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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...

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


  1. A child living is in esse, but before birth is only in posse.-- from Your Dictionary's definition of *in esse.*
I should qualify one aspect of my recent screed against the ideological critics who so often cry "fascist" against superheroes, "crime comics," or whatever they find ideologically suspect. Though I think that Frye's "wall of play" usually throws a veil of unreality over popular fiction's usages of violence, there may be cases where the ideological critic's tendency to "cry fascist" may luck onto the real thing.

In my essay TORTURED, PROSAICALLY, I largely defended the trope of inquisitorial torture from the usual attacks on it, but noted two exceptions, in which the television programs 24 and HAWAII 5-O indulged in the trope purely for the sake of showing the hero in the position of doling out violence without restraint. These shows were in part bad because there was no sense that the authorities involved might face any consequences for their actions, and in part because they were, in Sadean terms, stupid and unimaginative. At least when a Mickey Spillane hero tortures someone, there's a sort of brain-fevered fascination with the act itself, and I've often thought that Spillane's ideological posturings were just an excuse to bring about retributive violence. In other words, Spillane, like Sade, esteemed violence for its own sake, not as a means for preserving the police state.

Now, given that I myself unleashed the *in posse, in esse* distinction in this essay, I wondered whether or not this logic could apply in any degree to the argument of the ideological critics cited in WORKING VACATIONS.  Naturally, Adorno, Wertham and the rest don't admit of any exceptions in their characterizations of the American pop-hero. Superman, Sherlock Holmes and Donald Duck (that one's from Adorno) are fascist power-fantasies *in posse,* and they never had the option of being anything else.

I prefer the reverse formula. Batman always employs violence and occasionally utilizes torture, but as long as that "wall of play" is there, he's only a fascist *in esse.* Frank Miller's twist on the theme, in which Batman quite obviously enjoys inflicting pain ("The scream alone is worth it"), plays a darker form of the pulp-hero game as articulated by Bill Finger and his contemporaries, but there is, in my opinion, still a sense of freewheeling fantasy in the mix.

Given the philosophy I've expressed here, is it possible for Batman to be a fascist *in posse*?" I would say yes, though the only story known to me that comes close to being an overt jeremiad is Andrew Vacchs' heavy-handed BATMAN; THE ULTIMATE EVIL, in which the Caped One goes on a crusade against child pornography-- but even this doesn't seem quite as much of an advertisement for the benefits of a police state as the aforementioned 24 and HAWAII 5-O.

My conclusion, then, is that *in posse* fascism is a possibility within popular fiction, but in contrast to the insistence of the ideological critics, it's a rare phenomenon, and occurs only when the creator of the character forgets that he's playing a literary game, and enters the mental state of someone who's using fiction as a means to promote particular means and ends.

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.

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."


I try not to comment often if at all on the HOODED UTILITARIAN site. If I responded to everything said there, I'd never have time for my own stuff, and I'm almost certain my efforts to score points there would prove futile. Thus from my POV the site would be more appropriately named FUTILITARIAN.

Still, every once in a while I get the itch to argue. And on occasion, I happen across some post that illustrates the huge philosophical gulf between the speculative mode of philosophy (that's me) and the reflective mode (that's them), first discussed here in this 2013 essay.  As a result of my latest UTE-post, I gained new evidence for the theory that the biggest gulf between the two modes is that the former is based in a long-term investigation of human nature, while the latter is strictly concerned with the short-term effectiveness of rhetoric regarding current issues.

The remark that moved me to argument wasn't even by the author of the main essay, but by a commentator associated with the site (NB helpfully provides copious links for anyone who cares to investigate said history, but I'm not obliged to follow their careers any more than they are mine.) I choose not to comment on any other position taken by commentator J. Lamb, only upon what I consider the absurdity of Lamb's remark in the comments-section.

Noah and I participated in a Twitter discussion yesterday where fans of increased race diversity among superheroes lamented my idea that the superhero concept is inherently White, and therefore inappropriate for substantive, authentic non-White characterizations. The conversation reminded me that many superhero comic fans could care less about substantive, authentic Blackness when reading or watching superhero media — they just want someone who looks like them in the role of the Hero. They want to appropriate the fantasy, without questioning it’s logic.

Though I knew that it would be pointless to challenge someone so enchanted with his own empty rhetoric, I posted in response:

Alternately, they [these fans Lamb references, who are implicitly "people 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.
But if you think, along with Barthes, that the only type of stories you think “people of color” can tell are about their being stigmatized as “people of color,” then I guess you’re welcome to that belief.

Not surprisingly, Lamb would not acknowledge that his essential argument was voiced by Barthes. That may be because he doesn't know Barthes but has picked up the same basic idea from another source, or it may be that he just didn't want to detract from his own rhetoric. Anyone who cares to delve into this farrago can read his three responses-- I'll deal with Noah Bertlatsky's in a separate essay-- but the closest Lamb gets to responding to my original point is this:

The appeal of the superhero concept is not relevant when discerning the racial nature of the superhero concept. People of color far and wide enjoy media that lampoons and denigrates them; corporate hip hop would not exist if rappers who used anti-Black racial epithets in their music faced boycotts from the Black community.

I note also in this post that he repeats his pet theory that "Superheroes require Whiteness to operate," which he might believe that he has justified elsewhere, but which remains little more than special pleading here.

I note in passing that in these posts Lamb consistently denigrates those who don't buy into his concept of Blackness. These fans, he tells us, "could care less about substantive, authentic Blackness" and are willing to "enjoy media that lampoons and denigrates them." In simpler terms, they are sell-outs for wanting to "appropriate the fantasy." To care about "substantive, authentic Blackness," then, would be signaled by a refusal to be implicated in White Fantasies, whatever one conceives them to be, in an act of cognitive albeit not literal separatism.

This line of reasoning perfectly illustrates the mode of short-term rhetorical orientation. If persons from your own ingroup aren't on board with your separatist "logic," then it's because they're "inauthentic." Lamb doesn't use the term "brainwashed," but he would entirely in line with related Marxist arguments about authenticity if he did.

