Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Way back in the comments-section of this post, Charles Reece objected to my using the term "idealist" for Plato because:

Plato was a realist, in the same way the term is used today by philosophers. Reality isn't mind-dependent, hence the Forms. Again, Derrida and all those guys are far more the idealists than Plato or Platonic thinkers like Frege.

I still don't find Charles' logic as expressed persuasive, but I recently finished an article by one Edward C. Moore which makes the case for the term "realism" clearer. Said article introduces a collection of the work of Charles Sanders Pierce, and argues that "realism" is predicated on the question as to whether or not human concepts of reality correspond to anything in reality:

"All of our knowledge consists of concepts... But objects in the external world appear to be particular determinate individuals. The question, then, is whether anything in the external world corresponds to our concepts of it... If one holds that the concepts in the mind correspond to something in the external world, then he thinks that the concepts are real, not fictional, and hence he is a realist."

Moore then goes on to present four gradations of reaction to this question of realism, with Platonic realism/idealism at one extreme and nominalism at the other. In between are "conceptualism," which argues that the concepts do have reality within the mind alone, and "moderate realism," the position of Pierce, which argues that "each external object has an essential nature, or an essence. This essence is neither universal nor particular; it just is. It is neutral. It cannot exist in a separate realm by itself, but it can exist either in an object or in a mind."

After all this, I would still say that this use of the term "realism" makes sense ONLY if one has in mind the sort of propositional construction Moore presents here. In addition, I still find the pairing "rationalism/empiricism" preferable to "realism/idealism" in any context.

With that in mind, going on Moore's essay alone I suspect I'll find Pierce's interpretation of semiology restrictive in terms of its empirical background. Moore points out that since Moore was a chemist, he tended to ground the reality he found in abstract concepts in terms of what is termed "the consequent." This refers to the notion that the potentiality represented by a concept is real if it can be demonstrated that it will invariably lead to a repeatable actuality.

This is a significant insight, but I think it is overdetermined by the paradigm of scientific investigation. In THE BURNING FOUNTAIN Philip Wheelwright finds the essence of the abstract conceptual symbol less in *praxis* than in *theoria*:

"...the attitude which a symbol represents and to which it appeals is contemplative rather than directive or pragmatic. A symbol refers to what supposedly is, not (or at least not directly) to what one is to do. It is the logos theoretikos, not the logos praktikos..."

I assume that Kant would substantially agree with this emphasis on contemplation over practicality given his assertions re: judgments of taste and "the beautiful," and obviously I agree that the symbol's appeal is first to mankind's expressive aspects, rather than the practical ones. At least I would hope having written umpteen essays on Cassirer would make that clear, but one never knows for sure.

Monday, February 21, 2011


I know I shouldn't expect Socratic dialogues on THE BEAT, as one never knows when Heidi MacDonald will kill a thread in question, as mentioned before here. Last week, though, I managed to get in a few salient points near the end of this thread, just before Heidi closed it. Hallelujah, etc.

Except that the Mistress of "Stately Beat Manor," as she likes to call it, finished up this semi-coherent discussion of racial politics with the following brickbat directed at moi:

"I think we’ve all said all we have to say on this topic, and I’m not interested in Gene’s continuing investigation into the Oppression of the White Man."

So now, even though the thread is dead, Heidi's sloppy shot obligates me to do a quick post-mortem.

The gist of the thread's debate was twofold: (1) was the "Obama Nation" cartoon by Hudnall and Lash racist, and (2) was Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC justified in running an expose of it. Dominantly most responses answered in the negative, which squared them up with Heidi's own take, for the most part. I fell into the majority (for once), as evidenced by my first post on 2-17. However, one Dan Rodriguez and a few others were more vociferous about the cartoon's racist content:

I’m disappointed in The Beat’s coverage of this. Whether or not the cartoon is racist is certainly up for debate – although there seems to be a clear “ugliness” as O’Donnell calls it in the portrayal of the Obama’s eating habits. The idea that blacks are gluttonous and slovenly is an old, ugly sterotype, and it seems obvious that the cartoonists are trying to strip the polish from Michelle Obama’s image by presenting her that way. Part of the intended humor is in the revelation that Michelle Obama, in spite of her pretenses, is no different from the typical conception of African Americans. A conception that in this comic seems pretty hateful.

