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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...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TROLL PLAYING

Troll2 is a fable for children a crazy horror, much comic. The film did not have to be prohibited, nothing censorship, therefore nothing blood that I have replaced with the chlorophyll, using the green color of the goblin, North European Celtic legend, like monster vegetarians many fanatics us of the salutista, macrobiotico food. I have used the goblin like vampiri, using the amburger (tipical american food) of meat to [sic] the place dell' Saint water...-- a poster signed on as TROLL 2 writer Rossella Drudi on this review comments-thread.


My most recent cinematic viewing was a double feature consisting of TROLL 2, a recent claimant to the title of "best worst movie," and BEST WORST MOVIE, a documentary about the making of this 1990 cultfilm and its slow word-of-mouth revival over the ensuing 20 years.

Written and directed by Michael Stephenson, who as a child starred in TROLL 2, BEST WORST MOVIE is an enjoyable documentary whose most interesting subtext involves showing how easy it is for one person's enthusiasm to become another person's "move away slowly from the creepy guy" vibe. BWM (as I'll abbreviate it here) is as full of oddball viewpoints as Zwigoff's CRUMB, not least the TROLL 2 scripter Drudi, quoted above. (Of course I can't be sure that a poster on a review-site is the real Rossella Drudi, but nothing this poster says contradicts the words of the Drudi of the documentary.) There she justifies her notion of cannibalistic vegetarian trolls (actually called "goblins" in the film proper) by noting that at the time the film was scripted she had a serious mad-on against vegetarianism. True, in the doc Drudi doesn't mention having modeled her goblins on vampires, but it's pretty obvious: the scene in which Stephenson's kid-character drives away the goblins by brandishing a "double decker baloney sandwich" is an obvious parody of a familiar vampire trope. Even here, though, it's amusing that the poster confuses two different vampiric banes: the "amburger" is being used in place of a cross, not "Saint water" (holy water, one presumes).

Drudi's husband Claudio Fragasso directed the film and appears in BWM as well, and he doesn't seem to agree that the film was meant to be "much comic," becoming visibly testy whenever he realizes that the audiences aren't just laughing at the things he meant to be funny, but at pretty much everything in the film. But bruised egos aside, the question must be asked-- does TROLL 2 deserve the title of "best worst movie?"

The short answer for me is no, for I can think of many, many other bad movies which I liked more. I do appreciate the lunacy of TROLL 2, but watching it in the theater proved more of an endurance test than (say) my experience watching a revival of Jack Hill's dynamic SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975).

Still, TROLL 2 can't help but be a contender for my list of, say, the top 20 badfilms. Part of the flick's appeal falls into the same Burnsian "to see ourselves as others see us" mentality that comes across in the documentary, for all through TROLL 2 the characters-- most of whom were played by amateur American thespians-- speak what may be the most amazing English patois ever devised for a professional film. This was a consequence of the fact that the film was being shot in Utah by an Italian crew that barely spoke English, and though director Fragasso claims in BWM that during the shooting he became "more American than the Americans," a big part of TROLL 2's appeal is seeing cornfed Utah residents spout weird, hyperbolic dialogue. A minor line that might sound perfectly ordinary in conversational Italian, such as Stevenson's line to his sibling-- "You're a genius, big sister!"-- becomes horrendously over-the-top and laughworthy coming from the Utah-born actor. In a dubbed Italian movie, one is always aware that the English dialogue is coming from Italian actors, and so one doesn't necessarily laugh at the weirder verbal sallies. But in TROLL 2, the disconnnect is a constant source of fun.

And so the disjunction between two modes of speech is at least one big facet of TROLL 2's burgeoning appeal.

However, it's not the only one, and I'll address yet another facet of the film's popularity in Part 2 of TROLL PLAYING.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT PT. 5

Readers will always seek a thru-line throughout whatever text is presented them, and their desire to create consistency and stability in even the most abstruse or seemingly unreal narratives will increase in direct proportion to their investment in said narratives.-- Tim O'Neil, "An Argument for Rules."


By now it should have become apparent that my title's use of the word "rules" is more ironic than Tim O'Neil's, since I actually don't think that the word "rules" applies across the board to all of the assorted expectations that one encounters in all forms of fiction, with particular reference to metaphenomenal works.

