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

Friday, June 22, 2012


"Primary concerns" are basically what pagans call the "four F's"-- flags (housing), flax (clothing), fodder and frig (no explanation needed). Around such primary concerns myth, both in the religious and literary senses, orients itself.

"Secondary concerns" are the concerns of ideology, which is concerned with the best ways to obtain the items that make up "primary concerns." Name any ideology out there and at base it's just another way for its adherents to maximize their chances of getting those things that make life pleasurable and fulfilling. Myths in the raw are not concerned with ideology. Ideological notions derive from them, but such notions are entirely a secondary product.-- Me, IDEOLOGY VS. MYTH.

I think my fundamental point about villains and freedom is being missed here, though: Wonder Woman isn't the one defending freedom, the villains are. It's very much in the text of the comic: whatever evils the villains have committed in previous issues is aligned with a demand for self-determination and free will. What conclusion is there to be drawn here when the ones even you are acknowledging as the bad guys are the ones espousing the virtue of freedom? I think Marston's message is loud and clear.-- Charles Reece, comment-thread to this essay.

On the contrary, most "messages" from the world of art, be it "high art" and "low art," are far from "clear."  Not once, within the comic books stories Reece surveys, does any character make the ideological statements Reece deduces from the work.  One might argue that the mere fact that he has extrapolated what he considers Marston's "message" is tantamount to an admission by Reece that no one can find such "messages" working from the overt declarations of a story's characters.  For Reece, "freedom" is first and foremost an ideological conception, and Marston fails Reece's test for taking the proper ideological attitude toward "free will."

I've already shown the inaccuracies of Reece's interpretation in earlier esaays, but that isn't to say that there are no ideological statements in the Marston WONDER WOMAN.  In keeping with my quote above, though, Marston's ideas evolve from the primary concerns evoked by Marston for himself and for his audience.

If one rejects Reece's position that Marston's "message" is to assert the ever-present practice of bondage as weapons to maintain an "ideological state apparatus," what are the primary concerns involved in the Marston corpus?  Most comics-critics, assuming that one could get them to read and comprehend Frye's passage, would assume that Marston's fascination with the practice of bondage started and ended with "frig."  This position is at least more in tune with the actual function of bondage in Marston, in that the practice often connotes sexual play.  A number of online critics are content to regard the bondage-element as a covert appeal to salaciousness, and of course no one can be entirely sure that this was not one of Marston's motivations in his approach to WONDER WOMAN.

However, even "frig" isn't just all about nothing but fucking.  Bondage itself is a sexual practice which has nothing to do with actual sex as such.  Without eliding the "bodily" aspects of bondage, it should be evident that Marston, through his frequent emphases on the subject of "will," was aware that bondage also pertained to the "nonbody" aspect of the human entity, as bondage is paradoxically a restraint and a liberation of the will.  Reece objects to the way Marston presents restraints on the human will in the service of an ideological state apparatus, making it clear that he rejects the "liberation" half of the Marston equation, as I explored more fully in Part 3. 
All that said, in what other ways might one show not only that Marston's "message" was not entirely "clear" and that his use of bondage was not purely a paraphiliac indulgence?

In his essays Reece principally studies WONDER WOMAN #28 (1948), the last Wonder Woman story Marston produced prior to his death, which concerns the Amazons' use of "Venus girdles" to restrain and re-train prisoners on Transformation Island.  But does this one story encompass every aspect of Marston's thought, even about the "Venus girdles?"

I have not read every Marston story which uses the aforesaid restraints, which first appeared in ALL-STAR COMICS #13.  However, I have read another girdle-story in WONDER WOMAN #22, published about a year before the one Reece surveys.  Suffice to say that not only does it not support Reece's ideological argument, it comes close to refuting them.

