Thursday, December 31, 2009
To be sure, I've only passed through a little over two seasons since mentioning that I was reading THESPIS in this June essay. (In full disclosure I had read parts of it years ago, but only this year did I finish the whole book.) And the subject of Theodor Gaster's 1950 book is well attuned to the program of the myth-ritual school of earlier years, in that THESPIS's purpose is to discern what patterns human beings may have followed in their organization of rituals. As a literary critic, my concern with Gaster-- who is cited in Frye's ANATOMY-- is to suss out whether or not his work on religious myths and rituals glosses Frye's insights on literary myths.
My conclusion is that not only is Gaster significant to Frye, for all that Frye only refers to him marginally, it's possible that Gaster's fourfold scheme of ritual actions may have had some indirect, perhaps even subconscious, effect on Frye's arrangement of his four *mythoi.* This is pure speculation, though Frye evidently read Gaster closely enough that he did adapt one of Gaster's terms into a 1960 essay, which I mentioned here.
Both Frye and Gaster formulated schemas that revolved around the response of human beings to the seasonal round. In OPEN QUEST PART 1 I criticized Frye for perhaps imparting too much closure to his theory, so that it seemed like what should have been a cycle actually had an apocalyptic conclusion, but in Gaster I found an additional corrective.
Gaster divides the rituals of archaic humankind into four types, which he ascribes to particular times of the year. Gaster gives a drawn-out explanation of his typology on page 26 of THESPIS, but here's a shortened Internet-encyclopedia version for easy reading:
"First the rites of mortification, symbolizing the temporary eclipse of the community. Next the rites of purgation, by which all noxious elements that might impair the community's future welfare are eliminated. Then the rites of invigoration, aimed at stimulating the growth of crops, the fecundity of humans and beasts, and the supply of needed sunshine and rainfall throughout the year. Finally, when the new lease is assured, come the rites of jubilation; there is a communal meal at which the members of the community recement their bonds of kinship by breaking bread together, and at which their gods are present."
Gaster did not design these designations for any literary purpose, and it's only my speculation that they influenced Frye's categories. But I do think that they loosely line up with Frye's four *mythoi*:
Rites of mortification line up with the *sparagmotic* mythos of irony, in that ironies are those works in which all human efficacy is missing, and all passion spent.
Rites of purgation line up with the *pathetic* mythos of drama, in that drama is often (as Frye points out) concerned with individuals who find themselves in some way cast out from the main society, though such individuals sometimes possess some power of effective action, unlike ironic protagonists.
Rites of invigoration line up with the *agonistic* mythos of adventure, in that these rites, like literary adventure, concern themselves with what Gaster calls "the Ritual Combat, or mimetic battle between Life and Death, Summer and Winter, Old Year and New." (page 37).
Rites of jubilation line up with the *incognitive* mythos of comedy, in that comedy celebrates the same spirit of joy and hilarity found in its ritual kindred, and does so with only spotty relevance to dramas of rebirth and redemption.
In addition, Gaster introduces two Greek terms that identify how the respective rites work. Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.
Incidentally, anyone who googles either of these two terms as I did is likely to find far more references to *kenosis* than to its sibling, since the first Greek term received better press thanks to an apperance in the New Testament.
But neither term is exclusively applicable to religion, and together they bear a striking resemblance to David Sandner's commentary on the ways in which human creativity can seem at once incredibly "full" and surprisingly "empty." I remarked in this essay that this duality applies also to the way different creators, such as Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers, choose to view certain artifacts of creativity, as well as noting a similar duality in Frye's personal references here, where he said that he preferred comedy and romance/adventure to tragedy and irony (as I do myself).
A fusion of Frye with Gaster and other fellow travelers (such as Joseph Campbell), then, remains my particular quest, albeit one not shared by many others. Notwithstanding that, it's my abiding hope that, no matter how many confluences I find like those listed above, that said quest will always remain an "open" one.
In DIVINING COMEDY I performed some corrective surgery on Frye's schema above, in that I excised Frye's comparison of the hero's "reappearance and recognition" in respect to the mythos of comedy. I'm probably the only comics-fan who would care if this operation killed the patient, but in my judgment the only thing Frye's system loses is his notion of forming all four mythoi into a closed "quest-myth," when what is more needed is an "open quest."
One reason Frye conflated the comedy-mythos with that of "rebirth" narratives was, as I discussed earlier, because he was a Christian, which meant that his religion's eschatology was oriented upon an "End of Days," to say nothing of the fact that the principle source of that eschatology is that of a book-narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. A second reason, touched upon in earlier essays, is that Frye's literary theory owes much (albeit with modifications) to the so-called "myth-ritual school" of early 20th century classicism. The four dramatic actions from Greek theater which Frye adapted as the four "themes" of his four narrative *mythoi* were derived from one prominent member of that school, Gilbert Murray.
I won't explore here the controversies surrounding the myth-ritual school, which isn't much in favor these days though it has received some academic re-evaluations of late. At worst, it was too much of a totalizing approach to mythology, assuming that everything in archaic mythology stemmed from some ritual religious act. It wasn't as far-fetched as Robert Graves' penchant to see all myth as recapitulated ancient histories, or (to cite the fellow who let the monocausal cat out of the bag in myth-studies) Max Muller's notion that all myths related to sun-worship. But like all monocausal explanations, pure myth-ritualism left a lot to be desired.
Frye was, as others before me have observed, careful not to let his exploration of literary myths spill over into an outright endorsement of this school. Thus his literary theory doesn't stand or fall with the fortunes of the myth-ritual school, since he was simply using their literal formulations in a figurative manner: to describe the ways in which literary myths paralleled religious ones. Only in one regard did Frye approach the literalism of the myth-ritualists, and that is in the schema quoted above, in which the four *mythoi* are imagined as four stages within the life of a single protagonist. However, even here the "quest-myth," which Frye imagines as beginning with the *agon* of the romance and ending with the *anagnorisis* of the comedy, is meant as a figurative teaching-tool, rather than actually expounding on how the respective *mythoi* evolved.
To me, each of the *mythoi* is a closed system, so there is no need to see them as part of some greater spectrum modeled on the career of a particular mythic/literary character, be it the Christian St. George, referenced above, or the pagan Perseus, also referenced in the same "Theory of Myths" section of THE ANATOMY.
Frye is on much stronger ground when he compares his four *mythoi* to the cycling seasons-- or rather, with the different emotional and expressive moods called forth in human beings by the seasons. He then uses the four terms-- agon, pathos, sparagmos and anagnorisis-- to describe the themes underlying this storytelling structures, but he fails in THE ANATOMY to note what he would later expound upon in A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE: the fact that colloquially the word "theme" can be used to mean either (1) what actually happens in the story, or (2) what the story's events signify. I suspect that in ANATOMY he feels that each theme carries both "narrative values" and "signficant values," to borrow the terms in he used in "Archetypes of Literature," an essay predating ANATOMY by about four years, and which I discussed here.
In *my* adapation of Frye's terms I wish to make clear this double-sidedness of the terms he called "themes." Thus in future I will identify the words themselves, which I call "radicals," purely as "narrative values." For instance, an *agon*'s narrative purpose is to sort out the conflict between hero and villain, apart from whatever significance the story as a whole may have for audiences.
However, the adjectival forms I mentioned in AGONISTIC AND OTHERS will serve to describe the "significant values" implied by the narrative radicals. Thus "agonistic" describes the emotional and expressive *dynamization* offered by the adventure-story to its audiences, and the other three adjectives describe the dynamizations appropriate to their types of stories.
Once it is clear that each *mythos* has its own unique expressive capability, it should be possible to ward off, as in archaic ritual, the baneful influence of Bloody Comic Book Elitists. If a Gary Groth insists that Will Eisner's SPIRIT is better than other superhero works because he Eisner didn't take the superhero genre "seriously," it can be clearly demonstrated that Groth simply wants to see some other *dynamizing* formula-- that of comedy, or more likely, of satire-- rather than the one appropriate to the superhero genre.
