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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...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


"[Music] is a limited idiom, like an artificial language, only even less successful; for music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an unconsummated symbol.  Articulation is its life, but not assertion; expressiveness, not expression.  The actual function of meaning, which calls for permanent contents, is not fulfilled; for the assignment of one rather than another possible meaning to each form is never explicitly made."-- Susanne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 240.

Definition of CONSUMMATE

1: complete in every detail : perfect

2: extremely skilled and accomplished
3: of the highest degree

-- Merriam Webster online.

 In order to talk further about the question I've raised re: the nature of Jack Kirby's creativity, I find myself drawn back to Langer's use of this term, "unconsummated symbol," in order to suss out some of the different levels of expressive power found in his work.

My first approach with the brilliant philosopher Langer is, unfortunately, to correct her terminology.  On a minor note first, I would not call music itself a "symbolic form."  The philospher most associated with that term, under whom Langer studied in the 1930s, was Ernst Cassirer, and he tended to use the term "form" only for those large-scale phenomena of human culture that could not profitably reduce into one another, such as Art, Science, and Philosophy.  "Music," being a subdivision of Art, would be better considered as a "symbolic discourse."

Langer is entirely correct, however, that pure music, unalloyed with lyrics or other forms of artistic expression, has no "permanent contents," and that it expresses emotion but cannot assert thought as such, even to the extent that a wordless comics sequence may.  Yet her use of the term "unconsummated" is badly chosen because it suggests transience, as if music had not yet reached its consummation (devoutly to be wished, surely!) but that it might do so at some future date.

There is no official dictionary term for a state in which it is impossible for a person or thing to become "complete in every detail."  However, I experimented with the neologism "inconsummatable," and found that a few Internet sites had also used it to mean pretty much what I meant.  Thus it is proper to say that music is an "inconsummatable symbolic discourse," in that, *if* one accepts that Art should be capable of both articulation and assertion, expressiveness and expression, then music can never be "complete" in the sense that other art-forms can.  This takes absolutely nothing away from music, for it's a judgment that can only be made within the cited definition of art's completeness.  Viewing art as having this dual capacity for assertion and expressiveness makes for a convenient heuristic tool in terms of judging other forms of symbolic discourse which *do* have the capacity for consummation on both levels.

Now, dictionaries do recognize that the opposite of the adjectival "consummate" is "inconsummate," which means precisely the same as "unconsummated."  Both mean that a given object has not reached a state of completeness.

In earlier essays I've spoken in symbolic discourse in terms of *mythicity,* through which concept it's possible to detect differing degrees of symbolic complexity within a range of literary works.  This remains the cornerstone of my theory, but Langer's terms are useful for determining the processes behind the articulation of complexity. In this essay I formulated the term "null-myth" for a given element in a narrative that did not happen to be complex in a particular iteration, with the explicit statement that no such element was beyond a high-mythic transformation elsewhere. In yet another essay I conjoined my Frye-influenced theories of symbolic complexity with those of Philip Wheelwright, who employed the terms *plurisignative* and *monosignative* for differing levels of symbolic expression.

In a future essay I plan to develop distinctions between a *consummate* symbolic discourse and an *inconsummate* one, probably with reference to the work of Jack Kirby.

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