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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Saturday, May 29, 2010


In this blogpost Tom Spurgeon argued that comics-fans needed some "new" arguments to replace the worn-out ones. Of the three he listed, I thought only one was even close to being new, or at least not often circulated: the one pertaining to the morality of reprinting archival material. I doubt that it's going to ever become a popular topic in future, though it's at least an interesting one. The other two, though, are old as the hills, as someone who once edited the JOURNAL should know. Critiques of both direct-sales comics shops and of what superhero comics are "really saying" were practically the JOURNAL's rhetorical bread-and- butter during the 80s and 90s, though I can't speak for the "oughts" as I don't think I bought any of the ones from the pre-digital incarnation.

On THE BEAT 5-27-10 I replied to the third question only:

There’s nothing “new” about the question of what superheroes mean, as it goes back to the first hostile commentaries on the genre by Sterling North, Gershon Legman and Doctor You Know Who (no relation to Doctor Who). What WOULD be novel would be to frame the question of what their stories mean in terms of genre considerations, as [other guy who posted on THE BEAT] did above. One can get somewhere by saying that you prefer the way prose sci-fi treats fantasy-concepts to the way superhero comics treat them; that’s a starting-point. But when Spurgeon says that superheroes are being justified only in terms of their profitablity, that’s just a baseless assertion, unless he wants to point to specific comments by fans (“I sure am happy Marvel’s mid-year report was positive!”)

Now, I will qualify the above by saying that though Spurgeon's argument is poorly expressed, I don't interpret his remarks as coming from the old "let's hate superheroes" elitist place. For instance, he says:

Some characters also embody abstract principles that are frequently betrayed by the soap opera elements of twist, turn, shock and surprise. When characters that extol the virtues of great responsibility act in an irresponsible fashion and are rewarded in some way, that can confuse the effectiveness of an idea you're foisting on people as a core strength of said character. If you really think your characters have cultural power, or even iconic status, switching up what makes them that way for some sort of temporary oomph in this year's mega-crossover just weakens your ability to communicate those primary ideas over the long term.

The worst thing about the above passage-- which is pretty much how all the rest of the piece is written-- is the lack of concrete examples to illustrate what he means by "abstract principles," "irresponsible fashion," and "core strength." The rhetorical advantage of providing no examples, of course, is that when one chooses an example, one forfeits generalizing power. If one says, "A good example of this is Ron Marz's GREEN LANTERN," then a respondent can immediately reply that Ron Marz's GREEN LANTERN is more the exception than the rule. Then Spurgeon would presumbaly be caught in a game of "dueling examples" in which, to pursue his paradigm, he'd have to prove that Marz's trashing of GREEN LANTERN is statistically the dominant paradigm.

But though I can understand why Spurgeon might have chosen to avoid getting drawn into this sort of paradigm measuring competition, his argument still collapses if he doesn't provide specifics. Anyone can garner a lot of agreement if he stands in the street and yells, "Things are worse today than they've ever been, right?" But if you want a coherent back-and-forth, you simply have to define terms, no matter how much extra trouble it may be.

Still, in the above quote Spurgeon at least allows for the possibility that superhero stories may actually *possess* "core strength" or "cultural power," which distances him somewhat from the more extreme elitist position of, say, Gary Groth. But here too one needs definition of terms. Spurgeon's next few sentences come closest to doing so:

Santa always stays on message. Superman might consider following Santa's lead.

This isn't much of a definition, of course, though it seems to suggest that Spurgeon associates a character's "core strength" with lack of change of the kind brought on by "twist, turn, shock and surprise." Of course neither Superman or Santa have ever been been icons of Parmenidean constancy; it's just that their changes as icons have been "slow and steady," evolving with the cultural moment, rather than imposed on them by changes in artistic or editorial influences.

Here Spurgeon seems to advocating the tortoise over the hare, just as I showed Theodor Adorno doing in this essay. Here's Adorno favoring the "light art" of archaic times over the "mass culture" produced in his own era:

Whether folk-songs were rightly or wrongly called upper-class culture in decay, their elements have only acquired their popular form through a long process of repeated transmission. The spread of popular songs, on the other hand, takes place at lightning speed.

