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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...

Friday, January 30, 2015

YOUNGFUL TRANSGRESSIONS

At the end of JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 5 I tangentially touched on a concept I've not addressed before on the blog. The concept is that of "lawlines," introduced in Dudley Young's 1991 meditation on anthropology and mythology, ORIGINS OF THE SACRED: THE ECSTASIES OF LOVE AND WAR.


Young's project-- his only purely philosophical work, so far as I can tell-- is an attempt to analyze the ways in which ancient societies formulated their laws, taboos, and other codes of behavior. The author's express purpose in exploring the dynamics of archaic myths is to throw some light upon the ways that we as moderns have fallen away from our own heritage, with catastrophic consequences for our ability to know right from wrong. Though Young invokes many philosophers,poets and pundits of the past two centuries-- Sigmund Freud, William Wordsworth, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Buber, Mary Douglas, and Northrop Frye-- the bulk of the book deals with the ancient world, beginning with what we moderns know of paleolithic man and moving into the mythic universes of the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Greeks. Myths for Young are pre-eminently about defining the strictures of law and the powers that support it:

The myths that compose the religious and political structure of every culture are tales of power, how it is to be found and where it is to be used.-- Young, p. 22.

Young contends that there exist meaningful parallels between our own de-sacralized concepts of cultural authority with:

the measures taken by paleolithic man to live with the loss of his innocence, the cultural moves he made to protect himself from further exposure to that sacred monster that had originally tempted him ecstatically into cannibalism and worse. The word I use for these measures is 'lawlines,' and in the beginning this is literally what they are, lines drawn in the mind and on the dancing ground to regulate the flow of energies no longer governed by the codes of primate instinct.-- p. xx. 

Given these abstruse references to "the dancing ground" of hypothetical cave-dweller tribes and to a tempting "sacred monster" who is apparently both the serpent of Eden and Dionysus infecting his Maenads with murderous blood-lust, it should be evident that ORIGINS is not a simple read. I don't propose to review the book in full here, as I've not recently re-read it, though I have given it more than one reading in the past. I could just appropriate his term "lawlines" for my own use, but I felt it would be instructive to meditate on the some of the differences between Young's account of myth and my own.

First and foremost, though Young mentions Jung a few times in the book, his primary influence is Freud's  1913 TOTEM AND TABOO.  Young is not much concerned with the rest of Freud's theory, and he expressly distances himself from the Viennese psychologist's reductive tendencies, but he feels it is important to see Freud's concept within the greater sphere of current anthropological and mythographic knowledge.  Citing Robin Fox's book THE RED LAMP OF INCEST as well as Freud, Young argues that in prehistoric times bands of hominids followed the structural lead of certain anthropoids in that each tribe was dominated by the strongest alpha-male, who kept all the desirable females for himself. At some point a particular tribe (in Young's view, a number of tribes responding to the same internal conflicts) was rocked when the young men ganged up on the older alpha-male-- implicitly the father to at least some of them-- and killed him in order to have access to the women. Freud also asserts that the rebels cannibalized their victim, which is one manifestation of the "sacred monster" mentioned in the quote above. Since then, totemism continued to dominate humankind's development, and countless humans expiated their guilt over the killing of a father-figure, reinforced by the internal dynamic of the Oedipus Complex.

From this germ-idea Young spins a fascinating tapestry of mythic interrelationships that I cannot explore here, but he never strays from the idea that all myths are about forming the "lawlines" that separate order from chaos.  I esteemed ORIGINS OF THE SACRED highly when I first read it, and on a slight personal note, at an early 90s convention I recommended it to Dave Sim-- who had not yet gone public with his doctrinaire Christianity. I imagine that Sim, had he read the book, would have been repulsed by any suggestion that all religions might be traced back to primitive rituals of dance and exorcism.  Yet, Jungian that I am, I was more than a little iffy about that hypothesis from another angle. Though Young is not attempting to reduce all religion to base physical processes as Freud was, even locating the origins of religion exclusively within tribal exogamy-conflicts does have its reductive side.  Once again I cite a favorite Kant passage:

...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.

Thus, as much as I admire Young's book, I reject the notion that all religion arises from totemism, or that totemism, however one defines it, arises explicitly from the sexual competition of males for females, even if this "primal scene" was one that occured in many parallel situations rather than out of one originary event. At base, I think Young used and transformed Freud in much the same way Bataille used and transformed Marx; extending and improving the mythic kernels within the ideological narratives, and then discarding the ideology.  (Parenthetically, Young only mentions Marx twice in ORIGINS.) Where Young focuses on an opposition between order and chaos, Bataille focuses on one between practical work and sensuous play. Here's Bataille's take, hopefully just One More Time:

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.
Bataille was neither Kantian nor Jungian. However, his schema allows for a much broader, much more pluralistic vision of religion's genesis than Young's does-- though I might critique Bataille for also seeing religion as dominantly repressive.  In primitive societies as in modern ones, religion has a double power, to liberate or to enslave-- as much as do any political systems, or artistic credos, or pretty much anything human beings can devise. As a quick example, what if early religions evolved not at attempts at societal control, but out of shamans' claims to be able to heal people and guide the tribes toward good game? One would not necessarily have to believe that such shamans had supernormal powers, but even the illusion of being able to manipulate good fortune might have proved more persuasive to hard-living, practical-minded primitives than an appeal to primeval guilt complexes.

