Monday, December 10, 2012


Though I'd been reading Kant off and on over the past twenty years, I'll readily admit I didn't invoke him often in the early years of this blog, aside from drawing on his logic to come up with my term "metaphenomenal." I didn't make comparisons between Old Immanuel and any of the scholars who had provided primary influences on my theories, such as Frye, Jung, and Cassirer-- for all that Cassirer himself was a loyal post-Kantian, and Jung probably owes more than a small debt to Kant's categories.  I didn't start assiduously studying the possible benefits of Kant until 2011.  For that I have to thank in part the wrongheaded misapplications of Kant by one Douglas Wolk, for having spurred me to delve more deeply into Kantian philosophy.  Still, even without Wolk,  I think I would have forged pretty much the same link between "sublimity" and "sense of wonder," given my considerable interest in that aspect of literature.

Now, of course, a great deal of my current theory incorporates Kant's commentary on art and sublimity, as well as parallel thoughts by authors like Burke and Schopenhauer, and a reader can't swing a cyber-stick around here lately without encountering discourse on "might" and "dominance", etc.  However, though I wasn't invoking Kant much back in 2008, I find it of archetypal relevance that I touched on elements very like the Kantian concepts above in a series of essays whose purpose was to refute the Wertham-Legman theory of literary sadism.

I began in THEORY OF SADISM by disputing the validity of the Freudian paradigm of sadism, which clearly influenced both Wertham and Legman, as well as the much more sophisticated but still erroneous take of Gilles Deleuze.

Though I agree with Deleuze in his distinctions between sadism and masochism, I think that both Freud and Deleuze are guilty of over-intellectualizing the somatic aspects of these sexual syndromes. "Disavowal" is just another intellectual construct devised to emphasize "absence" rather than "presence," thus putting both thinkers in line with similar types like Sartre and Lacan. I would emphasize more the aspect of bodies clashing against bodies, which IMO is the main reason that either activity summons up associations of sexual excitement. With this caveat in mind one can schematize the respective attitudes so: the pure sadist wants to actively inflict his power/strength upon others without opposition; the pure masochist wants to have the power/strength of others inflicted upon him, albeit under controlled conditions. I prefer the term "strength" to the now-dated term "phallic power" employed by Freud and Deleuze, since the former term does not limit itself to the phallically-endowed gender.
As a side-point I would later reference the fascination of "clashing bodies" within the framework of Georges Bataille's concept of "sensuous frenzy," a metaphor that could subsume both sex and violence.

Within the essay called POP GOES THE PSYCHOLOGY, it seems that I anticipated Kant's formula of "might" as applied to a literary context, described in MIGHT MAKES FIGHTS PT 1 as the type of fiction that unleashes a superior force upon inferior forces-- though of course I didn't say anything in 2008 about finding this form of narrative to be statistically dominant.

... most current analysts of genre would tend to see "crime" as a distinct genre, almost entirely focused on the depradations of 20th or 21st-century gangsters, usually in an urban environment. Wertham and Legman have a good rhetorical reason to emphasize "crime" as applying across the board, for the specific crime genre usually does emphasize the criminal rather than his law-abiding opponents, and could be, with some small fairness, accused of lining up with the paradigm of the Marquis deSade. Admittedly, Sade's stories are usually about victimizers who capture and then torture victims for pleasure, rather than gunning down little old ladies in the street as did the comic-book gangsters during the heyday of crime comics. Still, one may grant that the essential Freudian paradigm seems common to both: the aggressor vents his aggression on the helpless, and in theory the reader of crime comics enjoys and internalizes the spectacle, "unless he is a complete masochist," as Legman helplfully tells us.
A paragraph later, I disputed Legman and Wertham's oversimple identification of this one-sided contest with the triumphant combat-scenarios of heroic adventure.

Now, while the jury may remain out on the question as to whether the adventure-genre can inspire any sort of sadistic vibe in their audiences-- a question I'll address more fully in a future piece-- it seems obvious to me that when heroes fight villains in adventure-tales, the narrative action could not be less like a lynching, much less a Sadean sadist torturing helpless victims or a gangster shooting down old ladies in the street. Wertham and Legman dance around the difference by trying to make it sound as if the villains are merely stand-ins for despised minorities and the like, which argument remains a linchpin of Marxist oppositional thought, both in modern comics-criticism and elsewhere. But neither author can totally expunge this difference of narrative action: in the adventure-genre, *the villain can defend himself.* He may be fated to lose the struggle-- indeed, until recently he always did-- but the struggle itself is essential to the adventure-genre, as it manifestly is not with the crime genre. As Wertham and Legman both point out, the crime-genre books usually ended with a last-minute destruction of the rampaging crook as a "sop" to morality. But the struggles of hero and villain in the adventure-genres-- best represented in comic books by the superhero-- are not thrown in at the last minute. Narratively, structurally, such physical struggles are the selling-points of the genres, and so cannot be conflated with either the crime genre or the Sadean paradigm by any truly rational approach.
I feel sure that when I pointed this elementary difficulty in the reasoning of the two anti-comics authors, I had no idea of invoking the Kantian categories of sublime force.  Now, given my current line of thought-- that the formula "superior force is arrayed against inferior forces" is the one that most dominates popular storytelling-- does that mean that the dominant form of popular fiction is of a sadistic nature?

On that matter, deponent saith not-- except to say that if it's probably no less true of canonical lit-fiction than pop-fiction.  Camille Paglia devoted her book SEXUAL PERSONAE to that argument, and whereas one could quarrel with some of her terms, her findings would suggest that sadism can manifest quite as well in a world where no "might" manifests-- say, the works of Henry James or Honore de Balzac-- as in worlds with a very definite "mighty" presence, which we see in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and MOBY DICK.

So where does that leave the concept of "dominance?"  I stated above it's a given that the victory in most "combative" stories will go to the character who embodies the force of life-- or who at least comes closer to it than his opponent.  But even allowing for this pre-ordained victory, it's clear that the readers desire to see the hero *earn* his dominant status following a struggle of powerful equals-- a struggle goes against the grain of the sadistic concept.  This isn't to say that the "sensuous frenzy" of sadism doesn't have some place the world of the "combative" form of conflict.  But clearly, contra Legman and Wertham, violence takes a radically different form in the idiom of the adventure-hero.  It's because stupidities like those of Legman and Wertham remain pervasive that there remains a need to suss out the many complexities of conflict and combat, even if the sussing-out is likely to fail, in keeping with the old adage:

"Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."

No comments: