Monday, March 28, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #1: ACTION COMICS #1-2



(Yes, I'm being conventional to go with this selection first. BFD.)

PLOT SUMMARY: Superman makes his first appearance in a story serialized across these two anthology-issues. After flexing his muscles with some minor threats he targets munitions-maker Norvell as being responsible for the horrors of war and starts haunting the industrialist like a Jiminy Cricket hopped up on steroids. Finally, without any direct contrivance by Superman, Norvell joins the army to get away from his nemesis, who naturally follows him. Norvell gets the chance to experience the horrors of war from the POV of a military grunt, and vows never again to make anything deadlier than a firecracker. He also deserts whatever army he's joined, but presumably that doesn't matter since Superman ends the war by telling the two enemy generals to fight it out. They won't, so peace reigns.

MYTHANALYSIS: Though Siegel and Shuster sketch the essentials of the Superman/Clark/Lois trio here, that particular aspect of the Superman myth takes a back seat to the character promulgating his philosophy, which might read something like, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or I'll do something *to* you that you won't like." Elsewhere I've labelled this story-motif as "Christ with Muscles," and it catches perfectly the mood of the 1930s United States-- at once leery toward the rest of the world, and yet somewhat paternalistic toward it. But there's also a strong liberal bias against the ruthlessness of big business. When Superman asks Norvell why he makes weapons knowing that "thousands will die horribly," Norvell replies, "Men are cheap-- munitions, expensive!" One may discern a scintilla of socialist sentiment here, but of course Siegel's basic solution to war--to have a godlike figure show up to end it-- has a determined silliness to it that vaults the tale out of the realm of political discourse and into the realm of myth. It's of some interest that on occasion Superman's enemies at this stage call him a "devil," for though the character becomes more sociopolitically conservative in later years, the writers often returned to the theme of "Superman as trickster." For this reason it's interesting that Norvell in effect "tricks himself" by joining the army to escape Superman, for it's only by joining the army that Norvell is converted to Superman's gospel.

To pursue the Christ metaphor a bit more, it's significant that in order to move among human beings, "saving" them in a physical if not spiritual sense, Superman, able to tear apart cars and thwart international conflicts, must pretend to be an ineffectual coward. The few scenes between Lois Lane and Clark Kent only hint at this paradox of society's expectations of masculine behavior, but whatever its origins in predecessors like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Superman/Clark identity takes on a deeper resonance simply because it is self-sacrificing, rather than the hero's method of confusing enemies and preserving his own life.

JUST THE FIRST MYTHIC MONDAY

I've decided to try an experiment not unlike my 2008 post, AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY.

Earlier this year I reviewed Tony Isabella's coffeetable compendium 1000 COMIC BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ. My main complaint with the book was what I called its "herky-jerky organization," which is actually high praise compared to the review the book got from Tom Spurgeon. I suggested that Isabella might have done better to have focused on particular stories, whether they were done-in-one or serialized.

Then, having thrown this suggestion out into the Intervoid, I started to make such a list myself.

I grew disinterested, though, because I realized that a general list like Isabella's didn't suit me. In this essay I noted that I had no opposition to anyone making, as Isabella did, a list of "favorites" based on their personal agreeability, e.g., "I thought that girl on the cover was hot" or "This was my very first BATMAN book." But it just wasn't my thing.

I've mentioned that I recently finished Philip Wheelwright's BURNING FOUNTAIN, in which he argues for the complexity of symbolism in terms not unlike the ones I've used here since the blog's beginning. Wheelwright's term for this complexity is *plurisignation,* which stresses the ability of symbols to transmit a plurality of meanings. He didn't advance a term for the type of symbol that has the barest possible representational meaning-- which I've called the "null-myth" on occasion-- but just to follow Wheelwright's example for awhile I'll say that this might be termed *monosignation.*

Most stories, ranging from undistinguished formula-tales to overwrought artsy-farts, are monosignative. Such stories are all about getting from a thematic Point A to Point B, or, in the artier ones (like the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter film ACCIDENT), from B to A. However, both good formulaic stories and fine artistic stories are equally capable of plurisignation.

My "1001 myths" posts will be a listing of such stories, and I'll have at least one new post pretty much every Monday. I won't rule out posting other entries on other days, but Monday will be the day that any interested party can check in and be reasonably sure that something will have been added. I have no idea whether or not any 'net readers will be interested enough to do so, but I'm cognizant that periodicity is just as important to online readers as Wednesday is for comic-shop customers.

Other specifications:

*Though I mentioned mythic comic strips in the LIBRARY post, I'm only dealing with comic books here. Whatever the failings of the comic-book medium, they are the superior of the strip-medium in terms of being able to tell a wider variety of stories-- and that means a wider variety of myths. In the final analysis the sobriquet "comic book" isn't as inaccurate as some have said: the comic-book form really is intrinsically more "book-like" than the strip can ever be, long soap-operatic continuities notwithstanding.

*Though I intend to go into more detail than Isabella's snapshot summations of each item's importance, these will be short writeups that seek to capture the *essence* of each fictional myth.

*My initial way of choosing which stories to include will be alphabetical, one for each letter, going by the title of the publication in which the story appeared. After I get to #26, I may choose another pattern, or I may not.

*I've always maintained that mythic symbolism can appear in any genre, no matter how fantastic or realistic. However, realistic genres have historically enjoyed more prominence in other media. Westerns, for instance, have a strong myth-history in prose and in film, but for whatever reason the genre has not prospered in comic books.

*Currently the superhero genre enjoys the lion's share of complex expressive myths. One may carp as one likes as to how far the genre fails by standards of technical literary excellence, but as Leslie Fiedler observed, mythopoesis does not begin and end with technical superiority.

*Nevertheless, to show that myth-criticism does apply across the board from all types of art-and/or-entertainment comics, I'll start by alternating "Superhero Myths" with "Everything Else-Myths." Again, I may change this later if I come up with another pattern as opposed to the alphabetical one.

*And finally, just because I did raise the question as to what was my first BATMAN comic-- here it is in all its tacky glory, with not a chance in hell of getting anywhere on the 1001 list.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

FOUNTAIN, FOUNTAIN, BURNING BRIGHT

I mentioned earlier that I was reading Philip Wheelwright's THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, subtitled "A Study in the Language of Symbolism." Wheelwright's prose is much like Northrop Frye's: intellectual but not academic, and generous in the use of specific examples as against drowning the reader in general theory. For me Wheelwright's theories of symbolism don't quite eclipse those of Susanne Langer, but unlike Langer he does devote more than a little attention to the concept of symbols having different levels of complexity.

On the Forum That Dare Not Speak Its Name, I remember trying, without success, to convince one individual of the demonstrable fact that certain symbols or symbol-clusters have a phenomenological ability to attract more associations than do other representations. It's true that one cannot say, in any meaningful context, that real eagles are more important, more significant, than real mudlarks. However, in any symbolic universe the symbolic (or gestural) eagle is worth more than the symbolic/gestural mudlark. This is an important strike against the empiricist tendency to view all connotational associations as equally epiphenomenal, and relates back to the Frye quote which remains the foundation-stone of this blog:

“Archetypes are associative clusters, and differ from signs in being complex variables.”—ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 102

To be sure, Frye doesn't present an adequate theory of symbolic complexity, but Wheelwright glosses Frye's comment more than adequately.

"Certain particulars have more of an archetypal content than others; that is to say, they are 'eminent instances' which stand forth in a characteristic amplitude as representatives of many others; they enclose in themselves a certain totality, arranged in a certain way, stirring in the soul something at once familiar and strange, and thus outwardly as well as inwardly they lay claim to a certain unity and generality."-- FOUNTAIN, p. 54.

This is not, of course, Platonic essentialism, an accusation leveled at Jung by some empiricist critics. Wheelwright is not saying that there is an archetype of "Eagle-ness" that sends its *eidolos* down to the huddled masses that they might worship the Glory of the Eagle. The "characteristic amplitude" is not bestowed upon the "eminent instances" by something outside history, and yet, the eminence of the eagle is not *simply* the humdrum concatenation of all the particular times that various human cultures decided that eagles looked cool, as a materialistic blockhead like Roland Barthes would insist. Wheelwright compares his notion of "archetypal content" and "amplitude" to Goethe's concepts of beauty, though personally I think Kant's concept of the beautiful and the sublime might make a better comparison.

Of course, Kant has been accused of essentialism, too, but even if one believed this, only another blockhead of Barthesian proportions could believe Kant's "a priori" categories to be one with Plato's archetypes.

Another significant theme Wheelwright explores throughout FOUNTAIN is what he calls "the intrinsically threshold character of experience." I made direct reference to the concept of the threshold in this discussion of Jungian theory and the Cambridge myth-ritual school. But in a sense a tremendous amount of my theory involves movements from one phenomenolgical threshold to another. My theory of the uncanny derives in part from Tzvetan Todorov's preoccuation with his own "threshold" concept, "the fantastic." The dominant emotional associations I assign to my AUM theory-- fear, dread, and awe-- inevitably shade into one another, and make it difficult, though not impossible, to make phenomenological distinctions between each conceptual experience. And the same applies to such categories as the beautiful and the sublime, the connotative and the denotative, Superman and Batman, ad infinitum.

I may explore a few more of Wheelwright's concepts in future posts, but for now, it's sufficient to focus on these two almost oppositional concepts:

The concept of complexity, which suggests an "eminent instance" with a huge accretion of associations, not unlike the outer periphery of a black hole:

And the concept of a threshhold, which suggests the black hole itself.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

EXILED AT LAST!

I didn't bother reading to the end of the BEAT post I've been mentioning lately, where I criticized another poster. Once Heidi herself expressed sentiments in the favor of the other guy, I knew there was no point in going the distance in the matter: Heidi's heavy finger has cut me off too often.

I half suspected that within the next few days I'd be persona non grata at The Beat, whether because Heidi sincerely believed me guilty of trollish behavior, because she's protecting her meal ticket, or a little of both. I tested the waters with an innocuous post about the TV-Wonder Woman's new costume and received the infamous "Your comment is awaiting moderation." Today-- no post on THE BEAT.

It's a small loss from the POV of net-traffic; at least Google stats almost never cite that I'm getting many hits from that territory, despite having intermittently posted there for about a year. But I'm sure Heidi will still provide me with lots of material for my blog even if I can't get into abortive arguments with Tom Spurgeon over there. She's just that kind of girl.






