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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, December 27, 2011

JOCKEYING FOR JUXTAPOSITION

At the conclusion of INTERESTING FLEISCHER QUOTE I said:

"at present I'm trying more to work around to a response to Curt Purcell's thoughts on crossovers." 

While I so meditated, Curt removed his crossover-essays from GROOVY AGE OF HORROR, so I can't respond to them.  I can, however, respond to one of the sources he invoked: Scott McCloud's use of panel-to-panel transitions in the medium of comic books, as seen in UNDERSTANDING COMICS.  I'm less concerned here with panel-t-panel transition itself, as McCloud is, than with the practice of juxtaposing images and concepts within a narrative, since this practice is vital to the understanding of crossovers.

In UC, McCloud identifies six types of transition, most of which depended on some direct association between the images denoted in each of the two panel-examples.  The one exception to this proposition-- which Curt mentioned at one point in his essay-- was a type of juxtaposition which McCloud termed "the non-sequitur, which offers no logical relationship between panels whatsoever."    Here's one example he used:


McCloud then poses the question: "Is it possible for any sequence of panels to be totally unrelated to each other?"  He answers in the negative:

“No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring combinations.”

In Jungian terms, this form of "alchemy" would be one that could be expressed through the technique of *amplification," defined thusly in the online "Glossary of Jungian terms:"

Amplification: using imagery to create a meaningful context around a symbol needing examination. Also known as elaboration of the symbol. In subjective amplification, a dreamer, for example, uses active imagination to associate to a dream symbol in order to grasp it better. In objective amplification, the analyst collects themes from mythology, alchemy, religion, and other sources to illuminate, or amplify, archetypal symbols produced in dreams or fantasy.


Assuming that one sees the above images naively-- that is, not as examples of a visual/narrative theory but expecting that some "logical relationship" exists between the disparate images for some communicative purpose-- the reader must "amplify" what the images mean in order to figure out why the author thus juxatposted them.  For instance, to a given reader the implied triumph of a politician who resembles Richard Nixon might be read as the triumph of a repressive force.  In contrast, the panel showing a piece of abstract art might be amplified to mean freedom from repression, in that abstract art originated as an attempt to deviate from the emphasis on representationalism in the world of canonical art.  Further, if a comics-narrative started with these above images and then continued to build on it with other non-sequitur images, the reader (assuming that he made the above correlation) would then attempt to build on that narrative by forming amplified associations of whatever "meaning or resonance" he detected in subsequent images.

Now, in this situation the reader would have to draw on his own subconscious associations in order to make sense of the randomly-juxtposed images (as well as words, if any were used).  However, this is not how most narratives proceed.

Most narratives, both in canonical or non-canonical art, manipulate the "meaning and resonance" of words and images much more deliberately, along the lines of McCloud's first five examples of panel-to-panel transition.  Further, in a whole work of art-- be it comics, prose, or music-- one is not limited only to horizontal transitions.  Anthropologist Edmund Leach writes:

"So it is Levi-Strauss' bold proposition that the algebra of the brain can be represented as a rectangular matrix of at least two (but perhaps several) dimensions which can be read up and down or side to side like the words of a crossword puzzle."-- Leach, CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS, p. 55.  

In most narratives, there is no need to evoke the subconscious to interpret the logical relationships: one can simply go "side to side" at all times, paying little attention to the vertical (or, as Levi-Strauss calls it, the "harmonic") relationship.  Take this crossover as an example of juxtaposing not images but whole comic-character mythologies:



The first encounter of Batman and Judge Dredd, if one wanted to classify it roughly along the lines of McCloud-ian transitions, might be called "aspect-to-aspect."  Even if a reader knows little or nothing about the mythologies of the two characters, the story by Grant and Wagner is explicit about making clear each hero's nature, particularly in terms of one aspect: relationship to the law.  An online review sums it up nicely: "The Ultimate Law Enforcer vs. the Ultimate Vigilante!" Dredd recognizes no aspect of law enforcement save following the rules and convicting perpetrators; Batman incarnates the idea, as others before me have stated, that the law does not work and that a passionate yet judicious vigilantism is needed. 

This opposition, in addition to providing the anticipated conflict of the two characters in this crossover, makes clear what resonance each character should possess in order to remain relatively consistent for the sake of the story.  But clearly there are no "subconscious" themes that require amplification here.  The juxaposition by the authors has been conscious all the way, and by and large the readers' appreciation of the authors' skill in making a meaningful juxtaposition is conscious as well.

On the whole, any kind of crossover-- of characters, universes, or what have you-- generally requires the author to give heavy thought to what qualities distinguish the respective focal presences who are being crossed over.  In other words, any theory that stresses the function of the subconscious and/or amplification with respect to the nature of crossovers would seem to be gilding the lily.  When dealing with full narratives (as opposed to panel transitions) one is more likely to get examples of Scott McCloud's alchemy in stories dealing with but one focal presence-- Batman in his early, somewhat delirious solo adventures, for example.
In the above essay, I wrote:

Now, given that I favor Jungian amplification over Freudian reductiveness, I think that all these European, Asian or Gothic-horror exoticisms *mean* something beyond just Bob Kane and Bill Finger copying every pulp device they could find. Clearly the creators thought there was some advantage of emphasizing so much exotica, or readers would have seen more tales in the DICK TRACY-like mold.
Given all my anti-Marx rants here, I would hope that any readers would know that said "meaning" has nothing to do with the usual Marxist blather.  Contrary to Frederic Jameson, examined here, the unconscious/subconscious cannot be reduced to mere political figurations.  McCloud's idea of "alchemy" is far more apposite, but the alchemy of the subconscious seems to flower best when the reader is merely wondering about how to interpret the juxtapositions within one mythos, rather than trying to forage his way through two or more at the same time.

More on crossovers in a follow-up essay, though maybe not before the New Year...


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ANOTHER KIND OF FOXY GRANDPA




I speak of Zorro, the fox, who in a real sense is one of the "grandfathers" of the superhero genre, even if many people don't deem him a "superhero" as such.  In this essay I compared this "uncanny" figure to an "atypical" (now called "naturalistic") hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a "marvelous" one, Batman:

In the many iterations of Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, most take place in a world that is essentially like that of the Pimpernel: a world which seems to have no metaphenomenal aspects. Zorro, however, is the exception. Where “Scarlet Pimpernel” is simply a code-name for a mysterious figure, Zorro’s costume confers on him a charisma that provides him with greater narrative charisma. The Zorro narratives, while insisting that Zorro is merely a skilled human, emphasize his presence as a spectre of fear to his opponents, and it is this which gives the black-clad avenger the charisma of “the uncanny.”



I stand by my assertion that Zorro possesses a "greater narrative charisma," if only by virtue of his uncanny costume, than a more mundane type like the Pimpernel. However, I must admit that until last week I'd never got round to reading the original Johnson McCully prose story that birthed Zorro-- or as McCully frequently calls him, "Senor Zorro."  (Thus we see that Roald Dahl was not the first one to write about a "Mister Fox.")

I must admit that McCully doesn't write a lot of florid passages about Zorro's supernal appearance, as pulp authors would for characters like the Shadow and the Spider. As the above illustration shows, the original prose character wears a full face-mask, not the half-mask popularized in the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks adaptation.  Only a small handful of cinematic Zorro-costumes followed the example of the novel's costume, but then, McCully himself reputedly borrowed ideas from the movie-- the tracing of the "Z" in the enemy's flesh, for example-- which were incorporated in later editions of the novel.  The full-mask makes it more logical that no one would be able to connect Zorro and Don Diego.  In contrast, when  the hero wears the half-mask, one feels tempted to speak a line like the one from the 2011 GREEN LANTERN film:

"You don't think I would recognize you because I can't see your cheekbones?"

Compared to some of the great popular fictions of the time, McCully's novel is slight, and probably would have been forgotten had it not been adapted to the film-medium.  A substantial portion of the novel deals with Don Diego's romance with Senorita Lolita Pulido: he romances her in his identity as the mysterious but manly thief Zorro, and then turns around, pretending to be too effete as Diego to bother with details like wooing.  Superman's creators purportedly took strong influence from the Zorro model, but the Diego of the novel projects less weakness (though he does often speak of being fatigued) than the languidness of the bored aristocrat.

One interesting detail is that the novel is resolved when lone hero Zorro is joined in his efforts by The Avengers-- what is what, in just one line, a group of aristocratic young supporters call themselves when they rally to this Spanish Robin Hood.  I haven't checked yet to see if they make it into the best-known film adaptations, though they may be the basis for the serial Zorro's Fighting Legion.