Young's term "lawlines," though, works as an image that mediates between Bataille's concepts of "the taboo" and "the transgression." The Judeo-Christian mind tends to think of the "taboo thing" as something that must not be violated, but the primitive mind, Bataille claimed, knows that only through its violation does the taboo become significant for us.  Thus, one can imagine a "lawline" that is drawn from the initial presentation of a static, taboo situation, to the dynamic status that ensues after the taboo has been broken. Thus, the violation of the Tree in Eden results in the world of toil and labor, but also of the whole history of the Jewish people. Admittedly, some dynamic situations are more horrific than heroic. In THE BACCHAE King Pentheus tries to protect his kingdom from the ecstasies of Dionysus, and his hubris only leads him to be reduced to the status of a hunted animal, albeit not one consumed for his flesh, at least in the play.

I propose that any kind of literature, escapist or realistic, requires conflict, and that conflict springs from violating "lawlines" of one kind or another, though they may deal more with expectation than with matters of cultural jurisprudence.  In the next essay on this topic, I'll demonstrate this theory with reference to the same examples used in THE WORK AND PLAY MIX-A-LOT.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

CREATIVE DIFFERENTIATIONS

“I interviewed Stan Lee three or four years ago for a magazine, and Stan’s like my hero. I was interviewing him, and he just brought up in the middle of it, he said, “What is wrong with you guys?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “Why do you want to do my characters instead of creating your own?” I was like, “That’s quite an interesting point, and I hadn’t really thought about it. I didn’t get into comics to create characters; I got into comics to write Superman or Spider-Man and all that kind of stuff.” And he says, “I grew up reading Tarzan and Superman and Batman, but I went off and created Spider-Man and the Hulk. Why do you want to play with the old toys?” It was a real moment for me. I just thought, “Shit. In pop-culture terms, how weird would it be if I was to reject all the characters?” That’s a gap in the market, essentially. ”--Mark Millar quoting Stan Lee in this interview.

I discovered this quote through a secondary source, this BEAT post, It's certainly conceivable that Stan said something like this, as he's not exactly known for his overall consistency.  I remember seeing him speak at a local convention from either the late 1970s or early 1980s, when the Claremont X-Men had just started to get popular with fans. When Lee was asked some question about the New X-Men, I recall him saying something like, "I don't know what was wrong with the original characters, but I guess these new ones are OK."  It was one of the few times I ever saw him express some feeling that he might have been in some way disappointed to see the new creators not follow the original setups of the Marvel Universe. Usually when fans asked Stan about current developments at Marvel, or about film/TV translations, he would plead ignorance of what was going on. This was probably true for the most part, though this posture also allowed him to avoid antagonizing the Marvel establishment with possibly unflattering remarks.

The quote from the Millar interview takes the opposite tack, expressing incredulity that anyone would want to "play with the old toys." On two levels, this statement strikes me as somewhat disingenuous, going by the definition, "pretending that one knows less about something than one really does."

First, I doubt that Stan wasn't flattered, back in the day, by meeting young fans who liked his characters enough to want to continue their adventures. From a pure business standpoint, it certainly worked out for him that Roy Thomas got even more deeply into Marvel continuity than Lee himself was, since Thomas indubitably had a knack for what Lee was doing and could produce material that furthered the sense of an ongoing "universe" of loosely connected events. But I'd imagine that it was stimulating on a personal level as well, in contrast to his encounters with professionals who could learn the Marvel style and reproduce it, but had no outstanding passion for the continuity-- as I would judge to be the case with other 1960s Marvel-scripters like O'Neil, Skeates and Goodwin.




Second, Stan is certainly enough of a businessman to know that one of the principal reasons for creators to continue other peoples' characters is because they have been proven to sell, at least under certain circumstances. Lee certainly made the editorial decision to revive the 1940s Captain America in the 1960s, even though an earlier revival in the early 1950s had failed to be lucrative.  Still, Lee may have remembered that failure, for although the Captain made his first Marvel appearances as a member of the Avengers, his first Marvel feature didn't regularly take place in the 1960s milieu, but frequently sported "flashback" adventures taking place during WWII. True, this could have come about simply because Jack Kirby wanted to do more WWII stories, but IMO it's more likely that Lee wasn't entirely confident about the power of a WWII hero to enthrall 1960s audiences.



The 1960s version of the Human Torch was not a direct revival as Captain America was. Still, though the Silver Age Human Torch appears as part of the Fantastic Four ensemble, there's not much question that his creators hoped to tap into the current audience by invoking the same fiery thrills that had sold to audiences of the Golden Age. No one ever saw Stan Lee reviving flop characters like the Red Raven; that would become the raison d'etre of Roy Thomas, who never met a Golden Age character he didn't want to revive. Further, it's certainly no coincidence that the Silver Age Torch was the first Fantastic Four character to be spun off into his own feature, suggesting that Lee was hoping that the character could grab a supportive audience on his own, even though the Golden Age Torch had also failed in his early 1950s revival.

So "playing with old toys" has distinct advantages in a financial sense, and in some cases, it can even be rewarding in an aesthetic sense for the fans. Much as I enjoy the classic Captain America tales of the war years, most of them are just fair entertainment, and though there have been many bad Cap tales following the Silver Age revival, on the whole "revived Cap" has yielded a fair share of above-average stories.

