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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...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

BREASTS, BLOOD, AND JUSTICE PT. 1

I've devoted considerable space on this blog to refuting simplistic views about sexual representations in fiction. That doesn't mean, however, that I believe that there are no real conflicts worth analyzing. I am not defending, as Noah Berlatsky claimed, "sex and violence" under any and all circumstances. Rather I am defending a continuum of strategies by which these kinetic effects can be expressed in fictional narrative. Such strategies are necessary in pursuit of the ideal of freedom in the arts, whatever the consequences of that freedom might be.

In this review of a 1990s Roger Corman action-film, Karl Brezdin posits a conflict between the tropes of stereotypical "female exploitation" films and those of action-adventure cinema.

Knowing that Corman took an active interest in creating “feminist exploitation films” -- using female protagonists as both asskickers and objects of lust -- I’m interested to know if viewers feel that Angelfist achieves this odd label. I’m undecided. The ladies here fight and snarl and save the day, but they also stand around awkwardly and navigate detachable shower heads over their nude bodies during inexplicable transition scenes. 

Whether anyone believes it or not, I can understand why a female viewer would be experience cognitive dissonance while watching a film like ANGELFIST. Let us suppose that the hypothetical female viewer can fully identify with the basic trope of an action-revenge film like this one, that this viewer can take pleasure in seeing the kickboxing-heroine slam around nasty crooks, mostly if not entirely of the male gender, using the same methods that a male action-hero would. That visual pleasure would probably be disrupted by seeing the heroine fight off those hoods while she's mostly naked.



Now, for WAPster feminists-- both females, and males who validate the dissonance without qualification-- this expression of displeasure is where the argument stops, perhaps with some added Marxist twaddle about the commodification of female secondary sexual characteristics. If such femimsts don't like seeing fictional versions of women put on display, then the practice is bad and should be stopped.

At its most sophisticated, this argument might appeal to American philosophical traditions regarding equality, what Francis Fukuyama termed "isothymia."  There is a general tendency in American culture-- certainly not confined to popular culture-- to the effect that all fiction ought to promote the ideal of equal opportunity. Therefore, to expose the breasts of a female character in a fictional narrative, irrespective of her power of agency in that narrative, is deemed to be an instance of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The ANGELFIST heroine can defeat a gang of thugs, but she also exists to put herself on display as male heroes do not, and therefore she is not being treated equally.

This is only accurate, however, if one regards the word "equal" to mean the same as "neutral."

If equality were the true measure of things here, WAPsters could not very well object to action-heroines displaying the secondary sex characteristics of their upper torsos, simply because many male heroes do the same thing.








Naturally, the response to this assertion would be, in Kelly Thompson's words, "no, it's not equal." And that's true, it isn't. For while there are action-films in which male heroes never disrobe, male heroes who do expose their chests do so for much longer periods of time than their female counterparts.

Ah, but I hear the predictable response. Men's breasts do not stimulate hetero women in the way that women's breasts stimulate hetero men. That's exactly why there is no societal taboo about men displaying their upper torsos in many --though not all-- social venues.

That there is no taboo against male torso display throughout much of the world, I do not dispute. But this does not mean that hetero women are never stimulated by a beefcake chest. It just means that, whatever stimulation exists, society deems the stimulation to be controllable, so that no restrictive taboo is needed.

When Roger Corman did a film like ANGELFIST-- or the film from which it distantly derives, 1974's TNT JACKSON-- there's no question that he knew of the taboo against showing the female breasts, and that he worked in as many boob-shots as he could in order to sell his films. He probably knew well that most female viewers would not care for this display of feminine sec-sex characteristics, but female viewers were not his principal audience. He surely knew that most fans of the various action-genres are male, and, more often than not, hetero male. For that audience, even if they were going to see blood, breasts provided something in the nature of a lagniappe.

Thus far, then, the argument remains stalemated. What gives many hetero men pleasure gives many hetero women displeasure, while the pleasure those hetero women feel from seeing the taboo enforced for their gender is a source of male displeasure.  The WAPster goal seems to be to neutralize most such depictions, at least in popular fiction-- and indeed, Kelly Thompson's recent essay takes decided pleasure in listing examples of such neutralization.

Obviously I don't think politically correct neutralization really serves any real-world aspirations toward equal opportunity, though there is a degree of logic in the dissonance feminist viewers feel in the presence of fictional tropes of feminine exposure. In Part 2 I will discuss some reasons as to why this is at most a lesser threat, one that pales in comparison to one that a modern Nietzschean might call "men and women with no chests."



Saturday, June 28, 2014

SHE HAS NO ETHICS

Kelly Thompson recently reposted her semi-famous essay, "No, It's Not Equal" on CBR. I'm still appalled at the degree to which both neopuritans fans and elitists (like those of the Hooded Utilitarian) accepted her poorly reasoned assertions, but two days ago I simply asked her for clarification as to the parameters for her survey. I got no response, so I added this, which may be doomed to "go away" soon.

___________________________________


Still no parameters. Let's look at why they're important:

"And now let’s look at ten of the most popular marquee superheroines: Wonder Woman (strapless swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels), Catwoman (regularly unzipped, frequently heels), Ms. Marvel (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, thigh high boots), Storm (strapless swimsuit, thigh high boots, sometimes heels), Batgirl (fully covered, sometimes heels), Black Widow (regularly unzipped, sometimes heels), Invisible Woman (fully covered – for now at least), Black Canary (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, fishnet stockings, sometimes heels), Rogue (as of late – constantly unzipped), and Power Girl (boob hole, swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels)."

You can claim, to use your phrase, that this is a fair representation of the costumes of superheroines until "the cows come home." But it cannot possibly be a fair representation until you SHOW YOUR WORK. If you do not establish roughly how many comics you surveyed and over what period of time, then your observations cannot be assessed. You lack what politicians term "transparency."

If you don't provide sources, the only thing you have in common with "transparency" are four letters of the word:

R, A, N, and T.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

VERTICAL VIRTUES PT. 2

In this essay I began my current set of essays on the interlinked topics of sublimity and transcendence in reaction to the outlook dominant among comic-book critics, and possibly academics generally as well:

Whatever their individual differences, in general all [comic critics] display the desire not to regard the productions of fantasy as significant in themselves, but only as signifiers of "reality" that can be viewed as either ideologically pure or ideologically suspect.

In my follow-up essay I cited a discussion-thread on HOODED UTILITARIAN, whose link I provided there. Here is a prime example of a critic deciding to reduce a fantastic text to realistic signifiers:



Any status quo is heterogeneous. When you’re fighting to keep things the same, you’re fighting to keep things the same. I guess it would depend on the particular narrative at hand, but (for example) in Crisis on Infinite Earths, the destruction of the universe is embodied in the anti-monitor, who’s basically a super-villain; opposite of all that is good (monitor, anti-monitor, whatever.) So fighting to save the universe is figured basically as just another especially big battle against bad guys who are trying to change who’s in charge. They’re evil rebels, a la Shakespeare (who also always supported the status quo.)
I think you’d have to talk about a particular green lantern story, but this is how a lot of destroying the universe stories work. It’s just a big, impressive way of saying “you’re going to destroy the status quo!”


Since I recognize that this was not a formal analysis of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, I won't repeat the points I made in the thread to refute Berlatsky. However, since I have myself stated that it's possible to produce narratives whose appeal is largely on the "horizontal plane," this means that there are some narratives where this sort of reasonable "status quo" argument can be correctly applied. Further, since so many sociological readings of this type boil down to "Superman= Super-Imperialist," I may as well choose three examples of texts that involve the sort of race/class struggles so beloved by critics of the Sociological School.

For my horizontal example, I choose Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND. I recently finished this work for the first time, and it's my verdict that although it's rife with all manner of agreeable "sympathetic affects" (the blissful images of the Southern aristocracy) and disagreeable "antipathetic affects" (those uppity Carpetbaggers and white trash), I find no trace of any affects that reach into the realms of the sublime, either going "up" or "down." Religion appears in the novel but only as a social form; a character like Scarlett's mother may incarnate a sort of mundane Madonna-figure, but she's only significant to the novel as a whole as an incarnation of the blessed South. There can be little question that this is a novel set up to defend a status quo, albeit one that has been overthrown. Mitchell's justification for slavery is based on the viewpoint character's conviction that all black people are essentially childlike, except when bad whites put ideas of freedom in their heads, thus causing the blacks to run amuck. Interestingly, Mitchell makes a brief reference to the Haitian slave revolt of the late 1700s, but no one in the novel ever inquires as to the reasons for this revolt.



