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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...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HARK, HARK! A DOG WAS BARTHES, PT. 2

Roland Barthes devoted his MYTHOLOGIES to showing how people (particularly the "bourgeoise") took various social "myths" for granted. One essay in the book, entitled "Myth Today," justifies his thesis through the use and extension of Saussurean semiology. I consider it a distortion myself, and though I've encountered hints that Barthes may have revised the theory behind the essay in later years, I'll deal with the "Myth Today" essay as a work apart from any later theoretical modifications.

In his groundbreaking work COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS (1915), Saussure divides the entirety of human linguistic communication into two categories: the syntagmatic, and the paradigmatic or associative, as seen in the passages below, derived from this site's translation:

In discourse, on the one hand, words acquire relations based on the linear nature of language because they are chained together. This rules out the possibility of pronouncing two elements simultaneously (see p. 70). The elements are arranged in sequence on the chain of speaking. Combinations supported by linearity are syntagms. The syntagm is always composed of two or more consecutive units (e.g. French re-lire [reread], contre tous [against everyone], la vie humaine [human life], Dieu est bon [God is good], s'il fait beau temps, nous sortirons [if the weather is nice, we'll go out] etc.). In the syntagm a term acquires its value only because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes or follows it, or to both.

Outside discourse, on the other hand, words acquire relations of a different kind. Those that have something in common are associated in the memory, resulting in groups marked by diverse relations. For instance, the French word enseignement [teaching] will unconsciously call to mind a host of other words (enseigner [teach], renseigner [acquaint] etc.; or armement [armament], changement [amendment] etc.; or education [education] apprentissage [apprenticeship] etc.). All those words are related in some way.


This is a pellucid and unproblematic statement of a sound theory of linguistics. However, Barthes, while complimenting Saussure on his "methodologically exemplary semiotics system," has concerns beyond "just the facts, mam:"

For mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one fragment of this vast science of signs which Saussure postulated some forty years ago under the name of semiology. Semiology has not yet come into being. But since Saussure himself, and sometimes independently of him, a whole section of contemporary research has constantly been referred to the problem of meaning: psycho-analysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, some new types of literary criticism of which Bachelard has given the first examples, are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance. Now to postulate a signification is to have recourse to semiology. I do not mean that semiology could account for all these aspects of research equally well: they have different contents. But they have a common status: they are all sciences dealing with values. They are not content with meeting the facts: they define and explore them as tokens for something else.


On the face of it, this is fair enough. Neither Barthes nor anyone else should have to blindly anyone else's system, be it that of Saussure, Karl Marx or the Emperor of California. But in truth Barthes' "science of values" distorts the clarity of Saussure's analysis without bothering to say just where he Barthes chooses to depart from the pioneer of semiology. I speculate that he did so in order to coast on Saussure's reputation for empirical validity while masking the fact that the so-called "values" Barthes champions are extrapolated from Comrade Karl Marx. And these opinions, be they about myth, materialism or the bourgeoise, Barthes does follow with a sort of blind doggy faithfulness.

Once again, for Saussure, there's the syntagmatic and the associative. But somehow, when Barthes tells the story, somebow aspects that Saussure would've considered "associative" are validated as belonging to Barthes' category of "first-order language:"

Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion. Do we have here, then, only a signifier and a signified, the roses and my passion? Not even that: to put it accurately, there are here only 'passionified' roses. But on the plane of analysis, we do have three terms; for these roses weighted with passion perfectly and correctly allow themselves to be decomposed into roses and passion: the former and the latter existed before uniting and forming this third object, which is the sign. It is as true to say that on the plane of experience I cannot dissociate the roses from the message they carry, as to say that on the plane of analysis I cannot confuse the roses as signifier and the roses as sign: the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning. Or take a black pebble: I can make it signify in several ways, it is a mere signifier; but if I weigh it with a definite signified (a death sentence, for instance, in an anonymous vote), it will become a sign.


Barthes makes one small but salient point here; though Saussure's schema attempts to separate the syntagmatic's ability to denote reality from the paradigmatic's ability to connote reality, the two are never operationally separate, and one can ask, as Barthes does in an essay on photography, how much connotation "arranges" human impressions as to what is being denoted to our eyes in an apparently "naturalistic" fashion. However, at no time does Barthes show any ability to cognize that his own "definition and exploration" of the reputed facts is any less a manipulation that the various social myths he attacks.

Shortly after the "roses" passage, we get one of Barthes' opening volleys against another level of what Saussure would call associative relations. He calls this "myth:"

...myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language.


Now, though throughout Barthes continues to use Saussrean terminology, he departs-- without saying outright that he does so-- from Saussure's methodology. He tells us that the association "roses=passion" is of the first-order. But how did the association come about? Did Barthes or any other single person think of it? Obviously not. Obviously the concept "roses=passion" is transmitted through a given culture-- call it Culture A-- whose members agree to accept the arbitrary association of this trope. Another culture, "Culture B," may not agree to validate the trope on its own terms, but to the extent that any one culture understands another, B can certainly understand A's arbitrary cultural construction since B has its own set of such meaning-tropes.

However, at no point in "Myth Today" does Barthes give an adequate reason as to why what he calls "second-order language," or "myth," is so radically set apart from the associational aspect, "roses=passion." He gives various other examples-- using real lions as symbols for people's names, or the famous PARIS MATCH magazine cover that supposedly reveals the magazine's use of French cultural symbolism to validate French imperialism. But at what point would the association "roses=passion" go from being a first-order signification to a second-order one?

I suspect, given the way Barthes' nose remains centered on Karl Marx's literary butt, that the transformation would take place as soon as the passionate roses were used by some authoritarian entity. Yet the very idea that the roses are made passionate would seem to be an idea that is mythic, by the terms Barthes lays out much earlier in the essay, in his fourth paragraph no less:

Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self- indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.


In what way does the Barthesian formula "roses=passion" leave roses alone to their "closed, silent existence?" Moreover, even assuming that somehow early man might have conceived the formula "roses=passion" in such a way as to isolate that conception from any other symbolic association-- thus privileging that formula as a "semiological chain" that pre-exists the depredations of the myth-language, does not the formula lend itself to "consumption" and "social usage?" If Caveman Unk gives Cavegirl Unka-a a present of roses as a "sign" of his passion for her, is this not social usage? And doesn't Unk hope he'll get some "exchange-value" for his gift, and that he'll be able to "consume" said value?