Speaking of the WONDER WOMAN costume:


























The gist of my vanished comment was that at least this design would avoid the frequent accusation that the character was objectified by the act of running around in a quasi-bathing suit. As I noted in PANTS THEISM, I've no great liking for the concept of "realism" in superhero costumes. As far as I can see, "realism" gets us this sort of monstrosity:






















At the very least, the above verson of the costume that *may* be used in the teleseries gets rid of the lame jacket used by the comics-reboot, which also allows the viewer a better look at Wonder Woman's greatest weapon--

Her lasso.

What else could one mean? (Especially since wearing the jacket didn't immunize the reboot from the usual complaints about the prominence of the wonder boobs!)

As for the teleseries itself, I've said elsewhere that I'm none too sanguine about David Kelley putting his hands on the Amazon. I don't imagine that he'll really give people a bracelet-wearing Ally McBeal, but though Kelley has a good sense for exploitative material he's got no experience working with the action-genre. I never got around to reading the pilot-script floating around on the net, but no matter how Kelley and his cohorts may modify their approach, I suspect we'll still have a very TALKY Amazon Princess.

Friday, March 18, 2011

SUFFRAGE FOR SUFFERING

In this essay I've discussed some recent attempts to claim that the James Bond mythos, as a mythos directed at a male audience, either needed to be fixed in deference to feminist priorities or used as a rhetorical device for those priorities. As that essay suggested I do think, unlike the WAPster feminists, that such a male genre-product as the Ian Fleming Bond series can possess its own integrity, however politically incorrect, and I also stated that I believed that there was, prior to any feminist tinkering with the franchise, a healthy female following for the series.

I didn't have space, though, to enlarge on the reason why that following might exist. In short, it's because Fleming could and did sometimes write female characters with whom some female readers might identity with and feel empowered by. By way of expansion on this theme, here's a segment from my review of the 1965 THUNDERBALL film, in which I compare Fleming's depiction of his character Domino to the film's version.

The film’s largest deficit may be its handling of the romantic relationship of Bond and Domino Vitali, who begins as Largo’s mistress but who turns against the villain when Bond reveals that Largo had Domino’s brother killed. (In book and movie, Largo never knows of a connection between his mistress and the murdered man; clearly the writers’ god “Coincidence” reigns supreme here.)

No one should mistake Ian Fleming for a feminist. He wrote “blood and thunder” pulp fiction to an audience dominated by men, and often reflected the more sexist attitudes of his time. Nevertheless, his female characters are on occasion quite formidable, and the book makes clear that Domino is not merely a “kept woman,” but a Venus who gives her favors as she pleases. For instance, in the book she pretends that she needs Bond’s aid when she steps on the spines of a sea-creature, and later tells him that she could have helped herself, but feigned helplessness so that he would seduce her. This revelation doesn’t appear in the movie, and actress Claudine Auger isn’t able to convey Domino’s Italian fire on her own talents.

Further, while in both works Domino does revenge herself on Largo by shooting him with a harpoon, thereby saving Bond’s life, film-Domino is not nearly as formidable as print-Domino. In the book Largo tortures Domino when he learns she’s helping Bond, and though the torture isn’t depicted in detail on the page, the method— applying alternating heat (a cigar) and cold (ice cubes) to the skin-- is described prior to the act. However, in the film Largo is interrupted before the torture can begin, possibly in deference to sensitive mainstream audiences. Moreover, after print-Domino is tortured, she frees herself from her prison and despite her burn-wounds swims a considerable distance to the site where Bond is on the verge of being choked to death by Largo, and then kills Largo. Film-Domino doesn’t even get loose from her ropes without help. Certainly Felix Leiter would never say of this character: “I swear I’ll never call a girl a ‘frail’ again --not an Italian girl, anyway!”


Clearly, the reason I think it appropriate to "vote" in favor of female suffering in certain given works is that, as seen here, it can make a character more heroic, as opposed to the WAPster belief that it must render the female character a "victim." The Domino Vitali of the Fleming book, who isn't even any sort of professional, courageously resists torture and then goes through an ordeal to gain vengeance on her tormentor. The suffering here, then, is heroic.

But if Terence Young's THUNDERBALL had faithfully recreated the Fleming scenario, there can be little doubt that it would have been criticized, even in 1965, for excessive violence toward the female of the species. Because the violence was pruned, Domino lost her heroic stature and became just another "Bond girl" that few filmgoers even remember very well.

Sometimes the representation of suffering is not the problem.

Sometimes the lack of it has far more pernicious effects.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

GENDER, BEND HER

I took Richard Bensam’s advice and checked out the sites associated with Roz Keveney and Avedon Carol. It’s quite possible that these critics have expressed attitudes that might complement those of known “sex-positive feminists” like Camille Paglia and Barbara Creed. But I simply didn’t find anything that specifically addressed the theoretical problems I addressed in this gender-essay, itself engendered by Heidi McDonald’s commentary on “aggro culture” in “nerd fandom.”

