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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, September 16, 2010



...maybe something like "presentational incoherence" would be just as good to distinguish works like TROLL 2 or GLEN OR GLENDA from works that may be equally non-discursive but which show more authorial control, as per the examples of Tex Avery and Jerry Siegel.

Now, though as noted earlier Susanne Langer didn't apply her terms "discursive" and "presentational" to literature in PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, she did imply that presentational symbols could be used to make the world more coherent, as seen in the quote provided at the outset of the aforementioned essay. Therefore symmetry requires that if there are works that are to be judged examples of "presentational incoherence," such as TROLL 2 and GLEN OR GLENDA, then there must exist works that are almost like fever-dreams, full of what Langer calls "diffuse meaning," but which still possess "presentational coherence." Avery's short run of "Screwy Squirrel" exemplify the principle of his presenting "rapid-fire sensational events lacking any rationale beyond telling a joke." With Jerry Siegel one has to hunt a little harder for particular examples where the premise is non-discursive in nature, yet where it also coheres despite its absurdity. Siegel's SPECTRE might provide better hunting-grounds than his Golden Age SUPERMAN work.

Numerous times on this blog I've defended all sorts of narrative devices (which I lean toward terming "gestures" in the Langerian sense) specifically because I think they call attention to themselves as presentational narrative devices. As such I consider that they fall outside any judgment as to their validity in terms of discursive logic and/or verisimilitude. Some of these devices flow from the expectations of serial narrative, such as the one that keeps Superman, Dagwood Bumstead and the Fonz outside the aging-process. (In the Fonz's case it's true in theory though not in practice.) Other devices I've defended have to do with genre-expectations that possess no controversial political value in themselves (Batman's villains like to stick the hero in traps and then see if he can escape). Yet other positions may carry more sociopolitical resonance for some (the position that Batman can torture without being a "bad guy" in certain situations, or that the killing of the Ryan Choi Atom should represent no more "regression" on the part of DC Comics than the killing of a Caucasian superhero). I could choose any of these categories from which to develop parallel examples of presentational coherence and incoherence, so I'll go with Door Number Two: "Batman's villains like to stick the hero in traps and then see if he can escape." And since the 1966-68 Batman teleseries boasts the greatest variety of said traps, I'll draw my examples from that serial.

It should be obvious that there can be no hint of verisimilitude in this trope. While real people have been known to torment other real people for amusement, the notion that nearly every single villain in the Bat-universe would choose to indulge in this trope, rather than a more expedient solution for hero-killing, points up the nature of the device as presentational of a certain absurd-flavored form of suspense.

At the conclusion of the 1966 episode "The Joker Trumps an Ace," Joker has come to capture the Dynamic Duo. He makes them a bargain: if they can stay afloat in a tank as it's filling up, they'll be set free. But once the heroes are in the tank, they find it filling up with deadly gas. When the Caped Crusader duly lodges a protest that one can't swim in gas, the Joker gleefully retorts, "No, but you can drown in it!" This sequence nicely captures both the villain's characteristic sadistic glee as well as his cleverness; the heroes must then match this cleverness in order to execeute an escape. I call this plot-sequence coherent because it "plays fair" by the terms of the fantasy and yet still captures the absurd expressivity desired by the audience.

A less coherent example of a Bat-trap can be found in another 1966 episode, "Green Ice." One picture should be worth a thousand words.

Naturally, I do have more words.

I don't want to say that the sight of Batman and Robin being turned into human popsicles by Mister Freeze isn't entertaining; it is. However, the death-trap here doesn't seem a natural outgrowth of the character's nature as portrayed in this particular episode by Otto Preminger. "Death by Frosty Freezee" isn't quite as impressive as "death by poison gas," no matter how absurd one's universe may be, and since Mister Freeze has an ice-gun, couldn't he do about the same thing to the heroes by just slowly blasting them? Similarly, even granting that many of the heroic escapes on the teleseries were played for self-conscious laughs, the escape here still smacks more of desperation than light-heartedness. Batman and Robin simply manage to deactivate the giant milkshake-freezers with their feet. As the Church Lady was wont to say, "How con- veee--nient!"

To belabor my point a little, I'm not merely using "incoherent" as a synonym for "bad." Trap #2 is less interesting than Trap #1, but I'm concerned here with the way the writers present the trope to the audience, and whether or not they succeed in putting across the absurdity affect with some degree of cleverness.

This schema becomes yet more complicated in part 4, where I'll deal with the proposition that discursive symbolism too has its coherent and incoherent manifestations.

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