But of course Barthes' whole notion of the secondariness of mythic language has no basis in either Saussurean semiotics or in anthropological data, so the idea of isolating one category of associations from another category of associations is merely Barthes trying to "define" the facts in order to reflect a doctrinaire Marxist imperative. It's all about the hegemony, stupid, though Barthes doesn't use that specific Marxian term. He also doesn't stick with the passionate roses very long, preferring to focus on how mythic language robs everything it touches, be it people within human culture or animals outside of it. In MYTH TODAY the two examples he re-visits most are those of a lion, used to illustrate the hegemony of linguistic relations while a "Negro" in French uniform is used to illustrate the hegemony of imperial culture, both of which can somehow be blamed on "myth:"

"...the lion and the Negro are deprived of their history, changed into gestures."


Barthes' use of the term "gesture" is ironic to me given that roughly ten years before MYTHOLOGIES Susanne Langer had used the term to signify any motif or trope that summoned an emotional response from memory, as opposed to prompting an emotion from an event in real-time. Thus, for Langer, the emotion one calls forth by, say, naming a child after a lion connotes something very different from the emotion called forth from one's being in the presence of an actual lion. But why is the association attributed to the lion something that deprived the beast of history, but the roses are not so deprived? It may have something to do with Barthes' attempt to distinguish poetry and the poetic impulse from the cruel sway of myth, though his logic for this separation is no less strained than the rest of the essay.

I can think of few things less interesting than a Barthes biography, but thanks to the Internet, I am duly informed that he may have eventually seen some of the flaws in his own system. From David Chandler's SEMIOTICS FOR BEGINNERS:

Related to connotation is what Roland Barthes refers to as myth. We usually associate myths with classical fables about the exploits of gods and heroes. But for Barthes myths were the dominant ideologies of our time. In a departure from Hjelmslev's model Barthes argues that the orders of signification called denotation and connotation combine to produce ideology - which has been described (though not by Barthes) as a third order of signification


Now, this hypothetical "third order" would have been a slight improvement over Barthes' two orders, since he isn't really able to present any human associations for "roses" that don't act to "deprive them of their history." At least then he might have claimed, with some degeee of plausibility, that the "third order" represented by myth was something more articulated and pernicious than incidental cultural associations.

But he doesn't, and my own sign-reading tells me that it's because Barthes, following in the wake of Marx, was too much in love with a Manichean good-vs-evil dichotomy. Barthes knew that a duality was better suited to portray a radical opposition, especially to other Marxist intellectuals.

Susanne Langer doesn't reference Saussure in the NEW KEY work from which I've been quoting, but I believe the two of them could have found some agreement on her notion that the associative symbol has only a "logical analogy" to its source material. This should be true whether one is describing roses as a symbol for passion, as a symbol of life and/or rebirth (as seen in flowers being placed in Neanderthal graves), or as a symbol of the great flower-god Roseata. Were one to go against Saussure and Langer, and join Barthes in saying that some "significant" connotations always attach themselves to the material denoted, one would have no way of proving, via Barthes' flawed reasoning, that any of the latter two associations has any better claim to Barthes' "first-order" status than the one he does favor.

The most famous dog Barthes reminds me of is the one in a certain Aesop's fable. Walking beside a river with a bone in his mouth, the dog spies his reflection and mistakes it for another dog with another bone. Greedy for the second bone, the canine opens his mouth to bark at the strange dog, and promptly loses his real bone to the waters.

That's Barthes all over; hungry to grasp reality and falling victim to his own illusion. The main difference is that the dog didn't busy himself trying to correct other people's illusions while showing no propensity to correct his own.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

HARK, HARK! A DOG WAS BARTHES, PART 1

In the August essay PRESENCE-AND-ABSENCE-MINDED PROFESSOR I referenced an ongoing online forum-argument in which my opponent, in the course of making some arcane point, made what seems to have been an unattributed reference to Derrida's "theology of presence." I didn't recognize the concept being referenced, which apparently also goes by the name "metaphysics of presence," but either phrasing probably would've have missed the boat as I've next to no interest in Derrida. So in PROFESSOR I simply discussed the topic of presence and absence from a myth-critical POV.

After that, in the comments-thread to this post, sometime correspondent Charles Reece sought out said online argument, whose main topic thread (if you can call it that) revolved around not Derrida but rather, that Maven of Marxist Mendacity himself, Roland Barthes. Charles used the word "hatred" to describe my contempt for Barthes, described in this earlier essay. Be that as it may, I like to think that I hate the icon of the sinner, not the sinner personally (who's worm food now, anyway, as we all shall be one fine day). I hate that Barthes is respected as a first-rate thinker when in fact (as the subsequent installment of this essay will show) he's so unremittingly sloppy and ideologically polluted that I'm not sure he even deserves "third-rate" status.

In the comments-thread, Charles references no particular remark by myself or my opponent. Charles merely says that I am "wrong" about something or other. This blog's few readers will be better informed (though probably not much enlightened) to know that Charles and I have argued about Rollicking Roland Barthes before this in another time and clime. I don't intend to reference the particulars of that past argument any more than I will those of the current forum-fight. All I'll say of Forumfight #1 is that neither of us convinced the other of anything, but I did garner a pretty good idea as to why Charles validates Barthes, even if I don't know specifically what he's talking about re: Forumfight #2.

As it happens, I was already thinking about doing a summing-up of Barthes' shortcomings for both this blog and Forumfight #2, but I'll make it a separate post from this, which stands as something of a prelude.

In the aforesaid comments-thread Charles remarked that Barthes was not an "empiricist." Maybe, maybe not, but Barthes certainly wanted to make his interpretations seem as if they had a firm basis in the then-as-now still-evolving science of semiology. The summing-up will specifically address his problematic debt to the pioneering semiotic work of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

GESTURE AND GESTALT PT. 5

In DON'T FEAR THE FURNITURE I wrote:

Both [Sherlock] Holmes and [Solar] Pons stories share functions that their respective authors did not "invent." The Holmes stories, because of their added associational qualities, may be said to be "super-functional" in that author [Conan] Doyle forges more felicitous associational connections within the literary elements of his tales than [August] Derleth does. But Doyle doesn't escape the need for narrative functionality.