One thing I didn’t touch on in McDonald’s essay was her quotation from a short video-film directed by one Sam Taylor-Wood, in which the question, "We're equals, aren't we, 007?" is posed to current Bond Daniel Craig by the voice of Judi Dench. I have not watched the video as yet, but clearly Taylor-Wood had polemical reasons for chooosing the characters of Bond and M (or at least the version of M installed in the role for 1995's GOLDENEYE). This is also the film in which M called Bond a "misogynistic dinosaur," thus establishing that the producers intended to take seriously those voices that had criticized the Bond films as sexist male fantasy. The fact that Dench continued to essay the formerly male role of M in subsequent Bond films can be interpreted as a measured victory for gender equity in fiction; therefore polemically M makes an ideal candidate to call Bond on the carpet for his gender's failure to deliver on such concerns as "equal pay for equal work," etc.

Taylor-Young's rhetoric doesn't concern me here, but I find it interesting that he and Heidi McDonald both invoke this phase of the James Bond mythos. I would not go so far as to call the "female M" concept tokenism in and of itself. However, the "misogynistic dinosaur" line, and similar sops to feminism in GOLDENEYE and subsequent Bond films, aligns the "female M" concept-- and by extension, all persons who validate it-- with what I may call the WAPster ethic. This ethic passes an unsubstantiated judgment upon all previous incarnations of Bond fiction: said judgment being that, because they were originally fictions designed principally with male buyers in mind, new iterations must and should be corrected to become more “female-friendly.” But this correction hinges on two presumptions: (1) that male-oriented fiction has no integrity in itself, but must be corrected in some fashion, and (2) that the Bond mythos did not already a healthy, though numerically smaller, female fandom even prior to feminist revisions.

It’s not hard to imagine why McDonald, a female comics-fan, might find pleasing this imposition of a WAPster ethic upon a genre dominantly enjoyed and supported by men. I doubt that a month goes by in which one of the BEAT columns doesn’t stump for gender equity in terms of female representation in writing comics, drawing comics, or critiquing comics (which is touched on in the aforementioned essay). I have no problem with anyone asserting the need for gender equity in these real-world terms. However, imposing gender equity upon fiction-- which I believe McDonald has called for on more than one occasion-- is a different matter.

What would a “sex-positive” female comics critic read like, given that I’ve not been able to locate any on the web? Presumably she would evince some appreciation that a given genre, no matter how seemingly inconsiderate of feminine values, might contain representations of sexuality, violence, and/or pornography which some women might find either pleasing on a kinetic level or useful in terms of forging a greater theoretical schema.

Female horror-bloggers provide some tantalizing insights. A particular standout, given that the McDonald essay addresses the politics of rape-representation, would be this blogpost by Brittany-Jade Colangelo on the infamous rape-horror film I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and its then-impending remake.

First, Colangelo addresses the adviseability of remaking the film:

My heart is breaking at the thought of this film being redone. I have said many times before that I don't have a problem with films being remade as they bring the originals to a newer audience that were otherwise unaware of the film's existence. HOWEVER, (this however is so big it needed caps) there are certain films that I believe should not be redone for the simple fact that even the smallest change could completely ruin its heart. The film has its faults as does every film (except for maybe Star Wars), but this is undoubtedly a flawed masterpiece. When the film was created, it was a time that didn't have as many "politically correct" and taboo subjects constantly buzzing around. We now live in a day and age where we must walk on egg shells in order to protect the feelings of the people around us. 1978 was a completely different world.


Following this, Colangelo situates the representation of rape within this particular film-- one that she clearly labeled an "exploitation film"-- in terms of its thematic importance:


The rape scene in this film is VITAL. Without it, there is no set up for her absolutely brutal revenge on her assailants. These scenes were filmed in the 70's where we were flooded with video nasties but people weren't afraid to make them. It's not the same anymore. People take the easy route and they sugarcoat reality. I hate when TV portrays rape because they sanatize the hell out of it...AND THAT'S NOT BEING HONEST. We're going to end up getting a film with a rape scene that will be barely as graphic as the one in the remake of The Last House On The Left. This doesn't make me some sick person who wants to see rape, but the horrifying torture of Jennifer Hill is what gives this film such sting. The tagline of "this woman has just chopped, crippled, and mutilated four men beyond recognition...but no jury in america would ever convict her" only rings true if we get a real understanding of the pain that she endured which fueled her need for revenge. We're not going to understand her and the horror she experienced, unless we see it.


I should note that, in terms of stumping for real-world gender equity in the horror genre, Costangelo’s blog is in no way inferior to McDonald’s comics-blog. Nevertheless, Costangelo not only provides a personal feminist context for the film but in addition takes the name of her blog, DAY OF THE WOMAN, from one of GRAVE’s alternate titles. To be sure, Colangelo is not a theorist like Creed and Paglia, any more than McDonald is Susan Brownmiller. But if there were budding female comics-critics who wanted to know how one might take an unpleasant topic and render it into a meaningful pursuit-- without taking away from its identity as a work of kinetic exploitation-- they could do worse than learn from Colangelo's example.

Friday, March 11, 2011

WAPsters VS. FACTsters

I've read a smattering of works that touched on the different philosophical currents within the American feminist movement, including Camille Paglia's SEXUAL PERSONAE and Christina Hoff Somers' WHO STOLE FEMINISM? However, I have AMERICAN PSYCHO to thank for making the philosophical division clearer to me than ever before.