Maintaining this openness of mind is part of the "open quest" referenced in the title, but not all, as witness Part 2.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
"The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it. The mythical comedy corresponding to the death of the Dionysiac god is Apollonian, the story of how a hero is accepted by a society of gods. In Classical literature the theme of acceptance forms part of the stories of Hercules, Mercury, and other deities who had a probation to go through, and in Christian literature it is the theme of salvation, or, in a more concentrated form, of assumption: the comedy that stands just at the end of Dante's Commedia."-- p. 43.
"Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy."-- p. 190.
The obvious pun in my title plays off of Frye's tendency to conflate the tendency of comedies toward social integration with that of religious salvation, as presented in Dante's DIVINE COMEDY. I believe I understand his logic but I disagree with his conclusions. I don't find much that is comic in the DIVINE COMEDY, or most similar stories emphasizing something akin to "salvation," and these narratives I tend to categorize under my heading of "non-agonistic" adventure-romance, in that Dante's work takes place in the context of an ongoing struggle between Good and Evil.
A larger question concerns the identification of comic integration with religious triumphalism, in that I view the latter as also more typical of adventure-genres than of most of the works that people consider to be "comedies." In making this equation Frye was probably influenced by his personal religion, in that he was a practicing Christian. It should be said that in most respects Frye's system is more liberal and pluralistic than the systems of those who worship only their own intellects-- which is all right with me as long as they show that they actually posses significant intellects. (This leaves out Barthes and Adorno right off). Only in this respect, in his identification of the theme underlying the *mythos* of comedy, does his religion steer him in what I deem an incorrect direction, though it doesn't undermine his system by any means.
In previous essays I've noted how various works that contemporary society deems comedies, such as the BLONDIE comic strip and the Three Stooges shorts, don't conform either to Frye's general propositions on comedy or his "six phase" design of comic modes, on which I don't plan to discourse here. As I've also stated before I think that the root of our disagreement is that Frye, like Henri Bergson, considers the root of comedy to be "repetitive activity," while I favor the root to be "incongruity," following the arguments of Arthur Schopenhauer.
On page 185 of THE ANATOMY Frye makes another telling equation between the structure of the Greco-Roman New Comedy and the structure of the Christian salvation-narrative:
"...we realize that the crudest of Plautine comedy-formulas has much the same structure as the central Christian myth itself, with its divine son appeasing the wrath of a father and redeeming what is at once a society and a bride."
In stating this Frye does not mean that every "comedy-formula" is like that of the New Comedy, with its concerns over winning a "bride." His "same structure" is an ideal model, not a prescriptive one. But the question remains as to whether his ideal is ideal in all respects. For instance, one of Plautus's best-known comedies is something of a reversal of New Comic themes, for THE AMPHITRYON deals with the comic misadventures that result when Zeus, preparatory to siring Heracles, decides to assume the guise of a Greek lord named Amphitryon in order to sleep with Amphitryon's wife. If anything AMPHITRYON resembles BLONDIE far more than any New Comedy story.
Now, while Frye thought that the "young-man-winning-a-bride" formula was structurally similar to that of a salvation-narrative like THE DIVINE COMEDY, because both ended the repetitious sequence of comic misadventures, I would say that both AMPHITRYON and BLONDIE are better explained by incongruity than by repetition. What they have in common are not young men seeking brides but older men who are for one reason or another embarassed as they seek to maintain order in their households. There is nothing inherently "repetitious" in Amphitryon's predicament: he does what any husband would do when he thinks his wife is sleeping with another man, and only the revelation of Zeus' trickeries mollifies him. Dagwood Bumstead's situation, as it occurs in a serial format, shows more repetitions, but I would suggest that what they have in common is the incongruity of their seeking to have the patriarch's ideal control of his world, and how they fail so miserably as to be funny in their humiliations.
Repetition, for me, is a tool that only works within a greater scheme of incongruous activities that one finds funny because the sufferings depicted are so essentially harmless. If there is any ideal underlying it, it is not Christian grace but a sort of perdurability in the characters who suffer so many zany misadventures. It is this perdurability in the face of the absurd that led me to feel that the emotional affect one should associate with comedy's *mythos* is that of a happy absurdity, which is the affect I wish to suggest with my revised term for Frye's *anagnorisis*-theme: the "incognitio."
Oddly, even though I find nothing comic in the DIVINE COMEDY, or even "the action of the Christian Bible" that Frye also finds comparable with comic action, I do think one early Church Father captured the essence of the incognitio. Asked why he believed in the Resurrection, Church Father Tertullian allegedly said:
--Because it is absurd."
Monday, December 21, 2009
But this post will be both a creation and a destruction of same. I introduced the terms "combative" and "conflictive" when I wondered how one might classify fictions in terms of the element of combat, which (a) is the most extroverted form of literary conflict, in that it connotes some physical contest, and (b) is alluded to by Northrop Frye as the "radical" of the adventure/romance genre in his ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. However, to complicate matters further, combat-considered-as-a-story-element isn't by any means confined to the adventure genre, but also occurs in the other three genres/*mythoi* which Frye categorizes, the other three being tragedy (which I call, more broadly, "drama,"), comedy and irony/satire. In order to denote the degree of prominence of this element in any of the four *mythoi,* I formulated three terms: the combative, the subcombative and the noncombative.
As examples of the first two degrees I wrote AGON IN SIXTY SECONDS, in which I contrasted Rider Haggard's KING SOLOMON'S MINES as "combative" and Haggard's SHE as "subcombative."
But I'm revising those earlier terms now.
My first reason for so doing is because I want to use the term "combative" in another context, while keeping "conflictive" in the same place it was: denoting any form of conflict no matter how extroverted or introverted. This other use of the first term will be critical to the development of another set of neologisms intended to directly address categorizations designed for what I've sometimes called the Idiom of the Superhero.
My second reason for revising the name of The Category Formerly Known as Combative is that I felt a need to bestow neologisms on all of the "radicals" (one of Frye's terms for the predominant aspects of his four *mythoi*) so that they could be used as adjectives when necessary.
Those aspects (which Frye also calls "stages," confusing things all to heck) are, for anyone who doesn't recall, are the agon (combat), the pathos (emotional turmoil), the sparagmos (ironic detachment), and what Frye calls the anagnorisis (comic turnabout) and which I renamed the *cognitio* because of my problems with Frye's definition of comedy, detailed here.
As it happens, I'm still not entirely satisfied with that term either, but I'll get to that.
Of the four, two already have adjectival forms: the *pathetic* (which unfortunately has other associations than the purely literary, but one does find it still used in a literary context) and the *agonistic,* which yields the same essential meaning I cited for "combative."
Thus, from now on in my mind, *agonistic* substitutes for all previous usages of the term *combative.*
Oddly enough, when I considered making an adjectival form for *sparagmos,* I made a form out of whole-cloth, probably the same way Francis Fukuyama took *thymos* and got "thymotic." Then I checked out "sparagmotic" on the Web and found that a few people had already used the term, though I'd bet it's in no one's dictionary. Plainly category-obsessed minds think alike.
And then, that left me with "cognitio," for which the only possible adjectival form would be "cognitive."
Not an option. Comedy in my view is about incongruity, not congruity-- about "not knowing" rather than "knowing"-- about the "happy accident" rather than the well-wrought plan.
So from now in my system the radical for the mythos of comedy I do christen the *incognitio* (which is also on the Web, but not as a quasi-literary term). *Incognitive,* also on the Web from other minds than mind, is thus the adjectival form, but means nothing but the root-aspect of the comedy-mythos.
One more time for the road:
These will almost certainly come up again, somehow.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
I stress the above just to discourage those who'd like to believe that I've been thinking about nothing but how to refute Gary Groth during the 12 years since he published his essay. It's an essay I do find memorable for its skewed nature, and I've probably referenced it at least once on some messageboard or other, but my reason for framing my apa-response in the form of a blogpost was to try clarifying (once again) why a elitist ain't a intellectual.
Often on this blog I’ve made reference to the species of critic known as the “elitist.” In some quarters, like this one, the word is often used carelessly, to signify anyone who tawks dat dere intellegzual tawk. To the extent that anyone conceives an opposite number to the “elitist,” it is the so-called “populist,” whom elitists conveniently characterize as lacking all intellectual rigor.