However, not all works involving slavery can be reduced to "is it ideologically pure or ideologically suspect." Case in point: in 1855, less than ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Herman Melville wrote BENITO CERENO. This fictional tale was based on a real 1805 incident wherein a group of slaves revolted aboard a Spanish ship and took it over, only to be later defeated by American forces. Melville does not argue for or against slavery in this novella. Rather, his purpose is to show how the Spanish captain, the "Benito Cereno" of the title, is traumatized by the suspense of being captured by the black slaves. The viewpoint character is an American, Captain Delano, who comes aboard the ship after the slaves have taken it over. However, Delano is so dense that he never guesses until the end that the slaves are forcing the Spaniards to pretend that everything is normal. The Spanish captain Benito Cereno is particularly terrorized by the slaves' demonic-seeming leader "Babo," who at one point holds a razor to Cereno's throat in full view of Delano, on the pretext of giving Cereno a shave. In time Delano tumbles to the deception and naval forces re-take the slave ship. Babo is sentenced to death but never once shows any concern for what the white people may do to him. The last conversation between Delano and Cereno makes clear that Cereno, despite having escaped his captors without injury, is haunted by the power of the rebellious slave. Cereno even goes to his own grave a mere three months after Babo's execution, signifying the typical fate of a man enthralled by a demonic presence.




To call this story either a defense of slavery or a refutation of it would be foolish in the extreme. Melville is concerned with portraying Cereno as a man haunted by ill fortune, in terms similar to the fate of the author's more famous Captain Ahab. Babo is at no time a literal demon, but he and his fellow slaves are spectres of demonic retribution, and as such, are grotesques who produce the effect of downward transcendence as surely as more obviously monstrous figures like Dracula and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Is it possible to realize the obverse, to transform the ugly realities of American slavery into something that suggests "upward transcendence," the experience of a sublime affect that expands consciousness?  I find a serviceable example in the novel Leslie Fiedler asserts to have been the first novel to create fully realized black characters: Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
Like GONE WITH THE WIND and BENITO CERENO, CABIN is resolutely naturalistic in its phenomenality. However, whereas in GONE WITH THE WIND religious symbols are used merely to buttress Mitchell's beatific vision of Southern society, Stowe uses religious discourse to condemn the abomination of slavery. As Fiedler and others have observed, though, this does not signify that the Connecticut-born authoress believed that African traditions were on a par with the Christianity of her world. Fiedler asserts that she envisioned a future in which black people were both freed from slavery and sent back to Africa, where their Christianity would spread throughout the "Dark Continent." Modern readers might find this only slightly more palatable than Margaret Mitchell's political views. Still, the fact remains that Stowe used her religious ideals to oppose the secular defenses of the slave institution.


Yet UNCLE TOM'S CABIN at base is not a political novel. Stowe's commentary attests that the novel began with a vision of a black man being beaten to death by a white man: later, the novel itself would feature the titular character beaten by two black slaves under the aegis of the Yankee slaver Simon Legree. CABIN recapitulates many motifs common to the Christianity of Stowe's time-- not least that of the mother wailing for her children, a motif that had strong emotional appeal for an author who, like Stowe, had borne children. But the most important one is that of the imitatio dei enacted by Uncle Tom when he gives up his life to shield two slaves who escape Legree. Whatever emotions the scene may inculcate in modern readers, clearly the intent at the time was to invest Tom's sacrifice with the gravity of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Thus the effect of seeing Tom forgive his murderers before he dies is an expansive one, one that transforms Tom's sufferings into a scenario of expansive, positive emotion-- that is, in Huxley's terms, "upward transcendence."
Again, this is not to suggest that there are no affects in the latter two novels that approximate the "horizontal transcendence" affects that dominate the Mitchell novel. But BENITO CERENO and UNCLE TOM'S CABIN are more concerned with bringing forth extreme states of sympathetic or antipathetic affects-- and for that reason, they cannot, any more than a fantastic farrago of apocalyptic superheroes, be reduced to simplistic sociological factors.








VERTICAL VIRTUES

In this essay I said: "In a future essay I will also draw comparisons between Campbell's heuristic system and the forms of transcendence that are not reasonable; that can mount to the heavens or descend into the darkness of Hades..."  However,Campbell will have to wait, as I delve a little more into the heuristics of Aldous Huxley, the man who conceptualized the concepts of vertical and horizontal forms of transcendence.

I noted in this essay that Huxley's essay on self-transcendence included barely any examples of "upward transcendence," but he may have felt it unnecessary to do so given his previous book, 1945's THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY. This book, which I have not read, represents itself as "an attempt to present this Highest Common Factor of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine."

One may fairly speculate that this book's pluralistic vision of mankind's ongoing attempts to seek for a mystical "ground of being" parallels the dynamics of the 1953 "self-transcendence" essay, which appeared as an epilog to Huxley's non-fiction work THE DEVILS OF LOUDON. Throughout the essay Huxley scorns the tendency of human beings to lose themselves within the mazes of the countervailing "downward transcendence." However, he's fair-minded enough to admit that some of the techniques used to produce this sense of transcendence-- what Mircea Eliade has called "techniques of ecstasy"-- can be used in a disciplined fashion, as when Tantric priests utilize "elementary sexuality" as part of their sacred rites, so as to "transform the downward self-transcendence of elementary sexuality into an upward self-transcendence."