I made no direct response to Rodriguez or others at the time but I began thinking: "If these guys think that even *implied* racial myths deserve absolute moral condemnation, would not consistency demand that they should direct equal excoriation at someone casually tossing out a *direct* (albeit banal) racist insult?" So on 2-18 I wrote:

I think it’s funny after over 100 posts no one commented on an actual racist joke told right here on The Beat, by a guy calling himself BigSamlovesScarlet:

“As a black artist in VA, I can say that the only thing I find offensive about any of this is white outrage in our behalf. Please stop doing it. You look like idiots. Seriously. I meant it. It’s like watching you dance. Horrible. The cartoon isn’t funny and it isn’t racist. Let it go.”

Am I personally offended by this joke at the supposed inability of white people to dance? No.

Am I suggesting that anyone here should be offended by this joke, aside from the fact that it’s a really mouldy oldie and no less lame than the non-racist Hudnall-Lash joke? No.

But I do think it ironic that this picayune racist joke about white people proved as invisible as Sue Storm.

Now, the one thing I might change now would be the "100 posts" thing, since after I said this, a couple of posters said that they did find the remark questionable, as Heidi apparently did as well, since at thread's end she deleted the remarks of BigSamLovesScarlet. I'm sure that most posters probably just passed over the banality of the racial insult without thinking much about it.

However, it's my contention that those posters who found racist vibes in the Hudnall-Lash cartoon SHOULD have shown no less outraged to hear a racist joke told outright, at least within the context of a bunch of strangers posting on an open forum. If one believes that racism OF ANY KIND is heinous-- and not just when directed at certain targets-- then that's the only possible logical response.

Manifestly this has nothing to do with Heidi's silly conceit about "the Oppression of the White Man." If racism's wrong, then it's wrong across the board-- or messageboard, since, once again, I'm concerned only with public forums rather than private venues.

Even more peculiar was Kurt Busiek's response. His first response was to claim the ability to read the minds of every respondent on the thread:

Jennifer deGuzman pegged BigSam as a troll, and I think most others just didn’t take the bait. I expect the “irony” you see is simply that.

A little later Busiek re-iterated that BigSam's "white people can't dance" jibe should have been ignored because it distracted from the topic of the thread:

Maybe when you’ve finished with that, you can scour the internet for more racism that isn’t getting proper attention. If there are still people in this thread, they’re probably going to keep talking about O’Donnell, Batton and Hud.

But of course the topic of the thread brought in other ancillary people as well, ranging from Andrew Breitbart, publisher of the site where the cartoon first appeared, and Jackie Estrada, wife of Batton Lash. One poster asked Estrada outright whether or not she expoused her husband's views, and, as noted above, Dan Rodriguez attacked THE BEAT's handling of the issue. Given that the thread had already grown beyond "O'Donnell, Batton and Hud," a little deeper inquiry into other posters' own responses re: racism RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF THEIR NOSES begged a little waspish inquiry.

Wrapping up, I assume Ms. MacDonald's addled commentary on my motives stems from my next-to-last post:

You make an interesting distinction between racism and prejudice, which reminded me of a quote from the basketball great Bill Russell. He said (in effect) that everyone’s prejudiced in terms of what they like in terms of taste, and that the word “prejudice” should not be conflated with “bigotry,” which goes beyond expressing one’s own taste.

That may or may not gloss what you’re saying but I always liked that thought.

I’d say that there’s still a fine difference between saying “I don’t like the way white people dance” and “white people can’t dance.” But I’ll admit that many here probably reacted as you did: who gives a fuck what the guy thinks? Which is certainly a better reaction that trying to find out where he lives in order to harass him.

Hmm, not a word about the Oppression of the White Man.

Maybe Heidi knows some secret decoding language. Ah, that must be it. Now let's see. The first "o" is in "you," but then I need two "p's" to spell out "oppression." Quite a ways down there's another 'p" in "prejudice," but then there's not another one of those until the next sentence, and there's an "e" just two letters down from that "p."

Darn it. I developed my secret code too well for my own good; even I can't read it as well Heidi can!

Friday, February 18, 2011


In this essay I demonstrated a parallel between Kant’s concept of the sublime and my concept of the uncanny. In Kant the sublime is that affect arising from the subject’s perception that a given phenomenon seems boundless, even though it may not really be boundless, as in the case of sublime natural phenomena (storm-clouds, mountains, etc.) The uncanny applies to literary elements that suggest a transcendence of ordinary “isophenomenal” causality even though those elements do not transcend in the cognitive sense, as do elements of the other category of metaphenomenality, “the marvelous.”

