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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...

Sunday, July 6, 2008


One of the most surprising aspects of Bart Beaty's FREDERIC WERTHAM & THE CRITIQUE OF MASS CULTURE is how little space Beaty devotes in it to Wertham's most (in)famous work, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (henceforth SOTI). One might expect that since Beaty takes issue with comic-fan critics making uninformed attacks on the work ("SOTI is better known than read," p. 198), Beaty's own book might provide a bully pulpit from which to analyze SOTI's purported virtues in detail.

Instead, neither of the final two chapters of FW deals with SOTI in depth, focusing far more on attempting to set a position for the good doctor's life-work within the greater context of general media-effects studies. Since Beaty consistently argues that W. was marginalized within the sphere most related to his intellectual activities, that life-work must not have had any profound effect upon that sphere. Thus, Beaty's strategy is to extoll W. for his far-thinking devotion to liberal causes. ("W. was a liberal who was proud to put his career and reputation in jeopardy to speak out on important issues when others would not.")

This statement is a half-truth purely by the evidence Beaty himself musters. Beaty is quick to point out how W.'s psychiatric findings contributed in an indirect manner to the legal precedent of "Brown vs. Board of Education," but inasmuch as a number of others involved in that case also had a little bit to do with eliminating segregation, the outcome hardly bespeaks a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. And though W. may have been derided by poetasters like Leslie Fiedler and Robert Warshow, Beaty cites dozens of prominent social critics who agreed with Beaty on that subject for which W. remains best-known: the general awfulness of comics in the closing years of what we now call "Comics' Golden Age." So, again, W. was hardly expousing an unpopular cause after the fashion of his mild support of the Rosenbergs. I see no evidence that his career was truly jeopardized by having spoken out against comic books, unless one puts credence (as Beaty does) in the belief that W. suffered long-term effects from comics-companies threatening to sue him (their legal right, surely), or from those companies' alleged attempts to hire "private detectives to tail him and intimidate his staff"-- attempts which have yet to be proven, and which go against the historical record that shows most of the publishers trying to keep their heads down during the whole business.

But if Beaty doesn't analyze SOTI deeply, he follows the book's basic strategy. Throughout SOTI W. claims to represent the voices of all right-thinking persons, and takes great trouble to ballyhoo their endorsements, and yet despite all these endorsements poor Doctor W. is constantly thwarted by the forces of apathy and special interests. In FW Beaty proves himself an apt pupil of this practice.

Early in FW, Beaty's exhaustive research into W.'s papers reveals that W. disagreed with Sigmund Freud's late-formed concept of the "death instinct." Like most of Freud's concepts, particularly those revolving around the questionable concept of "instincts," this idea is not in much favor today, but one can disagree with it without casting aspersions upon the philosophy of the theorizer. W., it seems, could not just disagree with the "death instinct" concept without attempting to tar that conceptual baby with the brush of evil associations, pointing out that some similar concept had also been proposed by "the most influential Nazi philosopher" Martin Heidegger. In other words, rather than reasoning out differences of philosophy, W. resorts to conceptual mudslinging. (But when W. thinks that Freud has said something that he Wertham agrees with, Freud becomes an authority that others-- though not W.-- tend to misperceive.)

Beaty, like W., finds shallow reasons to dismiss those voices from the past that once defended Golden Age comics against W. and similar reformers. When FW mentions the testimonies of the ACMP-- the first advisory board that attempted to self-regulate the excesses of member publishers-- the board-members' status as paid consultants is highlighted. But the pecuniary interests of W.'s supporters is not brought up, as is the case with early comics-critic Sterling North, who falsely calls SOTI "totally documented" but whose authorship of children's books is not so highlighted. The notion that North might be jealous of the success of comic books with child-readers is not entertained by Beaty.

