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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...

Saturday, March 22, 2014


I mean, you’re willing to defend sex and violence from highbrow critics, but somehow slapstick is to be scorned? Come on now.-- Noah Berlatsky to me in this essay's response-thread.

There's no point in trying to reconstruct whatever tenuous line of logic Berlatsky used in making this remark, since it had almost nothing to do with the argument we were having on his essay-thread back in January.  Had I asked him at the time what "defense of sex and violence" of mine he was referencing, I don't imagine Berlatsky would have given me a straight answer.  But compared to some responses I've received from illiterate know-nothings, Berlatsky's summary, apart from its irrelevant aside about slapstick, is at least partly on the money.

It's partly misleading, as well, though. I don't defend *all* sex and violence; I defend the principle that it can be used well, like anything else in fiction.  In 2009 I gave an example of a piss-poor execution of the use of violence when I reviewed a hyper-violent comic book, BLACKEST NIGHT #1, and said:

my problem is not that [Geoff] Johns put these characters through the wringer. I like them all, but I don't mind seeing them travestied, if it's done with some imagination.
At the same time, I have defended the use of violence when it's been used just for kicks, if I think that some degree of imagination had been evoked, as with this once-infamous scene from SUPERGIRL #14:

I won't repeat the specific arguments I used to refute "highbrow critic" Dirk Deppey's interpretation.  But I will extend those arguments to observe that often when highbrow types object to this sort of hyper-violence, with or without erotic elements, they're taking issue with the very nature of popular art, which is generally characterized by its ability to deliver almost pure kinetic entertainment to any audience, or as one story weekly of the 1880s called it, "sensational fiction with no philosophy."
For highbrow/elitist critics the lack of philosophy in narrative is anathema, which may be why they so often pursue Sigmund Freud's strategy: claiming that one can read such entertainments in order to reveal latent meanings that show the philosophical underpinnings not of the work or its author but of the culture that formed both.  Usually this cultural substructure embodies some psychological or sociological opinions or practices that the critics do not like-- e.g., masculinism, fascism, and so on-- and so the identification of this alleged "latent content" takes the form of casting out the critics' personal demons.

While I've gone on record as saying that these and other deeper facets do exist, and that even the most barren seeming narrative does have some "philosophy," my approach is Campbellian rather than Freudian/Marxist.  SUPERGIRL #14 doesn't have many deeper facets, but those that are present relate to mythic tropes like "the Hero Gains a New Power," which is what's transpiring in the violent scene above when the titular heroine stabs her bat-attacker.

These distinctions apply to sex as much as violence, for though the two are separable kinetic phenomena both in the real world and the world of fictional narrative, they have an interconnectedness best expressed by George Bataille.

...of all forms of human might/activity, violence and sex are the perfect exemplars of competition and cooperation, and therefore of the thymotic tensions that pervade all human societies and cultures.  Further, violence and sex are also the primary sources of what Bataille calls "sensuous frenzy," which may be termed the perception that one's thymos has become so expanded as to escape the confines of one's body.-- A REALLY LONG DEFINITION OF VIOLENCE, PT. 3.

I've used the term "perfect storm" in the title, defined by Wikipedia as "a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically." The meaning is usually negative in the real world.  As I apply it to narrative fiction, it's a positive thing, referencing the ways in which the creative forces of an author, or set of authors, may combine elements of a narrative to create storms of sex and/or violence that sweep away the senses, and arguably promote the sense of the sublime.

Do people experience such storms in the real world?  It's obvious how the "swept away" metaphor applies to sex, but it can apply no less to certain experiences of violent conflict, or at least to people coveting glorious battle: one might recall my observation here that "an estimated 150,000 German soldiers went off to the trenches with [THUS SPAKE] ZARATHUSTRA in their knapsacks."  But such real-world tempests are limited to those who experience them, and they can be communicated to others-- usually for the purpose of engendering envy-- only through narrative, albeit not the narrative of fiction.

In contrast, the sensuous frenzies of fictional sex and violence potentially belong to everyone.  The vagaries of taste insure that even the kinetic scenes that are most celebrated at any given time will not please absolutely everyone, and in some other time they may fall out of favor. Further, there may be some danger in concentrating on the kinetic to the exclusion of other aspects, which makes certain aspects of Camille Paglia's criticism as problematic as the ratiocentric prejudices of the highbrows.  In criticism, too, one desires a "perfect storm," where all potential insights come together for a spectacular breakthrough.

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