The many abuses of deconstructionism have shown that a good critic requires at least some awareness of the above need, for even if the critic agrees with Derrida that certain authors automatically 'deconstruct' their own intended themes, it's a staggering bit of hubris to suggest that *all* authors do so. Many stories, including those purporting to be rich in experimentation and avant-garde literary devices, are simply no better than they have to be. These stories I deem as being as close to bare functions as it is possible for a story to get, along the line of the functions described by the early folk-tale analyst Vladimir Propp in his MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE.

When Propp wrote MORPHOLOGY, he was trying to impose some sort of order on the chaos of folktale studies, which had no agreed-upon morphology. For instance, one folklorist cited in the MORPHOLOGY proposed that each tale should be broken down into "motifs," which he considered to be indivisible units. To this schema Propp suggested the example of a motif that might begin a story thusly: "A dragon kidnaps the tsar's daughter." Then Propp showed that the motif as stated was not indivisible, since other elements could replace those used in the construction: "The dragon may be replaced by Koshchei, a whirlwind, a devil, a falcon or a sorcerer." It is with this awareness that Propp moved toward a larger schema of folktales that emphasized "the functions of [the tale's] *dramatis personae,*" which is meant to allow the analyst to monitor how different elements are mixed and matched within the corpus of folktales and yet remain true to their narrative functions.

At the end of GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 1 I noted that some good comparisons could be made between Propp's concept of functions rooted in *dramatis personae* and Susanne Langer's concept of the "gesture," a symbol which is not "self-expressive" of an emotion occuring in real time but is rather an attempt to "recall" said emotion in a ritualized or formalized context. Not surprisingly given Langer's indebtedness to perceptors like Whitehead and Cassirer, Langer shows more interest than Propp does in the concept of "expressivity," of the tale-teller's intention to tell a certain kind of tale to obtain a expressive effect in an audience.

Proppian analysis was never applied to literature to any great extent, but I imagine that such an application would look a lot like the development of literary structuralism in academia, which followed similar schematic guidelines from Saussure and Levi-Strauss. In contrast to a notorious deconstructive analysis like Barthes' S/Z, literary studies in the structuralist vein have the virtue of granting a close reading of the original material, but these studies can be on occcasion too rigidly formalistic, even as Propp's analyses of folktales may have been. Still, Propp's rationale for his emphasis on function seems to me more "grounded" than the rationales for structuralist readings of both ancient and contemporary literary works. Because Propp's schema is simpler and less tortuous than Levi-Strauss', I can better imagine supplementing the former with an "overlay" of Langerian (and Cassirean) concern for expressivity.

Further, once one is able to use Langer's insight about differing forms of symbolic activity, one should no longer led into the facile fallacy into condemning this or that work for being "unrealistic." In this vein Theodor Adorno once criticized a television drama which attempted to resolve a political situation with an appeal to romance. Adorno did this not because he was incapable of understanding that the drama in question was primarily meant to evoke romantic feelings but because he, having interest only in discursive symbolic concepts, rejected that literary function as being invalid; just more bread and circuses to take the wage-slaves' attention off their continued exploitation.

An increased attention to how literature functions in discursive and presentational modes does not, of course, mean that one cannot critique something simply because it purports to be "non-discursive." This is why I gave examples of how both modes could generate distinct versions of coherence and incoherence. The literature of thematic escapism has its own aeshetically-derived logic which can be every bit as rigorous as that of the literatue of thematic realism.

In effect, what I said in my quote above regarding the distinction between lower and higher levels of functionality could also be subsumed under my dichotomy of gesture and gestalt. Any given story-function in isolation has the value of a ritualized gesture, and a story that simply follows all the prescribed rituals, as if by themselves they conveyed expressive richess, is merely a functional story.

However, true expressive richness stems from a *gestalt* that evolves from an author's use of the expected gestures in such a way that none of them seem *merely* functional. Instead, the gestures become parts that are greater than their whole. Thus it becomes possible for one to read "super-functional" characters in a variety of ways without betraying their functionality, as deconstructive readings tend to do. Conan Doyle's stories not only satisfy the audience's desire to see certain ritual gestures performed; they exceed that desire in such a way that later critics continue to study the stories from a variety of cognitive viewpoints-- psychological, sociological, mythopoeic and all the rest.

Ironically, while Langer explains humanity's evolution of symbolic concepts as a strategy for sorting out the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of uncognized experience, literature in a sense returns its audience to a lesser version of that confusion. In myth, one of the early manifestations of the literary impulse, gods exist to render more comprehensible all the significant phenomena which humans may encounter, and yet the will of these gods remains both inscrutable and imponderable. One might make the interpretation that while human beings are incapable of knowing the *real* gestalt behind the totality of objects and experiences, myth and literature function to give them a more manageable "gesture" that suggests such wholeness, in the form of a world where, as Mark Twain averred, "Fiction has to make sense."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

THE SPHERE OF LONGINUS

"What is beyond nature drives the audience not to persuasion but to ecstacy. What is wonderful, with its stunning power, prevails everywhere over that which aims merely at persuasion and at gracefulness."-- Longinus, Part I, ON THE SUBLIME, trs. Arieti and Crossett.


"This seemingly simple opposition and prioritization is an index of a broad shift away from a classical world-view: whereas Aristotle actually prescribed necessity and probability, universality and typicality; as the bases for poetry's engagement with the world, Longinus advocates precisely what deviates from such universality. It is an aesthetic premised not on what is central to human experience but precisely on what escapes such centrality..."-- M.A.R. Habib, A HISTORY OF LITERARY CRITICISM AND THEORY, p. 125.


In addition to Professor Habib's perspicacious pronouncement on Longinus (circa anywhere from 1 to 3 A.D.), I would add that in a sense Longinus is also a distant literary ancestor to any critic attempting to understand art through a comprehension of its symbolic nature, as opposed to whatever overt discourse the work may offer (or seem to offer).

To be sure, Longinus' influence was nowhere near as prevalent as that of Aristotle, with the result that the formative years of literary criticism were much more devoted to (bringing in my Langerian terms again here) the "discursive" rather than the "presentational." Longinus did see some revival by Europeans during both the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, and though many of his views are clearly conditioned by the Greco-Roman culture he shared, his emphasis on poetry's ability to go "beyond nature" in its effects, rather than to simply persuade like your average rhetorician, was as Habib says an important step away from regarding art as primarily discursive in nature.

I won't get into the tangled matter of "the sublime," which would involve how the notion evolved through varied treatments by Addison, Burke, Kant and others. But in short Longinus' reasoning depends on certain concepts or images being able to induce a kind of "ecstacy" in those who identify with these symbolic representations, and with this piece of logic (which seems self-evident to me at very least) Longinus successfully opposes the notion that literature depends first and foremost on the "mimesis" of real life propounded by Aristotle.

