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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...

Monday, September 23, 2013

THE READING RHEUM #4: WANTED (2003)

I first read WANTED as a graphic novel compilation after seeing and enjoying the 2008 film derivation.  I say "derivation" because the film could not be called an adaptation in the true sense: it merely borrows the loose outlines of the graphic novel.  WANTED the GN concerns a pathetic wage-slave who learns that due to his heritage he can become a member of a globe-spanning network of costumed super-criminals, while WANTED the movie concerns a pathetic wage-slave who learns that due to his heritage he can become a member of a globe-spanning network of non-costumed super-assassins. 

Though the filmmakers may have any number of justifications for changing the content of their scenario, I speculate that the biggest reason was one of narrative clarity. When dealing with matters metaphenomenal, live-action audiovisual media, which must use actors to some extent, it's difficult to present huge hordes of metaphenomenal characters, as comic books frequently do.  The cinematic medium-- like its cousin, television in its serial manifestation--  is dominantly allied to what science fiction readers have called the "one gimme rule," in which for the length of the narrative the story may ask the reader to believe one impossible thing-- time-travel, an alien invasion-- but not two impossible things. 

Prose, however, has long been able to weave together many impossible things together into a single strand, ranging from archaic epics like THE ARGONAUTICA to THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, the novel that advocated believing in six impossible things before breakfast.  Ironically, the "one gimme rule" was first articulated with prose fiction in mind, but prose-- and all media dependent on the printed word, such as comics-- have always had a greater ability to entertain many impossible things, with or without detailed explanation.

The WANTED movie chose to use super-assassins-- a bunch of ordinary men transformed into a cult of killers by a secret organization's rituals and weapons--because that was the easiest narrative concept to put across in a two-hour film.  The WANTED graphic novel, however, began as a proposal to DC Comics, which would have taken the old 1970s SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS concept and cranked it up for the ultraviolence audience, imagining an alternate dimension-- evocative of, but not identical with, DC's normative universe-- in which the more numerous supervillains banded together to kill off or render helpless all the superheroes.  Further, the villains managed to erase the memories of everyone on that earth as to the former existence of superheroes.  Thus, given that ordinary law-enforcement was incapable of fighting hordes of fiends with super-weapons and super-powers, nothing restricted the supervillains but their own kind.  They formed guilds in order to rein one another in, not out of any sense of probity but simply to avoid (1) killing the "goose" of common humanity and depriving themselves of its golden eggs, and (2) drawing the attention of whatever superheroes existed in alternate dimensions.

I said above that I enjoyed the movie, and then read the GN, which I mentioned briefly in this 2008 post.  To the best of my recollection I had not read any other Mark Millar work; at most I might've known his name as one of many British (specifically Scottish) authors who became noteworthy in the 1990s.  I briefly followed up my short post with ID-IOT'S DEMISE, in which I compared the constant battles of heroes and villains in adventure-fiction to the adversarial interactions of "the ego" and "the id" in the Freudian schema.  To repeat the obvious pun once more, I found WANTED wanting in this regard:

One might think that in a world where the supervillains have successfully killed off all of the superheroes (and even wiped out humanity's memory of the event), one might see the supervillain in All His Glory: might see all sorts of weird, perverted, diabolical id-impulses on display. But I see more "id-iosyncracies" in an average issue of BATMAN than in this facile antiheroic tripe.
In addition to critiquing WANTED on the basic of its paucity of imagination, though, I want to add that its take on the human capacity for evil is far more meretricious than almost every superhero comic book ever made.  The only tool in Miller's kit is that of the Punk Who Shouted Hate at the Heart of the World, and he screws that up almost as badly as he fails to create strong villainous presences. 

It's certainly possible to imagine a world where villainy is the ruling principle.  The Marquis deSade did so, and even though Sade's vision is rife with philosophical weaknesses, he never for a moment compromises his belief that persons possessed of the will to torture and destroy others should be able to do so. 

In contrast, Millar shows just as much compromise as the wage-slave "assholes" he professes to despise.  At one point in the story, protagonist Wesley Gibson-- the fellow who is saved from life as a corporate drone, so that he can enjoy endless adventures of rape and murder-- confesses that after he made a one-man assault on a police station, killed almost everyone in the station, and then suddenly had a crying-jag.  He reflects to his bed-partner Fox that now he thinks about how he ruined the families of all the cops he killed, and observes that "maybe this 'being evil all the time' crap's just starting to feel a little forced." His bed-partner Fox, also a spree-killer, has these words of wisdom:

You really think we just go around fucking shit up all the time?  This is a global business, man,  We got our fingers in a little piece of everything and that means you gotta be disciplined.

Where a Sade character would dispel moral objections against sadistic acts with a breezy lecture about the necessity of imposing force on others in order to live, Millar dodges the issue of moral recriminations entirely.  Fox does not comment directly on Wesley's crying-jag at all; she merely says that Wesley has "hit the same wall we all hit after the first few months [of rape and murder]."  Fox counsels the same deferral of passions that motivates the original Wesley not to rebel against the people who sign his paychecks: "business"-- except that now Wesley is one of the bosses instead of one of the underlings.  It's interesting that discipline for the sake of efficiency and "time" are her watchwords:

You don't have time to rape, kill and mutilate people all the time, baby... [your father] just wanted you do what you really wanted to do with your life and sometimes that means watching TV in bed all day long and other times it's murdering some fucker.

The characters of Sade view their libertine excesses as a sort of self-actualization as well, but Sade himself is a positive zealot about tearing down the old hypocrisies of religion and morality.  In WANTED Millar, the prophet of an "idiot id," can't summon up the least interest in moral issues, even to dispel them. Fox doesn't even bother to tell Wesley that he's probably less concerned with the cops' families than with his own family traumas, which would be a logical enough conclusion given the psychobabble limitations of Millar's universe.  Implicitly the crying-jag is not actual remorse, just a physical reaction to stress.  Once Wesley has the discipline of a true killer like his father-- whose biggest guilt is that he allowed Wesley to be raised by his pacifist mother-- he will be able to sublimate any guilty reactions to the acts of rape and murder and will be able to chill out watching TV in bed all day when he so pleases.


To be sure, I only reread this graphic novel to test the accuracy of my original reaction and because I was obliged recently to agree with one of Millar's statements in this essay. I wanted to give at least one reason why I considered Millar's use of "ultraviolence" to be stupid and meretricious. Perhaps in a future review I'll cite an example that proves a little more in tune with the "expenditure" ethic of the Grand Marquis, and less with Millar's "consumption" ethic of simply consuming more consipicuously than the ordinary asshole wage-slave.