The logical problem in this preference for slow-changing iconicity over the continual shocks, thrills and chills of "mass culture" (or what Spurgeon calls "soap opera") is that there is no satisfactory way to demonstrate that the former alone can signify "cultural power." From the proper POV, constant Heraclitean change may be as much a part of our culture as Parmenidean semi-permanence. So even though I would not choose Ron Marz' GREEN LANTERN as a fit example of a good Heraclitean soap opera, I think that something like the Wolfman-Perez NEW TEEN TITANS, despite its many flaws, might serve in its place.

In the 1952 essay "Archetype and Signature" (unfortunately not online), Leslie Fiedler explored many of the conflicts between the culture, which seeks to establish icons of semi-permanence, and the artist, who often (if not always) seeks to establish his unique persona through his treatment of said icons. And although Fiedler more or less disavowed the essay in later years, it's the sort of thing that a lot of comics-critics could learn from nonetheless.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Once again those titans of terror-analysis, CWRM and Groovy Age's Curt Purcell seem poised to join in blogforsaken combat over the true meaning of terror.


Well, anyone with a functioning brain will probably "win" just from watching the intellectual interactions of the "fight." It's sad that so little discussion on this level ever appears on comics-blogs, including that that sell themselves as bastions of critical awareness.

The current argument begins with CWRM's post on a C.S. Lewis essay about the distinctions between "fear" and "dread," which can be read here. CWRM draws on Lewis' illustration, in which he sees "fear" as arising from a knowable threat, like a tiger, while "dread," which is "a different kind" of fear, arises from something not fully knowable, like a ghost. CWRM, who has as Curt points out raised some doubts about the commensurability of archaic and modern emotional states, says to this:

Aside from being an unexpected, but lucid voice in the on-going discussion about the varieties of horror, I also find Lewis's insights interesting for calling into question the common "just so" story that horror, as we now conceive of the emotion that fuels of genre entertainments, has some clear lineage to the psychological lives of ancient ancestors. While he doesn't doubt that our ancestors lived in demon-haunted worlds, he raises the question of whether one could conceive of supernatural forces when one hadn't conceived of a "natural" world. If everything is supernatural, isn't that your natural? And, if that's so, is the uncanny a fear of relatively recent vintage (in terms of the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution)?

The question as to whether primitive man did or did not conceive of a difference between "natural" and "supernatural" is a vexing one, but though I like Lewis' distinction I don't agree with his logic, for I tend to think that primitive man made such a distinction. I don't think Early Man had more than the most rudimentary version of modern science-based rationales, but as I pointed out in my attack on Steven Grant's distortion of Joseph Campbell, there are many things that primitive man would've witnessed that didn't need mythic explanations. My chosen example was that of the river: whereas one can't see the operations of the sun or moon up close, water flowing on the ground is at least as understandable as a baby's crawl. We perhaps don't know conclusively that primitive man deified rivers, but we know that by the time we get to ancient Sumer, people are mythifying rivers as being the flowing pee-streams of Enki, among other conceits.

So I think it possible that Early Man could have had a rough division separating the profane and the everyday (the world of the tiger) from the world of the sacred and numinous (the world of the ghost). And one of my proofs for that opinion is that something like it seems to crop up in a few of mankind's evolutionary predecessors.

In PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY philosopher Susanne K. Langer recounts the early findings of the primatologists of her time, particularly the 1931 study of Winthrop Kellogg, THE APE AND THE CHILD, in which behaviorist Kellogg attempted to determine the limits of nature and nurture by raising a chimp like a human baby in his own home. Langer says:

"Gua, the little chimpanzee who was given the benefits of a human nursery, showed some very remarkable reactions to objects that certainly had no direct associations with her past experiences," such as toadstools, of which "she stood in "mortal fear."

In related experiments by other primatologists, it was found that "one subject in every three or four" showed this intense aversion to toadstools. Langer says:

"Some are sensitive to the sight, and the rest are not; to some of them it seems to convey something-- to others it is just a thing, a toadstool or what you will."

In my article on horror comics I noted that for a horror comic to be horrifying one had to be "receptive," and this would seem to be even more the case for anthropoids who, lacking language, cannot form more than the most rudimentary associative linkages.

Now, I don't know how modern primatologists would rate the findings of Kellogg or any of the other early authorities Langer cites. But this online article by Frans de Waal (whom, oddly enough, I just finished writing about here) suggests that there's still considerable debate in modern primatology as to the precise degree to which animals have cognitive abilities. Thus I'm going to go on the theory that Kellogg's findings are probably still relevant.

