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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

OVERTHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT PT. 3

How wouldst thou use me now, blind, and thereby
Deceiveable, in most things as a child
Helpless, thence easily contemn'd, and scorn'd,
And last neglected?-- Milton, SAMSON AGONISTES.

All higher or moral tendencies lie under suspicion of being rackets.-- Saul Bellow, HERZOG.



In Part 1 I disagreed with Charles Reece's WONDER WOMAN essays. In order to indict William Moulton Marston's WONDER WOMAN for being propaganda for an "ideological state apparatus," albeit one based in the worship of "Aphrodite's law" rather than the state as such, he overemphasized some factors and underemphasized others.  I also compared his method with mine, asserting that in my own WONDER WOMAN analysis I'd stayed closer to the source material and attempted to represent the narrative "underthought" in concert with its literal "overthought."  The following essay touches on some related points in that respect, particularly with respect to the Mulveyan concept of "the male gaze."


Reece likens the Amazon's Transformation Island-- where criminals are obliged to wear "Venus girdles" designed to bring them to a consciousness of Aphrodite's law-- to both real-world correctional institutions and the philosophical concept of the "panopticon:"


Liberal do-gooder resistance to retributive justice can often slip into the most totalitarian of utopian ideas. By focusing on utilitarian notions of rehabilitation and deterrence, rather than a just punishment to fit the crime, the criminal’s agency can be diminished for the general good. What results is a society that begins to look like a penal colony. There are the science fiction dystopias such as A Clockwork Orange and The Minority Report, but also B. F. Skinner’s utopian model for the real world, Walden Two, where a centrally planned system of positive reinforcements has eliminated crime through the shaping of behavior (the behaviorist had no truck with talk of free will, Beyond Freedom and Dignity being one of his major popular works). And, to my mind, Marston’s Transformation Island is a more horrifying, feminine version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

The concept is ubiquitous nowadays (cf., the masthead above), but briefly: The panopticon is a circular prison with a watchtower in the center covered in two-way mirrors, where guards can observe any of the prisoners through the glass walls of their cells that face the tower. It’s a model of efficiency: few to no guards are needed at any given time, because the prisoners can’t determine when they’re being watched. Thus, they learn to act as if they’re always being watched. Besides the obvious visual analogy of the tower to the phallus, the concept can be read as masculine due to its use of Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze.” [3] Similar to what’s done with Rear Window, substitute the film audience for the guards, the screen for the glass walls and images of women for the prisoners, and you pretty much have her view of cinematic pleasure. The woman/prisoner exists as spectacle (connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness”), “freezing”/disrupting the progression of narrative/legal order, which is what the masculine camera/guard’s gaze is ultimately searching for: “This alien presence [erotic or criminal spectacle] then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative [patriarchal or legal order].” [4] [p. 203, Mulvey]

Laura Mulvey's (in)famous concept of the "male gaze," whatever one thinks of it, does compare reasonably well with the panopticon concept.  Both ideas are based in the fear and anxiety one may experience-- not unlike Milton's blind strongman-- of being looked at without being able to look back.  However, I'm moved to point out that Marston's concept of Transformation Island has exactly nothing to do with the idea of visual monitoring, and so a comparison to either Mulvey or Bentham seems egregious.

The only resemblance to Bentham's panopticon is that Transformation Island does have some guards.  However, the intrinsic idea of the Venus girdles involves a spirtual awakening, rather than a deadening. In WONDER WOMAN #28 one of the Transformation Island guards explains:

[The girdle] is magic metal from Venus—it removes all desire to do evil and compels complete authority to loving obedience.
Initially this sounds an awful lot like brainwashing of the Orwellian kind.  However, in the same issue, one of the long-time prisoners of the Island, after being liberated by newer escapees, has the following mental monologue:
 “Without the girdle I feel dominant—invincible! But I don’t feel cruel and wicked as I used to—the Amazons transformed me! I love Wonder Woman and Queen Hippolyte—I can’t bear to have them hurt—I must save them!”
 
It's possible, I suppose, to view the speaker as being just as brainwashed as Winston Smith.  However, to do so one must force onto Marston's narrative an "underthought" not supported by the "overthought" expressed in the story proper.

Reece's comparisons to Mulvey, Bentham and Orwell are not without purpose.  By alluding to various methods of thought-control, he can suggest that Transformation Island is simply a tool for such control, rather than what Marston believed it to be: a means of awakening "cruel and wicked" souls to a greater understanding of their own potential for love.  One may find this sort of psycho-religiosity sappy or repelling as a matter of taste, of course.  But it's impossible to overlook that in Marston's universe, the law of Aphrodite has a different phenomenological nature than any of the compulsions from 1984. 