On a tangential note, in the BEAT post cited above Heidi McDonald gets a little static from Tony Isabella for her light remarks on Stan's possible lack of creative influence. I've critiqued a buttload of Heidi comments here, but I found her remarks pretty harmless, compared to the know-nothing fans who would ambush Stan at conventions asking him if he'd tell the "truth," as these fans conceived it, about Jack Kirby's contributions.  Not unlike the guy in the BEAT comments-section who claims that "Jack created it all!"

Monday, January 26, 2015

CHOOSING FROM MANY MEANINGS

I've argued in JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 4 that the proper analysis of all literary stories, realistic or escapist, cannot be judged purely in terms of their ethical stance, which pertains to Jung's "principle of serious work," Thus, though Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND lacks the ethical gravitas of Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST, the two bear kinship in terms of their imaginative power and mythic resonance.

By saying this, I did not dismiss all criteria of moral-ethical judgment from consideration, and I would have no problem in stating that LIGHT IN AUGUST is a novel that is morally superior to GONE WITH THE WIND in terms of how each story deals with the topic they have in common; the American South's relationship to its African-American underclass. At the same time, this ethical judgment is not an absolute one, but one grounded in perspectivism. I've framed the perspectivist argument with respect to ethics in the LET FREEDOM RIDE series, concluding with this observation from PART 4:


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.*

Perspectivism is often confused with relativism. A relativist would say of the American slave tradition that it was only wrong to those who were oppressed by slavery, or to those who had personal reasons for opposing it; slavery would not be wrong for those who made an institution of it.  In other words, relativism says simply that there is no single meaning in any ethical statement.

A perspectivist, however, asserts multiple meanings, as Nietzsche does in THE WILL TO POWER:

In so far as the word "knowledge" has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable [emphasis in original] otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.—"Perspectivism."

This emphasis on the many ways in which ethical meaning-statements are both multiple and "interpretable" offers some similarity with the modern notion of intersubjectivity, which I've defined elsewhere on this blog.

But I'll return to my earlier statement that "the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances."  Obviously, if I validate Faulkner's view of the wrongness of the institution of slavery and its heritage, while I reject Mitchell's validation of same, I'm taking the not-at-all-risky position that American slavery was the wrong choice in the original historical set of circumstances. But in what "other set of circumstances" might an institution like slavery have been justified?

One set of conditions might be the use of slavery as a retaliation for past infractions, rather than the exploitation of a weaker opponent.  Historically slavery seems to originate as a process of taking booty during military conflicts. One tribe makes war upon another, and the winning tribe takes members of the losing tribe as chattel. If the winner is the original aggressor in the military action, then the taking of slaves would not be retaliatory in nature. However, if the original aggressor is the one who is overthrown, the taking of slaves would be defensible in that the winner may need to impress on the original aggressor-tribe the message "don't mess with us." Of course this rationale would be cold comfort if a given person were enslaved yet held no active responsibility for the aggression.  But at that level of cultural development, those are the breaks.

In recent times, the infamous "Charlie Hebdo" incident illustrates another instance of "multiple meanings."  For the magazine's editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, the purpose of satirizing Muhammad-- a satire that included portraying the religious leader's appearance-- his purpose was to remove power from Muslim terrorists by rendering their religious extremism banal, saying that, "We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism."

Obviously terrorists were not about to tolerate this strategic dismantling of their religiously cloaked ideology. Yet for many Muslims not involved in terrorism, they still regarded the satire as an insult to their religion, and some have come close to intimating that the cartoonists got what they asked for. It's likely that this defensiveness springs from a sense of cultural marginalization.

Now, whereas slavery-- whether racially based or not-- is rooted in economic exploitation, both of these positions are more in the nature of a "clash of cultural priorities."  I favor the notion that all forms of artistic expression deserve to be given complete freedom to tear down idols and ideologies, though naturally I have my own opinions as to what is or is not good satire.  I speculate that the proponents of "they asked for it" are not just defensive, they are culturally "on the defensive" and that their defense of the non-representation of Muhammad's image-- which I'm told is not unilaterally observed even in Muslim lands-- will not persevere in the face of advancing secularism.

Nevertheless, a perspectivist orientation might be able to appreciate the origins of the conflicting positions. Even though I can appreciate Charbonnier's ideology up to a point, I have my doubts that his project of banalizing any religion will yield the fullest understanding of the many meanings behind human culture.  






 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

THE WORK AND PLAY MIX-A-LOT

Before I move on to any further projects as mentioned in the last post, I want to connect another line of dots between the Jung theory of play I've been mentioning and another Jung-quote I've come back to repeatedly, his explanation of the relation of the archetypes and their content:

[The archetype's] form, however ... might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, preforms the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own. This first appears according to the specific way in which ions and molecules aggregate. The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori. The representations themselves are not inherited , only the forms, and in that respect they correspond in every way to the instincts.-- Jung, THE ARCHETYPES AND THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS, p. 79.

In JUNG LOVE FIRST LOVE I extrapolated one hypothetical way as to how the cognitive contents of a given myth might be comparable to Jung's "ions and molecules," and how they would be given orderly form via the "axial system" of said myth.  As an example I chose a non-specific, generalized example of a "sun-myth."