Now, my view of Blackness is that it is secondary to Black People, much in the way that the Sabbath was made for Man, rather than the other way round. I define myself as a true Liberal, and for me the mark of a white Liberal is that if he has had any Black Friends, he'll never tell you about them-- unlike both Ultraliberals and Ultraconservatives, who can't shut up about their supposed racial validation. I will say that I have had Black Acquaintances, and that I don't think them "inauthentic" because they buy into the superhero fantasy-- which, as I copiously pointed out in the discussion, is not some sort of germ that can be isolated from other germs upon the plate of a microscope slide. The chance to have one's own race, religion or ethnicity represented within the sphere of popular entertainment should be deemed as much a fundamental right as the right to vote.

Lamb, like Berlatsky, chooses to define the superhero genre narrowly, not only by separating it from all other genres in a wholly artificial fashion, but as a White Fantasy. This must be why "the appeal of the superhero concept is not relevant when discerning the racial nature of the superhero concept." By implication this is because such discernment can only be done by someone who has accepted Lamb's "logic" on "racial nature," and those persons of color who find the concept appealing are inauthentic and illogical because they don't appreciate just how goddamned White their Fantasy is. If they did, they would presumably be as hip as Lamb about how the media "lampoons and denigrates them"-- a conclusion Lamb supports with a scattered selection of comics stories he didn't like, mostly involving Luke Cage. I'm tempted to explore the early 1970s run of the title to see if there's any justification for these complaints, but I feel sure that even if Cage were a more positive role model in those years, Lamb would not see that as a negation of all the lampoons and denigrations he perceives.

As I said in the comments, my mention of tribal myths was advanced only to provide a grounding for my hypothesis regarding universal right. Few persons, if any, would assert that Black Africans don't have the right to articulate their own myths at the tribal level, as much as do tribal Europeans.  It follows, then, that when a nation evolves into a plurality of ethnicities, then every ethnicity still has the right to elaborate hero-myths of a modern commercial nature, whether those myths take "literary" or "subliterary" forms. If such a nation evolves so that one ethnicity (narrowly defined though terms like "White" and "Black" may be) is numerically ascendant, creators can either seek to formulate heroes that speak only to their own ethnicity, and thus sacrifice any shot at the "appeal" Lamb scorns, or they can formulate heroes who appeal across racial and ethnic divides.  Either is a choice that may come with undesirable consequences.

Unlike J, Lamb, I won't claim that only one of the choices can be right.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


This week I finally got around to reading Jill Lepore's 2014 book THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN. Prior to reading it, I'd heard only a few vague comments to the effect that the author had used the story of Wonder Woman's genesis as an excuse for tub-thumbing the history of American feminism.

This is essentially true. But this need not have been a strike against Lepore's book. Gerald Jones' 2005 MEN OF TOMORROW manages to talk to address the greater culture of America within which Superman and some of his Golden Age contemporaries were created, and at the same time, he manages to show how the character's mythos grew within the published comics: the evolution of Superman's powers, his relationship with Lois Lane, the utilization of kryptonite, and so on.

Unfortunately, the only facets of Wonder Woman's stories that interest Lepore are those that mirror items from the biography of creator William Moulton Marston, his collaborators ("co-wives" Sadie Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne), or from the feminist literature that had arisen in the early 20th century. If one knew nothing about Wonder Woman's mythos upon starting the book, one's knowledge would be only minimally augmented.

That's not to say that I don't respect the huge amount of research Lepore devoted to the cultural matrices within which Marston conceived his famous character. The author devoted considerable time to the "First Wave" of American feminism and to conservative resistance to this agenda, which included Marson's alma mater Harvard University. Although Lepore could have become bogged down in pointless detail, in my view she keeps just the right amount of minutiae on the people who influenced Marston's intellectual and academic development-- though I suppose some might find fault with the name-dropping of figures only tangentially associated with that development. For instance, William James is mentioned simply because he headed Harvard's nascent psychology department, not because he directly influenced Marston.

Most often, the trivia Lepore rescues is interesting, as when she mentions that Marston briefly worked for Carl Laemmle right at the point when Universal Studios began converting from silent to sound films. True, Marston's involvement in classic Universal horror films was probably confined to making psychological analyses of test-audiences, but Marston's involvement in these early forms of film-fantasy may have contributed to his use of the grotesque in WONDER WOMAN comics.

A much heftier "big name drop" is that of Margaret Sanger, lifelong advocate of birth control and aunt of Olive Byrne, who both lived with Marston and his wife Sadie and bore two of his children, though the public fiction was that they were the offspring of Marston and his legal wife. Sanger admittedly has little influence on the creation of Wonder Woman, even as a philosophical influence on Marston and his family of collaborators. Still, since I've often heard her name linked with an American eugenics movement, I was intrigued to read Lepore's take on it: that Sanger only courted these hardcore conservatives as a means of legalizing contraception. Still, her success there was limited, since she founded an organization called the American Birth Control League, yet ended up being forced to resign from it since the conservative members didn't care for her feminist priorities. I can't help remarking that this would not be the first time a liberal feminist would ally herself to a strangely conservative bedfellow, as per Andrea Dworkin's praise of Jerry Falwell's stance on pornography.

It's perhaps inevitable that it takes Lepore a long time to get around to saying anything much about
Wonder Woman, because Marston wasn't precisely devoted to the profession of creating superhero-like fantasies. Marston had a very peripatetic career, bouncing around from academia to book-writing to seeking practical applications for his most famed invention prior to Princess Diana: the lie-detector. Still, Lepore, despite having had access to many of Marston's personal papers, never gets close to the emotional core of her main biographical subject. Perhaps that's because Marston, as much as his famous character, is secondary in Lepore's mind to her exegesis of American feminism. The one thing that emerges is the sense that if Marston had been successful in any of his earlier endeavors, he probably would not have ended up getting involved with the world of comic books. Lepore sedulously cites the ways in which Marston's bondage fantasies may have grown out of his observation of collegiate hazing, and how he fought to keep those fantasies in the adventures of Wonder Woman, despite the protestations of DC editor Sheldon Mayer.  Yet one never gets any speculation as to why such fantasies were so important to Marston, though Lepore isn't averse to psychologizing him on other matters-- nor whether or not Marston was right or wrong to place such fantasies within the context of juvenile entertainment.