Another problem specific to the comparison of Marston and Bentham is that in the former, readers know that the prisoners of Transfomation Island are all guilty of their crimes.  We know this with a narrative certainty that cannot extend to the philosophical prison of Bentham.  This diegetic fact weakens Reece's case for portraying the Amazon's adversaries as pawns of an "ideological state apparatus."  Therefore, to strengthen his case he brings in Mulvey's formula of the "woman-as-spectacle," the cinematic female who is also unable to prevent being under the scrutiny of a male-dominated order.  However, the comparison is not apt.  In one case we're talking about characters as they're being controlled by other characters within a narrative diegesis, and in the other, about characters being controlled by the extra-diegetic forces (a film's producers and audiences) who bring the diegesis into existence. 

In case it's not been made clear in earlier essays like PROOF OF EMBODIMENT, I reject absolutely Mulvey's cockeyed notion that only women are sources of spectacle, either in the cinematic medium or any other.  There are some differences in the ways men and women are "spectacularized," differences which have their roots in the biological and sociological identities of the genders.  And if there's any comic-book creator who did the most to shift the burden of spectacularization from female to male, Marston would be my nominee.

In my earlier WONDER WOMAN essay, I too made a comparison between the story I analyzed and the Mulveyan concept:


“Origin” could also serve as a satirical commentary on Laura Mulvey’s oversimple concept of “the male gaze.” Though Trevor is an intrusive presence, he sees nothing of the Amazon world for most of the story, and indeed his eyes seem to have been injured from his experience, since on page 12 he comments that “my eyes must be bad again” as he sees Diana in all her costumed finery, rather than as “the scientist who saved my life.” Rather than seeing, he is the one seen as Diana and her friend Mala rescue him from the waters. Yet only Diana, the one explicitly born on Paradise Island, falls in love with him and brings him back to life. Toward the tale’s end, when Hippolyte prepares to send Trevor back to his world in the company of Diana, the physician relates that she has removed Trevor’s “eye bandages.” Hippolyte orders that Trevor “must see nothing on Paradise Island,” and Diana retorts, “Nothing except me! I’ll bind him again--myself!” While Hippolyte protects Paradise Island from the rapacious gaze of men, Diana accepts Trevor’s gaze and his desire, though the binding of Trevor’s eyes may prefigure her intent to convert him, and every other man, to the bondage of Aphrodite’s law.



Obviously Marston's scenario makes Steve Trevor the "man-as-spectacle" within the diegesis of the narrative, and makes him a "blind Samson" for the length of his stay within this bower of femininity.  Of course the extra-diegetic readers see everything Trevor does not: Princess Diana, her hot Amazon sisters, and all the ritual appurtenances of Paradise Island.  Nevertheless, the Amazons aren't precisely on display as commodities for male gazers, after the fashion of Mulvey's most prominent example of male gazin': the multi-gal musicals of Busby Berkeley.  Given that WONDER WOMAN has long been a favorite of female comics-fans, it's arguable that this particular "Island of Beautiful Women" often serves the female audience's needs for the feeling of fictional superiority.  This dynamization parallels the sense of validation which Mulvey imputes to male viewers as they observe a "narrative/legal order" that always shows the guys on top.

I note also that my essay, written and printed long before Reece's, does deal with the fact that Wonder Woman's ultimate purpose is to "convert" man's world to the law of Aphrodite.  Yet, where Reece regards this sort of mental/moral conversion as just another "racket" to keep the ideological apparatus running, I regard it, first and foremost, as a fantasy.  I don't believe that Marston's vision would have worked in the real world, but not because it's fascist or invested in mind-control.

On a more minor note, I can't help noting that Reece indicts most if not all superheroes as sharing the same quasi-fascist agenda as WONDER WOMAN: "This is your basic superhero moral gobbledygook, only encoded as feminist."  Yet he also says, in the quote above:

"By focusing on utilitarian notions of rehabilitation and deterrence, rather than a just punishment to fit the crime, the criminal’s agency can be diminished for the general good. "

Most superhero comic books do not deal with "rehabilitation and deterrence" to the extent that Marston's WONDER WOMAN does-- which is, on balance, still a small though not insignificant corpus of "Transformation Island" tales against the entirety of Marston's body of work.  Usually "just punishment" is precisely what superhero comics are about.  Though some villains die (or appear to die) as a result of their crimes, many receive what is coded in the stories as "just punishment," enduring temporary imprisonment so that the writers can bring them back again and again with impunity.  The Penguin might occasionally pretend to be rehabilitated, or Mister Element may actually be reformed, but in neither case are they subjected to Orwellian mind control.  The Penguin returns to being "cruel and wicked" because it gives him a charge, while former Wonder Woman villain Paula Von Gunther becomes the Amazon's boon ally.  One is a static view of the subject of "crime and punishment," while the other involves dynamic personal transformation and is based in what Bellow calls "higher and moral principles."  One need not agree with every idea propounded by William Moulton Marston to appreciate the dynamism of his conceptual universe.









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