the superheroic one), there's always a good deal of kinetic appeal in mass slayings of both the innocent and the guilty, with the villain usually supplying the former while the hero provides the latter. Within the subset of action-works deemed "antiheroic," it probably doesn't matter that the protagonist becomes the Lord High Executioner to just about everyone, as antiheroic works are inherently more id-aggressive, with more of a tendency to expunge other realities in favor of the protagonist's id-centered existence. It does matter a little, though, that the protagonist is just about as dull as a mass murderer as he is as an office drone. I don't *think* this was the author's intent, but IMO even a minor jerkoff antihero like DC's Lobo is more "killah" than the Killer.

From the bland narrative of WANTED it would seem that heroes and villains need each other, if only to challenge one another's weaknesses and provide a sense of conflict. Millar's Killer has no weaknesses, hence no conflict. And don't get me started on the faux daddy issues, which Millar totally bollixes.

In conclusion, I don't imagine that my opinion on Millar's meditations on matters villainous will disturb the author much, especially now that the miniseries spawned a big-budget, certainly-profitable film of the same name. But I will say the one thing no author likes to hear:

"The film was better."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I mentioned in the essay "Myths of Sociology" that I have a problem with thinkers who reduce every aspect of mankind to sociological parameters, as do many anthropologists and social scientists. And while I hardly want to find myself going to the opposite extreme of Rousseau, who liked to define mankind as utterly independent of society, it should be made clear that "mankind" and "society" are not coterminous concepts.

Take religion. (Please.)

I have no opposition to the notion that religion evolved out of contingent factors, but I part company with many prominent anthropologists-- notably, Claude Levi-Strauss-- in seeing religion's as having evolved out of predominantly social factors. This is where a knowledge of Campbell's "four functions" of myth may prove a useful corrective, even when applied to the beings from which humans themselves evolved. Of course, anything one speculates about the early origins of human culture or those damn dirty ancestors is necessarily a heuristic assumption, based on fragmentary evidence of archaic times and backward extrapolations from our present reality.

The aspect of present reality to which I'd call attention is an anecdote from Jane Goodall related in her book on the chimpanzees of Gombe, IN THE SHADOW OF A MAN. In SHADOW, Goodall relates that during a particularly fierce thunderstorm that struck over the heads of a tribe of chimps, some of these anthropoids were submissively terrified while others ran up and down the hills, hooting and waving sticks at the storm, as if the storm were an enemy to be repelled.

Now, let us make the heuristic assumption that something like this happened in the days before hominids evolved, when chimps were the highest form of life. We do not necessarily have to suppose that early hominids inherited this pattern of behavior from their nonhuman brethren; only that big-brained species may be more capable in general of forming at least rudimentary concepts of unseen enemies, which in humans would then be articulated as gods, spirits or what have you.

Now, the notion that religion might ultimately stem from some combination of "challenge patterns" and "abasement patterns" is not original with me. It can be asserted that other animals lower on the "brain-chain" may well sometimes reflexively fall into "fight or flight" patterns when faced with unknown phenomena, but I would be surprised if there was any evidence of their conceptualizing the unknown phenomena. Of course the skeptic will point out that it's still dicey as to what extent chimpanzees can form concepts, though we know that at very least they can conceive of tool-using ("It is easier to dig up an anthill with a stick than with my fingers.")

What I wish to make clear with this heuristic example is that IF religion had its own beginnings as a set of "challenge/abasement patterns" in reaction to unknown phenomena, then this would challenge the notion of religion's origins as a sociological phenomenon. Challenge and abasement patterns are intrinsically biological responses keyed to promote the survival of the individual. They are not keyed to help the society, as one can say that "a protective response toward children" IS a pattern to aid society. Challenge and abasement indirectly help the individual survive in society, but there is no automatic benefit to society thereby, and indeed, depending on the individual, the survival of that individual may be a burden to his society.

Ironically, of the three functions Campbell sets down, the sociological is the weakest link, so to speak. One may characterize the chimps' reaction as a purely somatic response to the excitation of the storm, which would fit broadly within the category Campbell calls "cosmological." One may characterize it as "psychological," insofar as the reaction involves individual psych0logies (i.e., some chimps challenge the storm but others don't). Or, given that the imagined author of the storm's flashing and booming may be the ancestor of Old Yahweh himself, one could also see the reaction as belonging to the matrix of the "metaphysical."

We do not know the beginnings of Beginning, but one chooses to entertain this heuristic example (the sociologically-inclined, of course, will not) as forming at least part of the foundations of that Beginning, then one must concede that religion could not have been conceived simply to bind people closer together, or for the priesthood to keep the people buffaloed, as in scenarios popular with everyone from Ayn Rand to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Religion then would proceed from individuals first-- albeit as an "intersubjective" spirit, to flagrantly borrow Husserl's term-- and then society would cope with the religious tendency in the form of rituals and other paraphernalia. Only the existence of an intersubjective tendency to believe in invisible spirits would thus be able to convince the "laity" of primitive societies to do all sorts of things contrary to their immediate interests, such as the sacrifice of time, hard work, and perhaps other creature's lives.

We're a long way now from Rand's goofy notion of primitives falling down in fear before the ravings of an epileptic priest, so-- let's stay as far away from that notion as possible.


Having just finished my first reading of the Miller/Jones WANTED in its TPB form, I plan to touch on it more fully later. But for now, my tagline for it would be:

"WANTED reminds you of just how good Frank Miller is at this kind of thing."

Monday, October 20, 2008


I'm in the process of reading Iris Murdoch's METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS, which, based on a series of 1982 lectures, covers several developments in the history of philosophy up to the 2oth century, with particular reference to Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hume, Kant and others, as well as some observations on structuralism. (Nothing in there about artcomics, though; I'll get to that later.) Both structuralism and semiotics are hermeneutical systems of criticism that have influenced my Cassirer/Frye approach to literature, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that my notion of different gradations of symbolic complexity (myth vs. null-myth) are strongly derived from the concepts of signal and symbol as named if not originated by semiologist Charles Morris. Murdoch shows too much of a tendency to meld structuralism with deconstruction (it being hard to break down the difference thanks to Roland Barthes' having joined both clubs), but she has a nice breakdown of structuralism's objectives that bears on the signal/symbol linguistic dichotomy of semiotics:

"Structuralist thought is then also driven to distinguish discreetly between 'low,' fairly simple... self-referring linguistic codes... and 'high,' sophisticated, creative, self-aware, uses of language by scientific geniuses, or by philosophers and poets and poetic writers who... invent concepts and hint at values"-- Murdoch, METAPHYSICS, p. 48.

Murdoch goes on to specify how this awareness of the "deeper" reading of linguistic codes has the result that "literature is required to be linguistically self-conscious... and to treat language as an experimental adventure playground where what is important can only be said by poetic or quasi-poetic means."

Later in the book, Murdoch referred to a lecture which Heidegger gave on his own concept of poetry; a lecture centered entirely around one poem, "The Ister," written by German poet Holderlin (sorry, can't add the little "tilde" to his name on this keyboard). Though it's probably not prudent to quote from a writeup of the lecture rather than the lecture proper-- and maybe not at all from Wikipedia-- I will quote here from the uncredited Wiki writeup, since what it says seems to concur pretty well with what Murdoch says of Heidegger.

Wiki writes:

'Rather than delving immediately into this question, Heidegger makes a detour, elaborating the "metaphysical interpretation of art." He argues that metaphysical interpretations are incapable of comprehending Hölderlin's poetry.