My biggest criticism of Lepore, however, isn't her omission of the Amazon Princess' mythology. It's that she doesn't dole out her criticism of historical figures with an even hand.

For instance, Lepore informs us that DC's psychological consultant Josette Frank allegedly quit the company because she couldn't stand Marston's bondage fantasies. Yet another contemporaneous consultant, Lauretta Bender, had no problem with said fantasies. Lepore makes no judgment of either woman's tastes.

Yet Lepore DOES find time to assail the reputations of two DC comics creators. She can't find time to actally say much about Wonder Woman's origins, or powers, or villains, but she can roundly condemn the way the character was relegated to the role of secretary in the Justice Society. With no proof whatever, Lepore attributes this development solely to longtime comics-scribe Gardner F. Fox, apparently with the belief that Fox was free to treat DC's characters however he pleased, rather than being under the aegis of his editors. This was a straw-man attack on Fox, as proved by the research of fan-essays like this one, indicating that the minimization of the heroine's role in the Justice Society probably came about because Marston demanded control of all WW stories. As a fan of the work of Gardner Fox, I would say that on the whole most of his work supports the cause of empowered heroines, and that whatever he did with Wonder Woman in the JSA title is most likely the result of editorial priorities.

Lepore is on somewhat stronger ground in painting Robert Kanigher-- the man who eventually took over writing and editing the WONDER WOMAN franchise after Marston's demise-- as being less than passionate about the character. While I can't claim to have read all of his stories with the character, in general  I would certainly agree that WONDER WOMAN was nothing but a paycheck to Kanigher. Yet, Lepore oversells the idea that Kanigher was an unregenerate anti-feminist, conveniently overlooking that he has some strong credits in creating comic-book heroines, ranging from 1947's BLACK CANARY to 1970's ROSE AND THE THORN. Both Kanigher and Fox deserve the role of "anti-feminist reactionary" far less than Frederic Wertham, who viciously berated the Wonder Woman character as "anti-feminine." Lepore might have drawn comparisons between Wertham and many of the other anti-feminists she discusses in the early part of the book, given that Wertham also wanted images of women to reflect domesticity. But Wertham, like Frank and Bender, gets a pass for some reason.

Given that Lepore devotes so little attention to Wonder Woman's mythology, save where it illustrates some point of real-world history, I suppose a better title might have been "The Secret BACKSTORY of Wonder Woman"-- because a "history" it ain't.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


“To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” 
― Walter PaterThe Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry

In Part 3 I invoked the model of Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS to illustrate, among other things, why not every narrative that ends in violence falls into the "combative mode." I did not address the potential question, "why is it important, whether or not a given scene of fictional violence fulfills a particular set of literary values?"

The Walter Pater quote above speaks to the reason: what I've called the "combative mode" is an academic way of speaking about an archetypal construct, one that, in my view, is capable of stirring from at least some readers the response of a "hard, gemlike flame" of ecstasy. Myth-analyst Joseph Fontenrose termed this construct "the combat myth" with regard to archaic myths only. I imagine that Fontenrose might not care for having his name bandied about with that of the archetypal psychologist Jung, but I invoke the name "combat myth" only for convenience, not to make any such conflations.

The combat myth is one of many archetypal constructs identified by Jung and other thinkers. A short list might include such storytelling favorites as "the long-separated siblings" and "the destruction of the scapegoat," and under the right circumstances these too have an equal ability to inflame the human heart with the stirrings of the sublime. But the combat myth is arguably harder to mark off from other forms of fictive violence, which is one reason I've devoted so much space here to delving into "conflict and combat."

In Part 3 I gave copious examples of merely conflictive-- a.k.a. "subcombative"-- forms of violence. I used certain Shakespeare plays as illustrations of those patterns, though of course the patterns long precede Shakespeare and his time. I might just as easily have used HENRY IV Part 1 as an example of Shakespeare's fairly rare use of the combative mode, since that play does build to the martial conflict of two high-dynamicity figures, Prince Hal and Hotspur, and concludes with the victory of the former over the latter. 

Further complicating the identification of the combative mode is the 19th century's evolution of the commercial franchise. In earlier eras, a popular story in the combative mode usually remained in that mode in further retellings, and the same usually held true for a work in the subcombative mode. But once a given franchise demonstrated popularity, other authors might adapt that franchise, or even simply "riff" on it, in ways not congruent with the original work.  In many of the reviews on my film-blog, I've devoted scrupulous attention as to whether a given adaptation or concept-riff remains in this vein.

Here's a list of works that started out as COMBATIVE but had SUBCOMBATIVE follow-ups:

The "Fu Mancu" novel series begat THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU and THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU

Conan Doyle's novel THE LOST WORLD begat the 1925 film  and the 1960 film.

Bram Stoker's DRACULA begat the slower paced 1931 film.

Marvel's Man-Thing comic begat this dull monster-movie take on the theme.

And, most strangely, Tolkien's lively book THE HOBBIT begat this 1977 animated film, which managed to purge most of the book's violent content despite following the plot fairly closely.

And as for works that start out as SUBCOMBATIVE and go the other way, we have:

Fritz Lang's original DR MABUSE and its 1960 follow-up-- the latter of which bred a whole series of combative serials.

Matheson's I AM LEGEND novel begat THE OMEGA MAN.

The 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES, based on a similarly stodgy play, was transformed into the most combative Holmes film of the classic Hollywood period.

Almost identically, Dick's short story PAYCHECK became this hyperkinetic movie.

