Featured Post


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 28, 2015


Hoo, does Noah Berlatsky not like Joseph Campbell! One doesn't even have to mention his name, but a reference to "myth" of any kind summons forth the demon of anti-Campbellianism.

I began by stating my conviction in the parallel availability of myth to all tribal peoples, and the availability of popular fiction to all modern consumers.

they [superhero comics-fans "of color"] want to claim a fantasy that belongs to them as much as to white people, just as black hero-myths belonged to pre-European African tribes as much they did to Europeans.

Berlatsky wasn't having any, choosing to arbitrarily define superhero comics as "white supremacist," albeit a little less so than the supremacist fantasies of "KKK pulp." As with Lamb, he's probably written essays to justify this belief, though I have not closely read them. He refines this a little in his next post to me:

I was saying that some genres, at least, are not as open to black readers as they are to whites. Are superheroes one of those genres? That seems to me to be the question. Pointing to another genre (like myths) and saying, this is open to everyone (which is what you did) is neither here nor there in terms of superhero comics. You need ot look to the genre you’re talking about, not to some other genre somewhere else.

I expanded from talking about the right of "fans of color" to claim their "superheros in the sun" to talking about the subject of what Lamb later calls "appeal." Part of my post also deals with Berlatsky's continued tendency to radically separate genres from one another. For now, I'll pass over my response to his imputations of white supremacy, whether in superheroes or other genres.

The relevance of myths is that we know that separate tribes of varying races created myths about superhuman entities, and that a thunder-god like Shango had for some Yoruba pagans a meaning that is not reducible to sociological commentary, just as Thor had a similar irreducible meaning for Nordic pagans.
Now, if no black readers had ever been entertained by superhero comics, irrespective of whether or not those comics featured black heroes, then you would be right: there could be no meaning-that-you-can’t-reduce-to-sociological factors between superhero comics as perceived by white readers and superhero comics as perceived by black readers. But I notice that no one here has made this claim, and that’s fortunate, because it would be utterly false. However, there has been a lot of talk about Black Readers as if they all conformed to a universal pattern, and that’s tantamount to saying the same thing.

As I said, this assertion of common factors in the appeal of myth and of a particular pop-culture genre seems relevant to me because Lamb tries to represent "fans of color" being compromised by buying into White Fantasies. Berlatsky decided that it was an attack upon any attempts to speak of particularized racial concerns:

Again, your impoverished view of what it might mean for comics to deal with blackness is depressing, and tends to refute your effort to defend superheroes. James isn’t asking for comics to all be about the struggle. He’s asking for comics which are able to acknowledge racial difference without trying to erase it or police it. And all you can say is, “well, all myths are the same.” You’re default defense of superheroes is a knee jerk erasure of difference; some Joseph Campbell heroe journey bullshit in which non-Western mythologies become adjuncts to some Western professors barmy Key to All Mythologies. We’re all really the same! I.e., read my stories, or, alternately, read your stories as my stories too. You’re just saying that all superheroes have to offer people of color, at best, is erasure and pompous condescension. Which is James’ argument in a nutshell.

This was of course nonsense, and I responded by saying that I wouldn't pursue the myth-parallel because NB patently didn't understand what I was saying. To his credit, NB doesn't quite descend, as Lamb does, into calling those who feel appeal for a "white supremacist" genre "inauthentic."  He tries to shift the goalposts to another question: "Can [superhero comics] ever ideologically support a world in which black people are equal and human?"

Of course, anyone who typifies an escapist genre like superheroes as "white supremacist" isn't really asking a question; he's pretty made up his mind. It does indirectly answer my questions as to whether "Blackness" as these writers perceive it is entirely defined by ideological concerns, though. Despite Noah's denial, Blackness can only be about The Struggle; any capitulation to universal patterns of entertainment is interpreted as "erasure of difference."

I like NB's knee-jerk anti-Western-bias as well. Joseph Campbell can't just be a barmy professor; he's a barmy "Western" professor, as if the fact of his being "Western" obviously implicates himself in the Ee-vil Schemes of Western Whiteness.  Presumably, if an "Eastern" scholar advanced any similar notion, he too would be too "Western."

"The Key to All Mythologies," by the way, is a fictional work by a fictional character, Causabon of George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, I can see how this accusation of pedantry might apply to certain works of Campbell-- I'm not a big fan of HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, myself-- but it's no less a knee-jerk reaction to assume that a "key to all mythologies," or attempt to create same, must be a dastardly plot to steal the identities of the non-white.  Thus my only initial response to this silly assertion was as follows:

What I’ve *actually* said is that black people are not purely defined by their sociological condition. That doesn’t erase difference, though I can see why an ideologue would want to claim that it does.

Admittedly, I couldn't resist tweaking NB later for having called Campbell "reductionist," but that was about it for the "discussion" of Campbell.

The key deficit in NB's understanding is that, even if one doesn't like Campbell's particular reading of myths, he's entirely justified in making generalized observations of hypothetically universal patterns. No one would criticize a physicist for asserting that gravity ought to work pretty much the same everywhere, except under circumstances that have unusual physical propensities. But if a myth-analyst says that there may be common emotional factors in one tribe's worship of Shango and another tribe's worship of Thor-- or, potentially, even in a modern comics-reader's enjoyment of Marvel's Thor-- that's "erasing difference."

Campbell might not always be the best person to talk about "difference," but he does center his better discussions in the ambivalence between particularity and (potential) universality. His book PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY is better than most of his works in keeping clear the distinction between the concept of "ethnic ideas" vs. "elementary ideas," as formulated by Campbell's 19th-century Adolf Bastian, cited here:

A final point. In describing Bastian's work, Campbell makes the point several times that "Nowhere, [Bastian] noted, are the 'elementary ideas' to be found in a pure state, abstracted from the locally conditioned 'ethnic ideas' through which they are substantialized; but rather, like the image of man himself, they are to be known only by way of the rich variety of their extremely interesting, frequently startling, yet always finally recognizable inflections in the panorama of human life" (Masks I:32).

But to ideologies who can only recognize short-term differences, common elements are something to be feared, and fought against-- though in the long run such efforts will prove as pointless as King Lear's battle with that other kind of "elements."

No comments: