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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Since I don't regard Marguerite Van Cook's "Sublime Capital" essay as particularly well-organized, I decided I should simply go down the list of objections in  bullet-point format.  Here goes:

Kirby perhaps presupposed himself a participant in a post WW2 America that had fought and earned the right to play fair. He imagined that a handshake would suffice as he saw himself a part of an institution that in reality would later belittle his role.
From what source does Van Cook derive this handshake motif?  I've read a considerable number of Kirby interviews and don't remember him describing any "handshake deals."  In the interviews I recall, Kirby consistently cavilled against the fact that the publisher held all the aces and could refuse to give artists work if they wanted contracts.  But when he joined Goodman's company in the late 1950s, Kirby was no dewey-eyed innocent, as Van Cook implied in this segment.  Indeed, since Kirby and Joe Simon had allegedly experienced ill treatment by Martin Goodman over the CAPTAIN AMERICA property, Kirby certainly had no reason to believe that Goodman would "play fair" fifteen years later.

Lee working in a family business, saw himself as management rather than worker and this self-elevation transferred to how he interpreted his creative relationship, which gave more import to words, as though they signified his class and its rights and its sanction.

This is an absurdly broad characterization of Lee's frequent statements that he believed that the person who conceptualized a given work was the creator.  I've never read anything by Lee that even slightly resembles this Derrida-ized emphasis on words alone. In fact, if one examines side-by-side the Lee and Kirby accounts of almost any given character's creation, each always emphasizes the "original germ" concept in order to take credit as the true "original creator."  Thus Kirby as much as Lee has denied the viability of Van Cook's concept of "reified creativity."   
Van Cook then quotes a passage from Terry Eagleton:

‘Mass’ culture is not the inevitable product of ‘industrial’ society, but the offspring of a particular form of industrialism which organizes production for profit rather than for use, which concerns itself with what will sell rather than with what is valuable.

This is typical Marx-mallow reasoning: if a product sells well within mass culture, those sales are immediately suspect and cannot be part of that vague canon of "what is valuable."  Possibly Eagleton defines value somewhere better than Van Cook does in her essay, but the section Van Cook quotes is meaningless precisely because it opposes cultural value to sales-value in a laughable dualism.  That doesn't stop Van Cook from accepting the duality as a given, though.

Kirby and Lee became engaged in a culture that conflated their cultural output with their commercial product. Their value as artists was secondary to their commercial potential.
 Secondary to whom, Van Cook?  Martin Goodman probably cared about nothing but the bottom line of good sales.  But the subculture of fans who continue to talk fifty years later about the Lee-Kirby books, books intended for an ephemeral juvenile audience, are certainly no longer regarding the works in terms of their "commerical potential," except when engaged in the actual buying or selling a particular comic-book issue.  To speak of art and commerce as "conflated" implies the existence of some time and place where the two were not so intertwined.  At least when Theodor Adorno asserts the existence of some originary Pure Land of Art Untainted by Commerce, he puts his cockeyed premise on the table for all to behold, as Van Cook does not.

Then Van Cook decides that the Classical rhetorician Longinus can be used in her quest to prove the Logocentrism of Stan Lee:

Longinus further says the sublime rhetoric of the speech-writer resides in “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement,” which might also begin to expose possibilities in the interactions between words and ideas in comics. All of these elements one would hope to discover in the pages of a heroic narrative of the superhero comics, but might be particularly explicit in a production such as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s “Thor.”

Van Cook's argument boils down to claiming that because Stan Lee wrote with "noble diction and dignified word arrangement" in THOR, in contrast to the way the Thunder-god's adventures might have sounded had they followed the shorthand notes Kirby placed on the margins of his art:

The effect would be comical beyond its acceptable level of dramatic kitsch if the entire comic were to be spoken in Kirby’s New York slang circa the Bowery Boys. As the language is transformed by Lee it is able to support its authority within the ideological tenor of received historicity.