According to the metaphysical interpretation, art presents objects in nature such as rivers, but this presentation is at the service of something else, of their "meaning" in the artwork. Heidegger speaks in this regard of the etymology of the words "allegory" and "metaphor." The metaphysical interpretation of art relies on the distinction between the sensuous and the non-sensuous, the aesthetic and the noetic, the sensible and the intelligible. And according to this interpretation the artwork exists not for itself, not as a sensuous object, but for the nonsensuous and suprasensuous, which is also named "spirit." In this way the superior and the true come to be identified with the spiritual.

Against the metaphysical interpretation of art, Heidegger asserts that the rivers in Hölderlin's poetry are in no way symbolic images of a higher or deeper content. He draws attention to the final lines of the poem—"Yet what that one does, that river, / No one knows"—in order to indicate that, whatever the rivers are, or whatever the river does, remains an enigma. Even the poet knows only that the river flows, but not what is decided in that flowing'

Now, from the standpoint of structuralism/semiotics, it would seem that here Heidegger is choosing to read Holderlin's poem as an enigma based in the "self-referring" world of the sensuous. It's not quite identical to what Morris calls a SIGNAL, a "low linguistic code" that stands for nothing but one representation or representational concept ("red stop sign means STOP.") But Heidegger is certainly trying to get AWAY from the notion that the river ought to refer to the noetic/intellectual CONCEPT of the river, whether it would be Holderlin's particular concept of riverness or some concatenation of concepts from the history of literature featuring rivers. So Heidegger manifestly does not want the river to be a SYMBOL, the sort of linguistic code that Murdoch says leads to higher concepts and values, etc.

Be that as it may--

It does occur to me that Heidegger's concept of a sort of non-symbolic "enigma" may explain the approach of certain practitioners of artcomics. Despite admiring certain exceptions, in the main I find many of the most praised artcomics to be intellectually unchallenging works that don't merit the word "literature," at least in the terms of the best prose literature has to offer.

A particular example: Charles' Burns' BLACK HOLE. When I began reading this much-praised work-- a series of "vignettes" (for lack of a better word) about a weird mutation-inducent plague that descends on a small town-- I don't think I expected Burns to give me an experience typical of unreflective narratives. I didn't expect the closure of either a happy or tragic ending, or that the disease would be explained neatly.

But still, after reading these rather rambling vignettes-- in which the obvious objective correlatives for the mutations are the hormonal changes of the average teenager-- I thought, "What are artcomics readers getting out of this?" Burns' art is finely rendered, if not to my personal taste-- but surely, given the praise it's received, BLACK HOLE has some sort of significance for its readers beyond just the horrors of the hormones.

But then, on re-reading the Heidegger passage, I wonder: is this what Burns and maybe a lot of artcomics-practitioners are going for? Are Burns' mutant-mouths-that-appear-in-throats supposed to be rough parallels to what Heidegger thought Holderlin's river signified? Despite a modicum of symbolism in Burns' conception, did Burns consciously AVOID trying to inflate that symbolism in order to keep the plague enigmatic and imponderable-- as arguably, it would not have been had he layered on references to Sartre's FLIES or Cronenberg's THE FLY or whatever?

Or is it that artcomics practitioners in general-- over and above any particular artistic aims of Charles Burns-- are radically divorced from the very concept of symbolism, for reasons having to do with their oppositional stance toward unreflective narratives, particularly that of genre narratives?

Food for thought, perhaps.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


In my earlier essay "Cassirer vs. the Great Divide," I referenced Ernst Cassirer's proposition that human beings' abilities to express concepts and to discern facts were separate but complementary attributes of human nature as such. However, not for the first time I find myself arguing with people on the subject of this complementarity. For those of my opponents who constantly argue that facts alone are of consequence, I've devised the term "naive positivists," to indicate that they're basically aligned with the philosophy of positivism even if they've no actual acquaintance with any philosophical movements whatsoever.

I'll first point out that an appreciation for the necessity of factual nature is not limited to human experience. Many if not all animals are ceaselessly engaged in testing their environment in their efforts to learn what elements of that environment may help or harm them. To pick one example, the arctic wolf that tests a snow-drift with a cautious paw is certainly performing his own test of his surrounding reality, even if he lacks the advanced tools of the modern scientist.