The 11-page "Jealousy Visits the Winged Women of Venus" shares the comic with two unrelated stories, though one of the other two involves another adventure against the Saturnians who figure prominently in WW #28.  The story begins with an Earth-girl who attends school with Diana's buddies the Holliday Girls.  Said girl goes by the risible name "Gell Osey:"

The first seven page remain on Earth, where Gell repeatedly shows that she can't play well with others due to her extreme jealousy of others' accomplishments.  Gell sneaks aboard an experimental rocket that takes her to Venus; Wonder Woman pursues her to keep her ship from crashing due to her added weight.  Once the superheroine does so, she binds Gell and introduces her to her Venusian buddies, the Winged Women ruled by Queen Desira.  While waiting for the rocket to be repaired, Wonder Woman allows Gell to be kept at a local training-school.  Young winged girls, it seems, need to be trained to be good, so while they're being trained, their wings are bound in net-like affairs.  Gell, who's been bound with WW's lasso, manages to work it off her wrists.  (Apparently the Amazon wasn't Amazing enough to give her the command, "don't take the lasso off.")  Gell inspires the other trainees to rebel against Desira's tyranny, and leads an assault on the queen.  Gell uses the lasso to subdue both Desira and Wonder Woman.

The revolt doesn't last long: in a final, hurry-up-and-finish page, Gell Osey gets the prisoners' wings released, but then shows an even more draconian edict: under Gell Osey's rule all the Venusian women who had won their freedom must now be bound like the untrained girls.  "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" doesn't do much to promote Gell as an advocate of free will, any more than it did for Villainy Inc. in WW #28.  Gell makes the same mistake Wonder Woman made: she holds the heroine bound but fails to command her not to get free, so WW surprises Gell and gets free.  Desira reverses Gell's command and the rebels accept returning to their bound status, while Wonder Woman pays her erstwhile foe a fair compliment: "You've convinced me of your superiority, Gell-- you're a very dangerous girl!"  Possibly this mollifies Gell's raging insecurities, for in the final panel, as WW tells her she's got to go to "Reform Island," Gell suddenly evinces a desire to learn how not to be consumed by jealousy.

Now Reece argues above that the evils commited by the "Villainy Inc." antagonists are obviated because they've been allies to "a demand for self-determination and free will."  Gell Osey's sins, however, aren't conveniently off-camera as in the other story: from her petty defiance of sensible rules (don't stowaway on rockets or you'll break your neck) to her decision to oppress everyone else on Venus, it's clear that she's only concerned with her own "free will," and no one else's.  By extension the Venusian rebels are no better in Marston's diegesis, and though many readers might be distressed to see the status quo return by story's end, I'd argue that it only seems distressing to readers who do the same thing Charles Reece does: making easy correlations betweeen Venusian social conditioning and Orwellian brainwashing.

An insight into "primary concerns," however, suggests that Marston's repeated trope of restraint and liberation-- both of which could be good or bad depending on story-context-- was in essence beyond any dubious moral analogues.  To borrow once more from Suzanne Langer, Marston did not lay down a "discursive" argument as to when either restraint or liberation was good or bad.
His repeated passion for recapitulating bondage-scenarios in just about every conceivable manner is more in line with Langer's concept of the "presentational," in which meaning adheres to the physicality of sense-experience, seen here as identical with "primary concerns:"

What we should look for is the first indication of symbolic behavior [in man's predecessors the anthropoids], which is not likely to be anything as specialized, conscious, or rational as the use of semantic. Language is a very high form of symbolism; presentational forms are much lower than discursive, and the appreciation of meaning probably earlier than its expression... It is absurd to suppose that the earliest symbols could be *invented;* they are merely *Gestalten* furnished to the senses of a creature ready to give them some diffuse meaning."-- NEW KEY, p. 110.

 Everything I've written about the potential mythic content that arises from sense-experience depends on this idea of "diffuse meaning," which later becomes concentrated (or calcified) into ideological forms.  To me the power of myth is the true expression of free will, while ideology always threatens to trap and bind even the people who most think they have control of its intricacies.


Charles Reece said...

It's as if you've encased yourself in a chamber made of two-way mirrors, but mistakenly put the reflective side facing you.

You've provided yet another example of how the desire for free will and self-determination are aligned with villainy, but believe that somehow doesn't support my point. Yes, as the quote I provided from Marson suggests, free will is seen by him to be a form of selfishness that needs to be confined for a better society: "Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society." Of course, he would align self-determination with jealousy. Villains are the only ones who care about freedom, either their own or that of others (as in WW28). And I provide plenty of panel references in my article where the comic makes this explicit, but I guess you didn't bother to check them out. (Hint: click the links.)