 In Jung's view, myth, both in its archaic and modern manifestations, is a creative response to the archetypal experience.  He opposes the idea of "myth as primitive science" advanced by E.B. Tylor and James Frazer, claiming that primitive man possesses an "imperative need... to assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events."  I agree, but with the caveat that in many instances primitive humans did look for aspects of "outer sense experiences" that were regularly replicated.  This is the sort of thing Tylor mistook for primitive science; the idea that, for instance, a story about a sun-god was an attempt to understand how the real sun worked.  

In Jung's paradigm, it's impossible to imagine a primitive trying to explain the regular motions of the sun in terms of a figure like Helios driving his chariot across the sky.  However, it would be fair to state that many of the features of the physical world that science would study in terms of their etiology-- the movement of celestial bodies, the characteristics of vegetation, et al-- were sacred clues to the nature of divine power.  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.


This attempt to prioritize the experience of emotional wonder parallels Jung's aforementioned emphasis upon imaginative play in creative work of any kind.


Not the artist alone but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy. The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable." (Jung, PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, 1921, page 63.)



The metaphor of the first statement, then, might be profitably applied to the outright second statement.  If "play" is at the center of creative endeavor in a manner analogous to the axial system that organizes the crystal, then Jung's "principle of serious work" is analogous to the molecules that physically make up the crystal.

This becomes an important metaphor because it is has long been the mistake of reflective critics to mistake the "molecules" for the entire substance.




Case in point: Freud's famous interpretation of the Oedipus myth as he and other moderns knew it through the plays of Sophocles. For the positivist psychologist, existence preceded any theoretical essence.  Thus, even though Oedipus did not know that he killed his father and married his mother, the events of the play were for Freud indicative of a universal psychological pattern related to juvenile development. This psychological pattern would be a "cognitive content" comparable to the "features of the physical world" found in archaic sun-myths. For both E.B. Tylor and Sigmund Freud, the significance of myths was that they showed archaic man reflecting, as it were, on the elements of their mundane existence and turning those elements into outrageous myth.

I would like to think that I have not fallen very far into this positivistic trap, of thinking that the cognitive content of a myth or story is the primary content. The mental effort that encodes such contents into myths and stories is a form of "work," and there's a rigorous pleasure that comes to the critic who manages to "break the codes." However, at the heart of this sort of criticism is the privileging of the cognitive over the affective that marks all phases of reflective philosophy.

Let us assume for the moment that Freud's discernment has some unquestionable relevance to a proper analysis of the literary Oedipus myth.  If so, Freud has successfully analyzed at least some of the "molecules" that make up the myth. But can one see that analysis within a greater sphere that also analyzes the axial system, the organizing principle that makes Oedipus affectively appealing?

Obviously I think that there is. With sun-myths the cognitive contents of myths about the heavenly bodies are only significant because they are stepping-stones to humankind's attitude of wonder toward the heavens. In similar fashion, cognitive psychological contents are stepping-stones to humankind's fascination with its own codes of behavior, a fascination that Bataille has so amply rendered as the relation of "the taboo" (the means by which the society orders itself in order to work efficiently) and "the transgression" (the means by which members of the society express a rebellious "free play" attitude toward the very things that make society possible).

Following this thread, the "molecules" of the Oedipus myth might indeed be those of Freud, of repressed love for the mother and hostility to the father. But the "axial system" arranging those molecules is not unique to that particular crystalline formation.

Regard this example of thwarted romantic love from FANTASTIC FOUR #1:



Now, there are many "cognitive contents" to be found within this classic comic book. The putative Oedipal complex, however, is not among them.

Nevertheless, the FF story shows a similar "taboo-and-transgression" psychological pattern. Though Lee and Kirby do not devote much space to the buried conflict between Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, Grimm's intemperate outburst-- "I'll prove to you that you love the wrong man, Susan!'-- makes it unquestionable that Lee and Kirby were rehashing a familiar trope that might be termed "two male friends fighting over the same woman." The "taboo" in this case is Sue, because she's in love  with Reed; they've even said to be engaged in the first story, though later issues of the comic quickly rewrote that status. The "transgression" is Grimm's unrequited desire for her, in defiance of both social custom and the self-evident status of the couple's relationship to one another.

It's my claim that at base this interrelationship of taboo and transgression defines the origin-story of the Fantastic Four just as much as it does the literary story of Oedipus, for all that the two stories possess radically different cognitive contents.

And this, in summation, is why it's perilous for reflective critics to presume that they have "solved" the nature of a literary narrative simply because they've found some sociological or psychological theme that they think defines the narrative or its author.  By making such reductive assumptions, they aren't validating the imaginative play-principle that Jung champions. They're just "reflecting" their own good opinions of their intellectual perspicacity, removing all joy and wonder from the story in order to concentrate on the "lessons" it supposedly teaches. (And even worse is their tendency to yield to the idea that "good works" are only those that teach the lessons that they themselves consider proper-- be they lessons of extreme liberalism, as seen in J.M. Coetzee's DISGRACE, or extreme conservatism, as seen in Thomas Dixon's CLANSMAN.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 5

In order to expand somewhat on Bataille's "two types of economic consumption," I present this quote from Bataille's 1957 book EROTISM. Keep in mind that when Bataille speaks of "violence," he's also states in the same work that he considers sexual activity to belong to a subset of violence.