Friday, September 20, 2013

THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE, PT. 2

In speaking of an "ethic" with respect to any literary formulation, as with my "mode of the combative," it's necessary to re-state the obvious: human ethics as they apply to the world of art can never be coterminous with human ethics as they apply to life.  Though I've stated some of my disagreements with Camille Paglia here, her statement opposing life and art remains appropriate:

We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 39.

I will not repeat my many statements distinguishing the properties that separate "works of thematic realism" from "works of thematic escapism."  I'll simply point out that the former type often grapple with matters that the other type does not address, matters which are not limited to, but often deal with, the ethical dimension of real life.  One author, be he Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, or Jack London, may have full-fledged propositions about how to make life better, which he encodes in his works.  Another, like Shakespeare, may use his work to imply an ethical dimension without stating it outright.  A third type, like Voltaire, may propose no solutions whatever but still imply that somehow or other, things could be better than they are, and then expresses that conviction through his work.  

Because all such works suggest that they provide utilitarian value-- not because they can actually foster new systems of morality but for providing "thought experiments"-- elitists often presume that these favored few works are as the rare diamonds scattered through a mountainous heap of trash.  I have maintained, however, that the relationship between "realistic works" and "escapist works" is closer to that of conjoined siblings, dependent on one another for life.  This parallels my conclusions in the final LET FREEDOM RIDE essay, that "right choice" and "wrong choice" are inextricably intertwined within a perspectivist concept of free will.  However, perspective plays a greater role in sussing out the ethical nature of real-life events than it does in literary matters, for the simple reason that in real life human beings gamble their own lives rather than participating in gestural re-creations of ideas and emotions.

A minor example would be the ethical disagreement of American citizens circa World War Two, in which some citizens wished to intervene directly against the Axis while others wished to pursue a course of non-involvement.  Today the consensus was that the former choice was "the right choice," but some would claim that it is validated only because "history is written by the victors," and still others might aver to this day that things might have turned out better had the U.S. left Europe and Asia alone. Though I agree that non-involvement was the "wrong choice," that does not dispel all aspects of the rational process by which some citizens thought it the right choice. 

No lives hang in the balance within the ethical scope of the literary process, though in the real world people have suffered or died to have the right to participate in that process.  Yet the nature of merit, including that of ethical consensus, is far more fluid: authors' works may be esteemed in a minor way, forgotten for a time, and then re-discovered in some new perspective, as occurred with the oeuvres of Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Fletcher Hanks. Some elitist fans of science fiction have imagined that the genre would have been finer and more literary had the American and European tradition of science-fiction magazines-- particularly those of a pulpish nature-- never existed.  There is of course no way to prove this, but this does not extinguish the reasoning by which those proponents choose to believe that in their scenario the market would have spawned more types like H.G. Wells and fewer like Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I assert, though, that the reasoning is over-simple: another example of over-privileging those works that purport to have thematic-- and thus ethical-- depth, over those that make few if any such claims.  It overlooks the fundamental interactivity of thematic and escapist works in the literary continuum, as well as failing to understand the deeper symbolic nature of the escapist works.

In my previous essay I chose three stories from Grimm's Fairy Tales.  None of them are works of "thematic realism:" like the great majority of stories overall,  I define all three stories as "genre," meaning that they belong to categories governed by reader-expectations far more than by authorial intentions.  I used the three stories as exemplars of differing combinations of dynamicity-conflict.

The first story, "Bremen Town Musicians," portrays a conflict with no spectacular or sublime aspects.

The second story, "Hansel and Gretel," portrays a conflict in which there exists a conflict between one character, who possesses "might," and two other characters who do not possess might but who are able to trick the first character into defeat.

The third story, "The Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was," portrays a conflict between one character who possesses enough "might" to overcome several other mighty opponents.

Of these three patterns, I've hypothesized that the middle one, labeled "Might vs. Non-Might," is the most popular in the totality of literature (by which I mean, the "bad stuff" as well as the "good stuff.")
Now, assuming the truth of this, what would this pattern mean?

It might mean that the surest way to appeal to a human audience is to play upon their fear that they-- represented by the viewpoint characters of their stories-- are always on the verge of being overwhelmed by powers greater than themselves.  As noted in this essay, the aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft felt that fear was the most primal emotion:


THE OLDEST and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Though there are a lot of stories in which ordinary humans are menaced by the forces of "the unknown," the basic pattern is not confined to supernatural stories: a story like the 1962 film CAPE FEAR sports only a "known" fear, that of a ruthless criminal who impinges on an almost-helpless family.  It is also the same pattern we see in Hegel's opposition of the "bondsman"-- who in my system would represent "non-might"-- and the "lord," who of course represents "might."


I cannot speak to all of Hegel's subtleties on this point, but I find it interesting that, for all that the philosopher emphasizes 'the effects of the "fear of death" on "being-for-self,"' he doesn't show much interest in one other consequence of the lord-bondsman conflict: that the bondsman inevitably seeks to become a lord, to take on the lord's power and privilege.

One cannot do this, however, through the evasive maneuvers of trickster-heroes like Hansel and Gretel.  One only proceeds away from the condition of "non-might" by acquiring "might" oneself. 

In fairy tales as in superhero stories, "might" can be thrust upon a story's protagonist, as it is with characters ranging from Aladdin to the original Captain Marvel.  However, though the story about the Youth Who Sought Fear doesn't inform us as to how he got so mighty, one may speculate that he could have acquired his might by the Batman method: training and effort.

In either case, there is a change in the ethos of the "might vs. might" stories, as opposed to the more popular "might vs. non-might" type.  Suddenly, might is not an overwhelming force that exists outside the human subject, imposing fear as the lord does to the bondsman.  Might is something that can be summoned from within oneself, and is thus available to all human subjects who manifest the necessary will.  In addition, might is plural in nature: it has many faces, and in folktales and fairytales this many-sidedness often appears when a beleaguered viewpoint character receives supernatural help from some benign donor to "even the odds" against a powerful enemy.

Thus, within stories that emphasize "might vs. might"-- which is to say, combative stories-- the plurality of might implies that no lord is ever so mighty that a bondsman cannot assume his power and knock him from his lofty position. Of course, in real life this often means "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."  But in fiction we can indulge in the possibility that the new lord will make better choices than the old one. 

