Tuesday, May 4, 2010


In the first essay in this series I've advocated two of Georges Bataille's concepts of sexuality: (1) that all sexuality is on some level transgressive, and (2) that, contrary to the assertions of Freud and Levi-Strauss, no type of sexual behavior/culture should be regarded as the central yardstick against which concepts of normality and deviation should be measured. Thus any theory of sexuality that posits such a central concept must be seen as incoherent and manipulative. All sexually-related cultural taboos, whether they are raised against spectres of incest, bestiality, homosexuality or menstruation, should fall within the sphere of Bataille's rather Kantian concept of a "universal prohibition." Through one's understanding of such a prohibition, one may form a more rounded concept of the range of existent sexual manifestations, and thus thus avoid the misplaced concreteness that one finds more often than not in ideologically-motivated literary interpretations, like That Ole Devil Queer Theory.

A wider understanding would also help lend one more depth if one chooses to make even a loose comparison of two different human cultures. For instance, here's Noah Berlatsky expressing sentiments I've heard a few times before, about the Japanese preference for deep relationships:

In Cardcaptor Sakura, and in shojo in general, the stories are held together by relationships. Many of those relationships are unrequited or unspoken...but that doesn't make them less important. The love you don't say can be the point of your life; secret love is meaning.

But guess who's not so into relationships? Ah, it's those demmed Americans:

In contrast, the American comics I've been discussing look suspiciously like the emotionally empty world which Sakura struggles to avert...Batman and Cerebus and Jimmy Corrigan all hide the fact that they have nothing to hide. The inside of their closets contain, not love, but love's absence — an incoherent dream of an identity that never was.

Elsewhere I've disputed the feasability of making "queer theory" interpretations that skip over actual content within the stories interpreted, as well as suggesting that it makes no more sense to fault one genre-product for not having the qualities of another than to complain that a rabbit can't fly as well as a duck. It goes without saying that Berlatsky, despite the fact that he seems better-read about kink than many comics-critics, is too busy trying to work his way to a foregone conclusion to appreciate the nuances of a truly polymorphous perversity.

Is it possible to write intelligently about a particular species of kink without overinterpretation? Here's a counter to the example of Berlatsky: this Comixology article by manga expert Jason Thompson, taking on the subject of incest-motifs in Japanese manga.

To be sure, Thompson isn't trying to place the particular kink on which he's reporting into some greater theoretical matrix. Thompson's brief survey of the incest-motif in manga is reportorial in tone as he tries to explain the prevalence of the motif. He gives some examples of the motif's manifestations in modern Western cultures before going into greater depth with an assortment of the Japanese manifestations. But Thompson makes no attempt to stigmatize the East for having too much incest or the West for having too little.

The closest Thompson comes to the abstractions of theory is to note the dichotomy between reality and fantasy that exists for Japanese audiences, and presumably for those American audiences who partake of manga as well. He says:

In all cultures, real incest involves uncomfortable power issues and squick factor, but theoretical incest is the stuff of myths. If the reality is Freud, the theory is Jung: forbidden magic and high drama.

The reference to Jung is not pursued, but it has relevance beyond the scope of Thompson's article. I'll pursue said relevance in more detail elsewhere, but for now I'll conclude with repeating Jung's admonition that analysts should judge any given fantasy for what it communicates in itself, and not (as I put it earlier) "what it looks like through an extrinsic [conceptual] lens."


Jason said...

Thanks for the mention! I'm glad you found my article evenhanded -- honestly, it was motivated by my surprise at how big the incest taboo (I mean in fiction, naturally!) was among people I've talked to in the American publishing industry, relative to Japan where people seem more fascinated than disgusted by it. But I also didn't want the article to degrade into a typical article on "them kinky Japanese" (at least, not any more than it inevitably would due to the subject matter).

Gene Phillips said...

Interesting idea, that the Japanese themselves, while as you said not condoning the practice in reality, are "fascinated" by the taboo. Probably this leads to the greater societal latitude for using incest-motifs overtly, rather than through displacement.

I agree that American audiences are more overtly offended by the taboo's appearance even in fiction, but the popular fiction often tells another story of our society's own fascination with the matter, even (to a lesser extent) in the comic-book medium.