I'm referring neither to the Bret Easton Ellis novel (which I've not read) nor the so-so film adaptation, but the DVD of AMERICAN PSYCHO. In what seems an attempt to justify the gorey, lady-killing excesses of the film, the DVD included a special feature: Holly Willis' "The Pornography of Killing," which took the form of a performer reading Willis' script to the viewer, asserting that feminism evolved into two distinct philosophical camps, mostly during the decade of the 1980s. As it happened, these camps formed two advocacy organizations, WAP (Women Against Pornography) and FACT (Feminists Against Censorship Taskforce). Of the two, FACT is apparently defunct while WAP seems to have toned down its activities in recent years. Clearly the philosophies are still extant, though only one of the two shows up much in the world of comics-fandom.

WAP's orientation was, as Willis avers, oriented toward praxis. Gender equity, in terms of such real-world benefits as equal pay, could only be achieved by banishing the image of Woman as Victim. Pornography was regarded by WAP as perpetuating stereotypes of women as either victims of male violence or as servants to the male will, as seen in this Susan Brownmiller quote:

We are unalterably opposed to the presentation of the female body being stripped, bound, raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in the name of commercial entertainment and free speech.


WAP's conception of pornography, then, was that it was a zero-sum game for women, and therefore was to be opposed despite its protection under the rubric of "free speech."

FACT, however, evolves from a more long-range theoretical approach informed by academic post-structuralism. The Willis essay quotes both George Bataille (whom I've quoted here often) and Angela Carter (whose nonficton I have not read) to advance the notion that for FACT and its fellow travelers pornography could "include sexual representations by and for women." Fellow traveler Ellen Willis is credited with this oft-used quote:

In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to "What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.


In support of this view of pornography (which, not coincidentally, is meant to serve as a justification for AMERICAN PSYCHO's employment of violent pornographic scenarios), the Willis essay particularly quotes Carter's SADEIAN WOMAN. Carter defends the works of the Marquis de Sade by finding that through the tedious repetition of his scenarios of sex-and-violence he actually neutralizes the appeal of what he writes. In this way, going by Willis' essay, Sade becomes "moral pornography" in that it critiques the society based on gender inequity, much as Ellis' AMERICAN PSYCHO also does.

As I've read neither the Ellis nor Carter works in the original, I can't comment on them in detail. However, though Sade is an important author for many reasons, it's wishful thinking to consider his pornography any more moral than that of any raincoat-wearing fetishist.

Nevertheless, FACT's theoretical approach to pornography and the depiction of sexuality is far closer to being accurate than that of WAP, though both philosophies are tainted with what I've termed "ratiocentrism." This is the inability to see a given phenomenon in elemental terms that do not fall wholly within the parameters of a rational construct, such as (predominantly) Freudianism and Marxism.

And of course, the Willis essay is tainted in that it chooses (as a strategy for defending AMERICAN PSYCHO) to define pornography at the outset in terms of violence alone: calling it a "fascination with blood, murder, and mayhem, and especially sexual violence as it is enacted upon the bodies of women." Clearly this is a slanted definition that would leave out huge sections of pornographic work ranging from FANNY HILL to your basic violence-free Skinemax softcore.

I've seen quite a few WAPster voices raised in comics-fandom, but not so many FACTsters. Perhaps some of the WAPsters would benefit from a reading of Bataille, who, as I've noted in previous essays, throws a certain light upon the twisting pathways of sex-and-violence representation. Though it's likely that most of the WAPsters known to me would much rather curse the darkness than light a candle.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

RAPE AND ESSENCE

Sadly, a lot of internet nerd culture — hell, CULTURE — is preoccupied with establishing ideas of masculinity in the crudest and dumbest ways possible.-- Heidi McDonald, THE BEAT, 3-8-11.


Heidi McDonald's latest foray into the matter of "nerd gender relations" (her words) can be found here.

Though her post splits itself between two topics-- that of the representation of female critics in the world of High Comics Criticism, and that of a controversy involving a rape joke in the webcomic PENNY ARCADE-- the "glue" binding the two topics is masculine crudeness. Heidi only touches on the "echo chamber of jackanapes" that was the TCJ message board at one point, and devotes more time to the webcomic (which most would consider a better gauge of "nerd culture"):

Short version (as best I can make out) — the immensely popular comic strip Penny Arcade made a rape joke last year. Some objected. An then somehow this got turned into people calling themselves “rape culture” and wearing t-shirts that referenced the rapers — “d*ckwolves” — and a woman who had actually been raped and suffered PTSD not wanting to go, and then people claiming she had never been raped and… well it’s stupid and ugly. You don’t need a degree in psychiatry to know that there’s an aspect to video game culture that’s totally aggro and brutish, and it’s behind a lot of the casual misogyny of various parts of the internet.


Heidi also quotes someone whose name I wasn't able to learn because the link didn't work:

when feminists (myself included) say that making a shirt or a comic about rape contributes to rape culture, it sounds a lot like the above argument. What the other side doesn’t understand, however, is that there is a critical difference between the argument of feminists and the argument of anti-violence video game censors. For the most part, our argument is not that a rape joke is going to make someone go out and rape. Our argument, instead, is that rape jokes, and allowing people to indentify themselves with a shirt promoting a fictional rapist character, contributes to a culture where rape is accepted, tolerated, and the impact of it diminished.