Kant repeatedly stresses that all of his observations upon the sublime affects are that they arise spontaneously from humans, themselves in positions of safety, observing the potent forces of nature expending themselves with their own version of "might."  He does not attribute to these affects any ethical consequence in themselves, though as noted before he did assert that all aesthetic emotions did lead to ethical application.  When he introduces the concept of "dominance," which is his terms for the conflict I call "might vs. might," it too is intended to have only indirect ethical application

I suggest that one such application is this appreciation of the plural manifestations of might.  Nearly every schoolchild is exposed to some approximation of the "caveman looking up in wonder" as he espies the birds in flight and wishes to imitate them, which becomes a symbolic representation of human progress as a whole.  But no single act of wonder exists by itself, and from what we know of early man, it does seem that many of them viewed the world as a concatenation of powerful presences, from which the earliest versions of "shamans" could derive power. In later years such presences would codified into polytheistic mythologies, and there too, though men were always inferior to the gods, there remained a conviction that they were worthy to stand with the gods in terms of the will-to-power if not sheer power itself.

The shaman deriving power from his numinous presences, the warrior gaining supernatural presents or guidance from his patron god, the bondsman studying the ways of the mortal lord in order to overthrow him-- all of these participate in the ethical dimensions of the combative mode.  Thus "might" exists to continually challenge others to partake of its nature, rather than being utterly inaccessible, as it is to the humble creatures of "Bremen Town," or being something that can only be overcome through trickery, as in "Hansel and Gretel." This potency, to challenge one's own will to greater acts of agency, is the essence of the ethic that springs from the combative mode.



IN REMEMBRANCE YET GRIMM

Before launching into the second part of THE ETHIC, I must also revisit the propositions outlined in the essay STRENGTH, IN NUMBERS, where I did a quick survey of Grimm's Fairy Tales to explore the ways in which dynamicity manifests in the stories.  While I have stated that characters in any given story will fall into three possible dynamicity-levels-- the microdynamic, the mesodynamic, and the megadynamic-- in terms of the way dynamicity operates in plot-narratives, the first two are practically identical.  Whether a given character's dynamicity-level is "poor-to-adequate" or "good-to-fair," he is unable to reach the exceptional level of dynamicity that Kant calls "might."  Here I will use the term "might" for illustrative purposes.

If the dynamicities of characters in conflict are reducible in their plot-functions to either "non-might" or "might," then they can only combine in three dichotomous permutations, which I tried to illustrate with three examples taken from the Grimms' collection.

NON-MIGHT vs. NON-MIGHT-- "The Bremen Town Musicians," in which an ordinary group of bandits are overcome by an ordinary group of animals (discounting the animals' human-like intelligence, which is merely a convention of the story)

NON-MIGHT vs. MIGHT-- "Hansel and Gretel," in which two ordinary children manage to overcome the superior "might" of an evil witch through what I called "endurance and cunning"

MIGHT vs. MIGHT-- "The Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was," in which an unnamed young man accepts the task of spending a night in a haunted castle, and by his own heroic might overcomes terrors that would destroy ordinary men, such as a horde of demonic animals and an animated bed

Since the first two types of narrative are subcombative, while the last is indubitably combative, this schema will prove useful for my discussion as to what ethical impact the combative mode has upon human culture.  I stress that the sublime affects that arise from works of spectacular combat are not defined by its ethical or utilitarian dimensions.  However, those dimensions exist as a result of pure affects interacting with human culture, so the former should be reliably identified.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

QUICK HEGEL THOUGHTS

Prior to writing Part 2 of my ETHIC, I reviewed the "Lordship and Bondage" chapter of Hegel's PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT (trans, A.V. Miller).  I read the entire work years ago, made many copious notes in the margins, but have almost never found myself going back to check out isolated passages of the work, as I frequently do with the major works of Kant and Schopenhauer.

I've tried to analyze, as best I can, why Hegel does not compel me.  I'll freely admit that Hegel's main objective, to show how "Spirit" evolves from the *telos* of History as a whole, does not resonate with me.  In addition, I don't find that Hegel justifies his propositions as thoroughly as do Kant and Schopenhauer. Instead he resorts to stating his propositions as self-evident truths, rather than attempting to prove them.  And finally, he's way too abstract for me.  In this essay I critiqued Jung slightly for having insisted on "superordinate concepts," but he's a piker next to George W.F.

What appeals to me about the Kojeve and Fukuyama readings of Hegel-- and what makes me find in them a greater relevance to the way concepts such as "power" and "validation" work out in art-- is that they seem far more grounded in the ways in which actual humans negotiate their quests for meaning.  Marx, much though I loathe his interpretation, did the same when he made Hegel's concept of alienation central to his philosophy:

...although the fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not therein aware that it is a being-for-self.  Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.
And about a page later, we get the germ of Marx's "alienated labor" idea:

Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own... Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear remains at the formal stage, and does not extend to the known real world of existence.

The lord, even though he has successfully subjugated the bondsman, forcing the latter to perform labor under the threat of death, is actually in a metaphysically inferior position: his fear "remains at the formal stage" only.  Which probably came as a horrible comedown for Richie Rich, to realize how inferior he was to butler Cadbury.



What I find more interesting than Hegel's pratings-- particularly about the effects of the "fear of death" on "being-for-self"-- is the Hegel-derived idea that the positions of both the "lord" and the "bondsman" give rise to different species of validation, which Fukuyama terms *megalothymia* and *isothymia.*  Fukuyama arguably owes more to Nietzsche than to Hegel, given that Nietzsche is best known for having repeatedly pushed a philosophy that celebrated lordship over servility.  Fukuyama attempts, however successfully, to show the appeal of the affects of both mental attitudes, and this proves useful for understanding how the same validations appear in art and literature.

As I will show in Part 2 of THE ETHIC, I'm far more preoccupied with the nature of freedom than that of "being-for-self." 




Monday, September 16, 2013

THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE, PT. 1

Back in March I said, at the end of DYNAMICITY/DEMIHERO DELIBERATIONS:

I hope to work around to an "ethic of the combative mode" in future, FYI.

In the context of the essay itself-- meditating on the narrative elements of two very disparate fantasy-films, and the reasons why they were or were not combative in nature-- I suppose that the final remark looked like a throwaway comment.  But there was a method to my madness. 

I'm aware that much of my narratological project would seem irrelevant to elitist critics, if any of them sought to understand any part of it.  For them, criticism is about separating the bad from the good, the sheep from the goats, and little besides.  Such is the limited manifestation of "ethics" in their world. 