Admittedly, Longinus is not dealing with signs and symbols after the same fashion as modern critics. Still, his insights prove useful for myth-criticism, to the extent that myth-criticism too tries to demonstrate that while all human-created literary signifiers may share equal origins in theory, in practice some are "equal-er" than others.

More on this in GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 5.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

SYMBOLISM SEGUE WITH SAMUEL AND SUSANNE

The imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory the fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.-- S.T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIII.


"...the psychological basis of this remarkable form of nonsense (the fairy tale] lies in the fact that the story is a fabrication out of subjective symbols, not out of observed folkways and nature-ways [in contrast to "myth," with which Langer contrasts fairy tales]."-- Susannne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 173.


Susanne Langer's symbolic theory has been getting quite a bit of play here since I began the "Rules of Estrangement" series, but Coleridge's theories of the imaginative faculty not only have many interesting points of comparison with Langer's theory, they also bring up some issues regarding the nature of narrative fiction in general-- whether one speaks of myths, folklore/fairy tales, high literature or popular literature. Coleridge's opposition of his own "high literary" poem RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER to a fairly simple Arabian Nights story was already referenced in RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT 4:

Mrs Barbauld tole me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were — that it was improbable and had no moral. As for the probability — to be sure that might admit some question — but I told her that in my judgment the poem had moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader, It ought to have no more moral than the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the Genii's son.


Though it's possible that Coleridge wasn't entirely serious on this point, one still must allow for the possibility that the statement exemplifies some artistic ambiguity. Did Coleridge, who loved fairy tales and Arabian Nights stories in youth, equivocate about the desireability of one's art being overruled by what Langer would call "discursive" concerns, perhaps at the cost of the immediacy to be found in the "presentational" mode of the fairy tale? If that were the case, that sentiment would contrast strongly with the theme of Coleridge's ruminations on "primary" and "secondary" imagination. Certainly the poet makes it sound as if he has greater esteem for the "secondary" form, where the author has gone beyond the "fixities and definites" of the primary stage and has a more "vital" function thanks to the efforts of the "conscious will:"

[The secondary imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.


Now, I'm not interested in Coleridge's apparent ambiguity in terms of sussing out the long-dead poet's particular likes and dislikes. I'm interested rather in Coleridge's critical conception of "fanciful" and "imaginative" narrative works respectively; how he seems in one passage to esteem the latter as more "vital" than the former and yet in another to envy the casual lack of shaping morality upon the story of "The Merchant and the Genie." Given the terms Coleridge sets for the two faculties, it's hard to believe that Samuel Taylor would fail to consider "The Merchant and the Genie" (and perhaps fairytales and folktales as a whole) as belonging to his "fancy" category.

While Coleridge's precise attitudes toward "fanciful" stories proves ambiguous, Susanne Langer's orientation is quite clear. She devotes Chapter 7 of NEW KEY to demonstrating that the often-nonsensical fairy tale, being formed of "subjective symbols," evinces a "very low stage of human imagination." This stage is surpassed by a "thematic shift" which gives birth to mythic stories, which possess deeper roots in objective aspects of reality, as characterized by "observed folk-ways and nature-ways." One may note the perhaps coincidental resemblance of these otherwise-unexplained categories with two Kantian categories, *Naturwissenschaften* and *Geisteswissenschaften,* and an even more fruitful comparison could be made between between Langer's emphasis on the objective elements in myth and similar formulations by Joseph Campbell.

Langer is essentially right about the "thematic shift" but wrong about the extent to which folktales or fairytales (which I'll call "tales" from now on) exist without such objectively-rooted symbols. A more correct formulation would be that tales incorporate "observed folk-ways and nature-ways" as do myths, but that tales do so more intermittently and indirectly than do myths. For instance, Coleridge's example of "The Merchant and the Genie" does seem more fanciful than imaginative, lacking any deeper objective content. But not every tale is so simple, not even among those in the Thousand and One Nights' repertoire. And though it is possible that every myth ever conceived did so with input from one *wissenschaften* or the other, scholars have often observed the process by which sacral myths lose their special religious character and end up being recounted as simple tales.

A close look at Coleridge's BIOGRAPHIA excerpt above reveals that one particular way Coleridge uses to distinguish primary and secondary imaginative faculties (which I believe to be strongly comparable to Langer's presentational and discursive modes) is as follows:

The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.


For me at least, Langer's modes can be subsumed by Coleridge's "mode(s) of operation." But what I find particularly suggestive is Coleridge's unexplained reference to some kind of "degree" that separates primary and secondary.

While I don't imagine a living Coleridge would especially agree with the terminology I've borrowed from the myth-critical tradition of Cassirer, Jung, and Frye, my *own* take is that Langer's argument re: myth and tale fails to take into account the matter of degree-- that is, the degree of *complexity* of the symbols used in a given narrative, be it myth, tale, "high" literary work or "low" popular entertainment.

Thus I would say that while almost all tales are dominated by Langer's presentational mode, they may possess high or low degrees of symbolic complexity, or *mythicity.*

Myths are statistically more likely than tales to possess higher degrees of *mythicity* (hence the name for the term mythicity in the first place), but they represent a transition point for narrative as it begins to use discursive elements to structure presentational tropes.

So-called "high" and "low" forms of literature, then, preserve some of the myth-tale dichotomy in terms of the usage of presentational or discursive modes, but either can be strong in the *mythicity-force* irrespective of what mode it dominantly takes.

And all the foregoing is necessary for the discuss of story-function in the next GESTURE AND GESTALT essay.

Friday, September 17, 2010

GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 4

It's a little simpler to prepare a parallel comparison of coherent and incoherent discursive symbolism than was the case with last essay's comparison. Within the sphere of the sphere of literature the first of the two, coherent discursive symbolism, is virtually identical with what literary studies commonly call "verisimilitude."

Even in works dominated by the aesthetic of "thematic escapism," some verisimilitude is always necessary, though individual readers will vary on just how much they desire. Total verisimilitude after the ideal of Emile Zola would make any thematically-escapist work untenable, so what devotees of escapist fiction really desire (no matter what they may say) is verisimilitude in the service of enhancing escapism. In addition, serial works in particular tend to favor at least the superficial appearance of regularity and coherence. Thus it's not surprising that the BATMAN feature, after its first year of wild-and-woolly pulp-style adventures, quickly took on a more settled appearance, and began to emphasize the hero's abilities in the department of ratiocinative crimefighting, though the feature never entirely gravitated away from the more visceral type of dynamization.

But what about the opposite form of discursive symbolism? Is it possible to do with discursive symbolism what filmmakers Fragasso and Drudi did (in my estimation) with their execution of TROLL 2?

...Drudi and her director-collaborator Claudio Fragasso DON'T manage to arrange their sensational concepts into any kind of order, and what one gets is pure pandemonium.


Is it possible to be overly concerned with verisimilitude, to overthink things so that they lead to another form of pandemonium? I believe so, and it can be demonstrated using the same sort of parallel comparison.

In Part 3 of this series I used two distinct episodes of the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries as illustrations of my notions of coherent and incoherent presentationalism respectively. As one might guess from the reference to Batman above, I'll continue to use the Caped Crusader for the examples of discursive symbolism as well, but the 1960s teleseries is largely useless for discussions of discursive symbolism. So I'll draw from two BATMAN films by different creators to show how they treat the same realistic motif-- that of consistent character motivation-- in their respective works. And since the first comparison treated a Joker episode and a Mister Freeze episode, I may as well keep symmetry with respect to the chosen films as well.

The direct-to-video animated film BATMAN AND MR. FREEZE: SUB-ZERO is, like most of the Batman works that proceeded from Warner Brothers Animation in the 1990s, far better than any of the live-action films at balancing the aforementioned elements of the Batman comic series: leavening wild pulp fantasy with attention to realistic detail. Admittedly, this DTV film follows in the footsteps of Warner's BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, where the animators originally refashioned the gimmicky comic-book character of Mister Freeze into a villain with a more humanistic motivation: that of being monomanically obsessed with reviving his cryogenically-frozen wife. His obsession is not far from Batman's own devotion to crimefighting, though the difference between hero and villain is clearly delineated: Freeze will do anything to achieve his goals, while Batman will not. Freeze's bizarre ice-ray thus becomes the objective correlate of his own frozen affect, suggested by his monotone speech. SUB-ZERO, written and directed by Boyd Kirkland, not only continues the characterization established in the television series, but also brings Freeze closest to murdering an innocent to save his beloved wife. He only fails because of Batman's intervention, but the story's ending allows Freeze closure in that his wife is revived but he must remain separated from her, allowing him to evince a contented smile for the first time.

In contrast to this understated use of characterization to symbolize a flawed character's progress, we have a "Joker episode" in the form of Christopher Nolan's overrated THE DARK KNIGHT, which I reviewed here as being rife with "sloppy, overblown scenes." In that essay I critiqued Nolan for his lack of deference to the rules of "probability"-- a subset of the aforementioned verisimilitude-- but I didn't take note of the fact that most of these lapses came about because Nolan was so concerned with forcing the Caped Crusader into a narrative of overdetermined and incoherent discursiveness.

In my mini-review I did call attention to the "motif of renunciation" that had brought about some of the narrative improbabilities. However, I didn't observe the fine point that Nolan wasn't simply setting verisimilitude aside, the way presentational types ranging from Avery to Fragasso might do. Rather, his improbabilities are generated thanks to a sort of "super-verisimilitude" that does not really allow for the validity of its own title character.

It's because Batman is fundamentally unreal to Nolan, that Nolan feels that Bruce Wayne ought to be willing to disavow his mission at the drop of a district attorney's by-your-leave.

It's because Batman is not real to Nolan that one minute the hero drives his Batcycle straight at the Joker, apparently intending to run the villain over, and in the next minute the hero crashes his bike to avoid killing the heinous villain, apparently (though we never know) out of some last-minute squeamishness against killing.

And it's because the Joker's multiple homicides are not real to Nolan that Lucius Fox, on being apprised that Batman may be able to find Joker through the use of a super-wiretapping system, is more concerned with the system's potential for abuse than for its potential to end the Joker's reign of terror.

Nolan's Joker, though figured in the script as a devotee of pure chaos who exists outside the realm of credible human motivation, comes to seem more like an avatar of the writer-director's own attitude toward the Batman concept. In contemporary comics Batman and Joker are often figured as incarnations of a forbidding order and and a strangely-attractive chaos, but Nolan has no interest in the "order" championed by the superhero genre. Yet as DARK KNIGHT was an official Warner/DC production, it had to pay at least lip service to the seriousness of the Batman myth. The satires of this myth by comics-artists like Kurtzman and Feiffer have often been superficial, but they have the virtue of greater honesty.

All that is real to Nolan is his "myth of renunciation," which is founded in his imposition of overly-realistic strictures upon an escapist concept. To be sure, many fans of fantasy-fiction liked DARK KNIGHT, so the pandemonium Nolan created was not viewed ironically, in the way trash-film fans came to esteem TROLL 2. But there has always been a tendency within fantasy-fandom to feel guilty about their pleasures, to emulate a Puritan animus toward freewheeling fantasy. Something of the same pattern is evinced in a number of profitable comics-creations, such as Marvel's ULTIMATES line, whose rationale takes light-hearted juvenile concepts like the Avengers and converts them into "realistic" paramilitary organizations. This pattern too suggests a certain discursive symbolism at work, though at a lower intellectual level than one sees in Nolan's film.

Having schematized my two types of coherence and incoherence with examples in both the discursive and presentational modes, I can come back to the matter of Proppian story-function. I mentioned this at the conclusion of Part 1, but I realized that I needed to outline this schema first.

After this, things get really complicated.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 3

In TROLL PLAYING PART 2 I wrote:

...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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 2

The single example of self-knowledge of the will as a whole is the idea as a whole, the whole world of perception. It is the objectification, the revelation, the mirror of the will.-- Schopenhauer, THE WORLD AS WILL AND IDEA.


In Part 1 I reiterated Susanne Langer's term "gesture" to signify the process by which human beings formulated emotional conceptions so that they were no longer expressive of a particular emotion brought on by a real event, but became formalized so as to call up the essence of the emotion at will. Langer associates this cultural action with the proto-religious rituals from which primitive man formulates religion. But it's just as easy to see how the same cultural action may have deeper roots in the process of human storytelling, whether the stories convey emotions associated with what purports to be real-life accounts ("You shoulda seen the one that got away!") or the stories told to give human context to the inhuman world around primitive man.

Langer is also much concerned in NEW KEY with the process by which humankind makes sense of what German thinkers have called the "Gestalt," the total form of the world which is naturally elusive to mankind on a purely perceptual basis, and which must also be approached through the only methods primitive man had for pulling together "the blooming, buzzing confusion:" art and religion. Langer writes:

What we should look for is the first indication of symbolic behavior [in man's predecessors the anthropoids], which is not likely to be anything as specialized, conscious, or rational as the use of semantic. Language is a very high form of symbolism; presentational forms are much lower than discursive, and the appreciation of meaning probably earlier than its expression... It is absurd to suppose that the earliest symbols could be *invented;* they are merely *Gestalten* furnished to the senses of a creature ready to give them some diffuse meaning."-- NEW KEY, p. 110.


Now, one meaning of Gestalten is not just "the whole," but the notion that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Art and religion are fundamentally attempts to put forth narratives by which the audience achieves a sense of meaning, whether it is "diffuse" (that is, accomplished through presenting gestural symbolic forms) or something more rationally articulated (through discursive symbolism, arguing an idea out to its conclusion). A given meaning may not demonstrate "wholeness" in any sense but an emotional one, but art, unlike religion, need not prove that it has any bearing on reality beyond its ability to articulate emotions. Ironically, though, for Schopenhauer it is the contemplation of art, not religion, through which one can both gain an understanding of the Universal Will's nature and at the same time gain a measure of control over the Will's demands on the human subject.

In my next essay I'll return to the subject of how presentational gestural symbols are at the root of narrative's tendency to perpetuate certain "given" circumstances for the sake of a story-- or rather, for summoning the emotions the story involves.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 1

Since I introduced terms from Susanne Langer's symbolism-theory in this essay, I've decided that I ought to provide more detail about said theory, particularly because PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, the 1942 Langer work from which I derived the terms "discursive" and "presentational," doesn't deal with narrative fiction in great detail. In addition, I should make clear that Langer does not ever use "presentational symbolism" as a way of describing certain "faits accomplis" within the sphere of narrative fiction. HOwever, I think that my own narratological formulation follows from her association of the presentational mode with the sort of free association found in naive folklore throughout Chapter 7. However, for a firmer grasp of what Langer means by her "non-discursive" mode, one turns to the opening sentence of Chapter 6:

If language is born, indeed, from the profoundly symbolific character of the human mind, we may not be surprised to find that this mind operates with symbols far below the level of speech.


Throughout the book Langer amasses numerous examples to demonstrate the operation of this mental capacity, and Chapter 6 places special emphasis upon the role played by mental images in the evolution of man's more elementary forms of expressivity into the more articulated forms of religion and (eventually) literature.

[Images] are not only capable of connoting the things from which our sense-experience originally derived them... they also have an inalienable tendency to 'mean' things that have only a logical analogy to their primary meanings.-- Langer, NEW KEY, p. 145.


(Parenthetically I must note that Langer, following Kant and Cassirer, does not deny that all sensation begins with experience. This position may mitigate any accusations of Platonic Idealism that the words "inalienable tendency" may conjure in some people's minds-- or not, as it may be.)

Langer goes on to say that "the first thing we do with images is to envisage a story," whether in personal reverie about things that did or could actually happen ("we see with the mind's eye the shoes we should like to buy, and the transaction of buying them"), or in more abstract and communally-supported conceptualizations dealing with symbolized concepts ("Life and life-giving, death and the dead, are the great themes of primitive religion"-- p. 150).

Fortunately primitive culture seems not to have had many Harvey Pekars in its midst, continually kvetching about their shoes or their lost glasses or whatever. Thus we know primitive culture from humanity's exploration of more transpersonal themes, which have come down to us largely in terms of religious conception, whose origins Langer views as ritualistic in nature. Langer imagines that the first gropings toward ritualism would have been "purely self-expressive, an unconscious issue of feelings into shouting or prancing." However:

"...as soon as an expressive act is performed without inner momentary compulsion it is no longer self-expressive; it is expressive in the logical sense. It is not a sign of the emotion it conveys, but a symbol of it... When an action acquires such a meaning it becomes a gesture."-- p. 152.


As noted above, Langer does not deal with the construction of literature to any great extent in NEW KEY, and she does not use the term "gesture" much beyond this illustration. However, I conceive that her use of "gesture" in terms of ritual may be profitably compared to Vladimir Propp's use of the term "function" in his folklore studies. Like Levi-Strauss, Propp attempted to present his readers with a detailed morphology of the stories told by diverse pre-industrial cultures, and like Levi-Strauss Propp has been accused of being too rigidly schematic; of not having sufficient appreciation for the expressive power of any given story-function. The idea that an image or a complex of images might communicate expressive power as its primary motive suggests some interesting avenues that I'll explore more fully in Part 2.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

NEXT TO LAST LOST POSTS, PART 2

"...what if it is precisely this "happy" denouement of [THE TRUMAN SHOW] [...], with the hero breaking out and, as we are led to believe, soon to join his true love (so that we have again the formula of the production of the couple!), that is ideology at its purest? What if ideology resides in the very belief that, outside the closure of the finite universe, there is some "true reality" to be entered?"-- Slavoj Zizek as quoted by Charles Reece here.

"Ideology is not evil. It's something essential to human life. The thing is that it has to be subordinate to the very simple and primary things that the imagination is about: life, love, freedom, dignity"-- Northrop Frye, CONVERSATIONS WITH NORTHROP FRYE, p. 213.

It would be interesting to essay a cross-comparison of Zizek the militant intellectual atheist and Frye the unmilitant yet unapologetic intellectual Christian, but at this point I haven't even read the cited Zizek article, "THE MATRIX, or Two Sides of Perversion," except to get a sense as to how his reference to TRUMAN SHOW fit in with his overall program of analyzing his titular subject, THE MATRIX movie. That little bit was all I could take once I beheld the dread spectre of Lacanianism hanging over said artice, whereupon I recoiled from the threat of utter and complete boredom.

Still, there's enough Zizek cited in Charles Reece's sum-up article on the LOST finale to make a limited comparison between this excerpt and one of Northrop Frye's crucial ideas: the opposition between "the myth of concern" and "the myth of freedom," which also has certain applications to the TV show LOST.