Neither of these casual definitions is worth the time it takes to type them, but nothing I write is likely to exorcise them from common use, or to significantly advance what I consider the more viable critical philosophy of “pluralism,” with which I identify myself.
As I’ve done a more specific breakdown of these philosophical persuasions in another essay that I may commit to the blogosphere in future, I won’t be repeating my preferred definitions in this essay. My purpose here is to cite a prominent quote from comicdom’s most famed elitist and to demonstrate that it does not, in fact, possess much intellectual rigor, thus disproving the immediate association of “elitists” and “intellectuals.”
The elitist I choose is Gary Groth, and the defining quote—perhaps a theme statement for all elitist positions, or at least for all of those that appeared in THE COMICS JOURNAL—is taken from COMICS JOURNAL #199 (1997). Groth’s essay is one of many in that issue concerned with the question of downspiralling sales of comic books in the 1990s. Since this too doesn’t concern me here I will take Groth’s essay as if it were simply a statement of his general position. The essay is titled “Does Comics Have a Future as a Mass Medium?,” though hereafter I’ll call it “Mass” for short.
Groth wrote: “…comics has been dominated by a single, monolithic idiom that has tended to subsume all genres within it. The idiom to which I refer springs from superhero comics, and it hardly makes any difference if we’re talking about superheroes, westerns, romance, good girl art, bad girl art, fantasy, sci-fi, etc., because with few exceptions, they all adopt the same idiom as has come to be associated with super-hero comics: an oafish, slam-bang physicality that resists subtlety and nuance as well as the ability to communicate any genuine connection to human life.”
My WEBSTER’S defines “elite” as “the choice or select part: esp. a group or body considered or treated as socially superior.” The dichotomy proposed by Groth in “Mass” obviously depends on a “superiority dance” in which various works, which are mostly unspecified and which possess “subtlety,” “nuance,” and “the ability to communicate [a] genuine connection to human life” are seen as superior to those works characterized by “oafish slam-bang physicality.” No proof is offered in this essay as to why one mode is better than the other, though one can probably assume that Groth’s proof would define superiority in terms of the aforesaid “genuine connection to human life.”
One odd aspect of this excerpt is its overdetermined nature. Had Groth simply stated that the majority of genres in the American comic-book market of the 1990s were dominated by a physicality like that of superhero titles, that statement would have been a correct representation: one which still applies to the current market. But as Groth ticks off genres, he tosses in the one genre that was not dominantly characterized by “slam-bang” or even particularly “oafish” physicality: the romance genre. I don’t claim to be an expert on this genre in any medium, but even if one finds the majority of romance comics to be less than artistically ambitious, one usually doesn’t think of their maudlin melodramatic tales in terms of “physicality,” much less the physicality of superhero stories. Romance comics are about emotionality, however un-nuanced. One wonders why Groth brought romances up at all, for they convey far less “physicality” than, say, the erotic comics that enjoyed a constant market in the 1990s (some of which Groth published). Indeed, some of the meritorious comics-artists mentioned in “Mass,” such as Gilbert Hernandez, derive great power from the raw physicality present in some of their work, irrespective of how much “subtlety” chimes in as well.
Another aspect of “Mass”—not the least bit odd, since it’s entirely predictable—is that there is absolutely no middle ground of any kind between the two extremes. Crap is crap and art is art, and never the twain shall meet. Groth’s primary purpose here is to “prove” that the dominance of crap in the comics-medium has led to its marginalization in American culture, so that even “high-quality graphic novels by unique cartoonists could not make any headway in the ‘mainstream’ book market despite the distribution clout of the some of the biggest publishers of the U.S.”
Yet Groth’s essay passes over a fact that he acknowledges in other essays: that most of that “mainstream book market” is, in his aesthetic terms, also dominated by crap. The presence of the crap which dominated that market for the last century did not prevent the continuance of the niche market that nurtured highbrow prose authors (though perhaps not in as much prosperity as some of them desired), and thirteen years later, the continued existence of the crap-dominated direct market has not prevented the evolution of a similar niche market for highbrow comics. Going purely from the standpoint of personal taste I’d agree heartily with Groth that Gilbert Hernandez ought to be/have been better received by the reading public than he has been. But I object to the logic that must blame Hernandez’ lack of stellar success on that old devil superhero comics, when there exists a long list of meritorious works—Melville’s MOBY DICK and Conrad’s THE SECRET AGENT, for two—whose lousy sales records can’t be blamed on their medium’s marginalization.
The third interesting intellectual fallacy in "Grothmass" is how Groth structures his argument to make the financial and social good standing of highbrow prose to be far more “monolithic” (to use Groth’s own word against him) that it really was in history. Groth favors an absolute separation between the factors that promote “the success of a Chester Brown or a Dan Clowes” as against those that promote LOBO, but such a separation has never existed in any medium. Certainly it did not exist in prose, where Melville’s hopes to repeat the commercial success of TYPEE were dashed; where Conrad sought to respond to public fears of anarchists and failed; where Nabokov enjoyed great commercial success by appealing not to “subtlety” but to prurience made palatable by highbrow nuance.
Neither in this essay nor any other does the radical separation of “crap” and “art” prove intellectually viable. This persistent illusion does make a great rhetorical device, though, and without such rhetoric, Fantagraphics probably could never have marshaled its small but fervent core of supporters. In this respect elitism did serve a purpose in the past by challenging fans to think beyond old parameters, though some might find the new Frankfurt School boss to be no less a tyrant than the old mass-market boss. As for the future, I would hope that future fans might learn good logic from observing Groth’s bad use of same.
But I can’t say I’m counting on it.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
“In Nerd Movie Culture, women can never have their own agency — they are bystanders and sidekicks. ALIEN would never star Ripley today.”
And I responded:
"You gotta do better than that.
Frankly I think Nerd Culture (by which I assume you mean not just the Mating–or Non-Mating– Habits of Nerds Themselves but also the genre-products they patronize strongly) has in the past 40 years unleashed a buttload of empowered women when compared to the record of The Majority Culture (my term), whose taste has tended to favor movies that solely featuring male heroes in solo roles (John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Nicholas Cage) or buddy-teams like those of Gibson and Glover."
Since experience suggests that I won't get a substantive response from Heidi on this, I may as well amuse myself by expanding on this conceit here.
I'm not at all sure what Heidi means when she speaks of "Nerd Movie Culture," but since her argument (mostly directed against online nerd-posters who don't think GIRL COMICS is a great idea) references ALIEN and the retrofitted STAR TREK, I'm going to go out on a limb and presume she's talking about fantasy/SF/horror cinema, as opposed to the quasi-realistic cinema favored by the non-nerd Majority Culture in the days before STAR WARS mainstreamed fantastic cinema. Today the Majority Culture will patronize a lot of fantasy-cinema as long as it generally follows the pattern of the Hollywood Blockbuster. Thus maybe one could define Nerd Movie Culture as the segment of cinemaphiles who follows non-blockbuster fantasy-cinema with intense interest.
And if that's the case, then I would have to say that "Nerd Fantasy-Followers" show a lot more interest in "women with agency." Here's a few agents of womanhood whom most nerds will recognize:
Now, Heidi might not like any of these images of womanhood, or the likelihood that most or all of the above were conceived by male creators. But even though the disenfranchisement of women in movies may deserve condemnation, Nerd Movie Culture is not responsible for that.
The four examples above all spring, directly or indirectly, from fantasy-culture predominantly aimed at nerds of various age-groups. In their incarnations as big-budget movies all are aimed at various age-groups, mostly younger, within the Majority Culture, such as the young adults who might go see a GI JOE flick for laughs but would not know (or would never admit knowing) any of the Joes' goofy monickers. But that fact doesn't diminish the fact that all of these fantasy-characters have as much "agency" as Ripley of ALIEN, regardless as to whether one thinks them as good in other departments.
Contrast to that to the amount of "agency" in the films of Nicholas Cage, whom I tossed out in my somewhat-random grouping of Blockbuster Main Attractions. Cage does not, unlike Wayne and Eastwood, symbolize an extreme patriarchal vision of masculinity. And yet, most of the women in his adventure-oriented films generally do end up being "bystanders and sidekicks," unless you want to count the tediously-nasty witches of the WICKER MAN remake.