What's puzzling about the 1953 essay is that even though Huxley had been publishing fictional works since 1921, he does not apply his concept of transcendence to any aspect of art, which has, as much as religion, a reputation for allowing its audiences to escape "the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves." That is not to say that he never addressed this possibility elsewhere in his voluminous writings. However, since Huxley was not a systematic literary critic, I find it probable that he never explored this aspect of "transcendence."

In my essay UP THE DOWN TRANSCENDENCE  I drew a brief comparison between Huxley's two forms of vertical transcendence and two categories proposed by SF-critic Istvan Csicsery-Ronay.
Csicsery-Ronay asserted that "sublimity" was produced by an "expansion of apprehension"-- an argument very much in line with philosophers of sublimity like Burke and Kant-- and added that his parallel category, "the grotesque" was produced by "a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction." I reject Csiscery-Ronay's separation of these two affects, and instead regard them as "expansive" and "contractive" forms of the same affect: the affect of of the sublime. Further, these forms differ with respect to whether the art-work producing the affect is more dominated by "sympathetic affects" or "antipathetic affects." Sympathetic affects produce feelings of expansion and harmony, while antipathetic affects produce feelings of contraction and separation. (I first posted my conception of these affects on this blog here, though I formulated them long before I ever began this blog, in dissatisfaction with Aristotle's inadequate categories of "pity and terror.")

Here I should specify that I am not limiting either type of affects to works that produce the sublime. Every conceivable narrative is defined by these affects, and the reader generally orients himself within a text according what the focal characters "like" or "don't like." This is not to say that the reader is confined to the feelings of the viewpoint character alone, a matter I've covered in some detail here. But his reactions, so far as he is engaged by at least one character in the text, will be patterned by what the story's significant characters like or dislike. I concluded the above essay by adapting Huxley's schema to one suggested by Octavio Paz:

Horizontal transcendence= Paz's "the body"
Upward transcendence= "non-body" in the sense of Ronay's "expansion of apprehension"
Downward transcendence= "non-body" in the sense that "the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorization"

Thus the domain of horizontal transcendence is one where the reader experiences things as one experiences one's own body in a state of relative stability. Whether one encounters things one likes or does not like, those things have no special power to inspire either the expansion or the contraction of apprehension. In this state, one can self-identify with any human activity-- collecting stamps or studying birds, to cite two of Huxley's examples-- or, equally, one can choose not to find these things of interest. But one's sympathy or antipathy to the activity of collecting stamps remains on a stable, horizontal plane; the activity cannot act as (to use Campbell's felicitous phrase) as a "supernormal sign stimulus" that propels one into either a radical expansion or a contraction of one's consciousness.

In my next essay I'll use this formulations as a springboard to discuss the problems I have detected in the overly "horizontal" critical attempt to run roughshod over narratives that possess a more vertical appeal.


Friday, June 13, 2014

A QUICK SHOT OF ECSTACY

I observed in FIEDLER NABBED  that Leslie Fiedler was not able to advance a theory that described "ecstatics" or gave reasons as to why this mode should be preferable to the more standard literary modes of analysis, "ethics" and "aesthetics."  As I often do, I turn to Carl Jung for elucidation:

Almost every day we can see for ourselves, when falling asleep, how our fantasies get woven into our dreams, so that between day-dreaming and night-dreaming there is not much difference.  We have therefore two kinds of thinking: directed thinking, and dreaming or fantasy-thinking.  The former operates with speech elements for the purpose of communication, and is difficult and exhausting; the latter is effortless working as it were spontaneously, with the contents ready to hand, and guided by unconscious motives. -- Jung, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS.

I won't dwell long on Jung's categories, since I discussed them here to some extent. What I want to consider here is the possibility that Fiedler, in responding to an "ecstatics" that he apparently found in both the art of William Faulkner and the junk of Margaret Mitchell, was responding to the spontaneous quality found in "fantasy-thinking." I think that late in life Fiedler realized that the same basic principles of imagination informed both Temple Drake and Scarlett O'Hara. However, given that Fiedler's early work seems more strongly influenced by both Freud and Marx than by Jung or any comparable figure, he couldn't really hammer out what principles linked the two types of fictional works.