I would imagine that for all or most of them, they would hold a similar opinion with regard to Kant's meditation on the sublime, which are the proximate-- though not ultimate-- source for my own meditations on the matter. What, they might ask, do Kant's extraordinarily detailed analyses of aesthetic states have to do with ethics?

Were I asked this question, I would respond that the only way one can speak knowledgably of human ethics is to know what human beings are capable of doing.  If, as Marx and Engels said, we have no free will, then any ethics focused on purposive activity loses all credibility, and one can only examine ethical stances as to whether they are or are not allied to the advance of history's progress.  But of course Kant did believe in free will. Since he did not support theistic solutions to the role of free will in human life, he sought to explore all the ways in which the human mind worked, whether under external compulsion or acting with some measure of freedom.  He advances the notion that the aesthetic affects are promoted by what he calls "the free play of the imagination," a form of play generated without utilitarian purposiveness or even conscious "cognition."  This in turn leads to a potential effect upon the subject's ability to think ethically:

the beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, to esteem it, even contrary to our (sensible) interest”-- Kant, JUDGMENT, General Remark following §29, 267.

Since my concept of freedom is not identical to Kant's, it took me some time to work out my own concepts as to how free will functions within the aesthetic, ethical, and mythic dimensions of human nature. In additon, while I see some justice in Kant's insistence upon an absence or modification of "interest" in the world of aesthetics, I would not go as far as Kant does in this regard.  My orientation owes more to the position of Bataille, to whom both the taboo and its transgression are holy.

In future installments I will attempt to show how the mode of the combative-- which, I will note again, is essentially allied to Kant's concept of the "dynamic-sublime"-- bears on the ethical propensities of humankind.

Friday, September 13, 2013

LET FREEDOM RIDE PT. 4

Man's chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, - his pre-eminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life, and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.-- William James, THE WILL TO BELIEVE.

 

In PART 3 I said that I would "address pluralism's vision of freedom."  This, I reiterate, must be opposed to the dominant idea of "free will" as elaborated by Judeo-Christian philosophy: that the entire purpose-- or perhaps, *the telos*-- of free will is to encourage the subject to make "the right choice" over "the wrong choice."  Modern elitist criticism, or at least those critical outlooks that subscribe to a reductive vision of life, dispenses with Judeo-Christian standards, but preserves the supremacy of the "right choice/wrong choice" dichotomy:

We may never be truly free, but those who know that they are not free have reached a superior level of cognition to those who are unaware of the fact.
I refuted this reductionist view by citing philosopher Larry Krasnoff and lit-critic Leslie Fiedler:

Krasnoff and Fiedler, albeit in very different ways, advocate a form of agency in the human subject; an ability to choose, even when one makes the wrong choice in a given situation.
For both of them "agency" requires the will to "overturn all external constraints." Fiedler might not agree in all respects with the second part of Krasnoff's formula: that the same subject would " realize that this [overturning] is a futile and irrational activity."  Still, he was undoubtedly aware that many individuals did disavow their early rabble-rousing: in one essay Faulkner castigates William Faulkner for having reduced the taboo-breaking characters of his 1931 novel SANCTUARY into much milder forms in the 1950 work REQUIEM FOR A NUN.  That said, Fiedler in his own mature years clearly set himself apart from the ethical and aesthetic critics, emphasizing rather an appreciation of the "ecstatic" nature of art.

This ecstatic nature, found equally in art-as-work and art-as-play, bears on the idea of freedom as being a will oriented not as fulfilling any particular utilitarian agenda, but as what William James calls the "quest for the superfluous."  In elitist circles this human love of superfluity is often condemned as essentially "escapist." In essence Stuart Kendall agrees with James in his Bataille-derived statement, stressing that the forces of necessity and "consumption" are secondary to those of "expenditure:"
Consumption is, in short, a means by which individuals negotiate their identities through expenditure.-- Stuart Kendall, GEORGE BATAILLE.

I should note in passing that Bataille's meditations on this subject were certainly informed by his reading of Nietzsche, another prophet of ecstacy, under the rubric "will to power:"

Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength--life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.-- Friedrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL.

I think Nietzsche overstates the case somewhat: for me neither the will toward practical self-maintenance nor the will toward expenditure are "cardinal."  Kendall's statement, though it privileges "expenditure" over "consumption" somewhat, shows the two tendencies as innately interdependent.

By now the experienced reader of this blog may anticipate that my definition of freedom is going to be no less twofold than the definiton of art cited above. However, there is a difference: art is fundamentally about play, even when that play is turned to the purpose of utilitarian work.  But freedom, and its expression in humans in the form of free will, is not fundamentally oriented on "play" or on "work."

For the pluralist the best understanding of freedom may be seen through an appreciation for a plurality of choices, rather than the ritualized choices between "good" and "bad" as encoded by religion or by philosophy, particularly that of Kant, who at times seems to be reinstuting the old maxim that "service is perfect freedom."  I do not define freedom as service, but neither is it rebellion against service.

I am not arguing for relativism, but rather a form of Nietzchean perspectivism.  Free will proves difficult not because it's hard to choose the straight path over the crooked path, or to choose tough-minded reductive realism over escapist fantasy.  It's difficult because we as humans can see every situation from many perspectives, and can only choose in terms of what we think may lead to the best conclusion.

In some situations, moral rigor may be called for.  However many factors contributed to America's decision to oppose the Axis powers in World War II-- initially through indirect means, such as the lend-lease program-- some degree of moral umbrage informed that decision.

And yet, at another time and place, moral rigor was misplaced.  American soldiers returned from the war and almost immediately started looking for new foes to fight, whether they were Communists or comic books.

Fredric Wertham was certainly a demagogue who had no appreciation for the function of *expenditure* in children's entertainment: for him, children were meant to be nurtured like flowers in a garden.  One can see a slight validity in his queasiness: few would agree that children should be exposed to everything adults can behold.  But Wertham's narrow definition of the process of "self-preservation" made him blind to a type of "play" that was fundamentally harmless.

At the same time, one cannot always live on a quest for the superfluous.  While I've railed against critics like Berlatsky and Darius for trying to reduce art to a series of "right choices," I'm aware that art-as-play needs art-as-work as a complementary force.