William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, is mentioned as well. Here Beaty indirectly scorns Moulton's defense of superhero fantasies: "the wish to be super-strong is a healthy wish," according to Marston. That this quasi-Nietzschean-sounding pronoucement would not have flown with Marston's contemporaries goes without saying, but Beaty simply cites this fact as if it disproves the validity of Marston's opinion. (In other words, if W.'s opinions are unpopular, that's bad; if Marston's are, that's the true voice of the people at work.)

Marston, however, gets off easy next to Wertham-opponent Laura Bender, who was, like W., a prominent child-psychologist of the time. Instead of disproving Bender's contention that comics were harmless to healthy children, Beaty brings up a stunningly-irrelevant article by Bender that has to do not with media studies but with childhood incest. Beaty then dismisses Bender's opinions on comics' harmfulness as belonging to what Beaty calls the "'blame the child' school of media effects," and uses Bender's opinions on the possible culpability of the child in some incest-cases to invalidate her opinion on comic books. This attempt to drum up moral opprobrium is logically worthless, but it does show that Wertham managed to find at least one disciple who uses his weapons in precisely the same way Wertham did.

To be finished up in ASSASSINATIONS part two.


Charles R. said...

There are 2 central flaws with Beaty's approach to Wertham that I recall from reading the book over a year ago: (1) Setting up the opposition of W. to the more empirical media effects paradigm in terms of conclusions. Anyone who knows anything about the 1960s research of people like Bandura surely knows that media effects researchers have a lot of people who agree with W. on the harm that representational violence has on children. The difference between psychoanalysis and experimental psychology is experimental research, testing hypotheses, rather than interpreting what someone said to the doctor in a private conversation. It's bullshit empirically, too, but at least they have some statistics based on more clearly defined operational definitions to argue about. (2) Something you sort of allude to, namely that for all of W.'s liberal left bona fides, he played all that down to spread his anti-comics message among those who would most readily listen, conservatively minded women's mags, moralizing religious groups and censorious politicians (who would otherwise have seen him as a Red). That he would do such a thing given his own political leanings is pathetic and a complete embarrassment for his legacy. Not being well-remembered is just what he deserved. He was a sell out.

Gene Phillips said...

In my latest post I make the argument that maybe one could get some valid conclusions out of W.'s clinical approach, but one would have to be far more rigorous than he was, as well as having fewer preconceptions.

As for pleasing conservative tastes, I agree that he did that in part, though he is up front in SOTI about his critiques of American racism. Another of his problems (which I might address more fully in another post) is that he was committed to the idea that the love of violence, real or otherwise, was a direct cause of racial divisiveness, which was an illogical conflation. The ultimate cause of most if not all racial violence is primarily self-interest for one's ingroup; violence is simply the medium through which that interest in preserving the status quo is expressed. I imagine that W. was overly influenced by Freud in this, as well as by some of the scholars of "crowd studies" who influenced both of them (Beaty points the direct influence with regard to W. but doesn't talk much about W. being influenced through Freud.)

The influence of Freud's concept of ego formation is probably at the root of his bizarre prescription that comic books should not be available to children younger than fifteen. It's evident from SOTI that W. inherits the Freudian idea that ego formation happens relatively late in life, and that he wanted a malign influence like comics kept away from kids during that period. After that, being functional adults, they could determine if they wanted to be perverts. Klein among others pretty much exploded the notion of post-Oedipal ego formation, and I even seem to remember Freud himself being impressed by Klein's approach, for all that he never surrendered the Oedipus complex.

The most conservative elements of SOTI come out of this misconception that kids are fundamentally innocent before fifteen and that perversions like homosexuality and sadism won't appear in them except through some malign outer influence. Beaty hugely oversimplifies W.'s attacks on comics as encouraging if not creating homosexual impulses, and tries to turn it around so that the fans are the more homophilic for disbelieving the relevance of the Batman & Robin "wish-dream" to readers at large. W.'s frequent jibes against "phallic women" are also ignored by Beaty, so that W. comes off as being far more progressive than he really was.