Through "Argument" O'Neil continually stresses the need for an author to meet his audience in such a way as to take seriously their need for "consistency and stability." He takes great umbrage at what he deems Grant Morrison's attempts to toss all that out the window:

For a creator to argue against this natural grounding activity is to argue against an active engagement with their own works, because it naturally follows that any involved reader will want to extend the benefit of the doubt to any text in which they become invested. You can't have it both ways: Fantasy literature is based on small-f fantasy, yes, but once you acknowledge the connective tissue between reader and text that creates the suspension of disbelief that creates emotional investment, you can't wave your hands willy-nilly and simply disregard whatever you like. Because disregarding out of hand the audience's strong tendency towards rationalizing their investment is, to put it bluntly, insulting.


And later:

People care about these stories, people become invested, precisely because there is a sense of expectation that the writers are going to play fair, and that when rules are broken they will be broken fairly.


I admire the painstaking reasoning behind O'Neil's assertions, which stands in clear contrast to the lazy snarkitude of Journalista reviewers like Fiore and Crippen. Nevertheless, O'Neil has simply overrated the role of "consistency and stability"-- what Northrop Frye calls "versimilitude"-- in fiction. As Frye notes in the ANATOMY, verisimilitude is only one pole in a spectrum of literary concerns, with "myth"-- which I'll define as the totality of symbolic potential in literature-- occupying the other pole.

I mentioned earlier that Morrison's mini-screed was prompted by a fan's inquiry as to the ages of Batman and Robin, and that this "agelessness" of continuing characters has been commented on by many others, including Umberto Eco, though few commentators have addressed the question as to why such agelessness should be appealing to the readers. O'Neil fails to deal with this question as well, which is particularly vexing since such a question prompted Morrison's anti-rationalism remarks in the first place.

I suspect O'Neil may have avoided the original question because there really is no "rule" that can explain why Batman lives through reams upon reams of adventures that seem to take place in a living, breathing world, without any sign of aging on the part of the hero or of his regular cast. On occasion, one will even have the amusing situation where one character shows some limited aging (Dick Grayson) while another (Bruce Wayne) does not. The only notion that can justify such discrepancies is that the reader expects, even demands, to constantly behold Batman as a living myth-symbol, one who is functionally though not literally immortal. One could postulate that somewhere in Gotham City is the apple-tree of the Norse goddess Idunn, through which Batman and some if not all of his support-cast fend off the stream of time even while temporal events continue to go on all around them-- but then, if you inscribe this rule for Batman, you must then extend it to all of the DC Universe as well, thus attributing to Idunn one heck of a wide-ranging orchard.

Another consideration overlooked by O'Neil is that keeping to the rules doesn't by any means guarantee good stories. From the article "Armed with Canon" on TELEVISION TROPES:

•When John Byrne took over as writer on the West Coast Avengers, a title previously written by Steve Englehart, he proceeded to undermine four years worth of characterization. Hawkeye went from confident leader to sidelined jerk. The Vision and Wonder Man relationship, that had evolved into a bond of close fraternity, returned to one of jealous contention. And the Vision and Scarlet Witch marriage... was altered. After The Vision lost his emotions, their children were discovered to be pieces of the devil, after which The Scarlet Witch went insane. For some reason Byrne decided to hit the reset button and return the characters to a status they had outgrown in over a decade of stories. Some have accused Byrne of wrecking a title that Englehart had arguably made a success out of resentment over how Englehart had written the Fantastic Four, a title John Byrne had made a hit, although it is just as likely a case of creative differences.


I personally am one of those who found Byrne's alterations of continuity distasteful. Yet in no way could I argue that Byrne had broken any "rules" in his re-interpretation of Marvel continuity. Whether one validates the approach of Byrne or of Englehart depends almost entirely on aesthetic logic rather than systematic logic-- as well as personal "expectations."

Friday, August 20, 2010

RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT PT. 4

"You can't escape rules once you begin any kind of storytelling.-- Tim O'Neil, "An Argument for Rules."


Rather than immediately addressing the conflict of logic and aesthetics mentioned in the previous essay, I'll first cite my two examples of works that don't quite fit O'Neil's concept of rules that apply to "any kind of storytelling."