Summing up, I'm not sure what the vagaries of "Nerd Movie Culture" had to do with the various comics-fans who didn't like GIRL COMICS for one reason or another. So I'll guess I'll have to chalk it up to a generalized *ressentiment* toward Nerd Culture on her part-- which, given that Heidi McDonald acts the part of a nerd-girl on her site, would seem to be a little like (to steal a good Arnold Drake gag) "hating your own shadow, or sending threatening notes to your bathtub ring." (Quote approximate.)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I don't disagree with Berlatsky's verdict in this case but I won't address his essay here, as I couldn't care less about Gary Groth's low opinion of the blogosphere. But I do have to launch a protest against Gary's "brief history of comics criticism."
Gary's right in saying that comics-fandom got rolling with the efforts of EC fans like Ted White and Bhob Stewart, though it should be pointed out that both men were strongly interested in a variety of comics-work, not just EC. One may speculate that had EC never existed-- say, if it had fallen into bankruptcy before William Gaines had transformed it-- then both fans possibly would have remained interested in some if not all of the "stunted creativity" that Groth finds representative of mainstream comics following EC's demise.
Not long after his sweeping dismissal of the period, Groth summarily dismisses most of the fan-writers who formed the second phase of comics-fandom, meaning anyone who was to any degree a superhero enthusiast. The agenda is pretty clear: after Groth correctly labels the late Jerry Bails as having been primarily a "historian" rather than a critic-- which in my book means that one should not expect of him any deep critical insights-- Groth lambastes Bails's taste for having been enthusiastic about DC Comics 1959 "rejuvenated superhero line."
Wow, what a terrible moment of uncritical enthusiasm. It's almost as bad as this pronouncement by a young Gary Groth:
"When I read 'Conan'-- when he stands on a hill and hacks his way through to save a princess in a castle, I guess I do identify."
Admittedly Gary was 17 when he said this, about nine years younger than Bails was in 1959, and where Bails never recanted his liking for superheroes Groth has maximated every culpa in the book to distance himself from his younger self.
Now, I do not suggest that modern Gary is obliged to like anything that Bails or anyone else wrote from that time, just because their writings might have some historical significance. However, if Groth is writing a history as one who experienced (albeit a little later) some of the passionate interest in fantasy and superheroes that marked early fandom, I consider it ingenuous of him to elide his own experience in that aspect of fandom. He may have renounced all that sci-fi jazz in terms of his current personal tastes, but in writing even a "cursory survey" of critical thought in comics I think he's obliged to state for the record that he was once One Of Us. Surely one can see this in early issues of COMICS JOURNAL, which, whatever Gary's intentions, had a lot more in common with early superhero-fanzines than with GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE, which is apparently the Algonquin Round Table of discourse to which modern Gary aspires. (Whether he really did back in the 70s is arguable.)
Additionally, his implication that Nothing Good Came Out of Superhero Fandom overlooks that without that horribly meretricous rejuvenation of the DC superhero line in 1959, fans of all stripes might not have ever seen a FANTASTIC FOUR by Lee and Kirby, least of all the young Gary whose first comic was FF #13. Without the re-conceived superheroes of DC and Marvel, it's dubious as to whether comic books would have survived long enough into the 70s for the upgrade in criticism circa 1973.
What price superheroes?
Maybe without them, no comics, and no COMICS JOURNAL.
That too has to be a critical part of anyone's history of criticism.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
His book THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN (1992) was exclusively about sociohistorical theory, with little if any reference to literary matters. Nevertheless, I find Fukuyama's reworking of ideas from both Hegel and one of his interpreters Alexandre Kojeve to have admirable application to literary studies.
As mentioned before, Fukuyama's re-defines Plato's *thymos* as a spectrum of esteem ranging from how an individual seeks his own esteem from others to the way whole societies seek such validation. He then provides a dualistic schema as to how differing versions of thymotic action manifest in society. One version is "megalothymia," whose prefix means "great or exaggerated," and the other is "isothymia," with a prefix meaning "equal:"
"Megalothymia can be manifest both in the tyrant who invades and and enslaves a neighboring people so that they will recognize his authority, as well as in the concert pianist who wants to be recognized as the foremost interpreter of Beethoven. Its opposite is isothymia, the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people. Megalothymia and isothymia together constitute the two manifstations of the desire for recognition around which the historical transition to modernity can be understood." (The End of History and the Last Man, p. 182).
Before going into the matter of how Fukuyama's thymos-categories apply to sex and violence, I'll cite how one of my earlier essays touched on the common ground between sex and violence, both real and literary:
'Though I agree with Deleuze in his distinctions between sadism and masochism, I think that both Freud and Deleuze are guilty of over-intellectualizing the somatic aspects of these sexual syndromes...I would emphasize more the aspect of bodies clashing against bodies, which IMO is the main reason that either activity summons up associations of sexual excitement."
I believe Bataille was thinking along similar lines when he wrote:
"In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation"-- Bataille, EROTISM, p. 16.
There is certainly a somatic sense in which sex resembles violence, which is the principle reason why Freudians in particular have associated the two. But Bataille concentrates too much on the somatic similarity, the arena of an eros that may include the "sensuous frenzy" to destroy an enemy as much as the frenzy to consummate the sex-act.
This is where Fukuyama's formulations about thymos provide a theoretical guide to steer one clear of the rocks of Freudianism.
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.
If one is first aware of the very different ways in which human beings seek esteem and validation in real life, it would seem no great step to recognize when a given literary scene primarily connotes nonsexual violence, as is the case with Dirk Deppey's example of superhero decadence. Even if I admit the possibility that a physical struggle between two women is more likely, within American culture, to be infused with fetishistic sexuality than a fight between two men, I continue to object to Deppey's statement that this or any similar scene *must* interpret the dominantly violent tone of the scene as one indicative of some buried abnormal sexual urge on the parts of the creators of the scene or the audience for which the scene is intended.
There are many, many ingenious methods by which creators can suggest sexuality through acts of violence, transforming isothymia into megalothymia, with Norman Bates' shower-stabbing scene remaining at the top of the list. But with the scene in SUPERGIRL #14 I still contend that its "fuckdoll" scene, as Deppey chooses to term it, is megalothymia through and through, and that his mis-identification is merely a transparent attempts to traduce the audience being criticized.
Fukuyama's formulations would be even more useful as a means of deconstructing the "violence-read-as-displaced-sex" readings of Noah Berlatsky that I've critiqued earlier. But in that case Bertlatsky has the advantage, for I just don't have the time to re-analyze everything he's analyzed. My suggestions that it is possible to undertake such a massive corrective project will have to suffice for the present.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
"...instead of being brave and fearless, Superman lives really in a continuous guilty terror, projecting outward in every direction his readers' paranoid hostility. Every city in America is in the grip of fiends... Every country is about to attack us... Only the Nazi-Nietzschean Ubermensch, in his provincial apotheosis as Superman, can save us."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH, p. 40.
"My ire is directed towards masculinity, not men."-- Noah Berlatsky's response to an accusation of misandry from 10-26-09.
I really don't understand anyone saner than Valerie Solanas having "ire" toward masculinity as such. I can understand an animus toward the statistically-dominant excesses of masculinity, as well as a similar animus toward those of femininity.
But disliking a gender's dominant proclivities in general strikes me as no more balanced than Melville's Ahab threatening to strike the sun if it insulted him.
I said earlier that I would address the concept of Heideggerian "thrownness" with respect to other matters, and one of those matters is referenced in my opening quote, a fairly by-the-book analysis, chosen at random off the Web, of the personality-orienting effects of testosterone on men, who generate about ten times more of the hormone than do women.
I call particular attention to the datum that testosterone produces in men as a group an ethos of competition in which the victor gets the spoils after reddening his teeth and claws on his victims and/or competitors.