Though McCully doesn't spend a lot of time describing Zorro, toward the novel's end Diego relates an interesting take on how the very identity of Zorro empowered him:

"It is a peculiar thing to explain, senores.  The moment I donnned cloak and mask, the Don Diego part of me fell away.  My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins, my voice grew strong and firm, fire came to me!  And the moment I removed cloak and mask I was the languid Don Diego again.  Is it not a peculiar thing?"

I hardly need point out (though I will) that this is the essence of "uncanny phenomenality," in which no marvelous phenomenon actually takes place but there is some phenomenon that suggests the breaking of reality's borders.  This, more than the practical considerations of the costume, is what makes Zorro a hero of the uncanny.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

EXEMPLARY STAN, EXCEPTIONAL JACK 'N' STEVE PART II

To recap: fannish opinion usually considers that famed editor/writer Stan Lee didn't do anything of worth prior to Silver Age Marvel Comics; that he must have been coasting on the talents of his artists-- largely Kirby and Ditko, though sometimes the argument is extended to all the Marvel artists as a whole.

I for one find this argument may be a bit too pat.  Whether one agrees with it or not, though, depends on whether one believes that the work Kirby and Ditko did prior to their collaborations with Lee was substantially like the work they did slightly later with Stan Lee.  Many fans have seen no essential differences between the Kirby of CHALLENGES OF THE UNKNOWN and the Kirby of FANTASTIC FOUR.  I take the position that there are considerable differences between these two phases of commerical creativity.

However, "Defending Stan Lee" in terms of his pre-Marvel creativity presents two large problems.

The first is that in many of his public statements following the success of the Marvel line, Stan himself dismissed his Golden Age work in the comic book medium.  Of course, in so doing Lee was patently attempting to design a story of heroic proportions: in which his Marvel Comics work alone shone above the dreck he'd been creating for the previous twenty years.  While it's quite likely that Lee had no deep and abiding regard for the work he'd done prior to Marvel, his judgment of it isn't centered in any critical process as such.  One suspects that if an early comics-character like Lee's "Jack Frost" had become as extraordinarily popular as the Human Torch was in that era, and continued to be revived to good effect, Lee would probably not have minded linking his name to that chilly concept.

The second problem, though, is that unless one goes out and buys tons of hard-to-find Lee Timely-Atlas comics, there's no way to assess the quality of Lee's "dreck."  Recent years have seen a greater turnout of reprints of the Timely-Atlas line, but I suspect that we're not going to see omnibus editions devoted to goofy teen-comics like MARGIE, WILLIE and NELLIE THE NURSE-- even though it's arguable that it was in stories like these that Lee honed the brand of "insult humor" he used so well in his Silver Age superhero comics.

The expected riposte from Lee-loathers would probably be, "So what?"  While Steve Ditko didn't enter the comics field until 1953 and didn't work for Timely/Atlas until 1955, Jack Kirby had been working in comics only a little longer than Stan Lee had.  In contrast to Lee's middling record, Kirby, albeit in concert with Joe Simon, had turned out a plethora of conceptions.  Not all of them were successful, but even co-creating only Captain America and the Boy Commandos would put him (in many fans' estimation) far ahead of Lee's co-creation of such minor figures as the Destroyer and Headline Harris.

For many fans, this ends the discussion.  Early Kirby created more famous characters than early Lee did, so Kirby alone was the creative one, period.

However, that's not a viable measure of creativity as such.

Were Lee's Golden Age stories dreck?  I've read only a smattering of his works, though it's not always easy to tell what Lee did or did not write, as demonstrated here by blogger Nick Caputo.  Some have been bad, and some have been good-- but only in a special way: the way I would term "exemplary," but never "exceptional."

I said in EXEMPLARY AND EXCEPTIONAL 2 that I felt a story could be very ordinary in some respects yet exemplary in just one, as was the first Batman story.  The same is generally true of early Lee work like his war-comics, humor comics, and superhero comics.  A collaboration between Stan Lee and Dan deCarlo (Stan 'n' Dan, as they were then billed) might be, in terms of plot, a fairly ordinary cute-girl comic like MILLIE THE MODEL, but it would in my view be exemplary if it possessed some quality above the ordinary.  I did perceive a sprightliness, an effervescence, in Lee's early humor work that I don't see in a lot of the humor comics of the period, which I do dismiss as entirely ordinary.




Kirby's work, however, also has its moments of badness and goodness, but when it was good, it was good in the "exceptional" sense, or, to gloss John Romita's remarks, once again, in its sense of "completeness."  Even enjoyable Kirby works might present a number of narrative problems, as I argued in my analysis of the first CHALLENGERS story.    But Kirby's narrative lapses never diminish that sense of artistic integrity.

I mentioned in Part 1 that one of my forum-foes dismissed not only Lee, but pretty much every comics-writer in the Silver Age.  It seems puzzling to me that this opponent could see special qualities in everything Kirby did, and nothing in the work of his contemporaries, even though most if not all of them were engaged in addressing the same pre-teen audience, and were usually employing most of the same story-motifs.

I suggest, in my intersubjective way, that what this individual took for absolute quality was just one type of creative quality: the quality of the artist who brings "integrity" and "completeness" to his narrative world because almost everything in it constitutes something of significance to the artist.  This is the world of the exceptional.

However, the world of the exemplary does not cease to exist in comparison to the exceptional, even though many fans have expressed such opinions.  Stan Lee probably was never a visionary creator as Kirby was.  He probably wasn't even as productive of new concepts as another non-artist writer like Gardner Fox was.  But I find it amazing that many fans can view creativity in terms of absolutely nothing else than "new concepts"-- particularly since even "new concepts" are always derived in part from previous ones.

Lee's type of "exemplary" creativity was certainly not focused on blazing new trails, in contrast to the highly personal approaches of Kirby and Ditko.  But fans who can dismiss twenty years of work as being uniformly bad just because earlier generations of fans never said much good about the work recalls the parable about how medieval doctors refused to investigate the nature of any disease not covered by the works of Galen.

In other words, the fannish narrative of Lee as dreck-producing drone-- even when it's been put forth by Lee himself!-- is just another example of "received wisdom."

Which, as we all should know--

Is no sort of wisdom whatsoever.

EXEMPLARY STAN, EXCEPTIONAL JACK 'N' STEVE

"...there were a few guys who did what I would call a complete world on paper.  If you looked at one panel of Jack Kirby, you knew where you were.  You were in Jack Kirbyland.  And when you were in Ditkoland, you knew where you were.  The reason I called myself a generic illustrator [is] because my stuff, I could make you believe you were in anybody's land... whatever those guys do has an integrity, a completeness about it; they created an entire world." -- John Romita, Interview in COMICS JOURNAL #252, 2003.

As the essay's title should suggest, I'm referring back to the entwined critical concepts I introduced back in this 2010 essay.

My initial definition was as follows:

for me "exemplary" means principally "that which is a good example of something," while "exceptional" means "that which goes beyond what is expected."

A rough parallel can be made between my categories and the dichotomy suggested by Romita above, with "generic illustration" standing in for "that which serves as a good example," while his idea of a "complete world" parallels "that which goes beyond the expected."

In part two of that brief essay-series, I compared the first Batman story, which was exemplary purely in terms of its accomplishment of introducing the hero, and the Englehart-Rogers stint in DETECTIVE COMICS, in which the creators attempted to boil down the appeal of the Batman mythos into six exceptional issues.

But as the title also suggests, I think I've come up with a better example of the dichotomy: the Great Myth of Marvel Comics.  American comics fandom knows no more vital myth: in the beginning there was chaos, until the Three Gods of Comics sorted Kosmos out of chaos, and trailblazed the way to the promised land of Adult Fandom.

But with the orderliness of Kosmos, each god had to be assigned his divine domain.  To the God KIRBY, fandom assigned the heights of heaven, wherefrom he rules forever. To the God DITKO, fandom assigned the great seas of churning anxiety, where he too rules in great dignity.  And finally, to the God LEE, fandom cast him into the Land of the Dead, because as we all know he never "created" anything and couldn't have done squat if it wasn't for Kirby and Ditko.

I would hope readers might detect a note of sarcasm in the last sentence.  No, *I* don't believe the beloved fannish fiction that Stan Lee was nothing without the stellar presences of Ditko and Kirby, but if I had a quarter (inflation you know) for every time I've heard some fan make that statement, I'd probably be rich enough to publish my own line of comics (and not even miss the dough when the line went belly-up).

As I mentioned here, I'd recently been embroiled in yet another Lee-Kirby-Ditko argument in which not a few of my opponents argued in such terms.  In fact, one participant not only dismissed everything Stan Lee had ever done, but also every other Silver Age comics writer: Broome, Fox, Binder, Kanigher.  There was no attempt to offer any argument as to why they were bad, of course, or why Kirby and Ditko shone so brightly above the muck and mire.

In Part 2 I'll suggest some arguments as to why this perception came about, and why (keeping in line with my project of intersubjectivity) it's both right in some ways, and wrong in others.








Wednesday, December 14, 2011

INTERESTING FLEISCHER QUOTE

From the Michael Fleischer interview in COMICS JOURNAL #56 (1980):
"A lot of people think that a story is the place to be a good citizen.  The place to be a good citizen is not in your stories.  The place to be a good citizen is in your life and in your behavior... a story is an arena for the expression of real feelings, and not for the expression of platitudes or the feelings you think people ought to have."

This is actually a pretty good statement as to why I validate a writer like Frank Miller, even though I wasn't entirely happy with the implications of his 300 graphic novel (as noted in my review of the film-adaptation) and can't begin to understand his perverse political take on the Occupy Movement. 

Now, I will note briefly that what we consider "canonical literature" is often if not always informed by some meditation on moral nature.  Such moral concern causes me to label it the literature of "thematic realism," while those forms leaning more toward kinetic concerns I designate in terms of "thematic escapism."  I won't say that the dividing line between the two is hard and fast; it's more like an equator, approximated rather than physically locatable.

Yet I do feel that great literature is never purely defined by morality, as some critics, like John Gardner and Wayne C. Booth, have implied.  Expressiveness in the Cassirerean sense remains at the heart of both forms of literature.

Food for future thought? We'll see, but at present I'm trying more to work around to a response to Curt Purcell's thoughts on crossovers.  So morality will have to wait for later.

Friday, December 9, 2011

SHORT THOUGHTS ON DAREDEVIL AND SPIDER-MAN

(For some reason all my posts with the word "quick" in the title get a lot of views.  Let's see if the same thing happens with the word "short.")

The following is excerpted from a Yahoogroup argument, hence the exclusion of a person's name:

_________________

I disagree with [Blank]'s comment that the early Daredevil stories are a "mess." The series doesn't show the dynamism of the Usual Marvel Suspects, but it seems to have started in a gimmicky vein, just as the Hulk did. However, Lee and Ditko found a way to make the Hulk more compelling, while Lee, Wood and Colan and others pretty much kept DD a standard superhero, who was perhaps more like a Golden Age character than any other Marvel hero. Throughout the Lee run there are strong issues, average issues, and weak issues. There aren't any brilliant issues, but IMO that's a long way from being a "mess." A mess is the first 6 issues of the Lee-Kirby HULK.


I think Lee's vision of the character followed the same arc as Spidey-- super-powers make it possible for a retiring/reticent character to bust out and do all sorts of wild id-indulging things. Frank Miller's id is all about unleashing copious quantities of violence, though, while for Lee, the id was all about having wacky fun while beating up no-goods. Still, Lee was pretty good about remembering that Matt Murdock's reticent identity had a different character than Spidey's did, and that MM was more consciously adult than PP.







Monday, December 5, 2011

FOXY GRANDPA STORIES

As I've recently gotten involved in some ongoing arguments on the old Lee-Kirby credit thing, I've decided to post a few of my observations here as well, starting with this one:

_____________

...none of the stories Stan Lee tells as to the origin of characters he originated are any more far-fetched than those of Kirby.

Remember how Kirby said he came up with the Hulk? Seeing some news story about a woman lift a car off her child, or somesuch. This is what I call a "foxy grandpa" story, because it makes gramps look really clever. Kirby doesn't mention any other factors in his creation of the Hulk-- not any suggestions from Stan about making the Hulk look like Frankenstein, nor whether he Kirby was aware of Dick Briefer's use of that character (I've heard someone claim JK knew of DB), or any influence from THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN.

Lee's spider-on-a-wall for me is not an insidious credit-hogging ploy. It's another "foxy grandpa" story, which we only know to be untrue because of the testimony of Ditko and a few others.

Consider too that by the time Spidey got popular, Stan probably didn't remember particulars as to who did what any more. Of course, even if you'd asked him at the time about Spidey's true genesis, he might not have cared to admit having derived any part of it from the Fly, given the reputation of litigious Archie Comics.

Did Lee hog credit at times? Probably, but you've also got to remember that in the 1960s nobody cared about the fine details of who did what but a handful of earnest fans.


Kirby's descriptions of how he came up with stuff are of a piece with Stan's; lots of generalized metaphors with very few details about corporate or cultural influences.











Saturday, December 3, 2011

RISING AND FALLING STARS

At the onset of this essay I wrote:

Q: When is a superhero not a superhero?

A: When the *dynamis* expressed by either the plot-functions or character-functions within the corpus of a given superhero's exploits is not commensurate with those characteristic of the pure adventure mythos, aligning rather with another mythos, such as that of irony, drama or comedy.
Many fans would not find that answer either funny (which it isn't supposed to be) or intriguing (which it is).  Not a few would see no point in slicing and dicing the qualities of what makes superheroes run, much less superheroes across different mythoi (or as those fans would doubtless call them, "genres.") 

I do have a point, of course.  Having evolved my own definitions for what does and does not belong in the superhero idiom, I find it encumbent on me to formulate reasons as to why I assign a given work in one category or another.  Anything else would be mere whim, assignable to Kant's notion of "agreeability" rather than rational judgment.

And then, of course, there's always the additional motivation of having made a wrong judgment in the past oneself.

In this essay I wrote near the conclusion:

...in my "Defining the Superhero" article for COMICS INTERPRETER, I toyed with the notion that Paul Atreides of DUNE might technically fall within the range of the superhero idiom, albeit one in the *mythos* of drama rather than the more normative adventure *mythos.*

The above recap is an oversimplification of what I wrote in the INTERPRETER article.  I didn't actually bring up any of the complexities of the Fryean mythoi in that article, so I didn't differentiate him from, say, Superman in that respect.  Back then I only focused on arriving at a fundamental definition of the superhero as a type of hero associated with the metaphenomenal, though back in 2002 I was still a long way from positing the NUM theory.  Only later would I define DUNE as a drama, albeit a drama in an agonistic mode (term defined here).

Similar questions of categorization arose in the three-part essay series ADVENTURE-COMEDY VS. COMEDY-ADVENTURE, from which the above Q/A was taken.  In all of these essays I contrasted an example of some superhero-ish work in which "elements" of either comedy or adventure predominated, though I usually didn't break down the elements specifically, as the first quote specifies, into those of either plot or character.  I did do so in this essay, analyzing DOCTOR WHO and STARGATE, but those were both negative examples, works that did not fall into my category of the "pure adventure."

The usefulness of the plot/character dichotomy in that essay impacts on my intention to make my categorization process as rigorous as possible.  For instance, if I wish to make a wiki-list of all superhero works that fall into the adventure mythos, that list would consist of:

All works of "pure adventure" (in which both plot and character clearly evoke adventurous *dynamis*

Works in which the plot alone conveys the adventurous *dynamis* and overrides the character-*dynamis*, which belongs to another mythos

Works in which the characters alone convey the adventurous *dynamis* and override the plot-*dynamis*, which belongs to another mythos

As per my remarks on DUNE, often two of the most easily intertwined mythoi are that of adventure and that of drama.  Therefore I'll now cite five examples of works in which (a) adventure dominates plot and character, (b) drama dominates plot or character, and (c) adventure dominates plot or character.  Since in KNOWNING THE DYNAMICS FROM THE DYNAMIC I used the TV franchise STARGATE as a negative example, it amused me to have all five examples "follow a star."

STAR WARS serves as an unreserved example of the "pure adventure," in which both plot and characters evoke the dynamis of adventure.  One can certainly detect elements of drama, comedy and even irony in the film-series (much as I did with four other franchises in this essay).  But few would debate that STAR WARS is first and foremost an adventure film-series, though naturally many would not agree with my assigning Luke Skywalker to the superheroic idiom.


As noted above I've already given a negative example, so I'll recapitulate what I said about STARGATE in KNOWING:

Over time the first serial and its epigoni took on an increasing resemblance to the "starship melodramas" of the STAR TREK franchise. I don't think STARGATE was ever as much about what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself," as all of the TREKshows have arguably been. But in the STARGATE franchise the adventure-mythos became somewhat dennatured. I view this as a lack of heroic *dynamis* within the overall plot-structure, rather than within the concept of the characters

So in STARGATE the mythos of drama pervades the plotting of the series, overshadowing characters who would otherwise fit adventure-archetypes.

Another negative example, but one in which the mythos of drama dominates the characters rather than the plot, would be the 1978-80 versions of BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA.  The plot, in which noble humans repeatedly faced the menace of Cylon invaders, clearly takes inspiration from STAR WARS, but the characters lack the *dynamis* of the adventure-mythos, tending toward drama in its manifestation of "melodrama." 

Thus neither STARGATE nor the first BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA make it onto my master list (one shouldn't even have to ask about the second GALACTICA, a "pure drama" in all respects).

On to positive examples that *would* make my hypothetical list:

DC Comics' STARMAN, in most of the iterations of the franchise, has usually been a "pure adventure."  However, the Starman introduced by James Robinson, whose continuing series ran from 1994-2001, exemplifies the type in which the plot is the main source of the adventure-dynamis.  Jack Knight, the serial's hero, is from the first framed as an eternally reluctant fighter, who ends the series by getting out of the superhero business and embracing family life.  This *dynamis* fits the archetypal characters of drama more than adventure, but Robinson is largely successful in using the characters' dramatic arcs to ramp up the spirit of adventure, as opposed to its negative example, STARGATE, in which dramatic plots dominates adventurous characters.

My final example must be one in which characters with the adventure-*dynamis* override a plot with a dramatic emphasis.  My choice here is  the 1978 American STAR BLAZERS, adapted from the Japanese anime TV-series SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (which I have not seen in its original form).  Like GALACTICA, most of the story took place aboard a ship with a multitudinous crew, which of course was exploited for melodramatic plot-developments.  However, in contrast to GALACTICA, the heroics of main characters Derek Wildstar and Mark Venture against the formidable "Leader Desslock" received far more emphasis than any of the melodramatic situations aboard ship.  Like many Japanese anime of the period, STAR BLAZERS taps a vein of world-weariness that may stem from Japanese culture's reactions to postwar anomie.  Nevertheless, even if the main heroes are not quite as uncompromised as Luke Skywalker, their *dynamis* is allied to that of those space-opera heroes who conform to the superheroic idiom.

I realize that these five examples by themselves would not be sufficient to prove my case.  I believe that I could make a full-fledged textual analysis of plot and character motifs in all five works that would so prove it.  But that would be an undertaking too complex for a blogpost, and detractors would simply disregard sustained critical analysis if it did not lead to some preformed conclusion, like the popular "Superheroes are fascist," which still comes up from time to time.  Given those circumstances, I'm content to let this argument rest with no more than an outline of my methodology.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

WHAT WOMEN WILL PT. 3

"When animus and anima meet, the animus draws his sword of power and the anima ejects her poison of illusion and seduction."-- Carl Jung, AION, pt. II.


First, one more go-round for the assertion made in an earlier essay that engendered this essay series:

The action-heroine is a better symbol of the Schopenhaurean Will than the male action-hero.


I'll amend one minor aspect of that statement: it should read "Schopenhaurean-Nietzschean Will."  Reason being that although Schopenhauer may be the first great philosopher to expound upon a concept of The Will, Nietzsche's reconfiguration of the concept to suit his own priorities is no less significant.  Indeed, one might hazard that the two men have given us the opposite sides of one coin, both of which suggest an emotional dynamization invovled, whether one is denying or celebrating the allure of The Will.

At the end of WHAT WOMEN WILL PT. 1, I wrote:

In the next installment of WHAT WOMEN WILL, I'll explore a little more as to the archetypal associations that arise when the woman is "Taker" rather than "Giver."







In point of fact Part II contained only intimations on this subject, as I deciced that a side-excursion into Nietzsche-Land would prove valuable.  The above topic will now be addressed here in full.

I also said, at the end of Part II:
In part 3 I will examine more fully the two archetypes I find implicit in the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche-- the Compassionate Man and the Barbarous Woman-- and relate them further to the archetypes arising in modern popular fiction.

Note the word "implicit."  I am not stating that these archetypes are consciously promulgated by the two philosophers, but that I find them implicit in certain of their writings.  Schopenhauer, who exalts men over women because the former sex possesses both greater strength and greater reason, must be imagining his ideal in the Compassionate Man, who alone possesses the power to deny the life-force within the Will.  Thus Schopenhauer should be viewed as a thinker aligned with "the ancient force that gives," though his ideal exemplars of this force are male.  Nietzsche aligns himself with the virtues of "the ancient force that takes," and generally praises male qualities almost as much as Schopenhauer.  However, he admires the feminine skills of "dissimulation" that Schopenhauer professes to despise, and goes so far as to say that:
Woman is indescribably more evil than man; also cleverer: a good nature is in a woman a form of degeneration." - Nietzsche


I suggest that Nietzsche was charmed, perhaps even titillated, by his own image of the Barbarous Woman, who might thus be seen as a better representative of his celebration of "the force that takes" than any male archetype in his repertoire. That said, I freely admit that Nietzsche's left-handed compliments to his idea of barbarous women sustain only a tenuous connection to the archetype to which I alluded in Part II with my citation of "the Bloodbath of the Goddess Anat," or earlier references to the "action-heroines" of popular fiction.










And yet, the connection is there, and can be glossed somewhat by the above quote from Carl Jung, whose psychological theories were influenced by both philosophers.

Like the two philosophers, Jung was a man of his time.  In the essay "Woman in Europe" (1927) he devotes a modicum of respect toward the changes feminism was wreaking in the society of his time.  He avers that feminism represents a "step toward social independence," even while he worries as to whether "woman is doing something not wholly in accord with, if not directly injurious to, her feminine nature."

Given that Jung did not believe in gross essentialism-- i.e., that women had a single nature any more than men did-- he evolved the theory of the anima/animus archetypes, "anima" being the feminine soul within man and "animus" the masculine soul within women.  As shown in the quote above, he imagines the female's animus possessing a "sword of power," emblematic of physical strength, while the male's anima possesses a witchy power of "illusion and seduction," like Schopenhauer's "dissimulation."

From this idea, that women could have masculine portions of their souls and men could have the complementary feminine aspects, it's no great step to what I like to call the "reverse-archetypes" found throughout mythology and literature.  Jung does not elaborate on these in AION, but mythology is certainly replete with "Males Who Give"-- Osiris, Orpheus, Jesus-- as well as "Women Who Take," ranging from female monsters like harpies and sirens and war-goddesses like Anat.  These are, in my view, examples of what Schopenhauer calls "the more developed Idea resulting from this victory over several lower Ideas or objectifications of will."

Now, on the cultural level, these inversions of expected male and female propensities would be equally valid.  But why o why (at long last) have I said that "the action-heroine is a better symbol of the Schopenhaurean Will than the male action-hero?"

Simplicity itself.  Whereas the two reverse-archetypes are equal in cultural terms, they are different in terms of their contravention of natural law, as discussed here

In the "real world" of experience, males, especially in their role of rulers, are capable of becoming cultural lawgivers or dispensers of wisdom.  Some men may choose to emphasize "the force that takes," and become warlords of mythic proportions, and some may choose to emphasize compassion, "the force that gives." However, real women-- culturally known for representing "the force that gives"-- have a physical disadvantage in terms of attempting to act out the role of "the force that takes."

Given that fact of physical law, why then do we have mythologies that depict goddesses of battle?  Why Anat, Athena, and Ishtar, among many others?  And why should literature take any pleasure in presenting mortal women as winning battles against men, whether it be Britomart in THE FAERIE QUEENE, Mrs. Corney in OLIVER TWIST, or non-superpowered fighters like Batgirl and Black Canary?

Precisely because, as I discussed here:

'"the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people," even if it were sufficient for human beings politically, can never be sufficient in the world of literature.'

Thus, when fictional action-heroes do their kickass thing, they are in essence "going with the flow," conforming to an archetype of male behavior based in both culture and physical nature.  When fictional action-heroines kick ass, they are in essence "swimming against the current." This current is best incarnated by the literary trope of "what women want," which in Chaucer and elsewhere is nothing less than "sovereignty over their husbands." In the real world this can only be done by manipulation of the "force that gives," by persuading the man to do her will through "dissimulation" or sexual attractiveness. 

Action-heroines, however, work their own will.  They align themselves with a reverse-archetype that describes not real experience but a gesture toward desired experience.  That implies a greater level of conflict in this reverse-archetype in that it contravenes (albeit in fiction, where nothing is impossible) both physical law and cultural experience.

This manner of conflict, or "strife," is best described with one more quote from gloomy old Schopenhauer:

Thus from the strife of lower phenomena the higher arise, swallowing them all up, but yet realising in the higher grade the tendency of all the lower.