Lewis Carroll's Alice books begat Tim Burton's 2010 effort.

The folktale "Sleeping Beauty" begat the prince-centered narrative of Disney.

The generally subcombative Sherlock Holmes stories of Doyle begat A STUDY IN TERROR and the much later Robert Downey Jr. series.

I must emphasize that a given work's tendency to emphasize the "combat myth" over other possible myths does not make it superior, nor does the reverse hold true-- though one can certainly find critics who will immediately prefer "intellectualized" myths to visceral ones, as I examined here.  But as a pluralist I look for excellence in any kind of myth. Philip Dick's ANDROIDS is not superior to BLADE RUNNER because the original de-emphasizes the combat myth, and Doyle's LOST WORLD is not superior to the 1925 film because the novel glories in violent strife.  

I'll be descanting on further subjects of an archetypal nature in my next essay-series, though from a less academic angle.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Over two years have passed since I created two essays in this series, PART 1 here and PART 2 here. I'm reviving this line of thought because even though I'm very probably the only writer trying to delve into the nature of "the combative mode," I choose to rework the schema I presented in Part 2, as to the ways in which certain narratives with the potential for that mode fail to realize it.

In Part 2 I chose to focus on the plays of William Shakespeare, partly because he is seen today as the epitome of "high culture," but only because most high-culture critics manage to ignore his thoroughgoing bloody-mindedness. I do not say that Shakespeare didn't possess the subtler qualities that have made him famous, but many critics don't appreciate how completely "the subtle" intertwines with "the gross" in the works of the Bard of Avon.

So, in part because Shakespeare is such an elitist icon, I focused on certain of his plays to illustrate my frequently made point that the potential for the combative mode is often undercut by some omission of the necessary elements, usually within the realm of "plot" or "character." The same omissions occur in many other narratives of lesser fame, many of which I've reviewed on my movie-blog, and to which reviews I'll link when applicable.

Repeating my view on Shakespeare's penchant for violence, in Part 2 I said:

Though there’s a great deal of violence and vengeance in Shakespeare, most of it does not pursue the combative mode with respect to either narrative or subjective values. 

CORIOLANUS was my choice for a play that had the potential for the significant combative value, in that its opposed characters Coriolanus and Aufidius were both portrayed as exceptional warriors seen lusting to kill each other at the play's outset.  However, because the play's plot does not end with a combat between these two well-matched characters, CORIOLANUS is not combative in the narrative sense.

Among some of the works I've reviewed on my blogs, those that lack the narrative, plot-based combative value, even though they do have the significant, character-based combative value include Rider Haggard's SHE, both H.G. Wells' novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and its 1953 adaptation, the 2002 adaptation of Philip Dick's MINORITY REPORT, and SON OF KONG, the sequel to the very combative 1933 film.

The exact opposite to this formulation is one in which there is potential in the plot but not in the characters. In MYTHOS AND MODE PART 2 I used MACBETH as an example of this situation. While I still believe my logic regarding that play holds, I think HAMLET makes a better illustration, in part because I've more recently examined that play in this essay, responding to a critic's observation that Hamlet's negativity almost made him "infectious" in his evil-thinking manner. Further, HAMLET, unlike many Bard-plays, is derived from a folklore-like story of a prince named Amlethus whose quest for vengeance is considerably less complicated than that of the melancholy Dane.

I realize that to elitist ears, even a mere reminder that HAMLET has its origin in a murderous spectacle-tale will sound like a betrayal of the play's high-minded themes. But of course, HAMLET is no less bloody for all its philosophy, and it does end with a sword-fight, even though the duel is supposed to be no more than a formal, non-fatal combat. When Hamlet agrees to duel Laertes as a mere courtly diversion, he does not know that his nemesis Claudius has conspired with Laertes to poison the latter's sword, as well as keeping a cup of poisoned wine on hand as a backup plan.

So, from a narrative, plot-based standpoint, HAMLET fulfills the combative mode. However, as I've repeatedly said, the combative mode applies only to two or more figures that possess exceptional dynamicity. Coriolanus and Aufidius certainly possess this dynamicity. But do Hamlet and Laertes? I see nothing definite to indicate that either nobleman is exceptional in his sword-fighting skills. In Act IV, scene VII, Claudius flatters Laertes by telling him that a sword-trainer named "Lamond" esteemed Laertes as a great bladesman, but the King may be shining Laertes on, trying to convince him that he's such a good fighter that it makes no difference whether or not they use poison on him. Later, in Act V Scene II, the duel has progressed to a point that Hamlet's mother Gertrude remarks of Hamlet that "he's fat [sweaty] and scant of breath." This suggess that even if Laertes might be exceptional, Hamlet may not be, and indeed he ends up killing both Claudius and Laertes through the use of Claudius' poison, not through sword-skill as such.

This lack of the significant, character-based combative value is also presented in such films as 1986's MANHUNTER, 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 2005's THE BROTHERS GRIMM, 1987's JANE AND THE LOST CITY, 1959's THE ANGRY RED PLANET, and 1961's THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN.

Finally, I've sometimes observed that even a given narrative posseeses two or more characters of exceptional dynamicity, and seems to bring them into a conflict that *might* assume a combative form, the author chooses to diffuse the confrontation in some way. My Bard-example here is TITUS ANDRONICUS. This play, a little like CORIOLANUS, deals with a conflict between a Roman nobleman, the titular Titus, and a tribal leader whose forces he has vanquished, Tamora Queen of the Goths. However, after Titus brings the captive queen back to Rome, the emperor Saturninus takes a fancy to her and makes her his queen. This gives Tamora the chance to execute a revenge-plot against Titus by having her sons rape Titus's daughter. Titus later tops her revenge-plot with his own, by killing her sons, cooking them into a pie and luring Tamora into eating it.

