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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...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

THE NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE PT.2

What I have called "concrete goal-affects" in Part 1 are, whether directed toward the goal of gain or the goal of safety, governed by a simple logical cause-and-effect, to wit:

(1) Subject A wants X.  Subject B owns X.  If Subject A attacks Subject B, A can get X as long as A feels he can overcome B without consequence.

(2) Subject B is attacked by Subject A.  Subject B responds violently to prevent his being injured or killed by A.

These scenarios don't deal with the affects, the emotional states themselves, which are more various than Hobbes' analysis, also in Pt 1.

For instance, both the attacker and attacked can experience the related emotions of fear and anger. The attacker may fear never possessing X, and thereby experience righteous anger with the psuedo-logic that the attacker does not deserve to own X.  The attacked will certainly feel both fear and anger in response to the attempt to rob him.

The desire for vengeance is also oriented on a concrete goal, though by its nature we understand that it applies more often to seeking redress wrongs done at some other time, either at a time when the one attacked could not fight back and was otherwise constrained against responding.  We think of this as being a response to one's being directly attacked, but in some circumstances an attacker may feel that he is attacking a race, creed or profession that has offended him, rather than a particular person.

A more attenuated affect-- sometimes associated with the motive of gain but more often with promoting the general safety of some group-- subsumes such concepts as "discipline" and "duty."  It's possible for Subject A to rob Subject B not for A's personal gain but for the enrichment of his ingroup, while B may risk his life to stop A on the same terms: not because he personally would lose but because the theft imperils his ingroup.  A further refinement is that violence can be perpetrated from the member of one ingroup to another for purpose of a particular type of discipline called "training," though such violence is theoretically designed to "toughen up" the one subjected to it, as with the Spartan rituals whereby older boys within a communal society would beat the younger ones for that purpose.

Doubtless I've omitted some affects in this sketch, but I consider that these three emotional states are the most frequently used concrete goal-affects within the sphere of fiction, which, as noted earlier, in my main consideration.

However, abstract goal-affects are not governed by the same straightforward logic.  At the end of Part 1 I said:

...outside this circle of "attack-and-defense," there is a much rarer species of quarrel-motivation, whose goals are as abstract as any goals can be. I will deal more fully with these motivations, at least in terms of fictional narrative, in Part 2.
Abstract goal-affects relate more properly to *thymos,* the emotional need for esteem.  Receiving high esteem in a given society does, to be sure, sometimes manifest in concrete benefits: lofty political advancement, sexual partners who want to sleep with someone "famous."  Yet without doubt there are individuals who labor to do things they deem difficult but right without any remuneration, because they can better esteem themselves for having performed such actions.  Neither the logic of the desire for gain nor the desire for safety seems to govern the operations of *thymos,* whether one speaks of real-life or fictional motivations.

I've repeatedly emphasized that the radical of all fiction is conflict.  This is far from a new notion, but it's virtually ignored by those critics who prefer to see canonical "art" fiction as phenomenologically separate from "popular fiction."  I reject that separation, of course.  Most popular fiction concerns itself with the immediate, kinetic threats of violence and/or death, and I find that these kinetic effects illustrate a "death-drive" that is present in all narrative, though it's generally disguised in fiction aimed at a minority audience. 

Popular fiction is also particularly adept at providing its characters with motivations that seem unrealistic from a mimetic standpoint but which nevertheless resonate in terms of illustrating the raw human need for "esteem," which as stated earlier parallels Hobbes' motive of "reputation."  Esteem, whether experienced within a society of peers or within one's own self-evaluation, can take many different forms in fictional narrative, but the form I find most relevant is the notion of strength, be it physical or moral.

I borrow the term "death-drive" from Freud, but reject the logic he applied to it, rooted as it was in the concept of sexuality as the fundamental form of human "libido."  Freud's late concept of "thanatos," a death-impulse to parallel "eros," the life-impulse, never proves persuasive, but the two terms could be adapted to better effect in a system that admitted, as Jung did, that "libido" must relate to all phenomena in which humans descry the phenomena of strength and/or energy.  Not infrequently human observers relate to high levels of strength or energy with what has been variously called "the sense of the sublime" or "the sense of wonder."  One might also regard this as functionally covalent with the paraphilia known as "sthenolagnia," though obviously one would not be dealing with something possessed of the same specified intensity that appears in a sexual fetish.

Narrative requires the movement from one equilibrium to another, which is usually accomplished by some form of conflict.  Of course said conflict need not require a violent or strength-oriented conflict.  However, in an etiological sense violent conflict, ranging from cave-paintings of bear-hunts to the Gilgamesh Epic, has been played a vital role in the evolution of human narrative, and cannot be reasonably set aside as irrelevant to the nature of art.  Thus the "death-drive" of narrative is that aspect of narrative that most often resolves transitions through the threat of violence and/or death.

In this essay I coined the term "sthenosadism" as a counter to the Freud-Delueze interpretation of the phenomenon of sadism, as well as to argue that Freud-influenced critics Wertham and Legman had misjudged the potential for syndromic sadism to develop in mass audiences due to their exposure to popular fiction.  My corrective position suggests that most audiences participate in a "casual sadism" insofar that they may wish to see even "good" characters put through the wringer, what Schopenhauer considers the things that the audience finds "interesting" but which are often painful for the fictional characters.  The one failing of this formulation is that this might be better called "sadomasochism," in that the reader can both identify with the character's sufferings ("masochism") and also step outside and regard those sufferings clinically ("sadism.")  Thus I'm refining the earlier position to include masochistic identification in the sthenolagniac context-- an extreme case of which can be found in Kafka, touched on here.

As a closing clarification, I am not saying that concrete goal-affects do not appear in hero-villain narratives.  Maybe the Joker sends Batman a mocking note so that Batman will come chase him, but clearly the Penguin would rather get away with the loot rather than tilt with the Caped Crusader again.  But the act of reading about Batman's struggles with both types of villains is in itself an example of an "abstract goal-affect," since the pleasures we derive from reading fiction cannot be said to promote either gain or safety in a direct relationship.

I'll give more extensive examples of abstract goal-affects that are within a given diegesis, rather than located within the reader's motive for seeking fictional "quarrels," in a future post.

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