What clearly (to me) separates human beings from other animals is that in addition to gleaning facts based on immediate sensory experiece, humans possess a higher level of cognition that allows them to form concepts through which sensory experience (and maybe non-sensory as well, depending on one's philosophical outlook) is organized. This cognitive ability has nothing to do with the oft-touted "experimental method" of science, which is at base only an elaborated version of the wolf's cautious-paw test. If the cognitive ability to form concepts is not present, the human being is not able to extrapolate his findings into any greater structure of understanding.

Now, inasmuch as conceptual formulation is communicated through human language, and not all linguistic functions are identical, it follows that some formulations will be different from one another.

Cassirer's insufficiently-appreciated contribution to modern philosophy was to articulate the notion of what he called "symbolic forms" of human endeavor through which human beings organize their concepts in order to better communicate them. Cassirer recognizes art, science and myth/religion as distinct "symbolic forms." Naive positivists generally are of the opinion that because facts alone matter, and science is the unquestioned form through which facticity can be determined, science in effect is the sole mode of right knowledge. What makes this a naive belief is a willed ignorance as to the evolution of human cognition through the two main linguistic functions with which I'm concerned, the metaphor and the metonymy.

Northrop Frye's book THE GREAT CODE contains a useful contrast of the two, where he speaks (on page 7) of "the metaphor, with its sense of identity of life or power or energy between man and nature ('this is that')" and contrasts it to the "relationship that is rather metonymic ('this is put for that.') Metaphors are defined by a posited similarity between two or more "heterogenous natures"(as Carl Jung calls them), while metonymy functions by contiguity and implied homogeneity. "Your eyes are like sapphires" is a metaphor that draws together two heterogenous natures; "she sets a good table" is a metonymy in which "table" stands in for "everything that's on the table." Of the two symbolic forms I'm concerned with here-- myth and science-- myth is essentially governed by metaphor while science is governed by metonymy.

One may imagine early primtive humans' reactions to any aspect of nature-- for simplicity, I'll use the sun, as it's an aspect of nature one cannot readily lay hands on-- as an attempt to conceptualize the phenomenon of the sun within a relateable human cosmology. This is of course not "failed science," as early interpreters of myth thought. Aspects of the sun's factual nature-- that it appears to coast across the sky and descend into darkness-- are never meant to be "explained" by, say, the myth of Ra the sun-god crossing the sky in a sun-boat. The sun-boat is a poetic metaphor for the unknown nature of the sun, but its unknown nature is worth speculating on only insofar as the culture can imagine the sun's nature being metaphorically relevant to mankind. For other astral phenomena that have no discernible impact on the human situation, such as the movements of the stars, human culture must attempt an even more elaborate conceptual framework to give such an unknown nature human relevance.

Now, when the Greek proto-scientist Aristarchus argued for the notion that the earth revolved around the sun (and he is to my knowledge the earliest so credited), he had no more ability to minutely examine the sun's nature than did the Egyptian myth-maker, and whatever instruments Aristarchus may have used to make his determinations would not have matched the complexity of modern fact-finding technology. What Aristarchus did was as much a conceptual speculation as that of the Egyptian myth-maker, but one aimed in the opposite direction. Rather than seeing the sun as something distinct from ordinary experience, he viewed the sun as being contiguous with earthly rules, as just one more object that could be measured. This is in essence metonymy, which argues for association on the basis of contiguity. The sun is not a phenomenon distinct from other phenomena, or even associated with only a few other especially-relevant phenomena, as Ra's boat may be associated with Horus or Bast or other gods given some role to play in the solar procession. "The sun" for Aristarchus signifies not just the ball of glowing light in the sky, but "is put for" the totality of scientific laws governing the physical universe which simply happen to eventuate in the particular phenomenon that Aristarchus is studying.