This, however, is specious. If a feminist is concerned that rape jokes contribute to a culture where rape is accepted and tolerated, this concern does not exist in an intellectual vacuum: she/he is obviously concerned that greater tolerance will lead to a greater incidence of real rape-attacks. When the speaker says that "our argument is not that a rape joke is going to make someone go out and rape," she/he is being disingenuous. Anti-violence censors, whether of video games or any other entertainment, don't universally believe in a direct "monkey see monkey do" effect, in which a viewer sees rape depicted in a video game and then immediately quests forth in search of a maiden to ravage. Their entire argument hinges upon the phenomenon called "desensitization," just as much as feminists opposing rape or related forms of misogyny-- and, somewhere down the line, the result of this desensitization is going to be real violence, if not specifically male-over-female violence.

As I've no interest in gaming-culture whatever, I don't have a specific dog in the fight, so I wouldn't precisely go to the wall to protect the rights of gamer-nerds to wear T-shirts alluding to rape. Were I to meet such a T-shirted nerd in the street, knowing what "dickwolf" means, I might well cross to the other side of the street to avoid him-- especially since the original context of the PENNY ARCADE comic was male, not female, rape!

Still, it's also specious to label as "aggro and brutish" an aspect of entertainment that's been with us long before the first video-game-- which aspect is not specifically rape, but human cruelty.

Paging Friedrich N.:

Almost everything we call "higher culture" is based on the spiritualization of cruelty, on its becoming more profound: this is my proposition. That "savage animal" has not really been "mortified"; it lives and flourishes, it has merely become—divine. What constitutes the painful voluptuousness of tragedy is cruelty; what seems agreeable in so-called tragic pity, and at bottom in everything sublime, up to the highest and most delicate shudders of metaphysics, receives its sweetness solely from the admixture of cruelty.


Of course the dopey PENNY ARCADE strip does not approach "higher culture," but as I've pointed out over and over, "lower culture" has its own aesthetic, and that often includes the crudest forms of aggressive entertainment. Moreover, women are not immune to the love of cruelty in either crude or "spiritualized" forms, even though it's probably true that the majority of them don't enjoy watching the depiction of rape.

Even so, the problem of sexual fantasy in women has consequences for any attempt to portray "aggro" fantasies as exclusively male-centered. To a board-poster who seemed unable to validate female-on-male rape as actual rape, I wrote:

Your posts assume that a male's genital rape by any woman who doesn't gross him out must be a sexual fantasy. It can be, just Scarlet O'Hara's rape (admittedly within the context of marriage) was clearly a sexual fantasy for the predominant female audience that read the book. But a male rape by a sexy woman can, depending on execution, still be dispiriting and unsexy.


I didn't bother to point out that GONE WITH THE WIND was not only written for women, but by a woman: one assumes that the poster would simply have considered both author and audience to be complicit in a "rape culture." (She never responded and was banned from the board shortly thereafter.)

What we have here, in essence, is yet another chapter in the Hume-an comedy called "the *is* and the *ought.*" The gamers conceive that the alleged prevalence of rape in their entertainment as an immutable "is:" rape is in the stories because rape existed in the reality on which the stories are (very roughly) based. For their opponents, rape ought not to be in the stories because it may have repercussions for current reality.

Next up, I'll get away from rape and talk about something pleasant--

Like pornography.

Friday, March 4, 2011

STRANGENESS ADVENTURES

“The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday reality.”—Roger Caillois, AU COEUR DU FANTASTIQUE.

In this essay I discussed parallels between Kant’s concept of the sublime and my concept of “the uncanny,” in terms of how both could be produced purely from affects within an experience of any kind. Both can suggest that the experience is “beyond nature” in a Longinian affective sense, without a literal violation of causality’s “acknowledged order,” as one sees in the category of “the marvelous.”

Shortly later this essay covered parallels between the Kantian sublime and "the mythic," which refers to all narratives that possess high symbolic complexity like that of archaic myths. I emphasized both in that essay and earlier ones that "the mythic" could appear in any of my three phenomenal categories, just as was the case for the sublime:

To expand on the caution I expressed before, 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.


All that said, it should be obvious that there's some quality about my two metaphenomenal categories that is *not* shared by the "odd man out," the isophenomenal. And as it happens, Caillois also supplies the best word for this quality, when he defines fantasy in terms of "an irreducible strangeness."

My choice is deliberately ironic. Stanislaw Lem asserts that "├ętrange," the French word for "strange," is the actual word used by Todorov for his category "the uncanny." Possibly the translator thought Todorov was tossing around so many Freudianisms that the critic would not be averse to the association with Freud's famous formulation of the quality he called "umheimlich", "unfamiliarity," which was translated as "uncanny" for this 1919 essay. I would tend to agree that the translator was right, considering this observation by Freud:

"Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich."

Clearly this is in total agreement with this Todorov statement:

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

Thus it would seem that Todorov's "├ętrange” is very reducible to such influences as Freud’s infamous “family romance.”