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.

In Part 4  I drew parallels between the principle of play and stories of thematic escapism, as well as between the principle of work and stories of thematic realism. The author who pursues the course of thematic realism also pursues a course like the "deferred gratification" Bataille describes above. He does not just write or draw whatever gives him pleasure in "the present moment," nor does he orient his creative activity toward the "instant gratification" of his audience's desires for sensuous frenzy.  The realist represses some of the pure pleasure of creation in order to communicate some rhetorical point, though only an inferior realist allows his principle of work to subsume his principle of play.

The thematic escapist author, however, is free within the same limitations as the aforementioned "games" and "feast days." These celebratory practices unleash some of the energies of excess, though never all of them without restriction.  A tribal festival may allow a member of the tribe to eat and drink as much as he wants, and the tribe may even turn a blind eye if he enjoys a little fuckery of which society would not normally approve (I'm thinking here of Steinbeck's description of the casual liaisons that cropped up during camp-meetings ostensibly devoted to right Christian worship). But I doubt that most tribal festivals give participants the leeway to rape or kill anyone they want. Games are even more circumscribed in terms of the ways they allow players to expend their energies.

Still, "work" implies steady, productive activity while "play" implies sudden bursts of frenzied activity with no definite purpose. This suggests a parallel with the terms for the goal-affects as I finally articulated them in EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 2.  "Persistence" is the primary motivation of those who either already have a status quo existence or of those who desire that existence. "Glory," on the other hand, is the primary motivation of those devoted to abstract ideals, and who pursue those ideals beyond the bounds of personal advantage. Thus in THE ILIAD Achilles describes the choice of two contradictory fates which he, and by implication every human being, must make:

"Mother tells me,the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,that two fates bear me on to the day of death.If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,my pride, my glory dies. . . ." (Book 9).

With these parallels in mind, I return to the topic of the kinetic effects, sex and violence. PART 3 takes pains to establish that in both their pure and mixed states they can be used for purposes of *megalothymic* self-aggrandizement or of *isothymic* self-leveling. When I reviewed the four examples of pure and mixed states I listed in LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION, I determined that only the example used for "non-violent sex" could be considered entirely *megalothymic."  However, SWAMP THING #34 is just as much an example of "play for play's sake" as the other three examples. Though there is a nice rhetorical point to be made about the leveling of distinctions between human being and plant-elemental, the tenor of the story is dominated by the principle of play, by sensuous frenzy.

In Part 4 I addressed my questions about the relations of work and play to both escapist and realistic narratives, and as it happened I chose to make the common element of all four examples the political topic of Caucasian-Negro relations. But it should go without saying that the same breakdown could apply to the use of kinetic elements as easily as it does to other forms of content.

In terms of pure merit, I think that the Moore/Bissette/Totelbein "Rites of Spring" achieves as much as any "non-violent sex" story possibly could, within the sphere of a fundamentally escapist work.
However, the example I gave in the TRANSGRESSION essay for "violent sex," taken from Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, does not achieve comparable merit for this type of story.

Granted, Miller's overall story is not centrally about sex, as is the Swamp Thing story. Still, in all of the TDKSA scenes that involve Wonder Woman, Miller's consistently characterizes Wonder Woman as the ultimate frustrated female, a "bitch on the rag" if you will.




So if I had chosen to wtite PART 4 as if I were evaluating all the examples in terms of being either good or bad "play for play's sake," then that particular Moore Swamp Thing story would take the place of Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND, while that particular Miller Batman story would take the place of THE CLANSMAN.

Of course, it should go without saying that both of these authors have produced assorted good and bad works dealing with sex, violence, race and almost any other content one might seek to isolate.

It also follows that there must also exist meritorious or un-meritorious stories with any of the two pure states and the two mixed states described in TRANSGRESSION. But I doubt that I will list them all, as I conceive these essays as a prelude to a larger and more involved project, possibly to be entitled CHARTING THE LINES OF LAW.




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 4

In PART 3 of THE ONLY DEFINTION OF ART YOU'LL EVER NEED, I followed up my examination of "art as fundamental play" with this reference to Bataille:

I considered putting forth a longer definition with special reference to Bataille's "two types of economic consumption," lining up "the reality-oriented aspect of consumption, "production and acquisition" with the dynamic of work and "the desire to pointlessly but satisfyingly expend one's energies" with the dynamic of play. 

I decided not to pursue that line of thought at the time. Now I'm bringing it up again because I've been giving more thought as to the proper pluralist evaluation of the kinetic elements of sex and violence in fiction-- though this will only be developed in subsequent essays.

In the ONLY DEFINITION essay-series, I expanded on my fundamental division of all art into two realms-- that of "thematic escapism" and "thematic realism"-- with reference to Jung's assertion that all creative endeavor requires play, regardless of how much of the "principle of serious work" enters into the mix. From this standpoint the two realms took on the formulas of "play for play's sake" and "play for work's sake."

Now, contrary to some critics, defending escapist narratives is not the same as defending bad narratives. Both realist and escapist narratives can be good or bad, but when they are bad, it is not with reference to one another, but on their own respective terms.