Here's a cogent summation of Frye's theory of the two myths from Jonathan Hart's extensive and well-researched online essay,
"Northrop Frye and the End(s) of Ideology:"

In The Critical Path Frye says that whereas the myth of freedom is liberal, detached, and individual, and emphasizes tolerance, correspondence, and objectivity, the myth of concern is conservative and communal and stresses belief, coherence, and authority. Together these two myths produce the social context of literature. Primary concerns are made up of four areas: food and drink, sex, property, and liberty of movement. Secondary concerns grow out of the social contract, such as patriotism, religion, and class attitudes, and, in Frye's later phrasing, "develop from the ideological aspect of myth, and consequently tend to be directly expressed" (Words 42).


These two myths-- of fulfilling integration within a community, or of fulfilling escape from that community (with or without a concomitant desire to reshape it)-- respond to the stereotypical political ideals of "conservatism" and "liberalism" respectively. Yet Frye does not content himself (as does Roland Barthes) in a facile opposition, but rather endeavors to show how both mythic patterns grow out of the desire for the aforesaid "primary concerns," articulating "secondary concerns" as a means of attaining some or all of the primary ones. In the above quote from an interview Frye defines these concerns in a more abstract manner but it should be evident that the abstractions of "life, love" et al are fundamentally grounded in experience.

In contrast to this viewpoint, Zizek's quote posits a view in which both myths in TRUMAN SHOW are wrong. Title character Truman's manufactured community is one stressing coherence and authority, against which Truman quite rightly rebels, and thus it is what Frye would call the "demonic" vision of the myth of concern. However, though the movie probably does not intend any demonization of the escape-- which can hardly embody any other Fryean concept but "the myth of freedom"-- Zizek theorizes that this myth is wrong too, because it suggests that Truman has found a "true reality," so that Truman's "myth of escape" is no less an ideological manipulation than his "myth of concern."

Even putting aside such tiresome Marxist formulations as "the production of the couple," I'm not a great fan of analyses in which the extra-diegetical spins so completely free of the diegetical substance of the work analyzed. But as I haven't read all of Zizek, I'll refrain from further comment on his interpretation of the two myths.

But since I have read all of the Reece essay, and since I believe that I do understand how Reece is using Zizek to critique the TV show LOST, that essay I can look more fully at in Fryean terms.

Like both TRUMAN SHOW and MATRIX, LOST does depend on a conflict of the two myths.

The "myth of concern" is clearly represented by the ersatz community that the castaways form, initially for reasons of pure survival, though it will prove to be a community that to an extent transcends the original reasons for its formation. By the characters' having "lived together," their souls do not "die alone" even if their bodies still do. In Jacob's last speech to the surviving castaways, it's strongly implied that if none of the castaways had been hurled onto the Island, their "flaws" would have kept them from experiencing a true community, even if they had grown old within the sphere of ordinary civilization.

And yet, the very thing that makes the community possible is the thing that the castaways seek to escape, which action incarnates Frye's "myth of freedom." Reece correctly points out that many of the "laws" of both Jacob and his Island seem chimerical and that, extra-diegetically, their objective correlate can represent the chimerical desires of the serial's writers. Yet, precisely because the Island is chimerical, it cannot be a place where a community can thrive, save in extreme temporary circumstances. The castaways, though they don't know it, have built their community on something akin to the burning-grounds where Shiva meditates, or the wild deserts in which young Amerindian men essayed their vision-quests. On the Island the castaways will experience insights into the nature of reality, but the only use they can make of those insights is to find a way back to the reality where they became flawed in the first place. Whatever insights they take from the Island are not meant to be understood intellectually, as one might understand the Christian apocalyptic thought behind C.S. Lewis' NARNIA books. The Island throws the castaways with Heideggerian force into a reality that forces them to re-learn their own primary needs for "love, life, freedom and dignity."

After detailing many of the chimerae of the Island that present him from taking it as face value as incarnating "some great Truth" for the castaways, Reece goes on to say:

What I dislike about the onto-theological reading of the ST -- despite granting that it's a valid interpretation -- is that when taken by itself it reduces Lost's entire shambolic story arc to the ideological yearning that Žižek points to in The Truman Show's conclusion. The mere promise of a transcendent Truth (behind the curtain, outside of the OT) is supposed to free the characters of choices made and acts committed. Similarly, the audience is supposed to forget all the dangling plot threads, finding closure in the characters having finally discovered their purpose, whatever that might be.


I don't think that the white light at the end of "The End" promises a "transcendent Truth," except maybe in the Kantian sense of "transcendence." True, established narrative tropes will prejudice most viewers to assume that the Losties are going to Heaven or that they'll re-enter the cycle of reincarnation. But there are no literal gods or angels in LOST; only mortal beings freakishly transformed by forces that may or may not be magical, and ghosts who apparently can construct their own afterlife waystations before moving on to what could as easily be peaceful oblivion as Heaven.

At the end of Reece's essay, following one of Zizek's MATRIX conceits about two equally-undesireable "realities," Reece asks for a "third pill would enable [Neo, and by extension Jack Shepherd] to see reality's dependency on its ideological/fictional/fantasmatic support." I think, rather, that LOST shows that man's spirit is essentially *independent* of all these things. Taking each in turn:

1) Their immersion into primary concerns of survival, community and ultimate liberty transcend all of their ideological conceptions, whether rooted in culture, religion, or empirical thinking.

2) Extra-diegetically they cannot help but *be* fictional characters, but diegetically the only "fictions" in their lives are the ideological personas they make for themselves. Whether they individually succeed in "rewriting" themselves is open to debate, but it seems to me that "The End" implies that even "the sucker" John Locke has succeeded in rewriting the fiction of himself a lot better than "the skeptic" Man in Black does.

3) As for "fantasmatic," I won't touch that one right now since it's a specialized term that Reece has apparently drawn from some unstated source, but if he cares to clarify it, I'll lay odds that I can show how the castaways transcend that too (though only in the most Kantian manner).

NEXT TO LAST LOST POSTS?, PART 1

I anticipate the possibility of doing a wrap-up LOST post once I've seen whatever add-ons appear on the DVD of the sixth season. After that, the only future in LOST blog-commentary would consist of a LOST re-watch to re-examine whatever substance there might be for my earlier speculation that LOST might be one of the few television serials to merit its entering the canon of High Art, alongside, say, film "thrillers" that have entered said canon, like Hitchcock and Chabrol. But such a rewatch is only a vague notion at present.