Now, I should add here that I'm aware that Tamora and Titus could never have dueled one another as Aufidius and Coriolanus could have. Nevertheless, had Shakespeare cared to provide such a duel, he might have arranged for a flat-out duel, say, between Titus and Saturninus. Instead, the playwright eschews combat for slaughter: after Titus reveals his one-upmanship, he stabs Tamora, Saturninus stabs Titus, and Titus's son stabs the emperor. This is more "conflictive" than the rather anti-climactic ending of CORIOLANUS, where Aufidius simply orders the Roman general to be executed. In both plays, the rejections of "combative potential" is based in plot rather than character; however, TITUS serves to illustrate the type of plot in which violence does erupt between the high-dynamicity characters at the climax, but it is violence that still does not enhance the combative value.

Examples of narratives in this subcombative mode include Philip Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, the less than bracing "battle" of Dracula and the Wolf Man in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and such giant monster-flicks as KONGA and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

More on these matters in Part 4.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Though in Part 3 I was basically in agreement with the 3-19-15 broadcast of Jon Stewart's DAILY SHOW, my opinion of the same-day airing of Larry Wilmore's show (found here) is like-- well, daily and nightly.

On this show, Larry Wilmore chose to examine the protests of nerds against supposed racial diversity. Both he and his panel-- made up, in part, of comics-pros Sana Amanat and Phil Jimenez-- chose to view the syndrome under one narrative: "Nerds Hate Change."

I wouldn't deny that this may be one reason for protests against diversity, and of course, the ultraliberal fallback, institutionalized racism, may also be a factor. But some of the things mentioned on the show fall more in line with "playing the game by established rules."

That sounds like a paean to conservatism, but it's not. It's the nature of all games that they function by somewhat arbitrary rules, which only have a nodding resemblance to reality. The game LIFE is not about life; it's about creating situations that approximate real-life scenarios.

One of the minor firestorms of the previous year was fannish opposition to the idea of a "black stormtrooper" when Disney previewed a clip showing what appeared to be such a character. Wilmore said:

“Nerds don’t have a problem with women; they have a problem with change. I’ll give you an example: Nerds are upset at black stormtroopers in the new Star Wars movie. Do they have a problem with stormtroopers being black? No. They have a problem with you changing their definition of a stormtrooper. I’ll be a little clearer: If the first time you introduce oatmeal to a nerd it has maple syrup in it, it better have maple syrup every fucking time, or it’s not oatmeal.”

This was at best an oversimplification. The basis of the fans' objection was not purely that every stormtrooper had to be white because other past stormtroopers had been coded as white. The objection was grounded in a misapprehension, to the effect that all stormtroopers were clones of one persona, who at least appeared to be white-- and that therefore it should have been impossible for any viable clones to suddenly look like black people.

Happily, there have been some good reasoned responses online as to why it's entirely feasible to have black stormtroopers in STAR WARS, as explained in part by a quote from this site:

It's only in the prequels that all the Stormtroopers (called Clonetroopers) are clones. It was established in the Expanded Universe that the Emperor started replacing clones with regular people through recruiting and conscription. This is pretty obvious when you watch the original trilogy. Stormtroopers are all different sizes, shapes and have different voices. So, no, the Stormtroopers in Star Wars Episode VII aren't clones. 

Wilmore, had he possessed any genuine interest in the topic, might have at least have referenced the notion, however false, that black stormtroopers created a continuity issue.  He chose, sadly, to focus only on the narrative of "resistance to change." If one views STAR WARS as a game which its audience agrees to play on its own terms, then Wilmore is the equivalent of the fellow who tells all the players that the game is stupid and he refuses to play it.

Of course, this would be unobjectionable, if the declaration was made as a matter of personal taste, rather than in terms of political advantage. In Wilmore's world, "black stormtrooper" is good in the same way that "black Spider-Man" is, because both promote visions of purported diversity. This causes him to overlook that there may be scenarios in which "black fill-in-the-blank character" may not be always be the ideal concept.

Take for example the 1999 WILD WILD WEST film, in which Will Smith essayed the part of Old West secret agent James West, a part originated by Robert Conrad in the 1965-69 teleseries. I objected to this film not simply because a black actor played a part associated with a white one, but because Smith was playing a part that created extreme "continuity issues" due to the social mores of that time and place.

Do my reservations mean that it was impossible for such a role to be attempted? Not necessarily. With a little intelligent tinkering, the scriptwriters might have come up with an alternate-world scenario in which it would have been more probable for a black secret agent to exist. Maybe the world of this WILD WILD WEST could have been one in which Lincoln was never assassinated; where he was somehow able to succeed in a partial reform of Southern social priorities. But given that the WILD WILD WEST we got showed no interest in political subtleties-- being, after all, nothing more than a Big Dumb Summer Movie-- I would have to say that the concept was at best difficult to pull off credibly, though not intrinsically impossible.

The ideological mind, though, only sees that not enough black actors have had starring roles, be it as superheroes, superspies or anything else, and so any work that promotes "more starring black actors"is perforce "good." And this ideology is just as simplistic as the message Wilmore promotes in his comedic admonitions against nerds.


I hadn't planned to write any follow-ups to my first blogpost in this series. In that post I put forth my opinion that Dorian Johnson's testimony was a lie, based on the facts that he changed his story and that the DOJ report did not corroborate his version of events. I further added that although Johnson did lie-- irregardless of whether or not he came to believe his own story-- his fabrication served a virtuous purpose in focusing national attention upon the racist practices of the Ferguson Police Department.

I can't resist some follow-up, though, since on 3-19-15 Jon Stewart himself has more or less followed the same logic I expressed in validating what he called the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot narrative." His end was certainly more far-reaching, in that he was admirably castigating Fox News for wanting an apology regarding the disproved "HUDS narrative" Stewart pointed out that Fox News had yet to make any apologies for perpetuating an overblown "tsunami of misinformation" regarding the Benghazi controversy.

I have no more liking for Fox News than Stewart does, and it does him credit that he's found another fresh way to mock their portentous, one-sided journalism.  However, I have a little problem with speaking of the false testimony against Wilson as nothing more than a "narrative."