Superior narratives of "thematic realism," a.k.a,, "play for work's sake"-- are what most people would call "good literature." Such stories almost if not always have a moral or aesthetic point to convey, one that aligns with Jung's "serious work" principle. But the best "realist art" can make its rhetorical points without losing the dimension of creative play.  Faulkner's 1932 novel LIGHT IN AUGUST and Coetzee's 1999 novel DISGRACE both take as their subjects the evils of Caucasians abusing Negroes (sorry, there's no other established word that takes in both African Americans and Black Africans).  But Faulkner's novel contains great imagination and creative fertility, while DISGRACE is, well, a disgrace in that respect.  I only have space for a very simplified comparison. Faulkner's "Southern Gothic" exposes the absolute dependence of the then-modern South on the demonization of the black underclass, but makes it part and parcel of their existence, while Coetzee presents a South African scenario whose brilliant insight never goes beyond this Wiki-statement: that its protagonist "is a white South African male in a world where such men no longer hold the power they once did."

I choose to reduce the nature of inferior "thematically realistic" narratives to the following formula: such narratives suffer from "too much work," so much so that the rhetoric overpowers the principle of creative play.

Superior narratives of "thematic escapism," a.k.a. "play for play's sake," have a more involved relationship to the principle of serious work. In these stories the principle of work does not bond with the principle of play as in the previous form. It is always the nature of thematically escapist works to provide a vacation from morals and rigor. Yet the work-principle does have a decided influence on the quality of a "play for play's sake" narrative.

What does the realistic theme of "white sins against black people" look through the lens of thematic escapism? Well, an escapist story can express roughly the same sentiments as the Faulkner and Coetzee novels cited above, but the rhetoric will generally remain superficial because the narrative is predominantly focused upon fanciful content. A well-known example in the realm of comic books would be LOIS LANE #121.  Thus in this tale veteran white journalist Lois Lane temporarily transforms herself into a black woman so that she can see how the "other color" lives. I don't doubt that this story was well-intentioned, but to say the least it lacks the *gravitas* of even a bad literary novel like DISGRACE.



I provide this example only to illustrate the point about political affiliations; it isn't fair to compare a short comic book story with two prose novels. For that reason, and to provide a validation of my criterion that one can find "good play" even in novels with bad ideas, my contrary examples are Margaret Mitchell's 1936 GONE WITH THE WIND and Thomas Dixon's THE CLANSMAN.  Some may regard this a flawed comparison, because I must admit that I have not read the Dixon novel. I only know the CLANSMAN story from the famous film BIRTH OF A NATION, which was technically an adaptation of the play Dixon wrote from his own novel. Nevertheless, from what I've read the film is generally an accurate representation of the author's ideology.

Both CLANSMAN and GONE WITH THE WIND are primarily concerned with presenting an idealized view of the American South and its pro-slavery ethic, and any story-elements that might detract from that ideal are either ignored or dismissed.  Yet the aesthetic failure of Dixon's story is not that it holds stupid political views; it is that it has nothing else to offer. Dixon reportedly despised both Harriet Beecher Stowe's views and her novel, but he seems to have learned nothing from his predecessor about how to create appealing characters that can persuade the target audience into at least a consideration of the author's rhetoric. It's a mark of D.W. Griffith's genius that Dixon's paper-thin characters become vital when they're depicted by a master of the cinematic art.

Mitchell's ideal, in contrast, is not just a superficial paean to the South: for many readers, it is the South. I've mentioned in this essay that GONE WITH THE WIND lacks the affects of the sublime, but that lack doesn't take anything from Mitchell's amazing ability to create characters who can seem well-rounded even though they may appear for no more than a paragraph or two.  Ironically, though Dixon actually experienced the Old South and Mitchell did not, Mitchell succeeds in putting across her fantasized ideal because the people inhabiting it possess the vitality needed to make it seem real.

Now, since I'm downgrading Dixon for over-dependence on his concept of "serious work," that might sound like CLANSMAN, like DISGRACE, could be guilty of the same fault: that of "too much work." On the contrary, though, CLANSMAN suffers from "too little work"; of Dixon's inability to provide the verisimilitude that could make his characters come alive, even in the service of a poorly reasoned ethic.  Mitchell doesn't consciously pattern her characters on literary archetypes, but she knows how to invoke such figures as the whore, the Madonna, the scapegrace, and the vixen with enough verisimilitude that they seem to be real people. This apparent grounding in reality provides the "decided influence" I mention above. Play is the dominant mode of both GONE WITH THE WIND and THE CLANSMAN, but only GONE WITH THE WIND puts any work into the game-- and as some may have noticed, often the best games are those on which the players exert the most effort.

Hmm, I worked in Bataille this time, but nothing on goal-affects. Maybe next time.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 3

I suppose that the main reason I felt the impetus to expatiate on the differences between my goal-affect theory and Fukuyama's "thymotic theory" is that PART 1  deals with the relationships of fictional sex and violence, and because I've defined *megalothymia* and *isothymia* as being dominantly aligned with violence and sex, respectively, as in the 2009 essay VIOLENCE *AIN'T* NUTHIN' BUT SEX MISSPELLED PART 2:

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other, though in rare cases fighters may simply spar with no intent of proving thymotic superiority.

However, though I'm sure I've emphasized, possibly to the point of tedium, that art should not be gauged in terms of what Jung called "the principle of serious work," I may not have made clear that fictional sex and violence are not as easily assignable to the two thymotic categories as are their real counterparts.