This is, to be sure, not an ethos which by itself can support a complex civilization. For civilization to be viable, the male ethos must be, and indeed has been in the majority of societies, modified in order to allow for a cooperative ethos. The female of the species can probably take the lion's share of credit for promulgating this ethos-- and yes, they would deserve the lion's rather than the lioness's, since by all accounts the lion is the one who gets the most meat. It's possible that he gets the biggest share simply because he's big enough to beat down all competitors, though I wouldn't rule out another evolutionary possibility: that he gets it so that he has the energy necessary to fuck all the lionesses in the pride. Spoils, indeed.
The ethos also is not the only one that can inform the literature generated from civilization. It would be a dismal world if all we had for entertainment were stories of heroes beating villains.
However, it would also be a dismal and incomplete world if that particular type were missing, even if we still had all the others without alteration. And contrary to early elitist Gershon Legman and modern elitist Noah Berlatsky, one need not find some abberant psychology at work when men read stories of heroes beating villains, be it Legman's accusations of paranoia or Berlatsky's readings of "homosexual panic." If one must read Superman exclusively as an allegory for The Real World, the most logical and least strained allegory would be that Superman and similar adventure-stories allegorize the Competitive Ethos of Men.
I said above that a Cooperative Ethos comes in to modify said Competitive Ethos, but the latter certainly never goes away, any more than does its "objective correlative," the hormone that encourages men to compete not only for real gains like jobs and women but also for winning pointless contests with no money riding on the outcome.
(As a side-note, it can be argued that women haven't always been against the existence of this ethos. Given two primitive villages, one of which has a good crop and the other a failed one, how many women in Village Two would beg their men not to attack Village One: to let Village One keep its earned goods while the children of Village Two just starve to death?)
Legman's scatterbrained analysis is interesting, though, because he does put his finger on one fact about the adventure-genre: it exists in a continual state of crisis. But Legman fails to appreciate that this heightened state is at base a narrative trope whose purpose is to bring about for the readers' pleasure the dynamizing effects of the *agon.* Of the four Fryean "myth-nuclei" (my term), the *agon* most succinctly summarized the 'superiority dance' nature of all dynamizations because the *agon* involves a physical struggle, while the conflicts found in the other three "nuclei"--*pathos,* *sparagmos* and *cognitio*-- are more abstract in their nature and their effects.
In literature as in life, there's no getting away from the zero-sum-game of conflict, nor is there any justification for rejecting any genre for being overly fantasy-based. So I see no need for most of these reductive approaches to any genre, especially since they usually come off as simple-minded putdowns of those who patronize a given genre-- which is itself another "superiority dance" rather than a valid analysis.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
I don't expect I'll ever become a big Heidegger fan, in part because in recent years I read a translation of the "dueling lectures" that he and Cassirer gave opposite one another at Davos, Switzerland in 1929. While Cassirer's lecture might not have been his best work, Heidegger was flat-out BORING.
Still, certain aspects of the Heidegger philosophy work for me, at least on a poetic level, such as his concept of geworfenheit, usually translated as "throwness." Neither version appears as such in the passage above, but the oblique reference to "origins" is helpfully glossed by Robert Cavalier at his webpage, Overview of Being and Time:
"'How we find ourselves' expresses the fact that we are thrown into a 'world' already there before us -- this is most evident in the radical sense of Birth. Hence, one is literally 'thrown into a world' beyond one's control -- but this 'world' is not merely a particular environment -- it has its place in history: one is, broadly speaking, thrown into a historical moment."
Thus, long before Steve Gerber invented Howard the Duck, Martin Heidegger too found himself "trapped in a world he never made."
The idea that one is thrown into history (and by extension, into biological reality as well) might be a useful corrective to exaggerated ultraliberal claims as to the social construction of human reality, such as this one from poster JR on 12-2-09:
"Traditional conceptions of gender roles state that women, and by extension the feminine, are weak, and that men, and by extension the masculine, are strong."
This is part of her attempt to prove that said conceptions are at the root of hetero male antipathy for gay males, who are also conceived of as being effeminate and "weak" for being more like women than men. The reason that I call this statement "ultraliberal" (that is, taking sensible liberal concepts to an eccentric extreme) is simple.
It is not a "conception" that women are "weak" and men are "strong." It is, far more than any of the statistical verdicts that JR Brown has endorsed on her comment-posts hereabouts, a "fact."
Such a statistical verdict does not exclude the possibility that some women are physically stronger than some men. Nor does it nullify the niggle that women can be as "strong" with respect to their gender's physical potential as men can be with respect to theirs.
Based on a comparative scale like the ones JR champions when she thinks it supports her positions, men are "strong" insofar as they can move more sheer mass than can "weak" women.
I know that JR knows this, because everyone knows this. I'm forced to emphasize the obvious because JR's statement so flagrantly omits it. By putting aside the physical nature of the two sexes--"what has come down to us," in Heidegger's words-- she manages to structure her argument to elide this fact and so imply that symbolic attributions of strength and weakness are largely sociocultural constructions. And they are not.
Now, there exist real "conceptions" that arise from this statistical fact. One "conception," with which I would not have argued had JR put it forth, would be that the greater physical strength of men led them, in most cultures, to conceive that "strong" men should be the leaders and "weak" women the followers. That's a conceptual extrapolation from a particular fact but not a fact as such, and several developments of modern liberalism demonstrate its false logic.
From this base fact also arises the conception that JR does cite-- that gay men were effeminate and therefore "weak" like women-- though the etiology is not as crystal-clear as JR presumes. If one takes as a given JR's statement that the stereotype's oldest known manifestation is to be found in the days of the Roman Empire, that in no way proves that the the stereotype was articulated by hetero Romans, as JR implies. JR claims elsewhere that gays are quite capable of circulating their own stereotypes as cultural markers, and that their preference for hypermasculine bodies is one such marker, albeit apparently only of recent coinage. By that token it's also possible that early gays created the "mincing queen" stereotype themselves. One might well imagine the "mincing queen" stereotype arising as a marker that set the ancient gay apart, so that his society did not hold him to the same expectations as that society did for straight males. (The situation with lesbians would obviously require a different set of cultural markers, given the differing set of societal expectations.)
But whether straights or gays created the "weak effeminate" stereotype, there would be no question that it too could properly be called a "conception." Stereotypes, whether positive or negative, belong to that symbolic universe in which humanity lives while seeking to explore, excuse or understand the demands of their "given" natures in terms of biology and history.
The essential problem with the ultraliberal's tendency to overemphasize social constructedness of that nature is that it does a disservice to the complexity of our existence.
To the best of our knowledge no human being, prior to being born, asks to be either male or female. One is "thrown" into that somatic situation and then seeks as best one can to maximize life with that "given" status. (Even the surgical attempt to change that status is still a strategy to deal with the "given" status). One thus inherits not only one's biological potential and proclivities but also a long history of historically-originated cultural strategies through which men and women seek to maximize their lives, sometimes in conflict with one another, other times in cooperation.
Heidegger certainly was not a liberal, but his philosophy does bear a degree of resemblance to classical liberalism in that the individual does not simply accept his/her "thrown" nature, but ideally strives to evaluate every aspect of his existence (which is as close as I want to get to his concept of *Dasein* in this post).
In evaluating literature that is strongly aimed more at one gender than the other, one must determine what is "given" about it in terms of its history and the biological nature of said gender. JR attempts to address the historical nature of the adventure-genre through a purely social conception:
"Culturally-widespread conceptions of ideal maleness emphasize strength, both as a positive trait in its own light as well as a marker of masculinity.
Therefore, culturally-widespread conceptions of ideal maleness produced by men for male consumption (in the form of pulp fiction, action movies, and superhero comics, among others) reject femininity, both as a general marker of weakness and as a specific marker of gayness. This leads to the presentation of hypermasculinity as the ideal male state in such works."
The problem here is that JR has equated the portrayal of strength that one finds in the dominant type of adventure-hero with "hypermasculinity," which is an ultraliberal distortion of the literary mythology. I've already shown elsewhere that a pop-culture mythos like that of Superman does not "reject femininity" simply because the mythos is predominantly oriented toward a male readership. The "women men see" in such works may not be the way women want to be seen, any more than the "men women see" in women's romances are the way men want to be seen. But in neither case are we dealing with "rejection," and therefore we are not dealing with this incoherent conception of "masculine incoherence."