I assert that "fantasy thinking" is heavily dependent on what Jung called the "irrational functions" of consciousness; that is, "sensation" and "intuition."  Jung contrasts these to the "rational functions" of "thinking" and "feeling," which involve a process of conscious judgment (do I like so-and-so, do I agree with Ayn Rand) which can be subsumed under the activity of "directed thinking." However, the irrational functions don't wait on judgment: they just occur spontaneously, and then allow the subject to make of them what he will. The experience of "sensation"-- in which one literally perceives one's surroundings through the senses-- is much more common than that of "intuition," in which one seems to perceive a sentiment or idea without sensory meditation.

Jung devised his categories to describe the multifarous nature of humankind: why some people are more oriented on feelings, others on thoughts, etc.  The psychologist did not apply the categories to literature, but I have attempted to do so recently in the essay FOUR BY FOUR, in which each of the four functions can be found in a specific potentiality one may express in art:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of sensations.

The DRAMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of discrete personalities.

The THEMATIC is a potentiality that can describe the relationships of abstract ideas.

The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that may describe the relationships of symbols.

To state my thesis as simply as possible, I believe that the majority of what we call "popular art" is conceived through "fantasy-thinking" alone, and that its charm is that it appeals primarily to sensation, while inevitably calling some degree of symbolic values into being through a more or less intuitive process.

In contrast, what some call "canonical art" may well begin with the irrational functions, but it is soon subsumed by one or both of the rational ones: of thinking, of feeling, or both. Traditional literary criticism has been so wedded to the idea of the rational in art that even the process of symbolic formation-- a process highly dependent on an artist intuitively bringing together a congeries of meaningful images or tropes-- has often been relegated to the function of "thinking."

But though the irrational functions are somewhat damped down in "high art," they are not entirely absent: thus we see a critic like Camille Paglia attempting to draw attention to the visceral nature of art in her famous (or notorious) book, SEXUAL PERSONAE.

For all the very real differences between "high art" and "low art," they are bound together by their sharing of the irrational functions, which are the cornerstone of the "fantasy-thinking" process. It is a spontaneous process which at its most complex levels cannot be reduced to rational judgments, and for that very reason, incites a pleasure that is literature's closest analogue to the religious concept of "ecstacy."

Some will not credit Leslie Fiedler's implication that Scarlett O'Hara incarnated both a sensual and a symbolic presence comparable to the presence of Temple Drake. But it's my continued assertion that those who cannot see this commonality are not honestly regarding the combination of sensuality and symbolic value in the Faulkner creation, but are rather responding only to the latter figure's incarnation of "thinking" and "feeling" values-- thus moving in lockstep with a thoroughly barren elitist tradition of literary criticism.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

FIEDLER NABBED

I've recently finished THE DEVIL GETS HIS DUE, a 2008 collection of largely un-anthologized essays by Leslie Fiedler, an academic critic I've cited occasionally on this blog.  Most of the essays repeat opinions and insights that will be familiar from his earlier writings, but my chosen subject is the misprision of Fiedler's work that appears in an introduction written by one Samuele Pardini.

In this introduction Pardini cites Umberto Eco-- whose views on comics I found problematic here-- as an authority to "prove" that the only reason Fiedler ever asserted an aesthetic equivalence between "art" and "junk" was because he Fiedler was being "criticially avant-garde." Eco claims that Fiedler did not really believe that there could be aesthetic equality between the two, that he simply wanted "to break down the barrier that has been erected between art and enjoyability." Pardini enthusiastically echoes this sentiment. It somehow escapes him to prove his case by citing even a single word that Fiedler-- who passed away in 2003-- wrote about popular art or culture, not even from the essays included in DEVIL, which include meditations on the RAMBO film-series and the cinematic persona of Jerry Lewis.

While it's not impossible that Fiedler may have made some statement along these lines-- I haven't read everything the man ever wrote-- it's clear to me that Eco and Pardini are "nabbing" Leslie Fiedler in service of their own elitism. In Fiedler's 1982 work WHAT WAS LITERATURE, he decisively turned his back on the elitism of academia, though without, to my knowledge, ever stating that "art" and "junk" were works in the same mode. In this essay I boiled down Fiedler's 1982 attitude toward the "ecstatic" qualities that the two forms of communication hold in common:

Fiedler proposes to "drastically downgrade both ethics and aesthetics" in favor of what he terms "ecstatics"-- a concept that deserves a future essay here.  Putting that concept aside for now, it's enough to see that Fiedler conflates both ethical and aesthetic criticism with what Max Weber defined as the dominant value of American culture:"hard work," the basis of the Protestant Ethic.

I never got around to writing another essay on Fiedler's concept of "ecstatics," partly because he gives one so little to go on.  It's evident from WHAT WAS LITERATURE that Fiedler could derive some profound pleasure from both Faulkner's SANCTUARY and Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND, even knowing that the latter work could not compared with the former on either ethical or aesthetic grounds. Regrettably, Fiedler never formulated a "poetics of ecstacy."