The example of "non-violent sex" cited in LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION-- SWAMP THING #34-- certainly does represent *isothymia* at its finest. Over the course of previous issues the ongoing association of Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane has caused them to fall in love. Once they've acknowledged that love, Swamp Thing wants them to enjoy the closest thing they can to sexual interaction. Abby eats a tuber grown from Swamp Thing's mossy back. The result is that the differences of human and plant are transcended as their spirits intertwine in a metaphysical version of Bataille's "sensuous frenzy."




However, in fiction "non-violent sex" does not exclude all possibilities of *megalothymia.* 

The Superman-Lois Lane relationship is so iconic that it's frequently become a target for its alleged anti-feminist qualities, as discussed in more detail here.  This discussion does not touch on sex as such, since it was a given that the Superman comics could not allude to sexuality beyond lingering looks and the occasional lip-lock-- though in WORLD'S FAIR COMICS #1, Superman does get an interesting "ride."




As I don't have a scanner I'm relegated to description of the rest. Superman, who will often complain of Lois getting on his back in a purely figurative sense, finds that the lady reporter had literally grabbed hold of him. When she won't remove herself, he does a somersault. She isn't dislodged exactly, but the next panel shows her no longer holding him, as she says, "That was fun, let's do it again!" This is probably the closest that a juvenile-oriented publication could come to showing a man and woman enjoying a good sensuous frenzy, though Superman is rather disoriented by Lois' ardor and quickly flees the premises.  

Silver Age SUPERMAN stories have, with some justice, drawn some criticism for portraying the Superman-Lois romantic relationship as one in which the male uses guile rather than violence to assert his will over the female, usually with the excuse of "teaching her a lesson" to correct her feminine snoopiness and self-assertiveness. Granted, this are stories about "romance," not "sex," but it's not hard to imagine how the same deceptiveness could be employed in more explicit situations.




At the same time, though Mort Weisinger would never win any awards for gender equity, he was too savvy an entertainer not to change things up a bit from time to time, so that the girls-- with whom the female readers would presumably identify-- could win one.



In both of these stories, Superman and his prospective girlfriends trick and deceive one another to gain the upper hand.  I define this sort of story as an entirely non-violent manner of seeking *megalothymia* in a sexually based relationship, for all that there is no sex as such.  Stories like this are worth considering as a corrective to the Wertham-ite notion that violence is the best indicator of the human desire for dominance.  Again, both sex and violence possess such propensities, falling in line with my earlier expressed maxim, "Might makes ego."

In PART 2 I said that I would review the goal-affects with resort to Bataille, but that will have to wait for PART 4.




Thursday, January 15, 2015

JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 2

To the best of my ability to remember a stray thought from a year and half ago, here's what I've come up with regarding the following:

I have some thoughts as to how these categories of goal-affect might relate to Frank Fukuyama's categories of "thymos:" *megalothymia* and *isothymia.*  But these will be elaborated in a separate essay.

Since the goal-affects I've formulated are "glory," which I usually associate with competition, and "persistence," which I usually associate with cooperative existence, I may have been on the verge of making the comparisons of "glory= megalothymia" and "persistence=isothymia." It should go without saying that I always apply such formulas primarily to art and literature, though that's not to say that they lack any parallels to "real life."

But I'm glad I didn't make such a one-on-one comparison, because the categories are too complex for such parallelism.

Fukuyama introduces his terms as an analysis of the broad motivations behind human actions, pointing out that *thymos,* "spiritedness," can arise in comparable ways from the attempt of an individual to exceed others or from the attempt of an individual to promote others to obtain rights, privileges, etc., that others enjoy.  Fukuyama, as I've stipulated before, says nothing about applying these motivations to the creators of art and literature; all of these extrapolations are mine.

In contrast, while I grounded my concepts of the goal-affects "glory" and "persistence" in philosophical observations about "real life" as formulated by Hobbes and Schopenhauer, I formulated these categories for the purpose of analyzing literary constructs.  Such constructs have a logic that is often extrapolated from real experience but has its roots in the freedom of the mind from reality, as I asserted in LET FREEDOM RIDE PT. 4:

...art is fundamentally about play, even when that play is turned to the purpose of utilitarian work.

Fukuyama, though he's oriented upon the realities of political life, shows an admirable understanding of the many-faceted nature of his categories.  *Megalothymia* can manifest both in the concert pianist seeking to be "the best" through competition with his equals, but it can also manifest in a tyrant like Stalin or Pol Pot, whose ideas of "excellence" are confined to slaughtering hordes of defenseless peoples to intimidate the living. *Isothymia* can manifest as Nelson Mandela going to jail for years to promote equal standards for Black Africans, but it can also manifest in "men without chests," endlessly prating about "equity" regardless of any other considerations.

Now, literary constructs must and will reflect all these facets, but their behavior is an extension of their authors' will; they reflect what they consider good or bad. In a strange way, literary characters are "un-free" so that their audiences may obtain a wider understanding of the nature of freedom (also discussed in the previous citation).

