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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...

Monday, March 30, 2015


I recently posted this simplified summation of my work/play concept on a forum-thread dealing with the question of whether or not superheroes were intrinsically juvenile.

"Escapism" is an important concept here, because on occasion (not necessarily on this thread) people sometimes conflate it with all things juvenile, which is not the case.
On my blog I've frequently contrasted two modes of literature which can be constructed for both juvenile and adult audiences. There's "escapism," which I consider "the literature of play," and "realism," which is "the literature of work."
Playing games means accepting a prescribed set of rules and limitations that aren't based on real-world means and ends, even if they might be loosely patterned after them (RISK, STRATEGO). But there's no real-world benefit from playing games. In a way, the player accept the game's fictional limits as a means of escaping the real world of limitations like inconvenient death, romantic loss, etc.
Work is all about means and ends, and the literature of work, "realism," is all about getting its audience to come to terms with mortal limitations. We may think of juvenile works as being only about escapism. But if someone writes a book for kids, aimed at coming to terms with the loss of loved ones, then that's both a "realist" work and a juvenile work.
Not that one has to be only within a naturalistic world in order to be "realistic." Lewis's Narnia books are aimed at kids, but their intent is to give the young audience a simplified grounding in the author's ideas of Christian philosophy. That's aimed at achieving a particular end by a particular means, and so I consider Narnia "realistic" in its thematic sense, even though it's a fantasy-- just as I do WATCHMEN and a handful of other "mature superheroes."

I've also occasionally asserted that the literature of thematic escapism functions as a "vacation from morals," moral prescriptions being the primary cultural manifestation of limitation: of what a member of a society must or must not do to remain a viable member of that society.

Early in THE ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, Northrop Frye discusses the ways in which types of melodrama-- he mainly references the detective story and the "thriller"-- can invoke in their audiences feelings of moral indignation, which might under different circumstances might involve the ideal of work in its sense of "means and ends."

In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.

We should have to say, then, that all forms of melodrama, the detective story in particular, were advance propaganda for the police state, in so far as that represents the regularizing of mob violence, if it were possible to take them seriously. But it seems not to be possible. The protecting wall of play is still there. 

Frye was IMO completely correct in assuming that the violent aspects of these "thrillers" is insulated by "a wall of play." However, he was wrong is assuming that it was "not possible" for critics to take violent melodramas "seriously" enough to believe that they were indeed "advance propaganda for the police state." About thirteen years prior to the publication of Frye's ANATOMY, Marxist Theodor Adorno attacked all products of the so-called "culture industry" as manifestations of a new fascism, though his analysis of the relation of violence to its audience may sound more Freudian than Marxist:

In the very first sequence [of a story] a motive is stated so that in the course of the action destruction can get to work on it: with the audience in pursuit, the protagonist becomes the worthless object of general violence. The quantity of organized amusement changes into the quality of organized cruelty. The self-elected censors of the film industry (with whom it enjoys a close relationship) watch over the unfolding of the crime, which is as drawn-out as a hunt. Fun replaces the pleasure which the sight of an embrace would allegedly afford, and postpones satisfaction [until] the day of the pogrom. Insofar as cartoons do any more than accustom the senses to the new tempo, they hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.

In 1949, Gershon Legman self-published his book of essays, LOVE AND DEATH, which in part assailed comic books as institutionalized fascism, virtually duplicating Adorno's argument about how it served the ends of an implied "police state" that wanted citizens to fantasize about venting violence on scapegoat victims so that said citizens would then accept any punishment the government dished out.

And of course, there's the debbil-doctor himself:

Superman (with the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and "foreign-looking" people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasize themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them—by force.

And, lest anyone reading think that these views no longer have currency, here's reliable Noah Berlatsky, from the comments-thread in which I recently participated, taking the POV that all superheroes are essentially cops, representatives of a police state:

 superheroes function as a kind of paramilitary right wing law and order force; they’re doing the dirty work of justice that even the police can’t do. That’s a lineage that goes back to the KKK; I don’t think it gets out of the dynamic I discussed. I think that applies to a lot of the lone badass against the system narratives too. 

What all of these individuals have in common is that they have refused to give the melodramatic entertainments they attack the credit for being "play." Thrillers, comedy cartoons, and superheroes are all defined by the "work" that the culture industry wants them to do, whether it's to create admiration for the forces of law-and-order or to provide "bread and circuses" so that the citizens won't notice how beaten-down they are by the forces of authority. Escapist melodramas might provide vacations from whatever morality these elitists tout as superior, but since the melodramas are working for authority, they only supply "working vacations."

Clearly I'm with Frye in believing that the consumers of these fantasies, violent or not, have the awareness to know that they're engaging a playful activity that doesn't represent the way the real world works. It can be fairly stated that concerns of "realism" do appear in any work, no matter how "escapist," be it a story set in the audience's own world or in some "Dungeons and Dragons" universe. But the element of play generally takes precedence, though permutations do arise in both the escapist mode and the realistic mode, as discussed more fully here.

The biggest problem of the "heroes are fascist" argument is that it soon becomes entirely tautological, like Freud. In Freud's opinion the Oedipal theory was validated whether or not  a man did or didn't marry a woman like his mother. A man who married a woman like his mother confirmed Freud's theory directly; a man who married a woman completely unlike his mother was undergoing "displacement," which in some roundabout way still validated the Oedipal theory.

Similarly, most of the "heroic fascist" arguments fall into the same circular arguments seen above. Does the hero work directly for the government? Then he's a fascist. Does the hero work on his own, reporting to no authority? Then he's "a kind of paramilitary right wing law and order force." Is the hero a badass fighting against the system, like (say) Snake Plissken? The argument will admit of no meaningful exceptions: the badass fighting the system is a fascist too. In other words, everything proves what the theory's proponent wants to prove, and the few exceptions the advocate may provide, if he provides any, simply happen to appeal to his or her particular moral system.

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