Cassirer, of course, would never have denied that the fact-finding metonymic power of science should be in any way denied. But he was concerned that the efforts to see the linguistically-opposed were being dismissed as mere "delusion," as if they had no integrity of their own simply by virtue of being concerned with expressing human relevance rather than finding facts. Carl Jung went perhaps a bit farther in his statements for the relevance of myth:

"Myth is not fiction; it consists of facts that are continually repeated and observed over and over again."

Obviously Jung, considered by many to be a flawed empiricist, makes the "over and over" remark as a riposte to those who would consider either archaic myth or Jung's own myth-oriented psychological interpretations as inconsistent whimsical fantasies. Jung is claiming that myth-symbols are valid because they recur "over and over," just as empiricism claims validity for the fact of, say, the heliocentricity of the galaxy based on experiments that can be performed "over and over." I won't get into an extended analysis of Jung's claim here, but I believe that Cassirer's position is the more tenable, if only because, by viewing myth as a distinct form from science, Cassirer can focus more on the metaphorical linguistic origins of myth rather than trying to discern in various myths a "metonymy" for the "laws" of a hypothetical "psychological universe."

But whichever of them is more right, clearly either is closer to the truth than the naive positivist who apparently thinks that human nature can and/or should be defined by the ability to continually test reality through experimental method-- which, as I've noted before, is not sufficient to account for the gap in cognition between human beings and other reality-testing members of the animal kingdom.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


"Exceptionalism," as defined by Merriam-Webster online, means:

"the condition of being different from the norm ; also : a theory expounding the exceptionalism especially of a nation or region"

Now compare this to Tucker Stone's comment from the BEAT's blogpost "A New Generation Comes of Age:"

"I’m a fan of great comics. If it’s not great comics–then I hope it burns in hell with all of its friends. I don’t give a shit if it’s got Superman in it or if it’s about a lonely obstetrician’s attempt to get over the grief of losing his son. Bad is bad, middling is bad, average is bad, merely okay is bad. There’s great, and then there’s everything else.”

I would define Stone's attitude-- like that of Ursula LeGuin, mentioned elsewhere hereabouts-- as one of "exceptionalism," of viewing what he considers to be great to be so unique as to have virtually no contact with the neighboring "countries;" i.e., works that are "average" or "okay."

Putting aside the demonstrable fact that there's no consensus regarding what works are great, either in the comics world or in any other cosmos, it's nonsense to view "great works" as being somehow beyond the pale of all lesser works.

Put simply, an aesthetic viewpoint that cannot define the qualities inherent in that which is average in a good way and that which is average in a bad way is a worthless aesthetic which, being unable to address the good, cannot address the great either, save in empty rhetoric.

I once tried to make this distinction between these differing levels of "good vs. great" on a message board, comparing the work of two Marvel works: the Lee/Ditko SPIDER-MAN and the Archie Goodwin IRON MAN feature of the late 60s-early 70s. I said the following to my opponent:

'I don't think that something like Goodwin's IRON MAN (GIM for short) is simply "the best it could be given the target audience." GIM's level of goodness would be appropriate to what it was trying to do-- i.e., reasonably-coherent formula adventure-tales-- and that it can't be profitably judged by comparing it to Chris Ware. You might get some profit out of comparing it to the Lee-Ditko-Romita SPIDEY, but even so, a careful analysis would show that GIM shares many of the positive storytelling attributes of SPIDEY. Therefore, rather than indulging in the usual Sturgeonesque b.s., you'd have to show what it was that SPIDEY had going for it that GIM did not, since it wouldn't be enough to say, "Everything not on Level X is just shit," again a la [Theodore] Sturgeon.'

In a later post, I argued that writer Bill Mantlo, who also wrote the IRON MAN title in a later era, would probably be an example of a writer who was "average in a bad way." But the fact that it is possible for an average work to err on the side of badness no more takes away from the positive value of a Goodwin IRON MAN than a flawed Shakespeare play takes away from the positive value of a really great work by the Bard.