My first example I draw from this famous pronouncement by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I last referenced in THEMATIC REALISM PART 1. To a reader's assertion that THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER had no moral, Coleridge wrote:

as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgment the poem had too much; and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son.


Now, though certain other Coleridge concepts about the nature of the imagination might come into play here, I'll stick with my Langer-influenced concepts of "discursive fantasy" and "presentational fantasy" as apt descriptions of, respectively, Coleridge's own poem, which he says had too much "moral sentiment," and that of an Arabian Nights tale which Coleridge implicitly regarded as being closer to a work of "pure imagination."

To see whether or not this tale stacked up with Coleridge's assessment of its removal from moral sentiment, I read the following online translation here:

THE STORY OF THE MERCHANT AND THE GENIE

To be sure, the story isn't entirely bereft of morality, as Coleridge implies, but its moral point is made in a presentational mode, not the discursive mode seen (and self-critiqued) in RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER. In one respect, MERCHANT and MARINER turn on opposing premises, which may be the reason Coleridge selected that particular Night-tale. In Coleridge's universe, the callous slaughter of an innocent beast calls down divine punishment on the heads of the mariner and his mates. However, in the Arabic tale the merchant is minding his own business, and is sentenced to die by the genie's hands for what would ordinarily be a blameless act, that of shelling dates.

Though MARINER is not a simple poem to explicate, it does take place in a fictive universe with a discursive moral nature. It is, in O'Neil's words, a story that implies some "rules" by its very nature. But MERCHANT has no real rules as such. There may be Arabian Nights stories that discourse more fully on the nature of genies and their place in the cosmos, but here the only "rule" operative would seem to be that the genie exists and that he's perfectly free to kill the merchant for an accidental offense.

However, the genie is not the only presentational entity in the story, though he's the only fantastic character. It wouldn't be much of a story without some turning-point in which the merchant is saved from his dire fate, so after he says his farewells to his family, he is succored by three old men. The old men manage to talk the genie into sparing the merchant if they can tell the genie three fantastic stories that fill him with wonder, much as the extrinsic teller of the Night-tale, Scheherezade, is preserving her own life by telling wonderful tales to a murderous Sultan. The tale ends with a twist, designed to play on the expectations of both the Sultan and the tale's actual audiences, that the third old man's tale is left unsaid:

The third old man related his history to the Genie, but as it has not yet come to my knowledge, I cannot repeat it; but I know it was so much beyond the others, in the variety of wonderful adventures it contained, that the Genie was astonished.


Returning to my distinction between rules and expectations, one can say that MARINER has certain rules, insofar its universe, however strange, has some semblance of ordered logic. But like the folkloric stories from which MERCHANT is derived, there is no discursive logic in the Arabian Night, and thus no "rules" as such. Both threat and resolution are presented as *faits acoomplis* by the author: they happen as they do because the author says they do, even to the extent of his decision to refrain from relating the third old man's tale.

A similar situation, where one finds more expectations than rules, appears in Lewis Carroll's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. To be sure, a critic can extrapolate from WONDERLAND any number of discursive readings about what Carroll meant by the Mad Hatter or the Cheshire Cat, and on some occasions Carroll makes references to particular subjects which he openly satirizes for the pleasure of his contemporaries. But dominantly WONDERLAND is not as clearly discursive as MARINER, and its strongest appeal, like that of the nonsense-stories and nursery rhymes from which it borrows, is a presentational one: the audience's expectation quickly becomes that of not ever knowing what to expect from Wonderland, much like the astounded genie listening to the three tales. And again, this kind of storytelling appeals only to one kind of "logic:" the logic of doing whatever it takes to get the story told to satisfy those expectations.

Next time for sure: logic vs. aesthetics.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT PT. 3

In part 2 of this series I took two of the examples provided in a Grant Morrison talk, X-MEN and LITTLE MERMAID, and used them as examples of different types of fantasy-fiction. Now I'll give those types names which I've swiped from the symbolism theory of Suzanne Langer: "discursive" and "presentational."