 













Monday, November 28, 2011

WHAT WOMEN WILL PART 2

"Anat kills the people living in valleys, in cities and on the seashore and in the land of sunrise, until the cut off heads of soldiers were reaching to her belt and she was wading up to her waist in blood. Violently she smites and gloats, Anat cuts them down and gazes; her liver exhaults in mirth ... for she plunges her knees in the blood of soldiers, her loins in the gore of warriors, till she has had her fill of slaughtering in the house, of cleaving among the tables."-- "The Bloodbath of Anat," Ras Shamra texts, translator not credited.

"The perfect woman is a higher type of human than the perfect man, and also something much more rare."-- Friedrich Nietzsche, HUMAN ALL TOO HUMAN, pt. 377.



In Part 1 of WHAT WOMEN WILL I put forth the proposition that even though philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was something less than flattering in his comments upon women, his theory of the will remains useful for valorizing my concept of the "woman-as-willing-subject"-- which takes in, but certainly isn't limited to, the more well-known concept of the "willing woman."  In the essay ON WOMEN, Schopenhauer himself values the "strength" and "reason" of men as against the "dissimulations" of women, so one would expect that his theory of the will would celebrate the masculine principle of *yang,* or what Frank Herbert calls "the ancient force that takes."

Such an expectation turns out not to be the case.  Though Schopenhauer believes that the will is the only thing-in-itself that humankind can know, he also believes that happiness lies in one's being able to transcend or even abolish the will in oneself:
"...we freely acknowledge that what remains after the complete abolition of the will is, for all who are still full of the will, assuredly nothing. But also conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies, is - nothing."-- Schopenhauer, THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION.
In Friedrich Nietzsche's early years he might be described as the most prominent disciple of the gloomy philosopher.  In later years, however, Nietzsche rejected Schopenhauer's interpretation of the will:

"Granted finally that one succeeded in explaining our entire instinctual life as the development and ramification of one basic form of will—as the will to power, as my theory—; granted that one could trace all organic functions back to this will to power and could also find in it the solution to the problem of procreation and nourishment—they are one problem—one would have acquired the right to define all efficient force unequivocally as: will to power. The world seen from within, the world described and defined according to its `intelligible character’—it would be `will to power’ and nothing else."-- Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, part 36.
Where Schopenhauer desired to see the will "turn and deny itself," Nietzsche was more preoccupied in the subject's embrace of chaos.  In this essay I found that the latter philosopher was concerned with a "deeper mental transformation" than anything found in Sade, a writer to whom Camille Paglia unwisely compared Nietzsche.  Yet though my opening Nietzsche quote is one which sounds roughly complimentary toward females, the philosopher's other writings are replete with questionable pronouncements upon the fair sex.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche's position on the nature of femininity is more ambivalent than Schopenhauer's by far.  Whereas Schopenhauer allows women no greater virtue than dissimulation, Nietzsche admires their talent for single-mindedness:

"In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man."-- BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, part 135. 
Now, this concept of women being more "barbarous" may provide only the most tenuous similitude with the image evoked in my first quote: that of the war-goddess Anath.  I am not stating that Nietzsche had any interest in this particular archetype, but I think his definition of will as "will-to-power" has interesting consequences in relation to the archetype.

I noted above that even though Schopenhauer champions the male sex for "strength and reason," he doesn't give us a vision of the will as being fulfilling because it empowers us.  Rather, he champions a vision of men (implicitly only men, since women are bereft of reason) who abolish will.  It's questionable as to what the philosopher thinks such transformed men will be like, but given the heavy emphasis in his writings upon the virtue of compassion, I would venture that Schopenhauer's subjects will be best aligned with "the ancient force that gives," to quote Frank Herbert once more.

Nietzsche allows for the possibility of compassionate acts in his philosophical universe as well, but for him kindness results from a "superfluity" of power emanating from his noble ubermensch.  Nietzsche is therefore more aligned to "the ancient force that takes," and it is in this light that one may see that he values such *yang* energies in both sexes, even if he might prefer (as BGAE suggests) that women should not *overtly* compete with men.  Thus, even while he would admit that women might be more barbarous, or even more "evil" than men, one can't turn to Nietzsche for a valorization of Anath or similar figures.

In part 3 I will examine more fully the two archetypes I find implicit in the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche-- the Compassionate Man and the Barbarous Woman-- and relate them further to the archetypes arising in modern popular fiction.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES (1962)

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I usually don't reprint essays from my film-blog here, but I decided that I would do so with this one, inasmuch as its main topic-- sublimity and humor-- touches on some of the material covered in the CUTEY FUNNY posts.


________________________






“From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step”-- Napoleon Bonaparte.


Rarely does one see the opposite assertion: that one can go to the ridiculous to the sublime in one step. This rarity probably relates to the dynamics of producing both effects, at least in fictional narrative. When a creator seeks to invoke the sublime—which in my view is essentially identical with sci-fi’s “sense of wonder”—the creator tries to invoke a sense of majesty or awesomeness to some phenomenon. When the creator fails to do so, the disconnect between intention and execution often has a comical effect. In cinema, many of the most popular “bad films” are those that suffer such a disconnect, as seen in Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and Phil Tucker’s ROBOT MONSTER.


“Bad film” connoisseurs have shown little regard for Bruno VeSota’s 1962 sci-fi comedy, INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. In all likelihood this is because INVASION is intended to be ridiculous from the start—literally, since the first credit of the film is the jokey “R.I Diculous Presents.” INVASION follows the tradition of broad comedy a la Abbott and Costello, focusing on frenetic slapstick and simple spoofs of “straight” genres. Such films usually show no insights into what makes the “straight” genre appealing. INVASION is an exception, for it does have such insights. Indeed, the aggressive stupidity of the film, whose humor shouldn’t be overly funny to anyone out of grade school, makes it a little easier to view said insights.

INVASION opens less like a sci-fi parody than a service comedy, focusing on the misadventures of Penn and Philbrick, two dim-witted army privates assigned to duty on a missile base. Penn is nominally the “straight man” of the duo, heaping Abbott-like abuse upon his Costello-like partner, a whining child-man who reads comic books. Specifically, Philbrick reads the space-opera comics of “Space Commander Connors,” who also has his own TV show and marketing campaign. Later, one of the film’s real aliens asks Philbrick what “comic books” are. He replies that “they’re our army tech manuals”—a lame joke that may contain more truth than humor.

In contrast to the service comedies of 1940s Hollywood, everyone in the army is as idiotic as the two protagonists, from a sergeant who converses in Beatnik-speak to a wacky, gun-waving colonel. The colonel whips the plot into motion by choosing Penn and Philbrick to be part of a detachment sent to inspect the site of a recent atom-bomb test. According to the colonel, seven days have gone by, which is adequate time for the “fallout” to disperse, but aerial reconnaissance spotted a strange natural cave opened up by the bomb. Later it’ll be disclosed that the “Star Creatures” of the title are camped out in the cave, and have been there for ten years, but said aliens never comment on having weathered any nuclear explosions. The old force-field trick, perhaps. At any rate the colonel sends the detachment off to investigate the cave for no particular reason.

Following a few more forgettable comic escapades, the detachment arrives at the cave. Most of the soldiers are captured and put into stasis by the Star Creatures, but the aliens allow Penn and Philbrick to remain conscious for interrogation. The aliens take two forms: super-strong mindless plant-creatures called “vege-men” (guys in silly-looking tree-suits) and their mistresses, two stacked space-amazons wearing tight-fitting one-piece swimsuits and high heels. Penn describes the girls as being “seven feet tall,” but this comment may just be a way of masking how short the two heroes really are. Jonathan Haze’s script sneaks a ribald reference into the names of the amazons, who are “Doctor Puna” and “Professor Tanga.” Someone liked the pun so much that those names also appear in the credits, though no other actor in the lead credits has a character-name so referenced.

The space amazons are, in essence, the element of Haze’s script that most pushes the crude humor from the ridiculous to the sublime. Sci-fi cinema of the 1950s sports a fair number of stories about alien worlds ruled by women, as seen in 1954’s CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and 1958’s QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE. In these films the females possess technology superior to that of Earth, but their feminine emotions make them vulnerable to the charms of hunky Earthmen. INVASION follows this basic pattern, but Tanga and Puna are scientists who are far more intelligent than any Earth-denizen in the story, rather than simply inheriting technology from their culture. Their ability to loom over the short soldiers is of course exploited for sex appeal—lots of shots of Philbrick looking straight up into Puna’s cleavage—but it also allows an interesting reversal, in that Puna and Tanga can and do frequently push or knock the two males about with impunity. To be sure, one line suggests that the males back home may be equally big, since Haze’s script devotes a few sentences to describing their culture as a “three-phase society,” in which men are the warriors, women are “the technicals” (implicitly the rulers?), and vege-men are the slaves. Haze says nothing further about the male natives of the alien world, but curiously takes the trouble to relate the history of how the women took control of the vege-men by killing off their leader (Che Gherkin, perhaps) and confining future vege-men to grow only from their “pastures.” To be sure, this mini-history is used as a cue for a lot of dopey vegetable jokes, as well as one of many witticisms about how much the vegetable slaves are treated like the army’s “yardbirds.” Still, the conquest and neutralization of the vege-men sounds a lot like standard tropes concerning amazon-societies conquering and neutralizing the male sex.

The “Star Creatures” originally came to Earth as scouts for possible invasion. As noted earlier they’ve been stuck down in this cave for ten years, stranded by damage their spaceship sustained on landing and unable to communicate with the home planet. That damage has just been repaired, however, and the amazons are making ready to blast off, taking Penn, Philbrick, and the rest of their detachment along as specimens into “the black voids of space.”

For some reason everything the space-babes say starts to sound dirty after a while. Maybe it’s those names…

The big girls have a chink in their armor, though: ten years is a long time without a man. Tanga doesn’t seem particularly charmed by their captives, and has issues with the male sex generally: “Stupid arrogant braggarts, all of them, with their illusions of superiority!” Her subordinate Puna, however, seems receptive to Philbrick’s attentions, and Tanga tells her that the Earth-man has merely stimulated her “maternal instincts.” This effectively turns the sci-fi trope of the “invading virile Earthman” on its head; in INVASION it’s the men who must “stoop to conquer,” seducing the superior females with their childlike weakness.

True, Penn does try one show of force: ambushing Puna to take her gun. She puts his lights out with a handy judo-toss, so Philbrick must fast-talk the amazon into receiving a cultural education on the human custom of kissing. In a schtick probably swiped from some Three Stooges short, the human-alien kiss creates electric-spark sounds and both of them are semi-paralyzed with ecstacy. Penn manages to drag Philbrick away from his conquest and the two escape.

Back at the army base, the two doofuses fail to convince their chicken colonel of the impending danger—that is, until Philbrick reveals that he is a member of “Space Commander Connors’ Secret Squadron.” The colonel is a member too—“Space pals forever!”—and so he and his two new buddies lead another (very small) detachment against the alien cave. This ersatz “cavalry” promptly gets detained by a group of roaming Native Americans who happen to be in the neighborhood. Philbrick explains their mission, only to once again invoke the name of Commander Connors, whereon the Indians’ leader reveals that he too is a member of the squadron. In fact, he has a superior rank to both Philbrick and the colonel. “Outranked by a savage,” grouses the colonel. The cavalry and the Indians both get drunk on firewater, leaving Penn and Philbrick once more alone to plumb the perilous papier-mache cavern.

By the only kind of luck such heroes ever have—the dumb kind—the soldiers not only sneak into the cave without being torn apart by vege-men, they manage to launch the amazons’ spaceship without anyone aboard, where it will be lost in space. Soon Puna and Tanga learn they’ve been marooned on Earth, and conclude that when they don’t return to their homeworld the invasion will be called off. Tanga doesn’t take it well, beating up both men and threatening to shoot them. Puna draws her own weapon and forces Tanga to surrender. She suggests that they throw themselves upon the Earthmen’s mercy. Penn gives Tanga the requisite electric lip-job and the two men propose marriage. “It sounds like slavery,” says the bemused Tanga. “That’s exactly what it is,” responds cagey Penn. INVASION then concludes with the two soldiers getting medals for their heroism. They go to their car, where their amazon wives-- now clad in Earth-garments-- are seated atop the rumble seat like two tremendous trophies. Off the two dopes drive with their prizes, and so ends the INVASION.

When I first viewed this film as a kid, I thought most of its humor was pretty lame, especially the parts where grown men were playing some sort of Buck Rogers-Captain Video space-opera games. I still think the humor itself is lame, but it’s interesting that writer Haze and director VeSota end up depicting all the patriarchal societies seen in the film as no better than a “secret squadron” based on a television show. For male juveniles of that time period, such merchandise-related “societies” functioned as “boys’ clubs” in which males could fantasize about performing the deeds of men. Such deeds included conquering alien princesses as a substitute for fraternizing with real girls. The two dunces do indeed conquer a pair of space-babes, but the way they do so undercuts the heroic element of such fantasies. Given that INVASION doesn’t work that well as a comedy, it’s surprising that it has such a comparatively high level of mythicity, mostly within the sociological and cosmological functions.















QUICK SCHOPENHAUER POST

"For poetry differs from reality by the fact that in it life flows past us, interesting and yet painless ; while in reality, on the contrary, so long as it is painless it is uninteresting, and as soon as it becomes interesting, it does not remain without pain."-- Schopenhauer, Part 204. Supplements to the Third Book of THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION.
I started re-reading Schopenhauer to follow up the issue of "feminine will" currently pursued in the WHAT WOMEN WILL essay-series, but the gloomy philosopher has application to other aspects of my lit-crit theory as well. 

In the quote above, Schopenhauer speaks of the fact that for the reader of "poetry" (by which he means prose and plays as well as traditional poetry) the "life" depicted in the narrative is both "interesting and yet painless" for the reader.  Of course Schopenhauer knows very well that those narrative events he deems "interesting" are for the fictional characters sources of conflict, and therefore sources of real or potential pain, but here he's concentrating on the irony that our real lives cannot become "interesting" and at the same time "remain without pain" (or again, at least the potential for pain).  Schopenhauer suggests that in some sense this is much of the appeal of poetry inheres in this ability to watch others suffering terrible fates from afar.  This description recalls Kant's identification that the affect of "the sublime" depended largely on the subject's knowledge that he himself was not threatened by the awesome source of sublimity:


“…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.

Schopenhauer does pursue Kant's concept of sublimity elsewhere in WORLD, but not in this section.  However, the above observation has even greater application to my notion, expressed here,

that the traditional notion of narrative conflict should be seen as coterminous with George Bataille's concept of "the transgressive," as detailed in his work LITERATURE AND EVIL.  I've observed that even in isophenomenal works-- works wherein there is no challenge to reason as such; no manifestations of the uncanny or the marvelous-- there remains a tension between "typical reality" and "atypical reality," as schematized by Frank Cioffi in this resource:

The “classic detective story” (as defined by John G. Cawelti) takes a similar structure [to that of the status quo formula story]. Into a fairly conventional and familiar world a crime intrudes, and by the story’s conclusion, the crime is solved, and the integrity of society is reinforced (40).

As I've mentioned elsewhere I find Cioffi's term "anomaly" useful to describe the element or elements that provide the motive force of the narrative, so it would seem that the anomaly expresses the narrative's need for conflict/transgression.

However, one need not assume, as Schopenhauer gloomily does, that all that is "interesting" is entirely defined by "pain."  It would be more useful to see pain linked to pleasure in a continuum of kinetic emotional affects which the narrative conjures forth to make possible both conflict and character identification.  Paglia, indeed, speaks of "pleasure-pain" as being "the gross continuum of nature." In reality we always have this potential for pain or pleasure; in fiction our delectation of fictional conflicts is always somewhat removed from immediate experience, as I've covered in my extrapolations of Susanne Langer's concept of the gesture.  This would apply even to a work would seem to offer pure pleasure rather than pain-- say, a simple pornographic tale in which the "anomaly" is that a pizza-boy goes to make a delivery to an apartment (uninteresting) but comes away after a sexual encounter with the apartment's hot-babe resident (interesting).

Interestingly, in a separate essay Schopenhauer seems to see fiction's diversions as distracting from one's knowledge of real pain (which elsewhere he regards as necessary for one's transcendence of the will):
we call drama or descriptive poetry interesting when it represents events and actions of a kind which necessarily arouse concern or sympathy, like that which we feel in real events involving our own person. The fate of the person represented in them is felt in just the same fashion as our own: we await the development of events with anxiety; we eagerly follow their course; our hearts quicken when the hero is threatened; our pulse falters as the danger reaches its acme, and throbs again when he is suddenly rescued. Until we reach the end of the story we cannot put the book aside; we lie away far into the night sympathising with our hero’s troubles as though they were our own. Nay, instead of finding pleasure and recreation in such representations, we should feel all the pain which real life often inflicts upon us, or at least the kind which pursues us in our uneasy dreams, if in the act of reading or looking at the stage we had not the firm ground of reality always beneath our feet. As it is, in the stress of a too violent feeling, we can find relief from the illusion of the moment, and then give way to it again at will. Moreover, we can gain this relief without any such violent transition as occurs in a dream, when we rid ourselves of its terrors only by the act of awaking.
However, in the very next section of this essay Schopenhauer anticipates Northrop Frye's distinction between the "narrative values" and "significant values" of a work, by distinguishing between its "interest" and its "beauty:"

It is obvious that what is affected by poetry of this character is our will , and not merely our intellectual powers pure and simple. The word interest means, therefore, that which arouses the concern of the individual will, quod nostrĂ¢ interest ; and here it is that beauty is clearly distinguished from interest. The one is an affair of the intellect, and that, too, of the purest and simplest kind. The other works upon the will. Beauty, then, consists in an apprehension of ideas; and knowledge of this character is beyond the range of the principle that nothing happens without a cause. Interest, on the other hand, has its origin nowhere but in the course of events; that is to say, in the complexities which are possible only through the action of this principle in its different forms.