I'll be addressing the oversimplications of the fetishization of the "Great Work" later this week.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I've recently finished SYMBOLIC FORMS AND CULTURAL STUDIES, a book of academic essays focused on the work of Ernst Cassirer. The title intrigued me because it suggested a possible rapprochement between the work of Cassirer and the academic discipline of "cultural studies." On Cassirer's side, his concept of "symbolic forms" was rooted in an understanding of the different forms human understanding takes in culture (art, science, religion). This bears some comparison to the concerns of cultural studies as we have them now, wherein a wide variety of cultural practices-- not least being popular entertainments-- can be studied for what the values they represent in a given culture rather than what they aren't, which has long been the province of elitists like Harold Bloom and the Frankfurt School. (Ironically, the latter of the two is supposed to have influenced "cs" in its formative years, but to judge from recent essays in that discipline, the relentless elitism of Horkheimer and Adorno has been largely dissipated.)

Unfortunately, no rapprochement takes place in this book of essays; it's nothing more than a collection of essays on various aspects of Cassirer's works, in which most of the essayists have nothing to say regarding cultural studies as such. Perhaps the idea was not to compare Cassirer's legacy to that of "cs," but simply to study his work *through* the "cs" lens. Thus most of the essays are not very useful for my purpose, which is that of exploring symbolic discourse in literary/cultural works.

One essay does suggest an interesting application of Cassirer's work to that of literature, though only in a roundabout way-- made necessary, perhaps, because Cassirer, being a philosopher first, did not write extensively about particular literary forms. Essayist Enno Rudolph begins by pointing out that though Cassirer never wrote an "ethics" as such, conclusions about his ethical beliefs can certainly be deduced from Cassirer's emphasis on plurality of expression:

"Cassirer's criticism is not confined to preserving the ideal of a lively interaction between a multitude of cultural forms as expressions of human freedom-- the implicit guiding ethos of the cultural criticism unfolded in his philsophy of symbolic forms-- rather, his suspicion is directed more generally at the dismantling of cultural complexity."

It's clear (to me at least) that one can plausibly extrapolate from this endorsement of human freedom in all its cultural forms an ethos which also tolerates all forms of literature, ranging from the great works that have endured for decades to those works that were intended only to please a particular, perhaps ephemeral audience.

Now, I cannot say Cassirer would have cared one way or the other about the struggle to gauge the nature of popular fiction. I have not read all of his works, but none of those works I've read show any awareness of popular entertainments, perhaps even less than one finds in the works of Cassirer's inspiration Goethe, whose "three questions" have on occasion been used to buttress elitist perceptions of art. But clearly his endorsement of pluralism matches that of the "cs" discipline, which at its best has a pluralist orientation toward understanding the multiplicity of ways that culture and literature work for assorted audiences. Time will tell whether anyone can ever manage to provide a needed rapprochement between the overly-sociological methods of cultural studies and Cassirer's concepts of symbolic forms, though Northrop Frye is one of the few literary critics to evince some Cassirer influence.

On a side-note, another essay touches on the contributions of German philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754), said to have been as eminent in his time as Kant and Leibniz. What I found interesting in the recounting of essayist Ernst Orth was that Wolff apparently had a "threefold structure" through which he endeavored to "establish principally the basis of all human orientation as far as it can be grasped rationally." Wolff's three disciplines are said to correspond to *cosmologia,* "theologia rationalis,* and *psychologia rationalis.* As a devotee of Joseph Campbell I recognized a close resemblance between these categories and the four functions of Campbell, the biggest difference being that Campbell's fourth category, the *sociological,* has no parallel in Wolff. There's no knowing whether Campbell knew of Wolff's categories and decided to add on the sociological function with which many academics-- not least those of the cultural studies discipline-- have been so preoccupied. But it's an interesting tidbit.