It's true that though Johnson seems to have been the first to bear false witness against Darren Wilson, he wasn't the only witness to provide an accusatory account of the shooting, though the DOJ report tacitly disproves these anti-Wilson witnesses as well. Yet merely calling these acts of bearing false witness a "narrative" dilutes the fact that if you accept the DOJ's exculpation of Wilson-- which seems to be Stewart's position-- then you must admit that, for whatever reasons, lies were told.

I've frequently termed myself a liberal here, but have expressed mostly contempt for ultraliberals, who cannot think outside their conceptual boxes any more than can ultraconservatives.  I don't consider Stewart-- or rather, the performing-persona through which I "know" him-- to be an ultraliberal. Yet, even though we have employed the same basic logic, in that we both regard the case of the Michael Brown shooting as a "flashpoint" for deeper issues, I think Stewart soft-balled his treatment of the false testimony for rhetorical purposes. In order to make his salient point about Fox News, whose Benghazi coverage was entirely politicized and served no purpose, Stewart had to pass over the fact that Johnson and similarly minded witnesses were willing to falsely incriminate an innocent man in order to get even with a corrupt law enforcement hierarchy. This too is politicized thinking, in that it shows no interest in truth, only in whose side wins.  Michael Brown's family has announced that it will pursue Wilson in a civil court case, claiming that they believe that Wilson could have found "other options" than shooting their son dead. Given that the DOJ has ruled that Brown tried to charge Wilson, this strikes me as extreme wishful thinking on their part, showing an inability to admit that their son committed a crime, if not a desire to profit from the controversy, as Dorian Johnson has, albeit in a small way.

Will Jon Stewart mock them, for continuing to pursue a man who has been exonerated by the Department of Justice, the same department that validated the Ferguson Protests?

As the saying goes, don't hold your breath waiting for it.

Monday, March 16, 2015


This essay's title is derived from that of a SF novelette from 1947, "With Folded Hands," by Jack Williamson.  "Enfolding," it seems to me, is a better word to describe the interaction of the three phenomenalities than "underlie," as used here:

...I'll be dealing in more detail with the ways in which the naturalistic inevitably underlies the other two phenomenalites, albeit without defining them.

Where "underlie" implies stratification and hence an arbitrary separation, "enfolding" has a more organic connotation. Aristotle famously illustrated his notions of teleology with the image of an acorn, within which the pattern of an oak tree is "enfolded," even though said pattern cannot be seen from the seed itself.

Continuing the seed metaphor, here's a cutaway I found online, this time of a wheat kernel:

I like this image just because it has three distinct parts to it-- germ, bran, and endosperm-- all of which are interdependent in the sense that you take one of them away, and you have no seed.

Now, as I've noted in my essays on Todorov, like this one, that his theory of metaphenomenal literature implies that "the Real" not so much "underlies" as "undermines" other phenomenalities, which are seen as examples of Freudian disavowal.

It's true that what I call the naturalistic cannot be avoided. Even the most marvelous constructs in literature depend on some form of causality. We as readers don't know how or why the Cheshire Cat disappears, but even though his smile lingers for a very long time, eventually it does go away, thus duplicating in essence what would happen if a real cat simply got up and left. All literary phenomenalities inevitably reference the principle of causal coherence.

However, even in real life there's some doubt as to whether causal coherence is the *actual" ground of all real-world experience. The late physicist David Bohm proposed the idea that physical existence, which he called "the Explicate Order," might be "enfolded" within a greater "Implicate Order:"

Bohm's theory of the Implicate Order stresses that the cosmos is in a state of process. Bohm's cosmos is a "feedback" universe that continuously recycles forward into a greater mode of being and consciousness.
Bohm believes in a special cosmic interiority. It *is* the Implicate Order, and it implies enfoldment into everything. Everything that is and will be in this cosmos is enfolded within the Implicate Order. There is a special cosmic movement that carries forth the process of enfoldment and unfoldment (into the explicate order). This process of cosmic movement, in endless feedback cycles, creates an infinite variety of manifest forms and mentality. -- THE COSMIC PLENUM, on the site Stoa del Sol.

In literature, of course, the Implicate Order would be the totality of what a given author's will seeks to express. Some authors might be entirely satisfied with depicting only the naturalistic aspects of phenomena. Others might hew closely to the naturalistic but would allow for just enough ambivalence about the intelligibility of that phenomenality to give birth to "the uncanny." And finally, a third type of author would be invested in things that are marvelous enough to defy both the causal principles of coherence and intelligibility-- though, as I say, it's not only impossible to create a fantasy pure enough to defy all the "rules," it would also be impossible for anyone to read or view it.

More on this theme as examples of enfoldment occur to me.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


In Part 1 I mentioned the example of Flash Gordon. As most fans will know, he's an Earthman with no special physical powers, but he sometimes makes lists of "superheroes" because he becomes so thoroughly a "man of Mongo." Gordon makes intermittent use of Mongo's marvelous high-tech, but he's not as tied to his ray-gun as is, say, his predecessor Buck Rogers. Indeed, the earliest FLASH GORDON strips emphasize Gordon as a monster-slaying he-man, probably in emulation of the popular TARZAN comic strip by Hal Foster. Thus the most consistent indicator of his metaphenomenality is his otherworldly costume-- usually some variation on the image above, though Gordon probably changes his clothes more than most of his SF-competitors.

But Gordon is only partially a man in a science-fiction universe. From the aspect of the NUM theory, how should one regard the attire of characters fully born within such marvelous environments?

The denizens of the STAR TREK universe aren't wearing attire that would seem in any way strange to the sentients of their cosmos, while any aliens who meet them for the first time certainly wouldn't have any expectations about what sort of clothes they ought to be wearing. Unlike many latter-day science-fiction teleserials, TREK is consistent in showing that  everyone in its future is wearing some outre-looking fashion. Clearly the costume department was instructed to make even simple jumpsuits seem subtly "alien," and not by referencing European Renaissance garb, as FLASH GORDON often did.