To expand on the caution I expressed before in the above essay, this parallel does not imply identity, for the sublime can appear in any work regardless of its phenomenal category. I mentioned Maugham’s book THE RAZOR’S EDGE, which contains the sublime affect even though it’s an entirely isophenomenal work, while Poe’s HOUSE OF USHER, a work of uncanny metaphenomenality, has its own sublimities. The same aesthetic applies to the marvelous form of the metaphenomenal, but I stress that a work is not automatically sublime just because it contains marvels that do transcend causality. As mentioned earlier I’ll be examining the 1960 comic-book story “Superman’s Return to Krypton” as an example of this form of sublimity, but first—more Philosophy 302.

As noted earlier, Kant doesn’t give adequate examples of the literary sublime. Longinus, the earliest extant writer to use the term, doesn’t supply more than a few examples, one of which is the “silence of Ajax” scene in Homer’s ODYSSEY. Thus, though one of Longinus’ definitions of the sublime is to say that it is “beyond nature,” he can characterize the sublime in terms that have nothing to do with “nature” as such. By contrast Kant most often characterizes the sublime in terms of natural phenomena, though he does not define it in those terms alone. If one agrees that Longinus’ example is indeed sublime, then a full consideration of the sublime cannot be confined to awesome natural forces, or even to what Douglas Wolk calls “the crush of the infinite.”

Fortunately, though Longinus and Kant don’t give one much to build on, another anatomist of sublimity was more prodigal in his use of examples: Edmund Burke. His 1756 work, "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful", is an empiricist take on the affects of the sublime and the beautiful, and is also one of the works to which critical idealist Kant directly responds in the AESTHETIC JUDGMENT. As a post-Kantian I certainly disagree with Burke’s attempt to reduce all affects down to pure sensation. However, Burke provides many useful examples. Most of them are taken from works with marvelous content—the Bible, Virgil, Milton, the Faerie Queene—but at no point does Burke call any of these sublime merely because they are marvelous. His examples are usually presented under categorical headings that suggest aspects of the sublime—“terror,” “power,” “infinity”—but it’s significant that one of his most telling examples is taken from the isophenomenal Shakespeare play HENRY IV:

All furnished, all in arms,
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed,
Glittering in golden coats like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer,
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus

Burke then justifies calling this scene "sublime" due to its “richness and profusion of images.” This would not be the only criterion applicable to marvelous works, but it applies well in terms of the 1960 Siegel-Boring Superman story.

What sets this superhero-romance tale apart from hundreds of other Superman stories of lesser complexity is indeed its “richness and profusion of images,” as well as (to extend Burke's terms into post-Kantian territory) their symbolic resonance. In AGREEABLE YOU I indicated that one scene alone, with its imagery of violent natural phenomena, might suggest the sublime, not so much in terms of Kant as in terms of Doug Wolk's (erroneous) reading of Kant. But as I said at the end of that essay:

There's another sense in which pop-culture stories can be sublime, beyond their actual depiction of "boundlessness."

Obviously I’m not implying that a 26-page comics-story, in which Superman accidentally time-travels back to his pre-apocalyptic homeworld Krypton, is on the same level of visionary complexity as PARADISE LOST. Nevertheless, the mythic symbolism of the former story should not be discounted, particularly when that symbolism exceeds that of many of the artcomics works touted by Wolk. I’ve mentioned in this essay that a Freudian-flavored interpretation of the story might view the Man of Steel’s return to his homeworld, and his encounter with a woman who name reproduces the syllables of his mother’s name twice, to be a recapitulation of the incest symbol-complex. But it might also be viewed more profitably in a Jungian context, given that the Superman character does not compete with his father as the Freudian paradigm insists he should. Indeed, while on Krypton Superman not only befriends Jor-El, he also becomes more like his father, showing a propensity for scientific invention rarely seen during his heroic phase on Earth. In addition, the sense that all of the wonders of Krypton, natural and man-made, hang upon the precipice of disaster gives the story an aura of tragedy, albeit a very sexy tragedy: more ROMEO AND JULIET than HENRY IV.

I could expound upon other images in “SriK,” such as the peculiar behemoth-creature at the story’s beginning, who leads Superman into his temporal misstep the way the “Questing Beast” of Arthurian tales would lead knights into misadventure, but the general point is made: that sublimity follows along any path that arouses the emotions of fear and awe, even if that path leads one down the hardscrabble roads of commercial comic books.

Neither Burke nor Kant demonstrate any great fascination with mythic symbolism as such. However, I would expand some of the terms they use to describe the sublime, such as "might" or "magnificence," to include the sense of a greater mythic pattern that brings the events of a given story into the wider "family" of mythic narrative.

Once again, I repeat the W.B. Yeats quote I used in my first post here as a touchstone for the "familial" nature of myths of all kinds:

“It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.”

As noted above, one of Burke's categories for the sublime also references "infinity."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


"literature, as it develops from the primitive to the self-conscious, shows a gradual shift of the poet's attention from narrative to significant values, the shift of attention being the basis of Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental poetry."-- Frye, Fables of Identity.

"Frye uses the terms 'centripetal' and 'centrifugal' to describe his critical method. Criticism, Frye explains, is essentially centripetal when it moves inwardly, towards the structure of a text; it is centrifugal when it moves outwardly, away from the text and towards society and the outer world."-- Wikipedia, "Northrop Frye."

The parallels between the dyad of terms used in the first quote, from a 1951 essay, and the dyad used in 1957's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, should be obvious, so I won't dwell on them. But the emphasis on the physical image of movement within, or away from, the center of a circle also offers a fair parallel between Kant's opposition of "the beautiful" and "the sublime:"

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

The parallel is not exact, but on one level the idea of literary 'centripetal action,' which parallels 'narrative values,' suggests staying within the limits of the imagined circle, while 'centrifugal action' suggests surpassing those limits.

In terms of literary criticism, is there anything to be gained by showing an parallel of "the beautiful" with the narrative values of a story, those elements that make a story work on its own terms, and also one between "the sublime" with the significant values of a story, those elements that refer the reader to a universe of experiences, personal and transpersonal, outside the story?

Possibly so, if one can view the parallel without taking it for the assertion of identicality.

I've argued that "Superman's Return to Krypton" may be seen to have aspects of "the beautiful" and "the sublime" in it.

With respect to the first, I said:

If a disinterested appraisal of beauty stems from the human animal's ability to see the semblance of purpose in aspects of nature that have none, then the story that has a greater refinement of structure-- even within the boundaries of juvenile pop-fiction-- must be viewed as the "fairest of the two."

By this I mean that the story's narrative values have a "beautiful" structure. I don't claim that anyone will forget Homer in favor of Jerry Siegel, but all of the story's narrative values fall into line with a strong logical sequence that was by no means typical of Superman stories in the Mort Weisinger era.

The adventure that causes Superman to leave Earth and fall through a temporal rift that puts him back on Krypton--

The means by which he and his romantic partner Lyla Lerrol encounter one another and fall in love--

Superman's encounter with his parents, during which he must keep his identity secret once more--

And even the ending, which begs one's suspension of disbelief somewhat, even though the reader knows some far-fetched method must be used to get the hero back to Earth--

All of these are narrative values. They are "beautiful" because when joined in a proper order they confer the sense of "purposiveness" to a literary story without allowing one to see the controlling hand of the author at work.

In contrast, any "significant value" in the story would be one that escapes that orderly circumference and takes one into another world of experience. As I'm dealing with a mythopoeic story, that world will be that of the Jungian archetypes. If "SRtK" possesses mythicity to a sufficient degree, it will impress the knowledgeable reader as "sublime."

More on this analysis in Part 2.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


"I find it disturbing that Lois is so incredibly hot as a villainess."-- Tony Isabella, 1000 COMICS YOU SHOULD READ.

While thumbing through 1000 COMICS for a separate project from my current Kantian considerations, I came across the above quote from Tony Isabella, and immediately thought, "Is he kidding?" I've seen a lot of "incredibly hot" drawings of sexy women in comics, but few things seem less sexy to me than a drawing of Lois Lane by Wayne Boring.

Not that Boring was incapable of drawing a sexy woman: as I'll touch on later, he had such ability. But his renderings of Lois Lane are usually pretty "boring," eyepatch or no eyepatch.

However, Isabella's statement is an ideal illustration of Kant's concept of "agreeability." If the image of a villainous Lois Lane seemed sexy to Isabella when he encountered it, then he wasn't wrong, just as I am not wrong to find it uninteresting.

Such is the domain of Kant's category of "the agreeable," which is governed entirely by one's personal response to sensations, whether those sensations are real or conjured forth by the gestures of arts and entertainment.

Kant doesn't address the question in CRITIQUE OF AESTHETIC JUDGMENT as to whether or not there exist some raconteurs better able to evoke sensations of agreeability in large audiences. For instance, since Bill Ward was much better known for sexy drawings than Wayne Boring, it should follow that Ward was better able to evoke the kinesis of sexuality than Boring was, at least on a statistical basis. Possibly Boring could have done the same things Ward did had he wished to; perhaps his DC editors encouraged him to draw Lois Lane a certain way. All critics can judge, of course, is the final result.

Now Kant states that one's opinions on the "agreeable" (as well as the "absolutely good," which I'll put aside for this essay) do not carry the same forcefulness, the same insistence that others should acquiesce to that opinion, as do opinions relating to "the beautiful" and "the sublime."