In his 1978 work THE FANTASY BOOK, Franz Rottensteiner also cites Caillois: “Fantasy in the narrow sense, as defined by Caillois, is directly contrary to reason, describing events not susceptible to rational explanation by natural laws.” As I have not read Caillois aside from a few translated excerpts, I have no clue as to what works fall into Caillois’ concept of fantasy that is “irreducibly strange.” I would hope that a work like Poe’s HOUSE OF USHER, which I judged to be “uncanny” here, would qualify: that Caillois would not, unlike Todorov, consider that USHER falls into “the category of the real” simply because Poe supplies the reader with possible “rational explanations.”

Rottensteiner provides a quote from another writer whom I have not read in full: one Lars Gustafsson, whose essay, “On the Fantastic in Literature,” appeared in a collection of essays a year before Todorov’s THE FANTASTIC was published. Rottensteiner finds Gustafsson to be in agreement with Caillois:

“The fantastic in literature doesn’t exist as a challenge to what is probable, but only there where it can be increased to a challenge of reason itself: the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle.” Rottensteiner supplies one example that Gustaffson found “fantastic,” a work by the artist Piranesi, but obviously this doesn’t give one enough to evaluate Gustaffson’s criteria in depth.

However, Gustaffson’s contrast between the “probable” and the “reasonable” is interesting. I’ve stated that “All fictional narrative concerns the atypical,” and functionally all three of my phenomenality-categories may be considered differing iterations of atypicality, though I generally use “the atypical” as short for the “base atypicality” that rules the world of isophenomenal causality, a.k.a. “the acknowledged order.” This is the world governed by what Gustaffson calls “what is probable,” as should be suggested by my observation from this essay:

“The pleasures and pains of character identification are in no way altered with respect to whether the story seems utterly fantastic, somewhat fantastic or not fantastic at all. However, the reader’s aesthetic perceptions are affected by their perception as to what phenomena are possible in the fictional world.”

A narrative world governed entirely by rational causation never deals with “reason” as a mode of being. It cannot, for nothing in that world can challenge reason; in that world there can only exist varying degrees of probability. In the two levels of the metaphenomenal, however—though of the “utterly fantastic” or “somewhat fantastic”—reason, at least in its commonplace form, is challenged.

True, in the essay “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien is careful to state that fantasy “does not destroy or insult Reason.” Still, while LORD OF THE RINGS may present a world which is in some ways more “reason-friendly” than that of Poe’s USHER, in Middle-Earth commonplace reason is transcended by the forces of magic and magical entities. So in Tolkien’s world, the combat between “reason” and “unreason” is won by “unreason” simply by the act of depicting the marvelous as unquestionably real. This principle applies no less to science-fictional works wherein the marvel is explained by some science that is at the time still hypothetical, in that this hypothetical science is still outside the bounds of the acknowledged order.
In uncanny works the “reason/unreason” battle results in a draw. Cognitively the metaphenomenon does not totally dispel causation, but it can and does do so in the affective sense Thus it is fair to speak of both categories as sharing the quality of “strangeness,” for both challenge rationality and causation to some extent, while atypical works merely challenge one’s notion of probability.

Side-note: My above ruminations about how I’ve used “atypicality” make me aware that I shouldn’t use the same word for both a general category and a specific category within that category. From now on, what I’ve called “general atypicality” is better described as “the anomalous,” drawing on Frank Cioffi’s use of that term.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

CUTEY FUNNY PART 2

“The opposite of laughter and joking is seriousness. This, accordingly, consists in the consciousness of the perfect agreement and congruity of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality. The serious person is convinced that he conceives things as they are, and that they are as he conceives them. This is just why the transition from profound seriousness to laughter is particularly easy, and can be brought about by trifles.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION (trans. Payne), p. 99.

For some time I’ve been meaning to explore certain relations of the humorous impulse to “serious” affects as the thrill of the agon and the agony of the pathos. I mentioned in the essay SATIRE-RIASIS that in interviews Harvey Kurtzman subscribed to the idea that satire was a literal corrective to what he considered false beliefs. This idea may have some truth for sociopolitical affairs, but from a pluralistic POV it has no applicability to art.

A similarly deluded attempt to impose upon art a Freudian “reality principle” is seen in this essay by Noah Berlatsky, in which he claims that superheroes are intrinsically comic:

The desire to be so strong and fast and smart and wonderful that you can save the world with one hand while winning at backgammon with the other — it’s cute when kids imagine it, embarrassing when adults do, and silly at all times and in all seasons.


Berlatsky conveniently overlooks the potential of every aspect of human reality-- real-life or literary-- can be made silly. The fact that the 1966 BATMAN film does a good job of spoofing superheroes does not prove logically that superheroes are silly, any more than ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN proves HAMLET silly. As Schopenhauer says, "serious" works privilege congruity over any possible incongruity, and "comic" works do the opposite. Each mode depends on a process I have called "dynamization," which in essence comes down to a superiority dance. No dance is wrong on its own terms, but one ought to know more than one.

Now, "cute monsters" are not always used for outright comedy. However, again going on the assumption that a given child knows that the model for his "soft lion" or "soft monster" could be dangerous to him in its original form, most "cute horrors" fall under Schopenhauer's concept of incongruity, where "the apprehension of the incongruity between what is conceived and what is perceived, i.e. reality, gives us pleasure."