But in most regards, the NUM theory is based not in the reactions of characters within their fictive universes, but on the response of the reader. The simple, vaguely-naval velour shirts of Classic Trek don't participate in the opulence of FLASH GORDON's fashions, or even of many of the other characters in their own universe.

Nevertheless, the uniforms of both the original TREK and its serial descendants successfully convey the aura of the uncanny: they convey "strangeness" on their own terms even apart from their association with high-tech marvelous items, like the "phasers" that duplicate the function of Flash's "ray-gun."

Here's a contrasting example, from the short-lived 1990s teleseries SPACE RANGERS:

SPACE RANGERS is less in TREK's mode of intellectualized space opera and more in that of FLASH GORDON's unapologetic science-fantasy adventure, but like TREK it takes place in a distant future wherein multiple alien worlds have been colonized by the descendants of contemporary humans, as is made clear by character names like "John" and "Daniel."

Yet, even though RANGERS takes place within a marvelous setting, the producers did not make an attempt to give their heroes' attire any strangeness. All of them wear suits that resemble a bulky form of military fatigues. To me they resemble contemporary outfits, though I can't place just where I've seen such outfits utilized. Regardless, the costuming department clearly patterned the costumes on modern dress, and so gives them all a functional "naturalistic" aura, despite the otherworldly settings of the stories.

In Part 3 I'll be dealing in more detail with the ways in which the naturalistic inevitably underlies the other two phenomenalites, albeit without defining them.

ADDENDA: Changed my mind and decided to explore the above matters in an essay with a different title, and so not confined to one particular trope.

Monday, March 9, 2015


My NUM trope "outre outfits, tropes and devices" is a smorgasbord of aspects that have to do with the *dynamicity* of a given character. But I've never taken the time to observe how each of the three, despite their close association, sort out with respect to the naturalistic and the uncanny.

When attire is not actually marvelous--  that is, when it does not confer marvelous power on a character, like Iron Man's armor-- it must conform to the rules of causal coherence. However, it can still be "uncanny" rather than "naturalistic" on the terms cited in POWER AND POTENCY PT. 2.  It's not that clothes "make the superman," as they do with Iron Man. But if they are uncanny, they can make the man SEEM LIKE a superman.

Now, this is easy to demonstrate with regard to costumed heroes. Non-powered heroes like Batman and the Shadow are known for imitating unusual presences with their attire, which obviously gives them the aura of the uncanny. Yet in this essay I specified that it isn't even necessary to don an imitative costume to gain this charisma:

...Zorro’s costume confers on him a charisma that provides him with greater narrative dynamicity. The Zorro narratives, while insisting that Zorro is merely a skilled human, emphasize his presence as a spectre of fear to his opponents, and it is this which gives the black-clad avenger the charisma of “the uncanny.”

Now, science fiction narratives don't typically show their protagonists waltzing around in garments that depart from the norm. Yet though everyone in a FLASH GORDON narrative wears the same "outre" garments, Flash's outre outfit is the only one where his normal dynamicity is enhanced by the uncanny look of his outfit, because he's the hero. (Well, as Flash's opponent, Ming gets some uncanny mileage too, but definitely not Dale and Zarkov.)

Many future-Earth scenarios, though, feature a concatenation of "ordinary garments" with "somewhat weird garments." On my movie-blog I've just finished reviewing three post-apocalyptic films of the 1980s that may illustrate the dichotomy.

Here's the redoubtable Snake Plissken from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK:

Then, his close imitator "Parsifal" from 1983's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK:

And finally, here's the un-redoubtable "Slade" from 1987's EQUALIZER 2000:

Now, even though all three men inhabit a "marvelous" future, none of them are real supermen. But do their clothes make them "seem like" supermen?

Though I liked the first two films and disliked the third, I don't think that fact prejudices me against the costuming of Slade in the 1987 film. The garments of Slade are simply bland and functional on their own terms; there's nothing about them that suggests the uncanny.

In contrast, though Plissken and Parsifal are not wearing "costumes" in the true sense, there has been some attention to how they convey heroic stature upon those who wear them. Russell is simply wearing almost all-black attire, as does Zorro, and the addition of the eyepatch gives him an iconic stature-- although it would be easy to get any of these elements wrong, so that they do not convey such an impression (I'll try to think of a good counter-example for later). Parsifal is not entirely copying all aspects of Plissken's look, though the influence is plain, but director Martino has given him a snazzier jacket that perhaps befits his "knightly" cognomen.

More costume-conundrums to come.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


At the beginning of Part 5 of CROSSING THE LAWLINES, I said:

I'll probably wind up my essays on clansgression for the time being with this entry. There are a number of other subtle ramifications of the theory, but by next week I plan to work on some new angles regarding the NUM theory and the concept of freedom.

It's taken longer than expected to do so, but the dominant "angle" I have in mind is a comparison of the "freedom" on which I expatiated in LET FREEDOM RIDE  with Ernst Cassirer's definition of "mythical thinking" as a phenomenological investment of a "free selection of causes" as to the nature of reality-- as opposed to the logical, unitary limitations of causality that are inevitably worked out by "discursive thinking."

I touched on this in THE POWERS THAT BIND PART 2:

This mutual narrative dependence on a "free selection of causes," then, is a key link between the realm of archaic myth and the realm of metaphenomenal narrative; a link that is not in the least diminished by arguments defining myth through functionalism, or even by my own distinction between religious myths and literary myths as that of "closed rituals vs. open rituals."  And when the metaphenomenal author chooses his causal agent, he is placed in the same position as the archaic myth-maker.  The rules of normal cause and effect, of regular time and space as the author knows them, must be transcended by an authorial "efficacy," as in, "It works this way because I say it does."

But both in myth and in metaphenomenal literature, causal freedom is not an adulation of randomness for the sake of randomness, as one sees in the spoof-religion of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It is a means of selecting, out of the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of perceived reality, those phenomena that are most important to human beings in a particular culture, and placing them in an expressive continuum. In JUNG LOVE FIRST LOVE I phrased it in this manner:

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.