I think Kant is somewhat refuted, in practice, by any number of Internet forums where individuals do indeed propound their personal likings with the same force as any "pure judgment of taste," and do indeed want all to acquiesce. However, Kant's theory is still good as a means for judging whether or not there is a species of reflective taste-judgment that rises above the level of personal interest.

I agree with Kant that such judgments do exist, though I note that he probably wouldn't have agreed with my belief that they can apply to popular fiction. Nevertheless, as my example of such a judgment (as well as demonstrating that Wayne Boring could draw sexy women when he so wished), I present this scene from the Jerry Siegel-Boring tale "Superman's Return to Krypton" (SUPERMAN #141, Nov 1960).

Once more I'll repeat the adumbrated quote that best sums up Kant's attitude toward the beautiful and the sublime:

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

Now, I don't agree with Kant that the only way one can judge something beautiful in his "disinterested" state is if the judgment can be proved (via logic) "universally valid." For me, dominant patterns alone demonstrate valid, though it's unlikely they could ever be deemed "universal."

Interestingly, Douglas Wolk, in trying to demonstrate the beauty in the images from "ugly" comics, asserts their value (in part) by "the way they function as part of a narrative."

By this criterion (which may or may not correctly represent Kant's rather convoluted take on "purposiveness in that which has no real purpose"), "Superman's Return to Krypton" would be more beautiful than "Lois Lane-- Outlaw" if one could demonstrate that the audience that experienced both stories found the former more dominantly "purposive" than the latter.

Obviously one cannot ask every comics-reader of that time period which story they found more "beautiful." However, a close structural reading of the former story will reveal a greater complexity than that of the latter story. If a disinterested appraisal of beauty stems from the human animal's ability to see the semblance of purpose in aspects of nature that have none, then the story that has a greater refinement of structure-- even within the boundaries of juvenile pop-fiction-- must be viewed as the "fairest of the two."

As for the sublime, in Kant's quote above he connects it with one's experience of the presentation of "boundlessness." The 1960 SUPERMAN story is certainly not primarily about "boundlessness," and yet in the romantic scene I show above, the hero and his new (and doomed) Kryptonian girlfriend is played out against a riot of elemental forces-- rainbows, lava-surges-- which mirror not only the passion of the lovers (in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY fashion) but also the unstable forces that will destroy Krypton.

There's another sense in which pop-culture stories can be sublime, beyond their actual depiction of "boundlessness." But I'll save that for a future essay.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In this essay I mentioned that I had not yet watched Douglas Wolk's 5-minute condensation of Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, which has apparently been bopping around since early 2009. I wanted to reread that part of the JUDGMENT myself first, but now I've done both, and I have to admit that, despite my earlier dismissive review of Wolk's book READING COMICS, the video doesn't suck.

But before I can say anything about the video, I have to address Wolk's problematic reading of Kant from the 2007 book. Fortunately, Wolk's brevity, whatever it does to his argument, makes him easy to quick-critique; he only quotes Kant on four pages of the book and only two of those pages deal with all four of Kant's categories of "reflective judgments" regarding how the power of art affects audiences.

To a pluralist like myself Wolk's greatest sin is that he takes Immanuel Kant-- who, as I've remarked in the KANT STOPS THE MUSIC essays, was probably no lover of simple pleasures-- and presses Kantian elitism into the questionable of service of artcomics.

To some extent I suppose this is an understandable marketing strategy. READING COMICS directs itself to an audience outside the hardcore comic-book readership, and chooses, not surprisingly, the strategy of "these ain't your father's silly old comics," a strategy beloved by hundreds of Sunday-supplement newspaper articles. Still, though Wolk doesn't go on any Grothian rants against mainstream comics, and occasionally points out a few of their virtues, he does mainstream creators no favors in attempting to use Kant as a bully pulpit in favor of artcomics.

Wolk addresses each of Kant's affective categories in the same order Kant does, so the section on Kant begins with "the agreeable." For Kant this affect is one spawned by a subject's response to the sensations communicated by a work. Wolk aligns this category with the mainstream comics-artist's attempt to make his work seem "sexy or exciting" to the audience by gratifying "desires and specific tastes."
Wolk asserts that because artcomics don't attempt "somatically effective" artwork, they are largely outside this category. Underground comics and the artcomics that followed them offered the reader an "embrace of ugliness" as against the slickly beautiful styles of mainstream comics.

The problem here is that Kant does not validate ugliness in itself as an alternative to slick beauty. He does say that fine art can make ugly things seem pleasant, but not simply by "embracing ugliness." He does tend in Section 207 to speak of agreeable art in terms of pleasurable sensations in that its audiences may call the art "lovely" or "gladdening." However, his base definition is that "we say of the agreeable not merely that we like it but that it gratifies us."