Pardini notes that Fiedler believed in trying to keep his critical essays straightforward and free of critical jargon. This style made Fiedler one of the most eminently readable literary critics of the 20th century. The down side of this strategy, however, was although he could point the way to a deeper understanding of the mythopoeic roots shared by canonical art and popular culture, Fiedler's anti-jargon posture meant that he could not write in depth about these roots. His magisterial LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL (1960) touches on matters of popular art at times, but only as a means of outlining the history of influences upon the American literary canon.  It's clear that he's aware that there are significant figures in that canon whose significance cannot be explained by ethics or aesthetics, and even in the DEVIL collection he continues to expatiate on the "problem of the bad good writer" as represented by Fenimore Cooper. However, perhaps because his earliest academic outlook was staunchly elitist, Fiedler was never able to grapple with the issues of what might called "the good bad writer," which might in theory take in both his beloved Margaret Mitchell and Jack Kirby, whom Fiedler confused with Stan Lee in a 1970s essay about Kirby's "New Gods" comics.

I realize that my own love of jargon is one major aspect of this blog that makes it less than hugely popular. Still, in essays like the recent FOUR BY FOUR, I hope to provide a deeper explication of the sort of "ecstatics" I believe Leslie Fiedler was responding to. At the very least, even if he did not wish to invest very deeply in abstract arguments, his openness to the charms of the popular puts him far ahead of the fatuous positions taken by both Umberto Eco and Samuele Pardini.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

FOUR BY FOUR

The "empty and purely formal" archetype is the principle around which these "clues" aggregated.  For Jung the emotional wonder of beholding the sun as a sacred mystery would be the keystone of making a myth about it, while the specific local details of any given myth were the "ions and molecules" upon which the organizing power acts.-- JUNG LOVE, FIRST LOVE.
I regard sensation as conscious, and intuition as unconscious, perception. For me sensation and intuition represent a pair of opposites, or two mutually compensating functions, like thinking and feeling. Thinking and feeling as independent functions are developed, both ontogenetically and phylogenetically, from sensation (and equally, of course from intuition as the necessary counterpart of sensation).-- Jung, PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES.
Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function,... realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery....The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned – showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through.... The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.... It is the sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world – and it is out of date.... But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.-- Campbell, THE POWER OF MYTH.

It's long been of interest to me that both Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell emphasized a quaternity of functions, though to very different ends.

Jung's four functions are quasi-Kantian deductions about the nature of consciousness, which I consider identical to the "organizing power" of archetypal potentiality.  One might say that through the lens of these functions one views mythical representations from "the inside out."

Campbell's, however, belong to the world of the actual than of the potential. Myths leave "clues" about the "ions and molecules" that make up human experience, and from which the structures of mythical representation are assembled. Through the lens of these functions one views these representations from the "outside in."

For the majority of my essays on both THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE and NATURALISTIC! UNCANNY! MARVELOUS!, I have somewhat privileged Campbell's functions in terms of analyzing the mythical representations found in both canonical and popular fiction. That's because Campbell's functions deal with functions of information-- forms he earlier termed "metaphysical, cosmological, sociological and psychological"-- rather than pure states of consciousness.  I might attempt to use Jung's function-terms to assert that Dave Sim's cerebral CEREBUS privileges the function of "thinking" more than any other, and that Frank Miller's SIN CITY privileges the function of "sensation." But though it's easy to make such an assertion, it's less easy to demonstrate its truth through textual examples.

In contrast, if I wish to state that CEREBUS' psychological content is more complex than that of SIN CITY, I could examine both works in term of some common psychologically-informed archetype and sort out which of them provided more elaborations of the archetype.

Still, there is value in viewing Jung's functions of consciousness as potentialities of a fourfold "axial system," to evoke Jung's own metaphor.  I have not attempted to elucidate this system in detail, but I do view Jung's functions as expressing the fourfold ways in which relationships between facets of consciousness are implemented; to wit:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of sensations.

The DRAMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of discrete personalities.

The THEMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of abstract ideas.

The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbols.


In addition to calling attention to the polysemic nature of the human mind's "organizing powers," all four Jung-functions will also prove signficant to my continuing description of that form of sublimity I term "the combinatory-sublime," which in turn may provide a holistic concept of the nature of creativity.