"Discursive fantasy" is the type for which X-MEN is a fair representative. As noted before, X-MEN was indeed conceived as a fantastic fiction grounded in certain rules by which the powers and actions of the protagonists could be explained. Grant Morrison asserts that the desire to rationalize fantasy was something typical only of reality-minded adults, but Morrison overlooks that not only was the original Lee-Kirby X-MEN explicitly created to be this kind of fantasy, it was also a fantasy aimed at a certain age-range of juvenile readers, roughly extending from middle-school to (early) high-school. Of course children in a younger age-range also encounter their fair share of discursive fantasies-- as well as non-fantastic fiction in this discursive mode. But whether one is talking about X-MEN or ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, casual impressions would suggest that "secondary school" juveniles do seem to favor rule-based discursive fictions more than do their "elementary school" kindred.

"Presentational fantasy" is the type of fantasy with which most children grow up, and this type is best represented by works akin to Disney's LITTLE MERMAID. Presentational fantasies do not draw explicit rules for their deviations from consensual reality of the audience: instead, they present every deviation as simply a *fait accompli,* something that happens because the author says it happens. As noted before there is no "rule" that establishes why fish can talk in the Little Mermaid world; they simply do. At the same time, MERMAID imposes on itself some limits on how many kinds of *fait accompli* the author can present. Disney's MICKEY MOUSE cartoons often present a world where some dogs walk on two legs and wear clothes while other dogs are cartoonized versions of real dogs. MERMAID makes a choice to give us cartoon-fish who can speak but don't otherwise emulate human beings by walking on their lower fins or wearing garments.

This form of limitation, common to both types of fiction and/or fantasy, is what I term an *expectation,* one which is created by the author and and which he expects the audience to interpret in a certain way. To simply, "expectations" can include all the "rules" conceived by discursive fictions, such as how Scott Summer's optic force-beams are generated from his eyes. However, "rules" cannot subsume the total set of expectations created by both discursive and presentational forms, for the limitation "LITTLE MERMAID fish can talk but they don't wear pants" is not expressed discursively, as a rule must be.

Now, I agree that all forms of fiction, even those that attempt to bend one's expectations, nevertheless generate expectations, if only in the sense of audience reception. Quoting narratologist Mieke Bal, Tim O'Neil calls this audience perception a "logic-line." Yet even though I have not read Bal, I suspect that she is speaking of "story logic." I see no place in Grant Morrison's Comicon speech where he advocated banishing story logic; he merely opposes the impulse to rationalize fantastic material, as per his X-MEN example. I'll be holding forth in more detail on the conflicts of logic and aesthetics in part 4.

To further complicate this introduction of "discursive" and "presentational" for types of fiction dominated by a certain approach, one can also use them for the approach itself, or, more properly, what literary criticism calls a "mode." This is an important distinction because neither X-MEN nor LITTLE MERMAID is purely discursive or presentational.

For instance, while the Lee-Kirby X-MEN may expend many discursive efforts to explain the logic of how its heroes function, there is a presentational side to X-MEN that descends from most other superhero serials. For instance, after the heroes save the day, they *must* be able to get away from the public back to lives of anonymity. This is not a logical consequence of any factor in the series proper, but it is as much a *given* as talking fish, or Morrison's desire not to worry about how old Batman and Robin are.

Similarly, LITTLE MERMAID may not expend much thought on the ways in which antagonists Triton and Ursula use magic, but there's the germ of discursive fantasy in this contest which isn't quite as "presentational" as the talking fish. One senses the potential for a "rule" in Triton being under Ursula's control once he surrenders his trident.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT, PT. 2

Fiction is not just fiction, fiction is a set of rules by which the author and audience agree to cooperate.-- Tim O'Neil, "An Argument for Rules," THE HURTING.


Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts.-- Aristotle, NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, pt. 3, translator W.D. Ross.


In earlier essays I've caviled against the commonplace use of the word "convention" in genre studies because the word oversimplifies the relationship of the so-called "conventions" to the reader, who may vary in his response to the genre from demanding total conventionality to preferring a mix of convention and invention. I have pretty much the same take on Tim O'Neil's definition of fiction as "a set of rules," as against Grant Morrison's alleged flouting of same in this Q&A response from the 2010 Comic-con.