I don't expect much from whatever little add-ons appear on the DVD set, just as I got little from some of the conciliating comments recently uttered by Lindelof and Cuse (timed, it must be admitted, to help hype DVD sales). I did find it interesting that their stated motive for having put the castaways through the purgatory of Timeline B had to do with their desire to give their beloved characters a sort of second birth, the better to know them all over again from a different angle. (Hmm, sounds a lot like Chris Claremont's X-MEN!) This ties in with what I've termed LOST's "eternal recursiveness," in which dominant patterns in the characters' lives kept recrudescing over and over, not just to satisfy narrative demands (though that was certainly a consideration) but also to give the audience a sense of each character's essential nature. A well-thought-out purgatory sequence could have provided, if not a resolution, then at least a catharsis of self-knowledge as each character comes to grips with his or her essential nature. In every purgatory-fantasy I've ever seen, this is the whole point of characters being in purgatory in the first place.

Unfortunately, perhaps because LOST had an embarassment of richly-drawn characters, the show did not offer audiences an equal wealth of *peripeteias,* in which the characters all came to self-knowledge as a result of the parts they essayed in "Timeline B." That timeline was not a learning-experience but a last temptation of *maya,* or at least of the scriptwriter's version of Hindu/Buddhist illusion. Instead of individual self-knowledge, the characters attained a knowledge of their fatedness to be parts of a rare and special community, which might be extra-diegetically read as the fatedness of the actors and/or the audience to be a part of the LOST experience.

As I've said before, I don't have a problem with any form of wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the notion of being part of a special community doesn't offend me as such. But I do think that even in Hindu/Buddhist terms the illusions banished by the LOSTcharacters don't make a lot of sense, insofar as some seem very desireable (Hurley as a super-lucky guy) while others seem merely capricious (Sun and Jin not married and even more under the thumb of Sun's father than in reality). I tend to believe that the LOST scripters understood the narrative demands of the purgatory concept but that they chose to undermine those demands in order to protect their "hand," as poker players say. I don't feel, as some LOSTfans did, "betrayed" by such skullduggery, nor did I feel like I wasted six years of my life following a show that yielded a somewhat disappointing resolution. But I wish they'd taken a subtler route to hoax the audience, one that still played fair with the underpinnings of the purgatory-fantasy.

Of course, when you play fair, you take a chance that some audience-members will guess the secret. Some people guessed the "big reveal" of M. Night Shyamalan's THE SIXTH SENSE, and some did not. But Shyamalan still comes off better than the LOST scripters in this regard, because he used subtle storytelling to misdirect the audience rather than giving them "clues" that had no real application to the solution of the "mystery."

More on the LOST finale in Part 2.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

TROLL PLAYING PART 2

"The symbolic materials given to our senses, the Gestalten or fundamental perceptual forms which invite us to construe the pandemonium of sheer impression into a world of things and occasions, belong to the 'presentational order'. They furnish the elementary abstractions in terms of which ordinary sense-exerience is understood."-- Susanne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 98.


The other major facet of TROLL 2 that brought about its unlooked-for cult popularity is identical with the facet that vaulted Ed Wood to prominence in the 1980s: a lunatic disregard for the discursive mode of storytelling. What takes the place of this mode is just this "pandemonium of sheer impression," though in contrast to Langer's formulation it's a pandemonium that fails, due to authorial incompetence, to resolve itself into a presentational (or, to use Cassirer's term, "expressive") order.

Late in '08 I wrote an essay on the early Superman stories of Siegel and Shuster, titled "OCD on a Hotplate" as a way of describing how Siegel's scripts seemed to "wander without knowing what effect they're shooting for." But even Siegel's scripts are governed by more of the Aristotelian unities than TROLL 2. Rossella Drudi's script for the film clearly is trying to riff on many things at once. Two aspects already noted in TROLL PLAYING PART 1 include both vampire tropes and folklore about cannibalistic boogiemen (for which Scandinavian trolls *might* actually be better suited than Celtic goblins). I'll also speculate that given the film's heavy emphasis on the goblins forcing the beleaguered human protagonists to eat tainted food so that the humans will turn into plants, Drudi might even have been influenced by the mythic motif I'll call "eating the otherworld's food," which invariably causes mortals from Persephone on down to remain in the otherworld. All of these myth-motifs could have been arranged into some impressive presentational order, perhaps on a par with Jim Henson's 1986 film LABYRINTH.

But of course, Drudi and her director-collaborator Claudio Fragasso DON'T manage to arrange their sensational concepts into any kind of order, and what one gets is pure pandemonium. There have been many popular authors whose essential way of impressing their public involves basically throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at the audience in the hope of grabbing its attention. It's been a particularly popular strategy in the world of animated cartoons, which as I noted here are often the first contact young audiences have with presentational symbols lacking any discursive rationale. Of course, when Tex Avery bombards his characters with rapid-fire sensational events lacking any rationale beyond "telling a joke," both he and his audience know that they're participating in this kind of non-discursive form of entertainment. I view this form as identical with the sort of non-discursive order that Langer finds in the fairytale, whose "purpose is to gratify wishes."

But though TROLL 2 has sequences that were probably meant to be broadly humorous by Drudi and Fragasso, Fragasso's complaint that audiences were laughing at a lot of the other sequences indicates that neither he nor his wife could see how weirdly incongrous their rewritings of archaic myths had turned out. It may be remembered that Schopenhauer considered incongruity the basic appeal of all humor, and TROLL 2 is almost as much a montage of incongruous scenes as Wood's GLEN OR GLENDA. If cannibal vegetarian goblins don't seem incongrous enough, one encounters also:

--The kid-character pissing on a table of tainted goblin-food to prevent his beloved family from eating it--

--a spectral protector, the kid's grandpa, who in one scene can blast a goblin with lightning and in another gives the kid a mundane Molotov cocktail to throw at the boogeymen--

--the aforementioned use of a "double decker baloney sandwich" as a crucifix--

--an evil witch-goblin who can transform herself into a hot babe who then proceeds to have sex with a young dude while popping him some popcorn in a unique manner--

--and the source of the evil ones' powers, a "Stonehenge magical stone" which the heroes use to defeat the goblins, even though the creatures come back for a horrific coda looking none the worse for their defeat.

Appropo of my "kitchen sink" remark, I'd be tempted to call all this "kitchen sink surrealism" if an online search hadn't shown me that the term has already been used for a distinct artistic movement. But 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. Certainly the makers of TROLL 2-- including the actors, costumers, etc.-- were all guilty of incoherence of some sort, be it conceptual or purely linguistic.