 

 

Monday, June 9, 2014

TRANSCENDENCE WHAT AIN'T SUBLIME PT. 2

In Part 1 I asserted that "most comics-critics are of the view that the realm of the reasonable and agreeable is the one to which all other forms of transcendence should be reduced." The proof of this particular pudding can be best observed in the critical dialogue that came about in response to Noah Berlatsky's essay SUPERHEROES ARE ABOUT FASCISM, which I analyzed in a series of essays on the nature of violence, real and fictional, beginning here. Remembering that what I call "reasonable and agreeable" is also known as Huxley's "horizontal self-transcendence," I'll quickly repeat one of Huxley's examples of this form of reasonable transcendence:

most men and women choose, most of the time, to go neither up nor down, but sideways. They identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values. 

For Berlatsky and most of his respondents, the trope of "the hero battling evil" is entirely reducible to sociological factors. If the hero aims to defend the status quo, this is "bad;" if the hero seeks to change it on some level-- as with Wonder Woman's campaign to reform male-dominated society even while beating back Nazis-- then this is "good." In the course of the thread I mentioned Marvel's Doctor Strange as an example of a world-saving hero whose adventures tended to focus on the metaphysical rather than the sociological. Berlatsky allowed that Doctor Strange was not as good a fit as the majority of superheroes but did not choose to modify any aspect of his ideologically-based critical view.



My use of the words "sociological" and "metaphysical" are by no means accidental: they are two of the categories devised by Joseph Campbell in his 1964 work OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY, along with "the psychological" and "the cosmological." I've quoted Campbell at length on these conceptual categories here, so I won't spend time on further definitions. The relevance of Campbell's four functions in this essay is that it shows how each of these concepts for the organization of knowledge and/or insight can be viewed in a manner that is not "reasonable and agreeable."

Here's Campbell on Berlatsky's favorite if not exclusive category, "the sociological:"

Third is the sociological function. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Particular life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, evolve dramatically. This function, and the rites by which it is rendered, establishes in members of the group concerned a system of sentiments that can be depended upon to link that person spontaneously to its ends.

It should be obvious that this definition is more comprehensive than Berlatsky's in that Campbell does not define the sociological function in terms of what he personally considers liberating or repressive.

Campbell, being human, is certainly not immune to the temptations of ideology: in this essay I pointed out a section of Campbell's HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES wherein the author's ideology does influence what he deems the "best" explanation for the ritual of the Paschal candle. Nevertheless, I also noted that HERO was written in 1949, while Campbell's more latitudinarian concept of the four functions first appears in 1964, so I for one have no difficulty in seeing the later insight as the flowering of Campbell's more mature thought.

It may be correctly pointed out that Berlatsky is only one comics-critic. But I could cite any number of other critics I've disputed on this blog, most of whom have also been guilty of similar "reasonable" reductionism, ranging from Gary Groth and Bart Beaty to the simpletons of Sequart.  Whatever their individual differences, in general all display the desire not to regard the productions of fantasy as significant in themselves, but only as signifiers of "reality" that can be viewed as either ideologically pure or ideologically suspect.

Campbell, though not a literary critic, supplies a corrective to the overemphasis on reasonableness and ideological correctness. In a future essay I will also draw comparisons between Campbell's heuristic system and the forms of transcendence that are not reasonable; that can mount to the heavens or descend into the darkness of Hades-- and in either form, are covalent with what I have termed the combinatory-sublime.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

TRANSCENDENCE WHAT AIN'T SUBLIME

Having now devoted over 50 posts to the topic of "the sublime" in one form or another, I find myself giving thought as to whether or not other comics-critics would have any takes on these matters.  I tend to doubt it, though, and the least self-aggrandizing reason I can concoct for said critics' general disinterest in the sublime comes down to their affection for a type of transcendence that I find to be of lesser interest.

Sublimity, as coiner-of-the-term Longinus pointed out, is not something that takes part in the everyday or the "agreeable"-- a term which Kant may have borrowed for his own theories of art and the sublime.  This translation of Longinus says:

A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time.


Though all of Longinus' statements on the sublime are significant, they are not all necessarily correct. I believe that all of art exists to "take [a reader/listener] out of himself," but not that every effect that does so is sublime.  In this essay I quoted and/or paraphrased a great deal of Aldous Huxley's 1953 essay "On Self-Transcendence, comparing and contrasting Huxley's concepts of "downward transcendence" and "upward transcendence" with cognate concepts in Carl Jung's system.  In the middle of these two forms of transcendence, Huxley describes "horizontal transcendence" in terms that may compare with Longinus' idea of the "that which is merely reasonable or agreeable."