More recently, in THE WORK AND PLAY MIX-A-LOT, I drew a parallel in which the "organizing power" was best symbolized as "play" while "the molecules of the crystal" could be symbolized as "work." I mention this to emphasize that both "work" and "play" are interdependent necessities, not opposed in the conventional sense that people oppose, say, "right choice" and "wrong choice."

I've most frequently castigated comics-critics for choosing to see fiction as nothing more than sociological justifications, which for me is an unsupportable limitation upon the freedoms of fictional narrative. These critics would be guilty of making the choice of "work" at the wrong time or in the wrong place. That does not mean that there are not other times or places in which it is necessary to emphasize work over play, and I've done so myself in particular circumstances.

Can one meaningfully draw parallels, then, between the freedom to make moral choices and the ability to change one's phenomenological perspective within fictional narratives? I obviously think so, even with my knowledge that most people are not conscious of those differing perspectives. Nerds and academics are usually the only ones given to sussing out whether, say, Poe's House of Usher belongs to fantasy, reality, or something in between. Nevertheless, the critics who wish to reduce all narrative to a series of sociologically or politically correct choices are not advocating freedom, only a rigid conception of equity.


If there was any current event that better described my statement that ""the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances," it would be the events surrounding the 8-9-14 shooting of petty thief Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Note that I describe Brown as a "petty thief." On an ultra-conservative blog, this would be a patent attempt to slant the discourse by characterizing Brown as a "thief" and Wilson as an "officer." On *this* blog, the term "officer" doesn't immediately connote greater respect, though only attentive readers will be able to follow my reasoning on this matter.

Within the past few days, the Department of Justice has released its findings with regard to the shooting of Brown by Wilson, in which Wilson was essentially exculpated. But, as if to cushion the blow, the DOJ also released a damning investigation of repeated racist practices by the Ferguson Police Department, which included a tendency to flagrantly cite black Ferguson residents for minor offenses.  Economic motives for this practice have been cited, given that black residents generally enjoy a lower income and would thus be less likely to fight citations in court. Of particular relevance to the Brown shooting is the practice of issuing a disproportionate number of citations for the petty offense of jaywalking. 

Prior to their encounter with Wilson, Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson had visited a local convenience store. Brown had openly pilfered a carton of cigarillos and had pushed the store clerk out of his way; Johnson admitted this in his testimony while noting that he played no part in the petty theft. Later the two of them were walking in the middle of the street when Officer Wilson noticed them from his patrol car. The testimonies of Wilson and Johnson differ in particulars, but they agree that Wilson drove up to the two men, told them to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk, after which Wilson started to drive on. The testimonies agree that he then backed up and blocked them. Wilson said that he did so because he had earlier been informed of the convenience-store theft and that he belatedly suspected Brown as the possible culprit. There followed the altercation between Brown and Wilson, which ended in Brown's death.

Dorian Johnson did not participate in the altercation, but his testimony was a key factor in creating the Ferguson protests. Johnson's testimony, however, is riddled with inconsistencies, as has been amply covered in Paul Cassell's 12-2-14 report for the Washington Post.  The Department of Justice did not validate any of Johnson's testimony, in particular finding fault with his claim that Wilson had shot Brown while the latter was trying to surrender. This image, of a black man trying to surrender and being mercilessly shot down by a white cop, may well be the defining image of domestic American news in 2014-- and it will remain so, even though it appears to be a complete and utter lie.

However, to say that Johnson lied also does not slant the discourse. It also matters to ask, "Why did he lie," and "What were the effects of the lie?"

Plato is famous for asserting that the ideal society could only be protected via the Noble Lie. Kant, on the other hand, famously claimed that to be a moral person no one should ever tell a lie for any reason, even to keep a murderer from his victim-- though I've seen at least one defense  asserting that Kant did not mean this as a general prescription for living.

If indeed Johnson lied, I don't care about his immediate personal reasons for so doing. I only care that he could have done so as a reaction to being a black man who saw his people being terrorized and/or exploited on a regular basis. It's unlikely that Johnson could have foreseen the country-wide firestorm that erupted as a result of his testimony, so he wasn't precisely telling a "noble revolutionary's lie," like the claim that Marie Antoinette responded to the wails of starving French citizens by saying, "Let them eat cake." Still, the result of the Johnson lie has been to throw a spotlight upon the malfeasance of the Ferguson Police Department. Many have claimed that the Ferguson corruption is systemic throughout the United States, but as yet this claim remains in the realm of rhetoric.

One interesting side-effect on the DOJ's report on Ferguson's corruption is that it may be seen as further exculpating Darren Wilson. If as the report suggests it was common practice for Ferguson officers to issue citations to black citizens for petty offenses like jaywalking-- a practice rooted both in racism and in economics-- then it's interesting that the testimonies of both Wilson and Johnson agree that the officer did not do anything more than verbally tell the two black men to get back on the sidewalk, as opposed to using the incident as an excuse to cite them.

Does that mean that during Wilson's career, he never wrote a gratuitous citation, whether to a black citizen or any other citizen? It does not. However, it does mean, at the very least, that he gave those two black men a break on the offense of jaywalking, thus going against the SOP of the Ferguson cops, and that he only stopped them when he suspected them of a more serious crime. Wilson may not have intended to be especially liberal; maybe he had other things on his mind, such as the news of the convenience-store robbery. But his actions on that particular date tend to contradict the imputations of a deeply ingrained racism that have dogged the officer's tracks since that day in August. I'll also note that if Wilson had a history of racist behavior, this would have come out in the investigations of the Grand Jury and the DOJ, which did take place with the investigation of the officer involved in Eric Garner's death.

If a probable lie that succeeds in exposing widespread corruption is not an example of a wrong choice being a right choice from a wider perspective, I don't know what would be-- though I could well understand it if Darren Wilson found that particular choice a measured one.