In Part 1 I said:

...[for me] to express agreement on this one point is not to endorse an across-the-board dismissal of all verisimilitude. Tim O'Neil interprets Morrison as having said this, and though I think he's incorrect on the whole, it's also true that Morrison's answer may be too cavalier about the need for some types of verisimilitude in even the most fantastic fiction.


In a similar vein I noted in this essay that Joseph Campbell had arguably blurred the distinction between art and myth by representing art as purely counter-intellectual, as buttressed by a citation from A.E. Houseman. I remarked:

I would allow that all art begins with a desire to express emotion, and that intellect can be a stifling influence on the artist's vision, but still Houseman's assertion gives scant credit to the shaping influence of the intellect on art-- including, I imagine, his own.


So while I don't recognize functions of the conscious intellect as the foundation of art, I've gone on record as saying that the intellect-- whether directed to matters of verisimilitude or other cognitive concerns-- is crucial to the shaping of most if not all art, with perhaps different emphases for different types of art. In gauging such different emphases, Aristotle's caution about attempting to be overly precise with regard to subjects that don't admit of precision must be emphasized.

So, as should be obvious, I do think O'Neil's "fiction is a set of rules" is overly precise, and applies better to certain types of fiction than others. In future essays I'll giving at least two examples of fiction that O'Neil's definition doesn't fit.

But first I have to respond to this passage from O'Neil:

What does Morrison mean by "fantasy?" There are two colloquial meanings of fantasy at use here, seemingly interchangeably--


O'Neil goes on to describe these two meanings: one as a casual sort of activity that "could be used to encompass any variety of daydreaming or strictly impossible activity," while the other has more to do with a specific literary genre: "Fantasy is a literary genre, and like all type of storytelling it is dependent on rules."

Now, O'Neil's distinction is essentially valid, but there's one problem.

There's no reference in the Morrison quotes, as I've seen them represented, to "casual fantasy." Everything Morrison talks about relates to fantasy as an entertainment-genre: the ages of Batman characters, singing Disney crabs, and how Scott Summers' eyebeams work. I can find no passage where he just speaks of fantasy in the wider sense, though it's possible O'Neil's reacting to something Morrison has said elsewhere.

Now what's really interesting to me is that within the scope of his examples Morrison does mix two different types of genre-fantasy. One type is, in keeping with O'Neil's pronoucements for the whole of fiction, very concerned with the rules of a given game. X-MEN would be a good example of this one: it started out as superheroic SF-tinged fantasy with a certain set of rules and has pretty much stuck with that ever since.

However, Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID is a fantasy-- as well as a fiction-- that is not *essentially* about the appeal of the game's rules. There are what I term *expectations* in the Disney film, but most of the film's "rules"-- that fish can talk, etc.-- are not supported by logic but by *aesthetics.* There is no *reason* that the Disney fish can talk: it's just a given supported by the author's desire to tell a story involving talking fish and the audience's desire to experience one.

In Part 3 I'll go into more detail as to why I conceive "expectation" to be a superior concept that subsumes O'Neil's concept of rules without in any way compromising the definition he gives it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT, PT. 1

Back in DUELING QUOTATIONS I juxtaposed a Tom Spurgeon quote with a Grant Morrison quote. Spurgeon's essay called for a discussion of the concepts engaged by "all these superhero comics" but provided no parameters for such a discussion, so I "answered" his sloppily phrased question with Grant Morrison's assertion to the effect that adults who always want answers are in essence missing the point of fantasy.

However, though Morrison is more right about the complexities of fantasy-creation than Spurgeon, that isn't to say that Morrison's right in all respects. On 7-20-10 Tim O'Neil of THE HURTING wrote an essay which I'll examine in greater depth in later sections. Unlike Spurgeon, O'Neil does provide the reader with his parameters for the critical discussion of fantasy, and though he also isn't right in many respects, his essay is certainly engaged with the ideas behind fantasy-creation.

But before I talk about O'Neil's essay, I should make some basic statements about the Morrison quotation.

First, although some websites did treat Morrison's 2010 Comic-con statement as if he had chosen to do a "Defense of Fantasy," perhaps after the model of Percy Shelley's essay "Defense of Poetry," Morrison was simply making a somewhat impassioned reply in a Q&A session as to how old characters like Batman and the various Robins were supposed to be. Thus everything that Morrison says here builds upon that question of character verisimilitude.

