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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...

Monday, September 12, 2011

DISTANCED RELATIONS

"So they had bargained, he and Sabul, bargained like profiteers. It had not been a battle, but a sale. You give me this and I'll give you that. Refuse me and I'll refuse you. Sold? Sold! Shevek's career, like the existence of his society,depended on the continuance of a fundamental, unadmitted profit contract. Not a relationship of mutual aid and solidarity, but an exploitative relationship; not organic, but mechanical. Can true function arise from basic dysfunction?"-- the character of Shevek in Ursula K. LeGuin's THE DISPOSSESSED.


I've not quite finished my rereading of the LeGuin book, in which the author posits two cultures that substantially reproduce the ideological oppositions of capitalism (represented by the planet "Urras") and socialism (embodied by "Anarres.")  The latter planet is the homeworld to Shevek, and in the quote above he meditates on the incongruity that on his world, despite its ideals of "mutual aid and solidarity," the "exploitative relationships" characteristic of capitalism pervade his society in camoflagued form, as per the one he shares with his academic superior Sabul.  Later, when Shevek journeys to Urras, he's often surprised as how well the society functions despite the "basic dysfunction" of its capitalistic orientation.  LeGuin carefully structures her two worlds so that no thinking critic could accuse her of simply finding one system superior to the other; rather, it's evident that each society has its weaknesses, and that those weaknesses are an expression of the weakness in human nature rather than in the systems as such.

Nevertheless, the answer to Shevek's puzzled question-- particularly with regard to the subject of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaboration of the 1960s-- would seem to be "yes," with very few qualifiers.  Over and over Lee's editorial control over Jack Kirby's art and story has been critiqued as inequitable, unfair, injurious to the superior artistic talents of Kirby, etc.

And yet, out of this dysfunctional relationship, we have "true function" in the form of a host of comic-book features that even most bloody comic book elitists validate.  There are a number of Kirby fans who believe that his non-collaborative work exceeds any work he did with Stan Lee or anyone else.  Such is their privilege, but I've rarely seen a critical defense that went beyond the Kantian level of "the agreeable" (i.e., I like this and no one can tell me differently).

As I noted in INVADERS FROM MARX PT. 2, Marguerite Van Cook quoted Louis Althusser:

Ideologies are perceived-accepted–suffered cultural objects, which work fundamentally on men through a process they do not understand. What men express in their ideologies is not their true relation to their conditions of existence, but how they react to their conditions of existence; which presupposes a real relationship and an imaginary relationship.

Van Cook follows Althusser's Marxmallow logic by asserting again and again that in producing professional comic books for their audience, Lee and Kirby did not have a "true relation to their conditions of existence."  Rather, they merely "reacted" to the ideological underpinnings of their society.

The first objection to Van Cook's restatement of Althusser is that while Althusser may or may not have given an example of an author with such a "true relation" somewhere in his writings, Van Cook merely accepts his statement as a given and does not choose to present her take on such a "true relation."  But without such a positive counter-example, Van Cook's negative analyses of Lee and Kirby are utterly meaningless.

How might Van Cook had chosen an example of a "true relation?" Given the rigidity of Marxmallow dialectic, the only possible "true relation" to an artist's "conditions of existence" will inevitably reflect Marxmallow views of truth.  Thus an artist who references, or seems to reference, such concepts as "commodification"-- Daniel Clowes, perhaps-- would be assumed to have such a "true relation" while Lee and Kirby were mere cogs in the ideological machine.

Even with a positive counter-example, however, Lee and Kirby make poor examples of the monolith-like nature of American mass culture, with which Van Cook implicitly agrees as she quotes Terry Eagleton on the subject:

‘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.

In PART 2 I pointed out that Lee and Kirby were responsible for originating one of the first black featured heroes in a commercial American comic book.  I do not know if either Eagleton, Althusser or Van Cook would find this a "valuable" contribution to society.  However, even if they all considered American pop cultrue to be insignificant by virtue of its inadherence to Marxist truth, I should imagine that the debut of a character such as Gabriel Jones would have to be considered marginally more progressive than the many times both Lee and Kirby attacked Communist societies as "evil" in the early 1960s.

One might agree that anti-Communist rhetoric, especially as simplistic as it appeared in such Lee-Kirby comic books as FANTASTIC FOUR #13, may have been put there to sell the books:








And yet-- was it "true" or not, that in some Communist countries, citizens were "enslaved" by their leaders?  As in LeGuin's novel, the real sins of capitalism don't negate the real sins of socialism; both spring from human weakness.  Moreover, can one be certain that Lee and Kirby merely "reacted" in making this negative characterization of 1960s Communism?  That neither man ever read anything about real abuses in real places, and that therefore they characterized Commies as the enemy just to make a buck?

Conversely, there is one thing about the "progressive" introduction of a black character like Lee & Kirby's Gabe Jones that is manifestly "untrue:" American troops in World War II were segregated.  Thus Lee and Kirby distorted real history for the purpose of making a progressive point: that loyal black Americans *should* have been able to serve their country without having to observe the "color line."  And yet, this willful distortion might have backfired on the company's ability to "make a buck" had there been some conservative backlash against the Gabe Jones character.

I've pursued this line of reasoning purely to expose the superficiality of Van Cook's adherence to Marxist views of monolithic mass culture.  I don't want to give the impression that I personally would define any narrative work as having a "true relation" to an author's "conditions of existence" purely in terms of whether or not it contains progressive concepts, or even a mix of progressive and conservative concepts.  Literary truth cannot be defined by politics, for no form of literature, no matter how "high" or "low," is ever purely about politics.  All art, as Suzanne Langer observed, is inherently "gestural:" it reminds us of things in our real lives but is quite obviously not "real life," even in the most "kitchen-sink" types of art.  

LeGuin's hero Shevek has to grant the capitalist devil his due by admitting that "mechanical"
contracts may lead to "true function" as readily as do "organic ones."  However, in art the oppositions of "organic" and "mechanical" become much more multifaceted than they can ever be in sociopolitical discourse.  The fact that Marxists remain so unaware of the plurisignative nature of literature remains one of the great marvels of the last century, given that said Marxists are so sedulous about ferreting out Other People's Myths.









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