Ergo, pluralist freedom is the free will to choose-- even when one makes the wrong choice-- with the knowledge that *the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances.*

Thursday, September 12, 2013

KIRBY'S CHOICE PT. 2

Before coming to a conclusion on the nature of freedom, I should elaborate on the remark with which I closed KIRBY'S CHOICE:

...Kirby, in doing what his inner nature bade him, rather than simply adjusting himself to fit the contingent circumstances, showed a "will to freedom" that remains exemplary for its time.
In making this statement, I do not want to give the misleading impression that free will is signified only by Kirby making "the right choice."  Free will must be seen as a spectrum of possible choices, which would include not only choosing to exert oneself to the fullest, but also the possibilities of "sluffing off" or even doing nothing whatsoever, at least in terms of continuing to write/draw comics.


I also stated that Kirby's 1950s work for DC Comics looked more like hackwork to me than his work for 1960s Marvel. I said this with full awareness that at DC Kirby was hemmed in by conservative editors and that he was not free to do his best.  But the DC work still represents the kind of work produced when a given artist is ruled by contingency.

It may also be asserted that Kirby might not be the best example of "free will" given that he was a genius, and most toilers in the comics field-- or in any medium, whether "popular" or "artistic"-- are not geniuses.

Consider then the example of Carl Burgos.

Failing some revelation that Burgos had some great Golden Age work that has escaped fannish notice, Burgos' stellar moment in the history of comic books remains his creation of the Golden Age Human Torch.  The early Torch adventures are raucous, unpolished work, and it could be argued that Burgos never fully exploits the fantasy-potential of a man who can turn into flames.  Nevertheless, there are strong mythic moments in the Torch's oeuvre, worthy to stand with anything created by Jack Kirby.



In contrast, here's a Burgos work from late in his career, where it would appear that he had no intention of exerting himself unduly.



 

"Human thing-a-ma-jig," indeed. Even apart from the use of the name of Fawcett's Captain Marvel-- which may have been the idea of the publisher or any other collaborator-- the art and scripts for the "M.F. Enterprises" CAPTAIN MARVEL are the very definition of hackwork.  The most one can say for this short-lived series is that some modern fans enjoy seeing such a silly-ass character take form.  This is of course an enjoyment popularized by the celebrated "so bad it's good" meme, but this is a pleasure one takes in viewing a demonstrable lack of competence.  In contrast, as rough and unpolished as the Human Torch work is, the appeal of the character and his raison d'etre show a fundamental inspiration. 

Again, this formalist analysis does not erase the possibility that some readers might enjoy CAPTAIN MARVEL more than HUMAN TORCH.  In the first part of KIRBY'S CHOICE I made it clear that there are some fans who prefer "pure Kirby" at all times, over "Kirby in collaboration." And there is no accounting for tastes:

... I pointed out that there was no objective means by which one could prove any group of comics, superhero or otherwise, to be universally "better." The only objective fact is that if many people like a thing, that liking is objective purely in an *intersubjective* sense, as an agreement of tastes between discrete individuals. 

Every expression of personal taste, I suggest, is informed by what I will now dub "proto-propositions."  In attempting to justify my liking of FANTASTIC FOUR over CHALLENGERS, my mind might initially formulate the proto-proposition, "I like The FANTASTIC FOUR better than CHALLENGERS for the emotions in FF."  With conscious thought I can expand this statement into a full-fledged proposition, one phrased so as to show how the FANTASTIC FOUR characters show many dimensions while those of the CHALLENGERS do not, complete with examples and counter-examples to support my propositional logic.  Equally valid is the proto-proposition of a fan who might not like superheroes of any kind: "I like CAPTAIN MARVEL better than HUMAN TORCH because the first one shows superheroes as silly."  This can be expanded into a formal propostion as well, and buttressed with quotes about "masculine incoherence."  But no matter how good or bad the formal proposition, it remains rooted in a "proto-proposition" that expresses whatever validates the individual subject-- a validation I relate to the concept of "constant tastes," elucidated here.


In short, this is about as far as one can get from Kant's notion that valid judgments of taste can be derived from a "disinterested" state of contemplation.  Contemplation is one means by which the viewing subject seeks to bring a new work into his mental compass of things liked and things not liked, and then to decide whether or not the new thing fits better in one category or the other.  But it is not, in itself, a path to any sort of universal truth-- and even *intersubjective* agreements are significant only to the degree one finds their statistical dominance important.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

KIRBY'S CHOICE

"Losing the suit [against Jack Schiff] also dashed any hopes Kirby might have had of getting back in at DC.  Which meant he really had one and only one place to get work.  'Shipwrecked at Marvel' was how he'd put it. There'd be a few miscellaneous other jobs-- a story for CRACKED, a few poor-paying jobs for the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED people-- but for years to come and all through the sixties, Jack Kirby was stuck working for Martin Goodman's company"-- Mark Evanier, KIRBY: KING OF COMICS.

Before moving on to part 4 of the LET FREEDOM RIDE series, I feel a need to give a concrete example of the principle of free will as I expounded on it in Part 1:


What I believe Kauffman means to say is that the "free will" expressed by a subject's given choice of his actions is not ENTIRELY caused by contingent factors.  This would be the attitude expressed by psuedo-scientists like Mickey Marx (the subject's will to choose is a manifestation of his society) and Ziggy Freud (the subject's will to choose is a manifestation of his familial upbringing).  This attempt to reduce the will of the subject to an epiphenomenon spawned by a greater phenomenon would not have been possible until the birth of Western science, which as noted here took on greater cultural significance than ever before once science began to deliver to humankind an increasing control over the physical world.
The picture Evanier paints of Jack Kirby's circumstances toward the end of the 1950s decade  is certainly one dominated by what I called "contingent factors."  A few of these factors were brought about by Kirby's direct choices, as when he decided to sue Jack Schiff.  But the shrinkage of the market at the time-- which limited the number of employers who could pay Kirby a living wage-- was certainly no fault of his.  It was also not his fault that all comic book publishers of the time assumed that anything an artist created for them was their property outright, unless a contract specified otherwise.

I've seen a handful of fans speculate on other courses Kirby might have taken in that era, rather than working for Marvel.  To my knowledge no fan has suggested that any other company would have treated Kirby any differently with regard to the matter of owning his creative work, which was the matter that most tormented him in later years.  Some fans have suggested that Kirby should have gone to work for Charlton, whose payment-rates might have been roughly comparable to Marvel's.  Steve Ditko worked for Charlton for many years because they did not interfere in the work he submitted; however, Ditko was not a man supporting a family as was Kirby.  Though these fans could not promise that Kirby would have been any richer, they have suggested that at Charlton Kirby's work would have been "pure:" i.e., not compromised by any interaction with the Boss Everyfan Loves to Hate, Stan Lee.