Thus audiences can admire how well a given character, even if he or she is evil, incarnates a particular goal-affect. I devoted this essay to specifying the different ways in which the villainous Fu Manchu and the monstrous Victor Frankenstein incarnate the affects of "glory" or of "persistence" respectively. The same essay also references differing goal-affects in characters who are meant to be dominantly sympathetic: the respective ensembles of the TV shows LOST IN SPACE ("persistence") and THE LOST WORLD ("glory.")  An overly politicized critic could foolishly align both of the negative figures with the negative aspect of *megalothymia,* because they kill or tyrannize, and the teleseries-heroes with the positive aspect of *isothymia,* because these heroes are sometimes seen protecting the weak or innocent. However, that would be a correlation informed too much with the very sort of "either-or" utilitarianism to which my system is opposed.

Having shown some ways in which Fukuyama and the goal-affect theory do not correlate, the next essay will consider a Bataillean approach to the goal-affects.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

JOINED AT THE TRIP

I wrote my essay-series A REALLY LONG DEFINITION OF VIOLENCE in part to take issue with a critic's overly politicized concept of violence, but inevitably it touched also on such favorite concepts as Kant's "might," Fukuyama's "thymotics," and Bataille's "sensuous frenzy," as seen in PART 3:

It is sensible, then, to see violent activity-- as well as sexual activity, to which the former is inextricably linked, if only in a cultural sense-- as a subset of a larger set comprising "all forms of activity/might."

Saying that the activities are "inextricably linked," however, does not mean that they can't be discerned as separate phenomena, much as one can discern that light is both wave and particle. I devoted the 2010 essay LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION to four examples of comic-book art showing respectively (1) erotic violence, (2) non-erotic violence, (3) non-violent sex, and (4) violent sex.

Keeping these distinctions in mind, then, I will admit that when I made this statement in PART 3, I was probably thinking largely of "non-erotic violence" and "non-violent sex" as theoretically pure states of each phenomenon when I made the following statement in PART 3:

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other...

By the schema above, both phenomena do have "impure states," and logically it follows that those states will not be easily attributable to either megalothymia or isothymia, though all four states would be included under the rubric of Kantian "might."  I should note that sex, even when not coupled with violence, can be used as a form of non-violent yet still coercive "persuasion," much in the same way money works (see discussion in PART 3).

So though sex in its pure state does not involve competition in the same manner as does violence, it manifests "might" no less than does violence-- though, as I commented in PART 3, most critics tend to think of "might" and "violence" as the same thing.

In my next few essays, I'll devote some time to pursuing a line of thought left fallow since this essay from June 2013:

I have some thoughts as to how these categories of goal-affect might relate to Frank Fukuyama's categories of "thymos:" *megalothymia* and *isothymia.*  But these will be elaborated in a separate essay.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

TAKING STOCK OF 2014

In the early years of this blog I didn't trouble much about "first posts of each year." But I did so at the beginning of 2014, so I might as well ring in the new year in the same manner.

From my admittedly biased POV, 2014 was an important year in filling in some important elements of my literary theory.  If my "big discovery" of 2013 was my slow determination was that Kant's "dynamic sublime" did not adequately explain all aspects of the fictional sublime, a.k.a. "the sense of wonder," then for 2014 it was my chance exposure to Roy Bhaskar's work on scientific phenomenology. As described in this essay, Bhaskar's work proved helpful in guiding me away from the influence of C.S. Lewis and his persuasive but ultimately unrewarding meditation on probability. In the same essay I suggested a new refinement for the methods by which the phenomenalities of "the uncanny" and "the marvelous" appeal to the wonder-seeking audience.


Now I would rephrase [the above] to say that the combinatory-sublime arises rather from the transgression upon the reader's expectations in terms of intelligibility and regularity. DIRTY HARRY, a naturalistic work which conforms to general expectations regarding intelligibility and regularity, has its own proper level of mythicity but is not likely to inspire a high level of the combinatory-sublime because of said conformity. ENTER THE DRAGON conforms to expectations regarding regularity but not intelligibility; being "anti-intelligible," it has a higher potential to arouse the combinatory-sublime. And STAR WARS, which violates both intelligibility and regularity, has the greatest mythicity of the three in reality, as well as the greatest potential for symbolic combinations and thus for the combinatory-sublime.

Now, 2015 may bring even further refinements> But if I'm correct in thinking that Bhaskar's terminology has provided me with a firmer ground for the NUM theory that I ever derived from Lewis, Cassirer, or Todorov, then the question arises: is there an efficient way to communicate the theory of the combinatory-sublime to the actual seekers of wonder, the readers of horror, fantasy and science fiction?

That it represents my own responses to the joys of metaphenomenal art goes without saying. But the proof of the theory is, at least partially, to be found in practice.  I would expect that some readers of metaphenomenal literature would be somewhat more approachable to analyzing their responses in philosophical terms. They might not be up on all the Burke and Kant stuff, but a simple essay dealing with what makes marvelous images appealing-- something along the lines of COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS PT. 3-- might be one avenue of approach to the more bookish of the book-readers.

As for fans of fantasy-movies or fantasy-comics-- I have a feeling such analytical ruminations would not be to their taste. Whenever I've put forth feelers on such subjects on forums devoted to popular media, I almost get the feeling that these fantasy-fans have allowed their dominant culture to define the metaphenomenal experience for them, as with, "I know it's fantasy, but I like it anyway." Unfortunately this admission can lead anti-fantasists to accuse said fans of practicing simple "negative compensation," which I've attempted to refute here repeatedly.

It may be that one of my impending projects for 2015 may yield a better forum for these insights than one among a thousand blogs.  We shall see.