In order to escape from the horrors of insulated selfhood most men and women choose, most of the time, to go neither up nor down, but sideways. They identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values. This horizontal, or nearly horizontal, self- transcendence may be into something as trivial as a hobby, or as precious as married love. It can be brought about through self-identification with any human activity, from running a business to research in nuclear physics, from composing music to collecting stamps, from campaigning for political office to educating children or studying the mating habits of birds. Horizontal self- transcendence is of the utmost importance. Without it, there would be no art, no science, no law, no philosophy, indeed no civilization.

Why does Huxley say that horizontal self-transcendence is "of the utmost importance?" I presume that it is because "self-identification with any human activity" may be deemed the bedrock of cognitive experience. It is the way every human being learns his or her individual propensities: what one likes to do, what one does not like to do, what one is good at doing, and so on. I'm enough of a Bataillean to state a slight disagreement, to the effect that there will always be the temptation to transcend the horizontal plane of the "reasonable and agreeable."  But I take the point-- assuming that I have read Huxley's point correctly-- that there is a primacy to the horizontal plane, albeit not a supremacy.

Unfortnately, most comics-critics are of the view that the realm of the reasonable and agreeable is the one to which all other forms of transcendence should be reduced.  Not that the practice is confined to critics, whom I'll explore a little more in Part 2.  Often it's a prime source for humor.

Harvey Kurtzman's story "Man and Superman" (WEIRD SCIENCE #6, 1951)  is a spoof not of the Man of Steel on that character's own terms-- Kurtzman would produce such a spoof two years later in MAD, with the famous "Superduperman." Rather, "Man and Superman" spoofs the comics medium's happy ignorance of basic scientific principles. Charlemagne, a thick-headed "muscle culture" nut, exposes himself to a physicist's ray, which increases his density to fantastic proportions, just as one sees in countless superhero origins.



However, the upshot of the satire is that Charlemagne ignores the scientist's warnings about how his "expenditures of energy" will cause him to "wilt away."  Not only does his mass constantly cause him to fall through walls and floors-- a consequence of greater mass that Superman never had to deal with-- he, the massive muscleman, ends up evaporating into "rapidly dispersing neutral mesons."



Of course Kurtzman's made-up science is no more probable than that of Superman. What's significant in the aesthetic sense is that Charlemagne's admittedly lunk-headed attempt to transcend the limits of normality is shot down by the author's all-knowing appeal to reason and logic.

In the next essay I'll show how this paradigm informs the reductive principles of certain critics of fantasy-literature, both within and without the medium of comic books.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

HOW TO SHAME A BIG GREEN SLUT PT. 2

Upon re-examining Part 1, I don't think that I made my concluding points clear enough.

Having established Craig Mazin's implied criteria for his act of "slut-shaming"-- or maybe "slut-concept shaming"-- I gave this example of a species of comic-book heroines who did not display the "exaggerated images" he found so objectionable: heroines who were conventionally pretty but not "exaggerated:"




So, by Mazin's logic, none of these characters could be "slut-concepts" because none of them display the exaggerated aspects he finds to be characteristic of evil sexist marketing.

Yet what's the appeal of a scene like this, in which three cute-although-not-exaggerated girls vie for the affections of one male character? Is there no possible element of titillation here?

For that matter, its interesting that the Legion of Super-Heroes was one of the few hero-teams in comic books to sport more than one female. I will admit that the reasons for this can only be a source of speculation, since comics-fandom has no reliable testimony from writers, artists or editors of the Legion's early period as to motivations for this unusual state of affairs.  Did the creators simply want to feature more female characters in order to draw in female readers?  That's not impossible, but based on the way most superhero comics of the period were written, the professionals behind the comics would have regarded the reactions of male readers as their primary measure of financial success.

So it's feasible that Mort Weisinger-- the editor who liked to have Superman play pranks on Lois Lane to "teach her a lesson"-- might have decided to allow more females in the Legion not because he was a great defender of burgeoning feminism, but because an increase of even limited pulchritude might make the series more appealing to that male readership.

IF that is the case-- and I admit there is no defiinitive proof one way or another-- then Mort Weisinger would be using female sexuality as a marketing-tool. So if one pursued the logic of Craig Mazin's accusations without heeding his shallow justifications, the Legion females would be sluts too. In fact, any female character could be a slut if she was used in any way to market anything-- and yes, that includes Vladimir Nabokov's underdeveloped LOLITA, a book which became a best-seller not because of literary merit but because it popularized a covert paraphilia.

Plainly it will not do to simply point fingers as Mazin does. It should be admitted that the evocation of sexual attractiveness is a key appeal in all forms of literature, just as it plays a comparable-- but not at all identical-- role in real life.  Only from such a position can one speak intelligently about the question of good or bad representations of sexuality.