It's interesting that Kirby chose the simile of the "shipwreck" to describe his restricted circumstances.  When one is shipwrecked, one is unable to leave a given environment.  The word does not connote the nature of the place to which one is confined.  It may be a barren island without sustenance, where the shipwreckee can only perish.  However, in stories of shipwreck-survival, such as Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE and Verne's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, the thrust of these stories is the ways the shipwreckee finds to wring sustenance from the environment, and in some cases, to remold the environment in the image of his own needs.

In the early 1960s-- long before Kirby could have dreamed that his work could help spawn a multi-million-dollar empire-- one could assume that Kirby would be concerned with nothing beyond the survival of himself and his family.  One would certainly not expect him to have any sentimental attachment to "Martin Goodman's company," since during the Golden Age Kirby and his then-partner Joe Simon had left Goodman over non-payment of revenues owed.  In theory, feeling himself constrained by contingent circumstances and forced to work under the aegis of a new editor-- albeit one Kirby had known when Lee was an office-boy in the 1940s-- Kirby should have produced only basic hackwork, enough to keep him in good with the boss, no more.



And yet, if anything looks like hackwork, it's the work Kirby produced, with very minimal writer-collaboration, for the higher-paying company DC in the 1950s.  These Kirby works-- Green Arrow, the Challengers of the Unknown, various "mystery" stories-- have their fans, and indeed nothing produced by Jack Kirby is ever totally a "hack job."  But in my opinion none of these works display a level of creativity commensurate with even the early Kirby-Lee collaborations.  Even a mediocre story like "The Menace of the Miracle Man" from FANTASTIC FOUR #3 shows the artist's inventiveness with the many imagined miracles the title villain conjures up.  There are similar fantasy-tropes in Kirby's work on CHALLENGERS-- where he had almost total control of the material-- but these tropes remain rather flat, perhaps in part because the heroes of the latter feature lacked the deeper emotional resonance of the Fantastic Four.




In this essay I put forth "the possibility that on some level Stan Lee had "challenged" Kirby, perhaps not so much in terms of providing Kirby with raw ideas --of which the artist never seemed to run short-- but in terms of shaping them for maximum dramatic impact."  I say now, as I said then, that I know no one can prove that Lee had such a shaping influence on Kirby's work-habits.  By the same token, no one can prove that "Kirby did it all" and that Stan Lee did nothing or, even worse, vitiated the original Kirby vision.

However, even if, as I believe, Kirby was in part striving to please the tastes of his boss-- perhaps at times following plot-lines that did not interest him-- I would say that his continued inventiveness signifies a Kantian act of free will.  He could have gotten away with far less, and Stan Lee probably would not have fired him for sluffing off, given Kirby's phenomenal productivity as well as the way Lee continued to give work to artists who *could* be called hacks.

But even though Kirby may have been shipwrecked by contingencies, he did remake his island into a paradise.  He did so, at least in the earliest years, with no expectation of special recompense, though it's possible that in later years Lee and Goodman made Kirby promises of remuneration that proved hollow.  But Kirby, in doing what his inner nature bade him, rather than simply adjusting himself to fit the contingent circumstances, showed a "will to freedom" that remains exemplary for its time.



Saturday, September 7, 2013

LET FREEDOM RIDE PT. 3

Are men free to choose this or that form of society? By no means.-- Marx and Engels.



Almost a full year ago I noted the following quote as potentially useful for "analyzing the concept of freedom:"

"The subject's fundamental nature is to overturn all external constraints, and then to realize that this is a futile and irrational activity."-- HEGEL'S PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT: AN INTRODUCTION, Larry Krasnoff, p. 65.

 I find Hegel so very nearly unreadable that I cannot say whether or not Larry Krasnoff's interpretation of Hegel is accurate or not.  But even if it is not, Hegel may be the philosopher's "Rorschach Test," in which "the left" and "the right" can read whatever they want.  In THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, Frank Fukuyama simply stated that, in following Alexandre Kojeve's interpretation of Hegel, he might not be accurate to Hegel in every regard, but he was at least accurate in following a construct he called "Kojeve-Hegel." 

Off the top of my head, I would say that Krasnoff's summation of Hegel sounds overly pessimistic as to the futility of the subject's "overturning all external constraints."  However, even if Krasnoff is not accurate to Hegel, his view is tenable, and is somewhat mirrored by a similar statement by Leslie Fiedler.  I have not been able to locate the precise quote, but the sense of it is that at all times the human spirit will seek to overturn every form of "law" that human culture can devise, no matter how well conceived that law may be.

Certainly the man most associated with overturning Hegel, Karl Marx, did not subscribe to Krasnoff's pessimism.  For the founder of economic determinism, the logic of societal evolution would eventuate in a society of equals.  I doubt that Marx believed that this society would be immune to rebellion by those who disagreed with its parameters.  But he certainly did not believe that their ability to rebel was a key aspect of the human will, for human beings did not possess "free will" as such. 

Krasnoff and Fiedler, albeit in very different ways, advocate a form of agency in the human subject; an ability to choose, even when one makes the wrong choice in a given situation.  For Marx the wrong choice no more connotes freedom than the right choice, but the right choice is validated by the impersonal forces of economics and history.

Literary elitism, as I've observed before, depends on a similar view.  We may never be truly free, but those who know that they are not free have reached a superior level of cognition to those who are unaware of the fact.  In canonical literature one sees this dichotomy in a work like Nathaniel West's 1939 DAY OF THE LOCUST, where protagonist Tod Hackett, no matter how tormented by his self-awareness, is esteemed above the rioting crowds of the dream-hungry mob.  In artcomics we see it as the distinctions Daniel Clowes makes in GHOST WORLD between Rebecca, who eventually becomes part of the unthinking mob, and Enid, who retains her alienation from culture.

In Part 4 I will address pluralism's vision of freedom.


LET FREEDOM RIDE PT. 2

At the end of NATURAL LAWBREAKING PT. 4 I said:

It should be easy to find any number of critics, professional or amateur, who support this elitist "sheep and goats" attitude.  I know that I can find, and have found, this attitude in many of my favored targets-- Gary Groth, Noah Berlatsky, Chicken Colin.  But I hate to keep falling back on these "old reliables." 

Ask and ye shall receive.

