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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...

Thursday, September 8, 2011


At the end of INVADERS FROM MARX PT. 2 I said:

Next essay: why the bourgeoise productions of Lee and Kirby do indeed contain "a true relation to the conditions of their existence," albeit not one of which Althusser would approve.
The more I thought about this, the more daunting the project seemed. How could one hope to make clear to any Marxist the terms of my argument, when so many Marxists lack any broad historical perspective with regard to the many-faceted nature of human language and literature? After all, to this day Roland Barthes is still a name to conjure with, with barely anyone pointing out that l'empereur is missing his vetements:

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

Marguerite Van Cook's essay, which prompted the INVADERS series from me, never mentions Barthes, but whether she's read him or not her own Marxist argument reproduces the same hegemonic argument with respect to how the "signifying" diction of Stan Lee establishes authority over the "raw material" of Jack Kirby's art. These are Barthes' terms, not Van Cook's, but a similarity of theme can be observed in Van Cook's essay:

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.
Later in INVADERS PT. 3 I pointed out that if Stan Lee had "abased" the "intuitive" and "untamed" mind of Jack Kirby with his "elevated diction," then it was an abasement to which Kirby also submitted himself, by conferring "elevated diction" upon characters like Orion and Darkseid.

There are, it happens, various correctives to this Marxist overemphasis on hegemonic oppression in the world of literary narrative. One is Philip Wheelwright, who points out that language is not merely one unitary phenomenon, and that it can be productively separated into two broad "complementary uses:"

"...to designate clearly for the sake of efficient and widespread comunication, and to express with humanly significant fullness."-- Wheelwright, THE BURNING FOUNTAIN.

Where Barthes imagines a conflict between denotation and connotation (though he manages to bollix up his concept of denotation). Wheelwright sees the two "strategeies" of language as not only complementary, but necessarily intertwined throughout history. "Steno-language" (the language of plain sense) is, he tells us, the "negative limit" of language in its more expansive form, "expressive" or "poeto-language."

Ernst Cassirer, in books like his MYTHICAL THOUGHT, goes so far as to figure his version of "expressive language" as the means by which early man formulated his first abstract thoughts, in the forms of myth, folklore and religion. Of course, it should be said that even early man surely had his own version of "steno-language," in which one caveperson might tell another, "Go fetch me that rock," or "Watch out for that woolly mammoth." It's a leap of poor logic to imagine that one came before the other, and Cassirer does not, unlike Barthes, make the mistake of asserting one linguistic form's primacy over the other.

Through what remnants we have of early literature we can see the two strategies being carried out, even in the earliest civilizations. Take as example the myth sometimes called "Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld." This is a great example of mythic discourse at its most expressive in that, even putting aside specific terms for which we moderns don't know the meanings, the story's logic is entirely governed by such mysterious cosmic presences as Inanna, the huluppu-tree, the Anzu-bird, and of course Gilgamesh and Enkidu themselves. In contrast, although the better-known EPIC OF GILGAMESH is replete with such presences, they have been made somewhat less mysterious in that the epic places greater realistic emphasis on understanding why Gilgamesh takes this or that action. Though the Gilgamesh Epic is certainly not an example of Wheelwright's "steno-language," one may imagine its composer-- almost certainly some anonymous court poet working with raw mythic materials as did the better-known Homer-- using the type of "plain sense" reasoning found in steno-language to figure out, for example,why Gilgamesh might decide to reject Ishtar's offer of love, which would then lead dramatically to the death of Enkidu.

The contrast between these two mythic stories is but one of many I might use to portrary the interweavings of Wheelwright's two linguistic strategies, one which, I must repeat, depends more upon the nature of what is being communicated than on some imagined hegemonic incursion of a "signifier" over a "sign," or a wordy editor over an "intuitive" artist.

With this linguistic schema as a propositional aesthetic foundation, my next essay on this subject should at last address the matter of how the works of Lee and Kirby could indeed have a "true relation to the conditions of their existence," whether that relation is anything a Marxist could relate to or not.

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