One can certainly find particular authors in the adventure-genre who reject femininity in a statistical sense-- that is, women have no substantive presence within a given mythos. Conan Doyle's novel THE LOST WORLD provides a strong example of this syndrome that does not necessitate willfully distorting the text, as JR and Noah Bertlatsky do in their considerations of Golden Age SUPERMAN comics. But negative depictions do not cancel out positive depictions, except for those who have made up their minds to see what they want to see.
I'll have more to say in a future post on the subject of the "throwness" of biological natures and how they affect each gender's dominant preferences, but for the present this will be the last response to JR's comments.
Monday, December 7, 2009
"I don't follow; the stereotype that gay men like muscular men? It is a stereotype that is well-known and frequently perpetuated by gay men themselves, partially as a corrective to the idea that gay men are universally feminine and desire to be so."
So if gay men dominantly like muscular men, and all gay men are trying to find other gay men with whom to make whoopee, then shouldn't most real-life gay men be bulked-up and steroidal?
It's quite possible that they are in JR's neck of the woods. But I suspect that even if this was so it would be the exception to the rule. It's my observation that most gay men, like most straight men, are of average build. Do gays fantasize about muscular men? I imagine that they do, but if they are fantasizing, rather than of seeing in fiction a type that they regularly encounter in real life, then their fantasies can't be reasonably distinguished from the fantasies of female patrons of American romance novels. In both cases gays and straight women may desire something that is rarely obtainable in real life, but which does have the real-life effect of turning them on.
Now, the fact that I've entertained this line of reasoning does not mean that I subscribe to JR's notion that gays are dominantly attracted to hypermasculine men, any more than I buy her notion that women are dominantly attracted to "beta male" types. I believe most heterosexuals and homosexuals demonstrate a wide gamut of tastes and that those who try to typify any group are usually those ready with a dull axe to grind.
JR, of course, objects to this sort of axe-grinding when it's turned against something she likes:
'As you do not appear to be a manga reader, you will probably not relate to this, but yaoi and shoujo manga and the women who read them are routinely derided (by men) because of the two genres' emphasis on androgynous, pretty male characters, which is taken as evidence that the readers cannot handle, cannot attract, or are afraid of "real men". I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone (almost always male) claim that all yaoi fans are pre-pubertal, terminally insecure or closet lesbians because real women want real men, who are by definition manly and muscular. (Plus the whole "gay is icky, women who like it are sick" thing.)'
I do not doubt that such individuals exist or that they have expressed such negative stereotyping. But I argue again, as I did before, that saying that the majority of gays prefer a certain physical type is no less a negative stereotype, even when it is in reaction (as it appears to be with JR) against another negative stereotype (i.e., gays are all mincing sissies).
JR's justification, I presume, is that she thinks that there have been enough trustworthy studies of female and gay responses to pronounce her stereotypes to be natural "trends" rather than stereotypes. Thus she thinks her stereotypes are justified by "science." But a science that contravenes what one can see with one's own eyes is a science like that of the famous joke that ends with, "After loss of all four legs, frog goes deaf."
JR said to me on 12-2-09:
'As to your dismissal of voluntary disclosure, why would women, en masse, lie to a computer program (as used in the Pope study) about which pictures of men they found more appealing? This smacks to me of the hoary old "women don't know what they want" argument.'
Well, they might prevaricate not because they're women but because they're human and they know that the data will be read somewhere by some other human, even if it's no one they know. They might fudge their true opinions because admitting that they like hypermuscular men makes them sound shallow, while saying that they like men who are "emotionally open" makes them sound mature and together. There's a whole chapter devoted to the topic of voluntary disclosure studies in Levitt and Dubner's SUPERFREAKONOMICS, on sale wherever fine books are sold. (Damn; if I'd had an Amazon link I'd of made some cash just now.)
If JR can show me studies in which hetero women's sexual responses were accurately measured and did not show any physical excitation at the sight of muscular males, then that might be something closer to dependable physical evidence. But one would still need a LOT of these readings to prove anything-- many more than the humble number of studies that JR's cited so far on this blog.
In the story of Philoctetes, the main character's poisoned wound is healed by rust from the spear that wounded him. That's a great fictional conceit, but it doesn't work in real life. One negative stereotype does not cancel out another, and roundabout attacks on superhero comics don't make Japanese manga any better than they already were.
Speaking of coherence, though, the blogger who started this topic in his COMICS IN THE CLOSET series deserves his share of the wealth:
"...male heterosexual identity is incoherent, built upon a binary definition of homosexual identity which is essentially untenable."
JR plainly agrees with this sentiment:
"Traditional conceptions of gender roles state that women, and by extension the feminine, are [sic] weak, and that men, and by extension the masculine, are [sic] strong."
I'll have more to say elsewhere about whether or not what JR describes should properly be called a "conception," but what amazes me about both of these statements is that the two writers can object to binarism in the alleged conceptions of masculine identity but have no problem about promulgating a similar binarism which says, in effect, "Masculine identity is incoherent but feminine identity is not."
I can't claim to have ever had the experience of being a woman. But simple observation and logic informs me that even if heterosexual women are not "incoherent" with respect to their identity when juxtaposed against the conceptions they have of homosexuality, they are certainly likely to be incoherent in some other way.
Elsewhere in the comments section, in an attempt to distance women from any "identity crisis," JR, while claiming on one hand that she hasn't tried to say that no women are ever attracted to the "hypermasculine" male, attempts to minimize the possibility by repeatedly claiming that women dominantly like less hypermasculine versions of maleness. This is tantamount to giving hetero women a free pass on the question as to whether their personal identities as heterosexuals might also be implicated in this "binary definition of homosexual identity."
That's right, guys.
No women ever make fun of other women for wearing masculine clothes, or eschewing makeup, or even looking "dikey" in some way.
Never happens. Or if it does, it's far less important than when those benighted males commit comparable acts.
Or-- is this sort of lacunae in the arguments of binary-hatin' Noah and JR really the greater form of-- incoherence?
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Now, it would be *possible* to read ANNO DRACULA without knowing all or most of these in-jokey references, but clearly the novel's major appeal is to genre-fans who will get all the references. Frankly, I found Newman's story and original characters rather flat and uninvolving, although it's certainly far from unreadable. Though comparisons are difficult given the differing media, I would tend to see that some if not all of the Moore/O'Neill LEAGUE-tales read better as pure stories, though in both cases the reader who isn't "in" on things is missing a large share of the respective works' intent, just as modern readers of Greek plays miss a lot by not knowing the fine details of Greek culture.
Now, comic books have come in for a lot of criticism for being heavily referential, for being too byzantine to appeal to a larger but less fannish readership. There's the distinct possibility that said readership was jumping the comic-book ship long before "the mainstream" began to become self-involved and "decadent," but that's a separate concern. My main concern here is to suggest that the "superhero decadence" argument, even if one focused it entirely upon the medium's increased involution, is still a flawed argument.
Clearly I am not going to argue that there don't exist "fanwanks" out there that are too involuted to make good or even mediocre reading. Quite a few hardcore fans have expressed their dislike of such stories, wishing for a return to greater concentration on telling good stories that may or may not include appeals to "continuity." So the elitst critics of "superhero decadence" aren't saying anything that a lot of hardcore fans don't say. The difference between the two groups is that the former would rather see the fans invest their money in something else, while the latter would rather continue to dance with the genre what brought them.
What the extreme elitists fail to realize-- and what even a so-so novel like ANNO DRACULA illustrates-- is that there is an intrinsic appeal to the idea of the "crossover." This can apply to (1) crossovers created by one author having interactions between the characters he himself creates, which takes in Balzac, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hernandez Brothers, (2) crossovers within the franchises owned by a given company, which are the type that dominate comic books, and (3) crossovers which reference either public-domain characters or use copyrighted characters in an "unofficial" status.
I suggest that in all of these the pleasure of the interaction remains the same, irrespective as to how well done the story is as a whole.
I have certainly read crossovers that I would rather have not seen. I didn't care to see Spider-Man overlap with the sage of Marvel's version of the Frankenstein Monster, as seen in a really crappy issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP, and I didn't particularly like Newman's having an august villain like Fu Manchu associate (as he does in AD) with a low-life crook like Bill Sikes of Dickens' OLIVER TWIST.