I'll say up front that Morrison's attitude on the ageing of serial characters is one with which I entirely agree. It remains a study in futility for any fan to attempt to ground serial characters in the real world in terms of how slowly or quickly they age. Umberto Eco touches on some of the narrative consequences of this deathless status quo in his "Myth of Superman," though he doesn't ever quite get to the heart of what makes such a deathless fantasy appealing. However, purely from the standpoint of anyone interested in writing such characters, Morrison's statement shows that the fantasy is clearly one that has strong appeal and that therefore attempts to deal with the anomalies in terms of real-world verisimilitude are doomed to perish of their own fatuity.

However, to express agreement on this one point is not to endorse an across-the-board dismissal of all verisimilitude. Tim O'Neil interprets Morrison as having said this, and though I think he's incorrect on the whole, it's also true that Morrison's answer may be too cavalier about the need for some types of verisimilitude in even the most fantastic fiction.

Some of these types will be explored in Part 2 of RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

REDUCTION DERBY

In my last post I said:

...there remains a tendency for many critics to ignore the contributions of the unconscious/"primary concern" functions to art, in favor of those that seem to be conscious/"secondary concern" (and therefore ideological) functions. It's even more important in the criticism of the comics medium insofar as most critics of the medium are unable to think outside the ideological box.

Ideological critics, by their nature, must depend on the narrow reductionism of Marxist aesthetics or of so-called "cognitive science." These tools are not without proper use within the total sphere of literary criticism, but they are useful only in limited sociohistorical circumstances, and are useless for understanding what Jung called the constructive or amplificative abilities of the human mind.


I decided that I should cite at least one example from the myriad of critics whom I consider too reductively smart for comics' own good. Appropriately enough, I remembered the winsomely-titled "Let's Pretend This Makes Sense," by longtime COMICS JOURNAL contributor R. Fiore. The essay itself,a broad dismissal of the Chris Claremont/Milo Manara one-shot comic X-WOMEN, is nothing exceptional for Fiore, who's been writing pretty much the same sort of review for Thoth knows how many years now. Two things went through my mind as I skimmed it:

(1) That if Fiore didn't like it, there was a chance I ought to support it. I didn't end up doing so, though, because I glanced over X-WOMEN and didn't find it interesting enough to support, largely because I've never cared much for Manara.

(2) The reductionism of the following Fiore quote appealed to me as summarizing everything that's wrong with the majority of comics criticism today:

Not that contact with a Manara woman is a possibility, even in your dreams. The Manara woman is out of your league, that league being the human race.


So, as the rest of the "review" makes clear, the only reason that one might buy the comic is because it features naked or near-naked women. But these aren't just representations of glamorous human women. They're-- outside "the human race." One wonders, then, how Milo Manara ever got garnered a lucrative career, if his drawings of women lack all humanity. To the best of my knowledge, the only audience Manara has for said drawings are, well, humans.

What a conundrum! How can humans be attracted to a depiction of that which is non-human? Does that not fly in the face of the rational principles behind evolution? Or perhaps attraction to things outside the norm is confined only to those sad freaks of nature called "superhero comics fans?"

No doubt that's a tempting proposition for a Journalista to make.

Here's another take on the idea of attraction to things outside the norm of the species, if not the "race:"

"A suggestive analogy is to be seen in the case of the grayling moth, which prefers darker mates to those actually offered by its present species. For if human art can offer to a moth the supernormal sign stimulus to which it responds more eagerly than to the normal offerings of life, it can surely supply supernormal stimuli, also to the IRMs [Innate Releasing Mechanisms] of man..."-- Joseph Campbell, PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY.


I've discussed the concept of Campbell's ethologically-derived "supernormal signs" in an earlier essay. The concept makes a useful tool not in the purely scientific sense (science itself being only broadly relevant to the project of pluralistic literary criticism), but in the phenomenological sense of understanding what emotional cathexes are aroused by things that seem to exceed a particular form in nature, as with the male grayling moth's preference for phony "dark meat" moth-babes
contrived by human experimenters. Within this phenomenological concept it becomes possible to address why artifice has such a substantial appeal to real (or mostly real) human beings; to come to grips with what I call above the constructive powers of the human mind.

To be sure, X-WOMEN (which I did not read) is not likely to be the best example of those powers. For that, I'm mulling over another example of said constructive powers, which are perhaps seen to best effect when they appear in low-grade popular entertainment, where the pop-culture raconteur has no vested interest in going beyond a proven formula-- and yet, he does. That will wait for a future essay.

In closing, I can't help but wonder why any reductivist who desires "sense" would be reading any sort of literature, whether good or bad. Wouldn't the fellow who wants pure representationalism be better off poring over something like a pie chart?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

LURKERS ON THE THRESHOLDS

Back in GATE OF THE GODS PART 4 I referenced the terms "Moira" and "Themis" as short-hand terms for the unconscious and conscious functions of the human mind, which to my knowledge had been coined by Jungian analyst Joesph L. Henderson. I hadn't read the Henderson book at the time I wrote the essay, and what I said about it depended on an excerpt from Richard Slotkin's REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE.

However, now I have read the Henderson book, and it turns out that the author himself cites other authorities for the notion of a "Moira/Themis" opposition:

"Just as [F.M.] Cornford had shown that Moira, a sanctity older than the gods, was identical with the origin of social order, so Miss [Jane Ellen] Harrison pointed to the ensuing process of social evolution, where Themis represents the behavior dictated by social conscience... Above all, Themis was "Justice in the realm of Zeus," which checked the primitive law of sacrifice and atonement, symbolized in a Mother Goddess who suffered a yearly death and rebirth through her son."-- Henderson, THRESHOLDS OF INITIATION, PP. 10-11.

On one level, this contrast may remind one of the contrast raised by Cassirer in MYTH OF THE STATE, which I mentioned in ALTERING STATES. Cassirer contrasts Plato's views of the social state as a conflict between a "mythical" paradigm for governance (i.e., "Moira") and an "ethical" one (i.e., "Themis"). The context of Cassirer's contrast was to emphasize the choice Plato made in his vision of the ideal state, with Cassirer emphasizing how Plato chose the latter, as against superficial criticisms that he Plato was supposedly trying to use his "ideal forms" to promote some new quasi-religious authority.

A more important level, however, is that Henderson's takes his inspiration from two of the leading exponents of the "myth-ritual" school of the early 20th centuty: Francis Cornford and Jane Ellen Harrison. I've referred to this mythographic school back in AN OPEN QUEST PART 1, referencing in particular the way in which another scholar of that school, Gilbert Murray, provided Northrop Frye with some of his key literary terminology. Now it would seem that terms provided by two other myth-ritualists have also proven useful in expanding on my Fryean/Jungian literary schema. In GATE OF THE GODS I used the duality of Moira and Themis as umbrella-terms for both Jung's notion of conscious and unconcsious mental functions and for Frye's concept of "primary and secondary concerns:"

Since Henderson's "Moira" incarnates the "unconscious" part of the human mind, it doesn't seem a stretch to see it as encompassing both of Jung's irrational functions: sensation and intuition, while Themis, which Slotkin explicitly sees as "rational," encompasses both thinking and feeling. Ergo, for me at least, "Moira" also = "primary concerns" and "Themis"= "secondary concerns.


Again, the need for such polarizing terms remains important for literary criticism insofar as there remains a tendency for many critics to ignore the contributions of the unconscious/"primary concern" functions to art, in favor of those that seem to be conscious/"secondary concern" (and therefore ideological) functions. It's even more important in the criticism of the comics medium insofar as most critics of the medium are unable to think outside the ideological box.

Ideological critics, by their nature, must depend on the narrow reductionism of Marxist aesthetics or of so-called "cognitive science." These tools are not without proper use within the total sphere of literary criticism, but they are useful only in limited sociohistorical circumstances, and are useless for understanding what Jung called the constructive or amplificative abilities of the human mind.

