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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...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Back in 2009, as evidenced by this post, I started writing about "the combative" and "the subcombative," though I spoke of them as "elements" at that time.  In that post I temporarily cast those terms aside, but reclaimed them again in this essay.  In 2012 I also started referring to "the combative" not as an "element" but as a "mode," according to the definition I formulated earlier:

"Mode” is a somewhat fluid term, applying to anything about the method by which the artist accomplishes his aims.-- NOTES TOWARD A SUPERHERO IDIOM.

By my current reasoning, all possible varieties of the “subcombative”—whether they exclude literal violence altogether or simply de-emphasize it in comparison with other story-elements—would also qualify as “modes.”

However, the sum total of all narrative forms of conflict—“the conflictive,” as I've termed it—is not a mode, but a fundamental requirement of narrative. 

As conflict of some sort is necessary for narrative to proceed, it follows that it’s primarily associated with plot.  This stands in contrast to the term “mythos,” which is the organizing principle which determines the emotional tonality dominating a given narrative. It’s because all four Fryean mythoi convey typological tonalities for both plot and character that I’ve spoken of a “plot-character schism.”  The essay RISING AND FALLING STARS puts forth examples of works in which the radical of adventure can dominate over other elements in the work through the tone of the plot alone, or through the tone of character alone, or through a combination of the two.

Yet, though no equivalent of a “plot-character schism” applies to the combative and subcombative modes, Frye’s concept of the “narrative value / significant value schism” would seem to apply quite well.

To blend a foursome of terms derived from disparate Frye essays, narrative values are those that are “centripetal,” applying to values within the structure of the narrative; the values that make the narrative work.  Significant values are “centrifugal,” in that they apply to the values that make it possible for audiences to relate to the actions of the characters within the narrative structure.

Though I didn’t invoke the narrative /significant schism in RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, my series of essays on the function of rules in narrartive-- which begin here--these essays touch on one of these distinctions. 

In the first essay, I agreed with Grant Morrison that even though Batman is supposed to be a mortal who can live and die as can mortals in the world of the people reading Batman’s adventures, Batman cannot age as mortals do.  The average reader realizes that this is a structuring value of Batman’s world, introduced as a narrative strategy so that the franchise can remain open-ended for an indeterminate amount of time, in a state which Frye called “refrigerated deathlessness.” 
To cite my argument in full:

I'll say up front that Morrison's attitude on the ageing of serial characters is one with which I entirely agree. It remains a study in futility for any fan to attempt to ground serial characters in the real world in terms of how slowly or quickly they age. Umberto Eco touches on some of the narrative consequences of this deathless status quo in his "Myth of Superman," though he doesn't ever quite get to the heart of what makes such a deathless fantasy appealing. However, purely from the standpoint of anyone interested in writing such characters, Morrison's statement shows that the fantasy is clearly one that has strong appeal and that therefore attempts to deal with the anomalies in terms of real-world verisimilitude are doomed to perish of their own fatuity.

The structuring value of Batman's inability to age, then, is one of the best examples of a centripetal narrative value.  Readers who choose to abide by it can identify with the fantasy of Batman; readers who want characters who both age and die must look outside the regular franchise, perhaps to one-shot "imaginary tales" like Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS-- or, more likely, beyond the pale of anything resembling Batman's artificial continuity.

In contrast to this internal value, we have the values that Batman incarnates for his readers—despite their awareness that he is a literary construct, who exists not to have a static identity but to be identified with, as per my “law of identification.” 
The significant values within Batman’s adventures are highly fluctuant.  Many authors of the character’s adventures insist that Batman has a moral antipathy against firearms, which at the very least implies a significant value through which the hero’s athletic skill is exalted over such mechanical appurtenances. 
 However, some authors may choose to show Batman making limited use of firearms, tacitly endorsing a different, more realistic value: that a hero’s facility with such weapons marks him as a serious badass. 

The two values, different as they are, are alike in that they can be best pictured as springing from the implications of the narrative in a “centrifugal” fashion.   

 Whether or not the "narrarive/subjective" schism between meaning within and meaning without can influence the modes of the combative and subcombative will be seen in future installments of MYTHOS AND MODE.

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