But these dislikes are a matter of taste as to execution. It's a pretty long shot as to whether anyone anywhere could do a good story crossing over Spider-Man and the Monster, but it's at least hypothetically possible. I wouldn't have thought Spider-Man could have a decent crossover with anyone's version of Fu Manchu, either, but the same feature that offered the crappy Spider-Franky teamup worked up a satisfactory crossover using Shang-Chi, the then-licensed Son of Fu Manchu, as a medium to associate the two.
ANNO DRACULA certainly appeals to this fannish love of making connections between characters originally designed to stand independent of one another, as if bringing all of them under the rubic of a fannish "collective unconscious." One can also cite a fair number of other non-comics projects that appeal to the same dynamization, even if some of them play the matter for laughs (Neil Simon's MURDER BY DEATH, obviously).
It might be fair to say that mainstream comic books have become over-invested in this particular iteration of "literary decadence." But it is not fair to portray the "ornate" nature of the crossover as something unique to mainstream comic books, or to blithely ignore the financial factors that have led to the development.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Some time after I roundly dismissed the ability of either current Jouralistas or former Journalistas (except for yours truly, of course) to say anything substantive about the interactions of sexuality and violence in popular culture, it occured to me: why not challenge others to do so?
I'm not talking about responding to anything I've written or will write. I'll probably write down Part 2 of VIOLENCE AIN'T NUTHIN' in the next few days, but I don't expect much commentary given that I'm coming at the problem from a more radical direction than the usual Freudian/Marxist hand-me-downs.
I throw it open to all pop-cultural bloggers because (1) I don't really expect much of a response from comic-book bloggers, and (2) I'd love to see what people like Curt Purcell and Brittney-Jade Colangelo might come up with.
There's no prize and I don't plan to collate anything, so the only motivation for accepting the challenge is The Pride of a Blog Well Blogged.
The basic topic as I see it might be phrased along the lines of, "Are sexuality and violence different, and if so, how?"
But obviously anyone who accepts will write on any damn thing he or she thinks relevant.
There's no time-limit, either. On a challenge this free-form, it wouldn't be practical. If someone tells me about accepting the challenge, I'll link to it in a post, whether I comment on the topic addressed or not.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Look, ma, it's a couple of superladies in--
As explained here, I first encountered this Journalista post by Dirk Deppey this year, over a year after he posted it. My only reaction to the picture, as I also explained, was that I couldn't tell what was going on from that one panel so as to judge whether or not the picture was replete with what Deppey called "superhero decadence."
I was in no hurry to rush out and find a copy of SUPERGIRL #14 in order to confirm or deny Deppey's assertions. In the last year I haven't gone out of my way to read many titles, mainstream or "alternative," but I had read some odd issues of the New Millennium's Supergirl. Of the issues I read, I found them moderately interesting as meta-commentary on the Silver Age original but not entertaining enough to stick with the title.
Then a local comic-shop had one of its semi-annual sales, so I picked up a bunch of stuff, including several SUPERGIRLS, at half price. I've still not read the full range of early issues, but I have now read #14 and adjacent issues.
And I think Dirk Deppey's opinion is pure crap.
Anyone who cares to read it again will find that he presents no textual evidence for his view that this violent exchange between the above characters, Supergirl and Batgirl, carries a sexual charge for either the creators or the majority of the audience reading it.
Like most Journalistas, Dirk Deppey is spiritual kin to Fredric Wertham. The good doctor remains justly famous for sloppily-researched, heavily-slanted interpretations of Golden Age comic books. With the possible exception of Marston's WONDER WOMAN, most of the comic books Wertham attacked would seem entirely mild to modern readers.
SUPERGIRL #14 should be no different. It's not a particularly glowing example of good formulaic comics, and this review points a lot of problems in Joe Kelly's script.
But "superhero decadence?" Please.
There's no denying that images of violence can take on connotations of sexuality, either with or without the express intentions of the artist. Deppey himself says as much.
But his assumption that this particular expression of violence MUST connote sexual perversion to the majority of its fannish audience-- who are of course Deppey's real targets, those dopey fanboys who just won't appreciate the great comics-art published by Fantagraphics-- shows stunning ignorance as to how sexuality and violence interact in modern entertainment.
Are there sexual fetishes dealing with women fighting? Most definitely.
Are there sexual fetishes dealing explicitly with women stabbing one another? Possibly, though I couldn't find any in this list of paraphilias.
If there is an actual recorded sexual fetish dealing with women stabbing other women with crystals growing out of their backs, I'd sure like to know what kind of pseudo-Greek cognomen you'd give to the damned thing.
Deppey's interpretative blunder stems from the over-identification of sex and violence that Daddy Freud pioneered. I'll be writing more on the distinctions between the two phenomena elsewhere, but frankly, the Supergirl thing strikes me as pure violence, no more intrinsically sexual than the most uninspired drawing of Wolverine impaling someone, like this:
The problem as I see it is that elitist critics like Deppey
have no idea how to deal with the unique dynamizations
of violence, so the best they can do by way of analysis is compare them to the dynamizations of sex (even if,
granted, no critic besides me would be using the
term "dynamization.") Further, by assuming that the
two phenomena overlap much more than they do, they can once again promote the notion of the Pedagogical Paradigm,
and "prove" that true maturity is to be found in the works that they just happen to publish.
I don't think most fans have been fooled by the Paradigm
enough to turn over their fan-status and assume the mantle of artwads. Perhaps the JOURNAL's recent conversion from print to online status signals as much.
As I've had occasion to say before--
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
"Human life... is composed of two heterogenous parts that never blend. One part is purposeful, given significance by utilitarian and therefore secondary ends; this part is the one we are aware of. The other is primary and sovereign; it may arise when the other is out of gear; it is obscure, or else blindingly clear; either way it evades the grasp of our aware intelligence"-- Georges Bataille, EROTISM, p. 193.
"In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation"-- Bataille, EROTISM, p. 16.
In THYMOS Part 1 I took issue with Noah Berlatsky's express opinion that aesthetic perceptions were rooted in desire; in what Socrates (according to Plato) called eros. I took the contrary positions that eros is not complex enough to explain the multifarous dynamizations offered by the many varieties of human art, and that if art is rooted in any human mental category it would be the one Socrates/Plato called thymos. I will be examining thymos here less in the terms of the philosophers who used it most-- Plato, Hegel, and more modern thinkers like Kojeve and Fukuyama-- than to address the systems of the above-cited Nietzsche and Bataille. Though these two philosophers did not address the concept of thymos in any organized way, both of them had more pertinent things to say about how human beings create art and what it means when they encode real-life aspects of kinetic experience-- particularly sex and violence-- into art. (I should perhaps specify "narrative art," since that's the only kind I'll be writing on.)
I'll start out by giving a simple example as to how one's nous (reason) can make distinctions between eros and thymos. Say that a man has desire for a woman, and succeeds in satisfying that desire. If the man boasts about the encounter later, it is not the desire itself of which he boasts, for the desire has been satisfied, or at least satiated. What he boasts of is the accomplishment of having persuaded the woman to have sex. This accomplishment validates the man's sense of self-esteem, and thus falls under the category of thymos, as described by the Socratic example cited earlier.
The lack of a principle that approximates thymos is one of the many problems with Freudian psychology, which, as mentioned before, is limited by its overdependence on a rigid dichotomy between a "pleasure principle" and a "reality principle." The citations from Nietzsche and Bataille above also propose dichotomies of human nature, but theirs are considerably less rigid and more subtle in nature, thus allowing for an interpreter (like me) to see ways in which the question of the self-esteem dynamization can be discerned within their systems, particularly Bataille's.
Both, it will be noted, propose a principle of human nature more or less like Freud's "reality principle," though Nietzsche's "self-preservation" principle predates Freud while Bataille's "purposeful, utilitarian principle" postdates Big Sigmund. Arguably in many works Nietzsche is not much less rigid than Freud, though he is certainly the deeper thinker, but Bataille, influenced by both of them, arguably took the best both had to offer while grounding their insights in greater knowledge of then-current ethnography and anthropology.
Significantly, where Freud merely imagines an airy, delusory "pleasure principle" as the opposing force to grim reality, Nietzsche sees "the venting of strength" as being the primary goal of life, as opposed to simply keeping one's body in a safe posture of self-preservation. Bataille's EROTISM does not speak so much of "will to power" as the temptation to transgress the "utilitarian" limits of ordinary life. This is why, in his second cited quote, he equates "eroticism" and "violence," which is an equation I do not agree with though Bataille's case for the equivalence is nevertheless more subtle and meaningful than Freud's.
Bataille's primary insight for literary criticism is the image he uses to present eroticism and violence as equivalent phenomena: "sensuous frenzy" (p. 192). Whether this adequately describes real-life sex and violence does not matter for the purposes of literary criticism, but I suggest that Bataillean "frenzy" does describe how fictional sex and violence impact upon the majority of readers. Bataille doesn't substantially address literature in EROTISM, except for the sensualized violence-scenarios presented by the Marquis de Sade, but elsewere he makes the trope of "transgression against the norm" his hallmark, so I feel secure in adapting his terms for the purpose of literary criticism.
What EROTISM makes clear is that even though one may be experiencing fantasies of sex and/or violence through an intellectualized medium (Plato's "copy of a copy"), this is still the essence of a human (as opposed to animal) activity. He does not, as noted before, directly relate this to the subject of thymos, but because fiction is not the "real thing," is not eros in the raw, it is closer to the nature of thymos in the same way that the sexual conqueror's boast, his tall tale of sexual conquest, represents thymotic rather than erotic stimulation.
Now, even though fictional sex and violence share this quality of "sensuous frenzy," one must not ignore the differences between them. In this essay I found fault with Wertham for choosing to interpret fictional comic-book violence as a source of sexual sadism. This half-baked interpretation overlooked the fact that for many readers of (say) Superman comics, as well as creator Jerry Siegel, the matter of crime was not some unreal phenomenon. Faulty intellectuals like Freud and Wertham are usually inattentive to the real forces of violence with which less sheltered humans, particularly male humans, are obliged to contend, and so such poor thinkers fall back on fallacious analyses relating violence to-- well, phallicism.
My essays on sadism dealt with many of these stillborn conceptions, so I probably won't go over the same ground again unless a fresh subject comes to the fore. But knowing the quality of a lot of comics-criticism today, I probably won't have to wait long.
Monday, November 23, 2009
In some comments to A. Sherman Barros here I mentioned that the question of rape in comic books had become a cultural taboo in America despite the fact that comic books, in my opinion, are essentially a medium directed at adults. However, in prose romance novels no such taboo seems to exist, and indeed the trope is so embraced that often the rape has been perpetrated on the victimized romance-heroine not by some slavering villain, but by the stalwart hero. I say "has been" because I have seen some articles that state that the "Golden Age of Rapine" (my term) took place in the 70s and 80s and that the trope is not nearly so popular in this millennium's romances.
I cannot refute this assertion inasmuch as I've read very few modern romance novels. However, I do have the impression that the trope still gets ample usage. In some essay or other I have mentioned that when I'm not busy savaging foul elitist scum (who are, as we all know, a superstititous and cowardly lot) I put food on the table as a library cataloguer. And though in this mild-mannered identity I don't *read* a lot of romances, I certainly *see* a lot of them, and many's the time that I've encountered a frontispiece reading something like:
'The lady Arabella Winread blanched at the bold remarks of cocky young Edgar Wagstaff. "But surely, young Lord," she stammered, "you understood that our marriage was to be in name only!"'
'Edgar smiled his devil's smile as he said--'
Actually that's usually about as far as I would usually read, so I can't give a good approximation as to what cocky young Edgar said, though I'm pretty sure it had something to do with taking his rights in the nuptial bed over her feeble protests-- which is to say, that he had every intention of raping her. The passages so excerpted generally capture much better than I can how Lady Arabella would surge with conflicting ladylike passions even as she professed horror at his threat, so just from those excerpts alone there's no question that the threat of rape is meant to titillate the reader, who is more likely than not of the female gender.
So rape, a heinous crime, becomes in fiction a source of titillation, at least when it's being perpetrated by a handsome swain. In itself this is no different than a host of similar dynamizations which fictional narrative makes possible. But having said that, is titillation all there is to the matter?
In THYMOS Parts 1 and 2 I spoke at length of some of the ways there might be some continuity between modern human readers, early humans and even non-humans with regard to how the males of a given community would compete with other males for females and thus for "reproductive rights." I was (for all the good it did me) careful to specify that I was speaking of the way social pressures are transformed into fictional narrative that has more to do with expressing fantasies than recording literal occurences. I also noted here an example of one 20th-century artist, the "King of Comics" himself, who had clearly internalized the myth of such conflict as natural to homo sapiens as he understood things.
But as many others have noted, even in the nonhuman world sexual selection is not confined to which male is the "alpha male." In some species the male seeks above all to impress the female with some sign of his excellence. Jack Kirby speaks of offering the female a "victory," but often the "victory" has nothing to do with a battle but with something closer to a male "beauty contest," in which the prize (the female) is won by (say) the male fiddler crab with the biggest claw, or cocky young Edgar the Peacock and his big ol' beautiful tail.
This pattern of sexual selection does not invalidate the more familiar examples of alpha-male dominated societies, such as the chimpanzee societies discussed earlier. There is certainly a reality to those struggles for sexual predominance: it's simply not the only pattern in existence. Given the fluidity of human beings, it should not surprise anyone if our species is capable of following in some cases the pattern of the alpha male and in others the pattern of the "male beauty contest."
Now, peahens and female fiddler crabs may have been hardwired from the start to go for the most extravagant male appurtenance (no matter how disadvantageous said appurtenance was for its owner in terms of pure survival). Or it may have been a chance assertion of nonhuman aesthetics that later became hardwired over time. We don't know and can never know. But aesthetics aren't the only factor, either.
One study (which I recall only by barest memory) noted that a pattern of behavior in a collection of farm-hens in which they would, before consenting to mate with the local cock-of-the-walk, would perform an examination of the rooster's wattles. The observer theorized that the hens, rather than being enthralled with the fascinating maleness of the wattles, were actually searching for signs of a certain disease which manifested in discolorations of that organ.
Thus it seems that among a variety of animals courting-rituals combine aspects of aesthetics and pragmatic realities which probably aren't as separate for the animals as they are for humans. Does the mare who forces the stallion to chase her do so because the chase stimulates her for mating? Or because the stallion's ability to overtake her proves his genetic fitness? Or both?
I would cautiously suggest that the prevalence of the scenario of "rape-by-the-good-guy" in romance novels (not to mention the related manifestation of the romance genre within the television soap opera; paging LUKE AND LAURA) might also combine elements of the pragmatic and the aesthetic. The threat of fantasy-rape may have some degree of its appeal rooted in the female desire to make certain that the desired male does, indeed, have the goods he advertises, without the onus of waiting for the sanctification rites of marriage.
Thus, the power to rape, if it does signify potency in these stories, also signifies that the rakish hero is worth the heroine's trouble. She would hardly want to bother "stooping to conquer" him otherwise.
I do not know, as stated earlier, much about current romance-novels. For all that I know, the teaser on the frontispiece, in which Cocky Edgar intimates his intention to rape Lady Arabella, may be *never* more than a "tease" these days. But even if this were the case, that does not erase the history of "the Golden Age of Rapine." A heavily-repeated trope such as this one, which flies in the face of common sense, clearly has deep roots in human psychology.
Note that I do not say "feminine psychology." I assume that the doctrinaire Freudian take on the romance-rape trope would be to prate about an inherent masochism in all women. I believe in this sort of "one sex" theorizing as much as I do Eve Sedgewick's nonsense about defining masculinity in terms of some trumped-up "incoherence." There are worthwhile distinctions to make about masculine and feminine psychologies, but anyone who constructs a theory that elevates one gender above the other is merely playing the time-worn games of the morally-bankrupt elitist. As to how both masculine and feminine psychologies might be imbricated in common fantasies of sex and violence, I'll be speaking more to that in THYMOS PART 3.