Here's a Dave McKean comment from a CBR interview, talking about the sexual content of his new graphic novel CELLULOID:


Well, sex is OK. I like sex. Why are there so many books about violence? Why are there so many books and stories about violence? How much violence do you come upon in your daily life? How much sex have you had? It seems out of balance. I think sex is a lovely thing, something to be celebrated and explored in every form — in film, in comics, in all sorts. I touched on it in a book I did called Cages.

I certainly agree with McKean that sex is eminently likeable.  I also liked CAGES enough to put in in my essay 100 BEST COMICS.  What I don't like is McKean's attempt to "fix the game" by resorting to an elitist literary priority: that the situation "seems out of balance" if the number of works that attempt to reproduce reality is not equal or greater in number to those those works that do not. 

To be sure, McKean doesn't extrapolate his dichotomy into a full-blown "sheep vs. goats" opposition, after the fashion of Gary Groth.  But he does structure his argument with a sort of "wake up and smell the reality" rhetoric.  On Robot 6 I stated the terms of my opposition:

If Dave McKean prefers realistic comics, that’s fine. If he thinks literature is better when it attempts to reproduce real life, that too is fine. Making the statement “what I like is supported by the way real life is”– which is IMO far from “obvious”– that’s not fine with me, even if there’s nothing I can do about it.

It's certainly understandable that he should advertise his new work by mentioning whatever he considers to be its crowning virtues.  But what end does he expect to achieve by denigrating, however mildly, the degree to which our culture deals with "so many books and stories about violence?"  Does he believe that any readers who enjoy violent comics will suddenly have the scales fall from their eyes and seek out non-violent forms of entertainment, even if they don't necessarily seek out CELLULOID? I would certainly like to believe that he's not simply preaching to the choir, as is so often the case with full-blown elitists.

I must admit that McKean is not as doctrinaire as the Bloody Comic Book Elitists I mentioned above.  I get the impression that he simply doesn't give much thought to the role of violence in fiction because it's not to his taste, and he doesn't appear to be guilty, like (say) fellow artcomics producer Daniel Clowes, of being what I call a "blend of reductive pessimism and covert self-glorification."  But McKean is still egregiously wrong to make this argument in favor of mimetic realism in fiction:

Why are there so many books and stories about violence? How much violence do you come upon in your daily life? How much sex have you had? It seems out of balance.

Rather than illustrating some strange cultural imbalance, the prevalence of violence in fiction connotes fiction's need for conflict, a need which in turn should suggest fiction's independence from the standards of nonfictional truth-telling.  Were one able to come up with an accurate statistical reading, I don't doubt that works of popular fiction would be found to make more frequent use of violence than do works of whatever we choose to call "canonical fiction."  But that does not eliminate the significant use of violence by literary authors.  An elitist might dismiss the literary lights of the 1800s for being too close to the realm of popular fiction.  He might even choose to dismiss even Faulkner and Hemingway for being tainted by what William Slotkin called the "blood and guts" tradition in American literature.  But by the time we get to Cormac McCarthy publishing NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in 2007, I think one is justified in seeing that violence as a narrative tool that works just as well for canonical literature as for pop fiction in terms of promoting narrative conflict.


I could delve even further into other reasons why the general phenomenon of violence lends itself to greater narrative utility than does the phenomenon of  sex, but for now I think it's enough to state the obvious: fiction needs conflict, and that violence is a better vehicle of conflict than is sex. 


To be sure, even if sex does not serve to promote narrative conflict as well as violence does, this certainly does not reduce the former phenomenon to a second-class citizenship.  In the schema I call "pluralism"-- the philosophical opponent to elitism-- every element of art and literature is to be appreciated for its distinct qualities, rather than being unilaterally subordinated to another element or elements. 

And, little though I've invoked the concepts of freedom and free will in this essay, this pluralistic ethic is also key to what I deem an accurate depiction of what it means to be free.



Thursday, September 5, 2013

LET FREEDOM RIDE, PT. 1

In NATURAL LAWBREAKING PT. 4 I reflected on the topic of "free will."  At times Stuart Kauffmann uses this concept accurately, as a way of expressing a subject's "agency."  However, his argument takes on some confused aspects thanks to his quotation of Aristotle.

If every event, mental or physical, has sufficient antecedent causes, then as Aristotle said, there can be no "unmoved mover." But free will is supposed to be just such an unmoved mover, free to do what it chooses, hence an "uncaused mental cause" of our actions. This led the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza, and others since him, to conclude that free will is an illusion.

For the time being I'll presume that Kauffman's summation of Aristotle is accurate on this point, but the use of the phrase "unmoved mover"-- usually employed as a description for a God who creates the universe out of nothing-- confuses the issue as to what would be involved in an "uncaused mental cause."

Following the logic of Kant expressed at the begining of CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, it should always be a given that even if there is a core of "agency" within a given subject, that subject is always vulnerable to the influences of the contingent world in which he exists.  It goes without saying that this "mover" can never be "unmoved."


What I believe Kauffman means to say is that the "free will" expressed by a subject's given choice of his actions is not ENTIRELY caused by contingent factors.  This would be the attitude expressed by psuedo-scientists like Mickey Marx (the subject's will to choose is a manifestation of his society) and Ziggy Freud (the subject's will to choose is a manifestation of his familial upbringing).  This attempt to reduce the will of the subject to an epiphenomenon spawned by a greater phenomenon would not have been possible until the birth of Western science, which as noted here took on greater cultural significance than ever before once science began to deliver to humankind an increasing control over the physical world.

Kant was as aware as anyone as to the influence of contigent physical factors, but he still believed that free will-- and by extension, the general concept of freedom-- was a factor in its own right, one subsumed by his categorial imperative.

Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another, and in so far as it tends to exist with the freedom of all according to a universal law, it is the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.

Kant is problematic for moderns in part because of his rigidity about the nature of his proposed "universal law."  Still, Kant emphasizes, as Marx and Freud do not, that it is possible to exercise free will in spite of compulsion.  Marx and Freud, being pseudo-scientists, want to presume the primacy of compulsion, in order to promote their theoretical constructs.

One need not speak of being "unmoved," since this is tantamount to an imputation of omnipotence.  Kauffman is on surer ground to speak of an "uncaused mental cause," for in this view the subject's exercise of "free will" is an expression of its inner nature.  This nature, by Kauffman's own logic, is not something bestowed upon the subject by a creator-god, but is rather a concatenation of all those factors-- causal and acausal-- that have made the subject of an individual, willing creature.  One may say that a given choice has been "caused" by the nature of the subject, but it is "uncaused" in the sense of reductive science; i.e., it has not been produced by forces/phenomena outside the subject's compass. 

