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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...

Saturday, November 19, 2011


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.

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