Based on that criterion, then, when Robert Crumb evinces his real-life taste for women with big asses, that is a reflective judgment based on his finding big-assed women agreeable. And from that it follows that the reader of Crumb comics *may* have a similar gratificatory feeling for big-assed women. The reader also *may* have no such natural inclinations himself and *may* be approaching the art in the more disinterested sense that Wolk advocates. But it's plain that many practitioners of artcomics, not just Crumb, are far from offering purely disinterested pleasures.

The second category is "the good." Wolk botches this by saying that works in this category "refer to something besides themselves that we find valuable or laudable." Kant himself makes much clearer that he's talking about a specific type of art that evinces a *concept* with which the reader agrees. Wolk's example of "political art" is appropriate, though here too, it's impossible to exonerate artcomics from this type of personal interest, be it as broad as Crumb's excoriation of capitalist culture or as simple as Gilbert Shelton portraying all the cops in FREAK BROTHERS as fools and bullies. Obviously a negative portrait of law enforcement would appeal to the personal "interest" of any of Shelton's doper readers.

Wolk doesn't do much with Kant's third category of "the beautiful," which, as I mentioned earlier, deals with one's disinterested appreciation of the "boundedness" of certain physical forms. Wolk only observes that he doesn't consider superheroic beauty to fall into the category of Kantian beauty, but merely agreeability. I'll note here that it may depend greatly on the nature of the superhero artist. Wolk strains to find "beauty" in the artcomics images he's expressly called "ugly," and ends up claiming that it's the artcomics-artist's ability to direct his reader to "the intentionality of the cartoonist's style." Kant's concept of "intentionality," which my edition translates as "purposiveness," is important in the CRITIQUE, but I question to what extent it applies to artists attempting to break with established forms, given that at the end of Section 326 Kant advises that "it is generally the beauties of nature that are most beneficial, if we are habituated early to observe, judge and admire them."

Finally, Wolk tackles Kant's category of "the sublime." I noted earlier that Kant treats the sublime as an affect arising from exposure to that which seems boundless, particularly in nature. This natural "might" at once awes the subject with the sense that it is irresistable, and yet simultaneously boosts the subject's own feeling of his capacity to stand in the midst of such awesomeness, as long as said subject feels himself "in a safe place."

Surprisingly, here alone Wolk does seem to appreciate how a given category can apply to both mainstream comics and artcomics, for though he gives three examples of "sublime" artcomics, he allows that the Human Torch's journey through infinity in FANTASTIC FOUR #50 may carry aspects of the sublime. And the aforementioned video seems to follow through on this notion, for in it Wolk illustrates all four categories of reflective judgment with examples from mainstream comics; mostly using Marvel's Wolverine. I don't agree with Wolk's examples so much as his later, less polarizing attitude.

My own ideas on Kant's sublime take a very different course from Wolk's, but I won't expand on them here. I will note that his lecture-video may actually take advantage of mythopoeic comics-images for precisely the same idea they don't work as well for him in a print-book: a live lecture-audience responds more quickly to the sensual imagery of mainstream comics. It is difficult, though not impossible, to apply post-Kantian aesthetics so as to improve our understanding as to how the comics-medium works upon all audiences, "high" and "low."

Wolk isn't the guy who will do that, but I give him a grudging tip of the hat for having broached the matter first.

Monday, February 7, 2011


More for my own reference than anything else, I happened across this Google.docs essay and decided to link to it because of the following observation about Jung by Arielle Emmett:

"Post-modern critics have more or less dispatched Jung. At the same time his archetype concept has morphed into the more empirically testable prototype theories of cognitive linguistics and visual arts. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s largely by Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff, prototypes reinterpret Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances' and basic-level categories, arguing that cognition produces a set of canonical categories (mental schema) that aid memory by producing somewhat abstracted or idealized feature sets of an object or object class (birds, for example) (Lakoff 1987)."

Inasmuch as Emmett's purpose is to sum up the POV of cognitive scientists like Lakoff, the purpose of this cerebral abstraction is to "conserve billions of cortical neurons in long-term memory while efficiently accessing the category schema requird to make matches between the prototypes and new images/word-concepts." In this elegantly worded statement, Emmett does an excellent job of conveying the appeal of cognitive science to modern thinkers.

Of course, even without disavowing the existence of the objective data to which Lakoff, Rosch, Solso and others make reference, I am still not convinced that of Emmett's assertion that Jung has been made irrelevant by Lakoff and his hard-science homeys.