There is a possible objection to Kauffman's philosophy.  In REINVENTING THE SACRED he does not manage to show in what way his principal of "quantum coherence"-- proposed as a principle that may have contributed to the formation of the "open thermodynamic systems" of living organisms -- makes the subject's will an "uncaused mental cause."  In the view of most reductivists, if quantum-energy factors did influence the formation of life on our planet, those factors would just be another set of contingent influences, as much as the sun's radiation or the presence of oxygen.

Kauffman repeatedly explains his title by saying that humans do not need supernatural forces to explain life any more, but that humans should regard their own "agency" as sacred.  He repeats, again and again, that human systems of value are not irrelevant epiphenomena, that they do not lose their meaning simply because all humans are composed of subatomic particles.  But Kauffman is not able to say just how a given system of value remains significant.  If one society forbids any form of incestual marriage, and another society permits certain forms, surely both of these societies have assigned value to their cultural practices; both are results of "willing" and "agency."  By Kant's "universal law," one of these must be right and the other wrong. Kauffman does not say this, and in fact refutes Kant on this point.  But he does not solve the knotty problem as to how systems of value can contend with each other, and yet remain individually significant.

For a possible de-knotting, stay tuned for Part 2.

ADDENDUM: The de-knotting actually appears in the discussion of taste and intersubjectivity in KIRBY'S CHOICE PT. 2.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NATURAL LAWBREAKING PT. 4

At the end of Part 3 I wrote:

When I finish the book, it may be interesting to mount a comparison between Kauffman's two models, "classical" and "quantum," and Kant's two species of imagination, "productive" and "reproductive." We-- or maybe just I-- shall see.
Now that I've finished Kauffman's REINVEINTING THE SACRED, I'm still only able to offer such a comparison in theory, though I won't do so here.  Kauffman offers some general models for his "classic/quantum" synthesis, but he admits that his theory at present remains in a speculative phase:


...well-known facts about cells and recent quantum chemical theory raise the possibility that vast webs of quantum coherent or partially coherent degrees of freedom may span large volumes of a cell... What I describe now is partially known, and partially my own scientific speculation. (p. 216)
Though Kauffman cautions the reader to remember that as yet there has not been adequate experimental proof to support his speculation, he asserts that the reductionist paradigms have already proven fallacious: not only in respect to the early paradigm I mentioned-- Weinberg's idea that all biology reduces down to particle physics--  but also to the paradigm of the "mind-brain identity theory, in which first person experiences are identical with specific brain states."  Chapter 13 is devoted to demonstrating the problems with this "classical" reductionist schema, and suggesting, in keeping with his earlier remarks on "partial causality," that the human mind may mirror the nature of biological creativity as a whole:


The idea that the human mind is non-algorithmic raises the possibility that it might be acausal, rather than a causal "machine," and the only acausal theory we have is quantum mechanics. Therefore the mind may be partially quantum mechanical.

I remarked in Part 2 that I observed parallels between the attitudes of reductionists in physics with those in literary criticism.  By way of supporting this observation, I'll focus on just one of the philosophical problems Kauffman analyzes in the book; that of "free will."


If every event, mental or physical, has sufficient antecedent causes, then as Aristotle said, there can be no "unmoved mover."  But free will is supposed to be just such an unmoved mover, free to do what it chooses, hence an "uncaused mental cause" of our actions. This led the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza, and others since him, to conclude that free will is an illusion.

Obviously a history of the concept of "free will" is impossible on this blog, but I have found this online essay, CHANGING PERSPECTIVES ON FREE WILL.  Among the essay's many capsule descriptions of philosophical stances, I found this one most representative of the attitude I myself see in literary reductionism:

Harriet Martineau, translator of the works of Auguste Comte and herself a founder of sociology, was another who struggled mightily with the free will meme. In the end, in spite of the alternatives provided by the philosophers of her time, she rejected the notion altogether. "In a practical sense," she wrote, "all the world is determined. All human action proceeds on the supposition that the workings of nature are governed by laws that cannot be broken by human will... The very smallest amount of science is enough to enable any rational person to see that the constitution and action of the human faculty of Will are determined by influences beyond the control of that faculty".#10 She referred to the notion of free will as "that monstrous remnant of old superstition". Here Martineau was expressing the logical implications of a Newtonian causality as applied to the type of radical monistic philosophical stance then being developed by Ernst Haeckel #11. In so doing, she was repudiating the dualistic Kantian world view which had prevailed for almost a century.

 I draw attention to Martineau's remark that "the very smallest amount of science is enough to enable any rational person" to see that everything is "determined" by contingent causes and that therefore free will is a "monstrous remnant of old superstition."  I find this language to be highly elitist in that it posits a radical difference between "rational persons" and those who lack such rationality-- a division no less absolute that the division made by one such "old superstition" between "the sheep and the goats." 

The Christian religion, though it may have formulated the basic outlines of the debate on free will, certainly did not originate its dynamic.  Most if not all religions are grounded in some sense of causal consequence.  Choose X and you are saved or illuminated; choose Y and you are damned or condemned to meaninglessness.  The idea that "free will" was not a gift given to mortals to guide them on their path was tantamount to saying that it did not matter what men chose; their choices were determined by the factors of their experiences and their fundamental natures.

How did this anti-will position translate into literary criticism?  A literary critic, as much as a religious pundit or a philosopher, wants to have some way to convince others of the rightness of his path.  I propose that for many critics the validation  they sought was that of a perceived greater rationality.  One might know, intellectually, that one's rationality was as predetermined by contingent circumstances as another man's irrationality.  I submit, however, that just as religious proselytizers insisted that the "right choice" reflected adherence to some higher supersensual reality, literary and philosophical proselytizers insisted that people who "saw the light" with regard to the contingency of human existence were a cut above those who did not. 

It should be easy to find any number of critics, professional or amateur, who support this elitist "sheep and goats" attitude.  I know that I can find, and have found, this attitude in many of my favored targets-- Gary Groth, Noah Berlatsky, Chicken Colin.  But I hate to keep falling back on these "old reliables."  Ideally I would like to find and refute some critic, whether in the comics-game or not, who evinces this specific blend of reductive pessimism and covert self-glorification.

If all fails, I suppose I could always go back to kicking at Theodor Adorno.