The association here between beauty and Ideas in a quasi-Platonic sense may relate Kant's association between "the beautiful" and "boundedness:"
"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded.-- CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, Section 245.
I've not yet finished re-reading Schopenhauer's reflections on the sublime, so this remains only a tenative conclusion.  Still, Schopenhauer's distinction between "the concern of the individual will" and "an affair of the intellect" should yield interesting applications to an archetypal theory of art and literature.












Sunday, November 20, 2011

WHAT WOMEN WILL PT. 1

"There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it’s almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed."-- Paul Atreides describing his own transformation in Frank Herbert's DUNE.

"The more developed Idea resulting from this victory over several lower Ideas or objectifications of will, gains an entirely new character by taking up into itself from every Idea over which it has prevailed a strengthened analogy. The will objectifies itself in a new, more distinct way. It originally appears in generatio aequivoca; afterwards in assimilation to the given germ, organic moisture, plant, animal, man. Thus from the strife of lower phenomena the higher arise, swallowing them all up, but yet realising in the higher grade the tendency of all the lower."-- Schopenhauer, Book 1, part 27, THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION.

The above quotes both deal with concepts of transformation.  Herbert's fictional protagonist describes a mental shift from one set of gender-oriented priorities to another; a shift brought after he imbibes the vision-inducing Water of Life. Schopenhauer's philosophical observation is far more abstract.  He takes Plato's Ideas, which were both essential and eternal by nature, and gives them a post-Kantian spin, in which the Ideas can assume different "grades" of relative perfection, all of which are objectifications of the true "thing-in-itself," the Universal Will. 

It will be noted that the Schopenhauer quote, unlike the Herbert quote, contains no reference to concepts of gender.  However, the "gloomy philosopher" had some definite thoughts on the subject; thoughts that make comicdom's Dave Sim sound like Betty Friedan by comparison.

From the essay "On Women:"

Hence, it will be found that the fundamental fault of the female character is that it has no sense of justice . This is mainly due to the fact, already mentioned, that women are defective in the powers of reasoning and deliberation; but it is also traceable to the position which Nature has assigned to them as the weaker sex. They are dependent, not upon strength, but upon craft; and hence their instinctive capacity for cunning, and their ineradicable tendency to say what is not true. For as lions are provided with claws and teeth, and elephants and boars with tusks, bulls with horns, and cuttle fish with its clouds of inky fluid, so Nature has equipped woman, for her defence and protection, with the arts of dissimulation; and all the power which Nature has conferred upon man in the shape of physical strength and reason, has been bestowed upon women in this form.

I'm not inherently opposed to the notion that genders may be characterized according to what one observes to be statistically-dominant virtues or vices.  The usual mush-headed responses to such characterizations-- "We're all individuals," "If you label me, you negate me"-- get no hearing in my court.  But I think that even though at times Schopenhauer's characterizations may ring a bell of familiarity, on the whole said characterizations carry less explanatory value than the observations of the 20th-century author of DUNE.  In addition, as presented here Schopenhauer's animadversions on the female sex are something of a betrayal of his post-Kantian project.

As I elaborated here, no post-Kantian project is viable unless it stresses the dual influence of natural and cultural influences.  Schopenhauer, anticipating Freud, chooses to define women in terms of lack: women have "cunning" because they lack "physical strength and reason."  The first is an aspect of demonstrable natural law.  The second lack, if it exists, can only be demonstrated through manifestations within humankind's cultural cosmos, through a rigorous philosophical definiton of what reason is.  Doubtless Schopenhauer felt he defined reason in other writings, but since he does not do so in respect to its purported differences between men and women, the assertion remains baseless.  Most of what Schopenhauer "proves" about woman's natural inferiority is based in his proto-evolutionary meditations on natural law (ON WOMEN was published eight years before ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, incidentally).  I suggest that natural law, both in Schopenhauer's time and our own, is about as much use in understanding culture as a hammer is for turning on a light-switch.  This type of reductionism is unworthy of one of philosophy's paramount thinkers.

Further, by characterizing female nature as something as unchanging as one of Plato's Ideas, Schopenhauer betrays his concept of "grades" of ideation.  Throughout "On Women" there is no sense that any woman's nature can be altered or subsumed by more "perfect" Ideas.  By contrast, both Plato and Dave Sim allowed that some women were capable of raising themselves to a level of masculine competence and insight. One need not agree with those worthies on their definitions of same; it's enough to note that they, unlike Schopenhauer, recognized that such a transformation was possible.  Frank Herbert's fictional meditations support this concept of transformation as well, though one must note that they are philosophical observations that grow out of a fictional structure.

It's just as possible for a mush-head to be insulted by Herbert's gender-characterizations as by Schopenhauer's: to be so obsessed with a purported individuality that one cannot recognize the broad mythic truth of Herbert's yang-like "ancient force that takes" and yin-like "ancient force that gives."  But even without the sort of visionary transformation brought about by the Water of Life, Herbert's narrative tapestry is broad enough to depict any number of cultural transformations.  Thus a male character like Liet-Kynes can function primarily as a nurturant force, attempting to bestow fecundity upon the desert-planet Arrakis.  Similarly, his daughter Chani becomes (unlike the majority of Fremen women) a skilled fighter, and in one chapter she kills one of Paul Atreides' challengers to spare Paul the trouble.

Yet despite all the personal prejudices that tainted Schopenhauer's view of the Fair Sex, his concept of the Will and gradations of ideation remain vital, and can be fruitfully applied to notions of gender transformation even though the philosopher would have certainly disapproved of such applications.  In 2-13-09 I wrote:


What is the cultural significance of action-heroines?

It's not that they make female readers feel more empowered, though there's not anything wrong with that.

It's not that they make male readers either more empathetic or more horny, though there's nothing wrong with either of those.

It's simply this:

The action-heroine is a better symbol of the Schopenhaurean Will than the male action-hero.

I let this particular field of investigation lie fallow for over two years, partly because I knew that re-reading Schopenhauer would take a fair amount of labor.  It's fortuitous that when the topic came to my attention once more, it was right at a time I'd just finished re-reading DUNE, which glosses certain aspects of Schopenhauer's beliefs just as I found they did for the writings of Paglia in this essay.

In the next installment of WHAT WOMEN WILL, I'll explore a little more as to the archetypal associations that arise when the woman is "Taker" rather than "Giver."




Saturday, November 19, 2011

ONE OF THESE IS MORE IMPOSSIBLE THAN THE OTHER






















































For the purposes of this exercise, pretend that:
(1) You have no knowledge of the English language, and so cannot interpret any of the words on these two covers,
(2) You have a basic knowledge of science fiction concepts but have no familiarity with superheroes generally or anything specifically derived from the Superman mythology.
So, with those two stipulations in mind, what do you see when you gaze at the two images above?  Both deal with some degree of "impossibility," since they seem to be violating physical law (though that may not be the only law so violated).



ACTION COMICS #1 at bottom should seem, at first glance, the more impossible picture.  Even if you know nothing of Superman as a character, the sight of a man in a costume lifting a car over his head will be a clear violation of natural law.  There may exist occasional prodigies that might attempt to stymie a car's progress (an old strongman routine) but there exist none able to lift a vehicle of such mass over his head with such cheerful abandon, not to mention chucking it forward to smash against a convenient rock.



Clearly, since the image on the left does not apply to anything "natural," you will conclude that whatever glosses or explains it resorts to the sort of explanation seen in science fiction or fantasy stories. If it has no explanation you may term it (as I have) a "fait accompli" fantasy, which presents a fantastic image with no attempt to make sense of the "nonsense," as one usually sees in animated cartoons.