The Henderson book, by the way, is not especially useful in this regard. THRESHOLDS is a competent but not overly ambitious expansion of Jung's ideas of ritual initiation, in which primitive religius rituals are compared to the concepts of Jungian individuation. REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE and other Slotkin works are probably better sources than Henderson for understanding how constructive creativity manifests in literary and even subliterary works.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

THE PRESENCE-AND-ABSENCE MINDED PROFESSOR

I've also recently encountered one messboard-poster who fervently believed that if you didn't agree with his Empiricist screed, then you must be (horrors) a Rationalist. This naturally overlooks the fact that thinkers like Kant, Schopenhauer and Cassirer were (albeit in different ways) trying to forge a bridge that might join the best aspects of Rationalist (i.e. Plato) and Empiricist thought into a coherent system.-- "Ain't Essentializin,'" ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE.


Recently I participated in another argument with the above-mentioned poster, during which he made the interesting claim that his fervent advocacy of Empiricism came down to rejecting the "theology of presence." He didn't define this, but from the gist of his argument I believe he meant the tendency of human beings to project the images in their minds upon the world and to imagine said images as potent real-world presences. I replied that this empiricist view of the world reduced all of reality to fit into an "empiricist lockbox" and came down to nothing but a "theology of absence." To this notion my opponent did not reply, though we did butt heads over other arcane matters of philosophy.

Now, the invocation of "presence" and "absence" bring to mind another essay, "The Unbearable Fullness of Emptiness," in which I suggested that both the literary quest for presence (or "fullness") and the literary assertion of absence (or "emptiness") were both essential to the human spirit, using two authors suggested by a work I reviewed there, as examples:

It seems demonstrable to me that language is always in a continuous process of "breaking down" and "building up," much like the concepts of "War" and "Love" in Empedocles. Thus Carroll's "empty set" take upon fantasy is simply his apprehension of its potentiality in the "breaking down" of seemingly fixed concepts, while Tolkien's "full set" take shows an awareness of how language, and any structure created by language, also has the propensity to "build up" associations and connections of all kinds.


And what goes for literature goes equally for philosophy, with Empiricism preaching the gospel of emptiness/absence and Rationalism the credo of fullness/presence.

Now in the "essentializin'" essay I also cited an anonymous online critic who opined that while Kant essentially separated the world of natural science from the world of what Cassirer calls "cultural sciences", Cassirer reunited the two aspects:

...whereas intersubjective or objective validity in the natural sciences rests ultimately on universal laws of nature ranging over all (physical) places and times, an analogous type of intersubjective or objective validity arises in the cultural sciences quite independent of such universal laws. In particular, although every “cultural object” (a text, a work of art, a monument, and so on) has its own individual place in (historical) time and (geographical-cultural) space, it nevertheless has a trans-historical and trans-local cultural meaning that emerges precisely as it is continually and successively interpreted and reinterpreted at other such times and places. The truly universal cultural meaning of such an object only emerges asymptotically, as it were, as the never to be fully completed limit of such a sequence.


Now, I would tweak this a little to add that in the natural sciences, the pattern of "emptying" is inevitable by the very nature of human history. My opponent was to an extent correct to say that Primitive A might have well projected upon the physical sun the image of a sun-god in order to make the sun comprehensible to him. This sort of identification is intolerable to the physical sciences, as Cassirer often pointed out. However, though the image of the sun-god may not tell the physical sciences anything noteworthy about the sun, the image does tell the cultural sciences many noteworthy things about what Primitive A saw and how he saw it, in precisely the "trans-historical and trans-local" manner described above. Physical science then must seek to empty out the physical world of its human perceptors, while cultural science must seek to fill it up again.

The situation may sound like a task assigned to the Danaids of Greek myth, but the conflict is not that dire. In addition to Cassirer, the myth-scholar Theodor Gaster suggests an interdependence of the "emptying" and "filling" modes in man's culture which is expressed through the periodicity of seasonal rituals.

In AN OPEN QUEST PART 2 I wrote:

Gaster introduces two Greek terms that identify how the respective rites work. Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.


Literature, philosophy and the sciences all require this interdependence. To choose presence over absence at all times, or vice versa, is an error that leads into dogma. Or, to quote Aleister Crowley from THE BOOK OF THE LAW:

“Explain this happening!”

“It must have a natural cause!”
“It must have a supernatural cause!”

Let these two asses be set to grind corn!