In any comparison it should be kept in mind that though Jung wrote a great deal on philosophical and scientific matters, at base his orientation was toward the healing of troubled human spirits. To that end he practiced psychology not as "hard science" but as an art of communication.

I believe I understand the appeal of this sort of science, particularly where its adherents believe it gives them weapons to knock down the idols of superstition and religion. But even if all of humankind's abilities to abstract and conceptualize *may* have arisen from cerebral attempts to conserve energy, that base fact does not define what the power of abstraction finally means, any more than the seed of an oak tress "means" the birds that nest within the tree.

All of which probably has a lot to do with my current rereading of Kant, as much as finding this particular essay...

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Just to declare myself on neither side of the "coming war" between mainstream and indies that BEAT-people have predicted in glowingly apocalyptic terms, here's something I wrote on this posting:

Though Van Jensen may have overstated things here:

"Marvel and DC haven’t done anything to limit the proliferation of creator-owned books in the past 20 years"

his essential point is a good one, for there have certainly been employees of the Big Two who sought "diversity" as much as there have been those who stuck with proven sellers. And in all cases all involved did what they did to advance their own fortunes, not for some abstract goal.

One problem not addressed, though, is whether it's possible to expand meaningfully beyond the core audience. AACRO faults the industry for not having produced "evergreen products," but can anyone, be it Stan Lee or Art Spiegelman, arbitrarily decide, "Today I'm going to bring into being (whether by direct or indirect influence) an 'evergreen product.'" As other posters have pointed out damn few "indie" creators have done so; they too more often than not appeal to "niche interests" (satire-comics, anthropomorphics,autobio). Are the bulk of indie-people failing because they share the incompetence of the mainstream people, or because there's something deeper than simple incompetence at work here?

Saturday, February 5, 2011


In Kant’s preface to the first edition of CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, he makes a distinction regarding those things that can be the proper subjects of “cognition” and those that cannot. This distinction largely parallels the modern terms I’ve been using in my discussions of phenomenality: the “cognitive” and the “affective.” In essence the JUDGMENT is devoted to showing the extent to which humanity’s affective propensities have universal philosophical relevance, despite the fact that said propensities are not subjects of cognition . The first half of the book deals with how human affects apply to the idea of universal taste regarding “the fine arts.”

Section 210 of JUDGMENT is the first time Kant schematizes three of these affects (my word), which he calls “the three sorts of liking.” They are the “agreeable,” the “good,” and the “beautiful.” Later, however, Kant also distinguishes the “sublime” as something of a development from the beautiful. Kant was far from the first to theorize on “sublimity,” as will be seen from this essay on Longinus. But Kant’s cogitations on the matter have become among the most influential on literary studies.

The world that Kant presents as a subject for cognition is one I have termed “isophenomenal,” in that everything in it is subject to laws of reason and causality. To an extent this sounds much like Tzvetan Todorov’s “category of the real,” of which he writes in THE FANTASTIC:

“It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.”

But there’s actually a substantial difference between the ways in which Kant and the Freudian-influenced Todorov view this “reality,” and it inheres in their handling of affects. Todorov explicitly rejects theories of fantastic fiction that embrace subjective feeling, while Kant attempts to deduce which if any universal laws may be found in or suggested by the affects.

As an example, here are Todorov’s remarks on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” from “The Uncanny and the Marvelous,” a key chapter of his book:

“Although the resurrection of Usher’s sister and the fall of the house after the death of its inhabitants may appear supernatural, Poe has not failed to supply quite rational explanations for both events.”

Because these explanations are within the limits of the rational, Todorov calls “Usher” an example of “the uncanny bordering on the fantastic,” the latter being his term for fiction that seems to leave unresolved the question of whether the events of the story are marvelous or not. However, a Kantian system might have more to say about the affective aspects of “House of Usher” than Todorov cares to.

It’s interesting that in Todorov's brief examination of “Usher,” he does touch on its affective nature, as he notes: “the sense of the uncanny [in the story] is not linked to the fantastic but to what we might call ‘an experience of limits.’” Todorov takes this observation no further than the bounds of doctrinaire Freudianism, saying that “The sentiment of the uncanny originates, then, in certain themes linked to more or less ancient taboos.”

Kant also deals with limits in his description of the affects he calls “the beautiful” and “the sublime,” but in a more thoroughgoing philosophical manner. Unlike the categories of “the agreeable” and the good,” the other two are relevant to judgments of universal taste:

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

Though this and similair statements demonstrate that Kant understood that boundaries or the lack of them could be crucial to an understanding of aesthetics, Kant does not give specific examples of artworks that incarnate either the beautiful or the sublime. He does devote considerable space to how nature, even though it is not truly unlimited, can create the effect of illimitability, which in turn invokes in the human mind the experience of sublimity:

“…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.