An interesting contrast to the Kurtzman-Berlatsky "reality principle" appears in some of the remarks of Curt Purcell’s respondents, which he collates here. Two of these horror-bloggers view these cutesy transformations of serious horrors as a compromise of what John of MONSTER MAGAZINE WORLD tellingly terms “deeper complexities.” He concludes:

Maybe we are only simply trying to reduce our fears with the vanquishing of the element that makes the monster fearful, leaving nothing more than a sanitized version, a parody to laugh at and cuddle.


Similarly, the VAULT OF HORROR essay, "Monster Cereals: Eating What Scares You," views this cereal-murdering of monstrous icons as an attempt to “take away [monstrous] power by turning it into a parody,” while Doctor Gangrene's prognosis is that softer versions of monsters arise because adults wish to share their own favorable horrific experiences with children, albeit in dampened form.

Though in terms of personal inclinations I’m more in tune with the horror-bloggers than with the advocates of Really Real Reality Principles, I have to point out that in keeping with Schopenhauer’s above remarks, humor is a natural consequence of seriousness in any human endeavor. Thus it’s possible that a humorous or parodic transformation can possess its own “complexities.”

Admittedly, monster-toys and monster-cereals are not the best source of symbolic complexity. They do appeal to the human love of the incongruous, but only in simple, though not insignificant, ways. But some works manage to be, as CLASSIC HORROR avers, “merry and scary” at the same time without compromising either spirit.

In this essay I looked at how Charles Addams’ ghoulish-goofy ADDAMS FAMILY cartoons derived from such vital horror-texts as THE OLD DARK HOUSE and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. One could probably reel off a good-sized list of works that create their own symbolic universes rather than being nothing more than straight parodies, but that's a project best left for some future post.

CUTEY FUNNY, PART 1

My response to Curt Purcell’s recent question-- "What do cute versions of monsters tell us about horror?"-- will be considerably more circuitous than the responses of other horror-bloggers who’ve thus far responded to the question, and who are listed in CP’s original blog-essay. This is perhaps inevitable given my recent ruminations re: Kantian formulations about beauty and the sublime, as seen here and here.

This essay won’t answer the question per se, but will attempt to place the idea of “cuteness” in line with Kantian concepts of “types of liking.”

Kant’s CRITIQUE OF AESTHETIC JUDGMENT gives an excellent logical estimation of beauty but doesn’t provide adequate concrete examples. Edmund Burke, who preceded Kant in formulating a general theory of aesthetics, defines beauty in such terms as “delicacy” and “weakness,” in contrast to the awesomeness of “the sublime.” According to James T. Boulton, even in Burke’s time his detractors found Burke’s criteria too predicated on his personal tastes and not representative of broader notions of “the beautiful,” an opinion with which I concur. I’d venture that Burke may also have been attempting to theorize beauty as the opposite of the sublime in every way, which was too extreme an opposition.

It’s true that beauty is not dominantly associated with the same sort of awe-filled experience one may gain from one’s experience of what Kant calls “the unbounded.” But beauty, the experience of that which is bounded, is often associated with a lesser form of awe, or at least one more associated with “order” than with “chaos.”
However, the qualities Burke assigned to beauty, such as “weakness,” apply quite well to the idea of “cuteness,” as long as one predicates that some forms of this weakness are cognitive while others are affective.

Baby animals possess weakness in the cognitive sense, in that they are helpless either to escape or defend themselves from danger. It’s been speculated that in humans the instinct to protect and care for one’s offspring is at the root of the ability to find nonhuman beings or even objects “cute.” But even if this evo-psych explanation could be decisively validated, the impulse has clearly branched out to include many affects that have nothing to do with infant care.

In affects relating to sexual attractiveness, “weakness” translates into something closer to “that which is appealing,” overlapping with Kantian “agreeability.” For a “cute hat,” the question of weakness doesn’t apply, except in the roundabout sense that its appeal may “weaken” an onlooker to its owner’s charms. If a teenage girl considers a bulky football player “cute,” she certainly doesn’t cognize him as “weak” the way a baby is, but rather that he is, in her mind, both agreeable and approachable. By contrast beauty, as a sexually related affect, connotes “difficulty of approach,” along the lines of Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian.

For children, the principle audience for Curt’s “cute critter-creations,” agreeability manifests in terms of empathic bonding. Dolls may be most often used to allow the child to simulate caring for an infant, but they can, as much as other toys, assume other roles: siblings, playmates, parental substitutes, guardian spirits. But it’s important to note that many toys with no “monstrous” associations may represent creatures that are not helpless in nature. Thus a doll that looks like an animal that either is dangerous or is usually perceived so --a lion, a snake-- can as easily become a child’s agreeable companion as a doll based on a creature that looks innocuous. And the process by which a lion or serpent has its less agreeable aspects softened or purged is functionally identical with the process by which Great Cthulhu’s fearsome face-tentacles turn into “bunny ears," as noted in Curt's essay.





Now, unless a child is not raised knowing that lions are dangerous, the “Soft Lion,” like the “Soft Monster,” is a study in contrast, so it carries a different affect from the more purely agreeable “teddy bear.” And as studies in contrast, they are best understood in tune with Schopenhauer’s concept of “the incongruous,” which I’ll explore further in Part 2.