My final note (because you're a locutionary tarbaby): I don't argue that the villains are morally excusable for whatever crimes they committed (that they're criminal past is "obviated") because they want freedom rather than servility, but that Marston aligns freedom with villainy. Get that through your ideological filter. Otherwise, you're just blowing shit out your nose.

Gene Phillips said...

"Special pleading is a form of spurious argumentation where a position in a dispute introduces favorable details or excludes unfavorable details by alleging a need to apply additional considerations without proper criticism of these considerations themselves."-- Wikipedia.

Your argument excludes several unfavorable details, such as your definition of "freedom." The word as you use it doesn't mean anything in Marston's world. Marston thinks that "control of self by others" connotes good socialization, while you believe that it means "brainwashing."

I've conceded in this essay that some of Marston's conditioning-devices may create an uncomfortable feeling for many modern readers. It's natural enough for many readers to disparage stories that support, or appear to support, a status quo. But one main point of the essay that I suppose no one will get is that for Marston ideological concerns are secondary.

The Gell Osey story illustrates this very well. You say:

"Of course, [Marston] would align self-determination with jealousy."

Gell Osey isn't concerned with "self-determination." She makes a good contrast with the Villainy Inc. gals because her entire narrative arc appears in this one story, and it shows that her idea of "freedom" is a harsher form of tyranny than anything displayed by the Venusians. I think Marston had in mind some distinctions between "socialization control" and "tyrannical control," but that he wasn't really interested in the discursive approach, in sussing out the differences-- possibly because he knew he was writing children's literature.

You say that you're not morally excusing the villains, but every time you state "Marston aligns freedom with villainy," you're superimposing your definition of "freedom" over Marston's. But since you imply that you won't be reading this response, I'll probably pursue some of these points in a separate essay.

Gene Phillips said...

Oh, and I may as well add that your definition of "shit" also excludes the unfavorable detail that you wouldn't know it from the proverbial shinola-- which actually explains a lot about your overideological approach to life.

Charles Reece said...

I didn't say I wasn't go to read your reply, just that there wasn't much point in responding further. I figured your argument would turn to redefining every term used until you feel safe in your private language bubble. And that's where it looks like you're going (Gell was interested in controlling her own life, but she wasn't interested in self-determination -- yeah, right). I always attempt to use common definitions unless specifying a definition. So freedom is, e.g., (from the Mac dictionary) "the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint." Marston quite clearly wasn't much interested in the value of freedom, and he was admittedly selling his (groupthink) philosophy as propaganda to little kids. Spreading his ideas to children was the explicit purpose of WW! That's not even debatable. He had ideological intent, which I disagree with, so pretending that his was just a children's book doesn't make much sense. Besides, if you really felt that way, you wouldn't waste so much time trying to defend all these crappy children's comics.

But this really will be my last comment, because this will only go down hill from here as you define and redefine every troubling term. Knock yourself out. I'll read your response as long as it's not just a series of definitions for your private lexicon.

Gene Phillips said...

I've no special definitions of "freedom." I just know that it connotes different ideals to different people.

Your dictionary says:

"the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint."

So your dictionary is OK with defining freedom as being able to do anything one wants, no matter how stupid or hurtful? If I shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, that's an act of freedom?

Gell Osey stows away on a rocket, almost destroying it and killing herself. If that's "freedom," it's not a freedom for which anyone would seriously fight.

I meant to add that you were on more solid ground in saying that you advocated "just punishment" in contrast to Marston's will-sapping devices. That makes some rational sense, though I still don't buy a direct equivalence between Marston's brand of fantasy and the notion of an "ideological state apparatus."

On the children's lit thing: I didn't say children's lit wasn't worth analyzing. I'm just noting that because Marston knew he was writing for kids, he never tried to nail down any reasons as to when restraint was right or wrong. I think some of his stronger stories imply the aforesaid dichotomy between "tyrannical control" and "socialization control." But whatever thoughts he had on the subject, they weren't the most important aspect of his creative work.