ACTION COMICS #346 presents a lesser challenge to the laws of physics.  If you have no acquaintance with Superman, Supergirl, or superheroes, then all you see is a girl in costume belting a man in a similar costume (as well as two men watching and laughing through some sci-fi viewscreen).  There's nothing in the image to suggest that either character might or might not possess super-powers, and you certainly can't tell from the image what the labored dialogue tells you: that Supergirl has fantastic powers and the "fake Superman" does not.  The only hint of fantasy in the scenario (aside from the sci-fi viewscreen) is that the Curt Swan drawing suggests that the male figure is being hit so hard that it's possible he's being lifted off his feet-- though since one can't see both feet, you may just think he's off balance.


Now, this is still something of a challenge to the laws of physics in that the Superman figure looks at least twice as massive as the Supergirl figure.  Given this discrepancy it should seem unlikely that the latter could inflict that much distress to the former, though of course it's still not in the same bailiwick as lifting a car.  You will be familiar with the general rule that most female humans are less strong than most male humans, so you may suspect some fantastic element, if only because the male in the picture looks like he's in considerable pain and may have even lost consciousness.  But you can rationalize that maybe she caught him by surprise, though the girl's shocked expression might mitigate against that interpretation. 

OK, now I wave my magic wand and you know everything about the provenance of these two images.  Given that knowledge, then, it's perfectly obvious that the award for the greater impossibility goes to-- Number Two, ACTION COMICS #346!

What?  You don't agree?  Even now that you know all the super-entities involved, the image of a super-man lifting a car still seems more impossible than a super-girl punching out an ordinary man?  I wave my magic wand again, bypassing a lot of argument, and we agree that since both scenarios incorporate marvelous elements, they are equally impossible--

On the plane of physical law, that is. At the last moment I re-quote my earlier quote of an anonymous interpreter of Cassirer:

...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.
So Cassirer's legacy says that "intersubjective validity" in the cultural sciences does not derive from the "universal laws of nature," as it does in the natural sciences. That validity depends upon having:

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.

This "cultural meaning," I argue to you, arises from the elements of conflict and/or transgression that make possible the narrative process.  Thus, in the cultural sphere all fictional narrative is fantasy, no matter how much it accords with natural law, and in theory no phenonmenon is more "impossible" than anything else.  The marvelous, the uncanny and the naturalistic are equally impossible, culturally speaking.

However, the critic claims the true validity of any cultural object depends upon its ability to transcend history and location.  Are the two images equal in that respect?

I tell you, not quite.  Superman's car-lifting feat is one of many Herculean accomplishments that participated in creating Superman's marvelous image in the early days of the character's iteration. However, the feat carries little transcendent cultural meaning in itself.  Cars themselves possess a great deal of cultural meaning in modern society, but the act of lifting and hurling one does not evoke many transgressive elements.

An act of fictional violence between male and female, however, carries transgressive elements that transcend any particular history or location.  These elements are certainly conditioned by the observation of natural law because culture is also partially conditioned by natural law, so the sight of a woman cold-cocking a man will always seem a little less possible than the other way round thanks to one's knowledge of natural law.  But the scenario is also a cultural transgression, transgressing the cultural norm that girls are sugar and spice and everything nice.  Image-wise Supergirl gets to enact a fantasy transgressing against this cultural norm while the diegesis supplied by the cover-copy quickly explains that she's not really outmatching the real Superman, just an impostor.

It may seem to you that I am conflating conflict/transgression with impossibility here, and I am.  But in the cultural sphere, to be "impossible" is not to violate the law (as in the natural sciences) but to fulfill it.  And that's why choice #2, being the more outrageous and culturally transcendent, is more "impossible" than Choice #1.

All of which will be elaborated somewhat more as I launch into yet another series of ruminations, tentatively titled "What Women Will."  A clamoring horde of one (hi Pilot!) asked me about a topic I'd raised about the subject of the Will and the Fair Sex, so you should consider the above a prelude to my response.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TIGERS AND GHOSTS AND GODS, OH MY!, PART 3

At the start of this three-part serial essay, I asked:
Philosophically speaking, what does it mean to be a metaphenomenalist? Or, for that matter, an isophenomenalist?

The short answer is that to be an isophenomenalist, you must believe that everything within the scope of human experience reduces down to natural experience of some sort.  Even cultural experience is informed principally by whatever material factors provide the experiential root of a given culture.


However, with metaphenomenalism, one can choose one of two paths.  One path, that of the Rationalist, asserts that there is some "essence" that is beyond all experience, and hence trumps the banal round of existence.  The other path, which Cassirer called "critical idealism," follows the thought that Kant expressed at the start of CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON:
...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.

In part 2 I also noted the problems Kant addressed with both Empiricist and Rationalist arguments, and that C.S. Lewis was essentially in the Rationalist camp, as one who tended, in Kant's words, to "intellectualize phenomena."  Nevertheless, the schema Lewis depicts in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN-- the Fear/Dread/Awe affects that he invokes to explain the range of human responses to the Numinous, as well as what only seems like the Numinous (i.e., mundane danger)-- possesses an internal consistency not seen in most of his proselytizing arguments.  I find it interesting that Lewis' argument, like many of his other insights, seems to apply better to literature than philosophy as such.

I've stated as far back as MYTHS WITHOUT FANTASY in 2007 that fantasy (the generally used term for all metaphenomenal concepts) is not, strictly speaking, necessary for myth to flourish.  But as I said in that early essay, one does need, even in isophenomenal fiction, some sense of the "larger-than-life" in order that mythicity/symbolic complexity may function.

I extrapolated somewhat on similar themes in THRILLER KILLING:


The "suspense" genre, I said in a related post, was oriented not on seeking to scare the audience, but to "startle and disorient." In my own conception the pure horror film doesn't necessarily need the element of the supernatural, but it does need the element of the *mysterium,* which is my shortened form for the two Latin phrases invoked by Rudolf Otto is his classic IDEA OF THE HOLY, where he explains the numinous experience in terms of the *mysterium tremendum,* the overwhelming mystery that compels fear and trembling in the viewer, and the *mysterium fascinans,* which compels the viewer to be attracted to the fascinating mystery.

While it's quite possible for isophenomenal genres as far apart as the suspense thriller and the domestic comedy to be mythically complex, there may be a certain tendency against such complexity given the fact that many authors see their fictive worlds in terms of pure representationalism, and so lose track of the "larger-than-life" qualities.  These are worlds where neither ghosts nor gods have any true symbolic presence.  Here there be tigers, and nothing more than tigers.

The metaphenomal category of "the marvelous" is the exact opposite: however the author may choose to violate rationalism and causality for the sake of a marvelous story, some *deus ex machina* can be invoked.  To be sure, many marvelous works merely imitate others, and it might be argued that often the "gods," the metaphenomal marvels of such works are what Ursula LeGuin conceived to be "false myths."  However, the symbolic strength of gods is that for every worshipper they lose, they gain more converts down the line, and the "larger-than-life" qualities are brought forth in works that imitate in an inspired rather than perfunctory manner. 

The metaphenomenal category of "the uncanny" is, in a structureal sense, midway between the two as critical realism stands between Rationalism and Empiricism.  Like all or most neo-Kantian philosophies, the uncanny does not seek to usurp causal reality completely, as does the marvelous.  Yet its metaphenomena, its "ghosts," remain outside the affective boundaries characreristic of the isophenomenal world.

Lewis' use of the term "ghosts" for his interstitial category of "Dread" takes on ironic context in my system.  In said system any work that depicts a ghost as being unquestionably existential does of course fall into the category of the marvelous, not the uncanny.  There are a few exceptions where the ghost's nature is so tentatively known that it does fall into the latter category (see my review of Laurence Olivier's HAMLET as an example). Still, the ten tropes of the uncanny-metaphenomenal evoked on my film-blog may resemble Lewis' ghost in that they too tend to inspire dread more than awe.  Given that uncanny works also have a tendency toward pure representationalism-- best seen in the idea of the "phony ghost" Gothic-tale to which Tzvetan Todorov refers-- it may be argued that they too tend somewhat away from the higher degrees of symbolic complexity.  Naturally, this is not to suggest any agreement with Todorov's fallacious statement that any version of "fantasy" is primarily defined through "the real."

Thus, though I am frequently vexed by Lewis' in terms of philosophy, I must admire the deductive logic at which he produced this schema, even if it does work less well in the sphere of philosophy than in that of literature. Northrop Frye expressed a similar phenomenological discontinuity in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM:

If men were compelled to make the melancholy choice between atheism and superstition, the scientist…would be compelled to choose atheism, but the poet would be compelled to choose superstition, for even superstition, by its very confusion of values, gives his imagination more scope than a dogmatic denial of imaginative infinity does. But the loftiest religion, no less than the grossest superstition, comes to the poet, qua poet, only as the spirits came to Yeats, to give him metaphors for poetry.