And then later:

Both men recognize their own class in relation to the content. Kirby, who remained proud of his heritage as the son of a Lower East Side immigrant, does not write his text in “Thor-speak” but uses his working class action voice to express his ideas. This forces questions about how class operated between the men. Implicitly, art is produced in a strangely abased position in the social hierarchy of production. Art appears to be the tool of the intuitive, untamed mind, while writing evidences intellectual precision and authority. Logocentrism is bound to class structures and it seems Thor-speak claims the authority of the noble class and that its writer represents a conduit to this class with its values of duty and honor. Remember as Longinus says: “The great speech maker speaks great thoughts.”


Does this mean that when Jack Kirby himself chose to use "noble diction and dignified word-arrangement" when he wrote his own dialogue for THE NEW GODS, that Kirby "abased" his own artwork by having Orion say grandiloquent things like, "I have heard the word-- and the word is battle!"

What a horrible man you were, Writer Jack Kirby, for abasing the work of Artist Jack Kirby!!!

Van Cook does address Jack Kirby, writer, but significantly, she does not choose to explore NEW GODS, the Fourth World title closest in tone and content to Marvel's THOR, but a sequence from MISTER MIRACLE, in which Kirby spoofed Stan Lee as the flamboyant agent Funky Flashman.  But to hear Van Cook tell it, even this japery remains within the sphere of false consciousness:

But his mockery does not release either from the cycle of production. Althusser states that free will is essential for this continual state of self-delusion (false consciousness) to persist. The subject must feel that he is free to act as he chooses, but his self recognition within the social structure ensures that he will continue to be productive and remain within an ideology that he believes he has created and sanctioned.
Because Kirby's character Mister Miracle-- who is more or less coeval with "labor" even as Flashman symbolized "management"-- shows amused tolerance of Flashman's absurdity, Van Cook tells us :

Scott Free promotes a silent acceptance of the workingman’s role, while the entitled Flashman proclaims about the difficulties of creative work.

Van Cook's interpretation-- that Flashman represents the reinforcement of the "stratifications of class and labor"-- does not hold under close scrutiny.  There is a shadow of truth in the fact that Scott Free is an actual producer of a commodity, in the form of a performance (which Eagleton might or might not find "valuable") while Flashman is merely one who claims he can facillitate the commodity's dispersal to audiences.  In Steve Ditko's Randian terminology he might be called a "looter."  But Flashman, unlike Stan Lee in Kirby's actual life, never becomes a permanent influence on Scott Free; indeed, he never appears in any Jack Kirby work following MISTER MIRACLE #6.  That's not much of a "reinforcement," Van Cook!

Finally, "Sublime Capital" veers off from its original topic of the ideologies of Lee and Kirby, and chooses to go after the generalized ideologies of the American military, touched on briefly (and irrelevantly) with respect to the service records of Lee and Kirby.  After detailing how a U.S. Congressman expressed his regard in a Congressional session for a particularly affecting TERRY AND THE PIRATES sequence by Milt Caniff, Van Cook tells the reader how this was her original context for her discussion of the Longinian sublime:

Originally, before the Kirby /Marvel result, I had intended to offer this passage about “Terry and the Pirates” as evidence of  the power of the sublime as a political tool and to discuss the slippery parameters of cultural institutions and government bodies.  I wanted to interrogate how diction in comics elevates or otherwise shapes response and meaning.  In the end, the colonization of the Colonel Corkin speech by a government representative suggests that elevated diction is recouped by the ruling class, even in the ambigous guise of applause.

In other words, if there exists even circumstantial evidence that sublimity, in the form of "elevated diction," is something that a "ruling class" might use against the disenfranchised, then one must look askance at rhetoric-- "especially sublime rhetoric"-- as being yet another commodity. 

Yet once again, the one-sided duality persists. If "rhetoric" is determined by Eagleton's implicit concept of "sales-value," then real "cultural value" must be somehow outside the sphere of commodification; must be the opposite of "noble diction."

Well, the most logical opposite of "noble diction" would be "plain speech."

Therefore, I submit to my readers the true face of a Cultural Value Beyond Commodification.

(Yeah, I gotcher Logocentrism Rat Cheer, ya hippie.)

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