This, far more than predictable twaddle about Freudian taboos, explains why generations of Poe’s readers have taken pleasure in the macabre events of the story. The facelike fa├žade of the Usher House, the brooding tarn, and Madeleine rising from “death” to strangle her brother with supernormal strength—all of these are perilous presences which readers can contemplate from afar, with mingled pleasure and displeasure, because they do not threaten us directly.

Todorov thinks that the rational order, Freud’s “reality principle,” has won out in the Poe tale because Poe does not literally have the house smitten by the hand of God, after the fashion of more marvelously-oriented Gothics like THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO. But I believe Poe only includes these realistic devices as a means of showing that even with those sops to rationality, the affect of sublime terror remains undiminished.

I titled this essay “parallel paths” to make it clear that I am not suggesting a one-to-one correspondence between Kant’s “sublime” and the "Phillipsian" version of “the uncanny.” I’m simply demonstrating that Kant’s concept is a fit vehicle through which one may understand the process by which uncanny works can be cognitively isophenomenal yet affectively metaphenomenal. It’s certainly no less possible to experience the sublime in works that are overtly marvelous, like OTRANTO, or even in works that simply evoke the sublime against an isophenomenal background, such as Maugham's novel THE RAZOR'S EDGE. But a work like the Maugham novel is merely "atypical" in that the sublime mental states of the character do not override the realistic concerns of the narrative, as I believe they do in "Usher" and in other true works of the uncanny. Thus RAZOR'S EDGE is both cognitively and affectively isophenomenal at the core, making it the obverse of a marvelous work like CASTLE OF OTRANTO.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I know that I should ignore Tom Spurgeon's posts on this BEAT post of some days back. Thoth knows, everyone else on the thread pretty much ignored his remarks, which were just one of many pointless elitist rants against superhero fans. But I find Spurgeon's weird tangent on Art Spiegelman at once baffling and fascinating, so here it is, in its entirety:

One interesting right-now litmus test for the industry’s obsession with superheroes: today Art Spiegelman won western comics’ biggest and coolest award: the Grand Prix at Angolueme. Today they also named the new movie Superman.

One is a comics news story, while one is a superhero movie news story tangentially related to comics. Which will get more industry press and the bulk of fan attention? I think we’d all agree it’s probably going to be the Superman story, although Art will do better than he would have 12 years ago, when Crumb winning the same award was I’m guessing mentioned by 1 US magazine three months after the fact.

You can work your tongue into knows lecturing *why* this is the case; it’s much, much harder to point out why it should be, at least in a way that’s not depressing. There is a bit of the reverse, in that people wrote me letters why I wasn’t covering Dan Clowes selling a movie version of his Wilson with more emphasis, and together both impulses represent the culture-wide obsession with the movies, but it’s certainly not as thoroughly conflated as movies and comics are with the superhero-centric stuff. Art Spiegelman just won comics for this year!

Point by point, pretty much in order:

(1) I'm not sure why anyone needs a "litmus test" for the American industry's "obsession" (though I wouldn't call it that) with superheroes. It's a foregone conclusion that most if not all direct-market comics-shops are dominated by superheroes because they have become (if I'm quoting Kurt Busiek accurately) "destination stores," where the customer seeks out a commodity in the place he expects to find it.

(2) "Biggest and coolest award?" HAH! Art Spiegelman never got his name on a bubble gum card, did he? You just can't get cooler than having your name on a bubble gum card.

(3) I would be more convinced that the announcement of the new movie Superman was not a comics-story if other-media adaptations never had any effect whatever upon the comics-medium. One can argue that they do not have as much effect as some have desired-- remember the days when eighties fans thought that the perfect BATMAN film would make "normals" respect fans? But fans have sseen I suspect PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY makes a fuss about it when a famous novel gets slated for A-list adaptation too, though I confess I haven't checked it out yet.

(4)It's nice to know that no matter what "Nerd Court" explanation for the situation might be offered, Tom Spurgeon's there to tell you it's irrelevant because It Ain't the Way Things "Should Be."

(5) Art Spiegelman did not "win comics for the year." He won for the sort of comics that the Angolueme judges happen to like; nothing more, nothing less. It's an admirable accomplishment but it doesn't define comics any more than the superhero books do.

(6) I find this a really weird argument from the guy who was (I think) the first one to make fun of the idea of "Team Comics."