Now, we're no nearer knowing what makes apes react in fear to toadstools, any more than we know what if anything struck terror in the hearts of Early Man. But these early findings on the existence of irrational "ape fear" (so to speak) would seem to support the notion that fear can arise in animals without its connoting danger, as in Lewis' example of the tiger. The toadstools, then, would seem to connote for the apes something that Wolfgang Kohler calls an "aesthetic fright," even coming from creatures who could not frame anything resembling an aesthetic statement.

I tend to see early primitives as having at least as much cognitive ability as their ancestors, and so I don't favor the notion that they looked at tigers and ghosts as the same sort of unknowable or even supernaturally-tinged phenomena. A tiger might be some tribe's totem, but it might not be the totem for every tribe, and to the ones that didn't worship the beast, it was perhaps just that, a beast. A ghost, however, should have been somewhat of a metaphenomenon to any member of any tribe, given that it didn't eat and poop the way other animals did.

And this goes a long way toward explaining why I think that the worlds of archaic and modern man are basically commensurable, whether or not one cares to explore that aspect of horror or not.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Re: the LOST finale-- I called a fair number of developments, but obviously, not The Ending.

Elsewhere I said that I felt that LOST would end with some sort of figurative transcendence. Technically I wasn't wrong, but given all the philosophical issues with which the program dealt, I had hoped for something more substantive.

At some point I recall reading a quote from one of the producers, either Cuse or Darlton, asserting that he didn't think viewers should consider either Timeline A or Timeline B to be "unreal." I don't have the quote to hand any more, but assuming that I'm remembering it correctly, the producer in question may have prevaricated a wee bit. Again technically, "Timeline B" is not "unreal," since it's apparently a way station for souls struggling to connect with their forgotten lives. Thus it's "real" in the metaphysical sense. But I'm reasonably sure that the guy who made that statement knew that his audience wouldn't be thinking in those terms. Said fans were probably thinking more along the lines of, "Is this a timeline that has to be sacrificed, like the Edith Keeler timeline in CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER?"

Now it's perfectly legitimate for authors to dissimulate to keep their audience from guessing where a given story (particularly a continuing story, and particularly in the Internet Age) is going to go. So the maybe-Cuse/maybe-Darlton quote as such doesn't bother me.

I am a little bothered, thought, that they set up a question within the boundaries of the show and didn't conceive a solid answer. I could have lived with simple ambiguity, but after six seasons of hinting to audiences that determinism and/or causality were not the only game in town, the producers stepped back from the implications of their philosophical setup.

I wrote here:

A happy medium betweeen free will and determinism would have to acknowledge the reality of all of the empirical factors that make a deterministic worldview possible, much as Kant acknowledges the reality of the contingent. LOST has made this acknowledgement consistently-- "Dead is dead," "Whatever happened, happened"-- but the show has also consistently suggested that, though contingency can't be abolished as it is in a C.S. Lewis apocalypse, it can be suspended for a time.

I'm not objecting to LOST's decision to rule in favor of contingency. It's certainly their right to portray such a world. But when Sherlock Holmes exposes the untruthfulness of vampirism in "The Sussex Vampire," the detective doesn't do so by resorting to guys whose psychic powers give them the power to temporarily change the future. Sherlock doesn't say things like "Don't mistake coincidence for fate;" he says that coincidence is all there is and fate is just man's attempt to see connnections where none exist.

Frankly, though there were some touching moments all through the finale, I would have preferred a resolution like the one propounded by many LOST fans: that somehow the two continua would be merged. Some characters would still be dead, some might be alive but changed, and so on.

At the same time this "third world" would have been very difficult to intimate to the viewing audience, since it would've occured at the climax, when there wouldn't be much time to expound on what had changed and why. When DC Comics started getting into multiversal matters, they'd confine themselves to a few turned-around touchstones-- the new Flash lived in a different city from the old Flash, or Benedict Arnold was the first president of the United States. But this sort of turnabout is appropriate to story-beginnings, not conclusions.

The "limbo-LOST" explanation of Timeline B had the advantage of making it possible for all of the characters to revisit moments that the hardcore fans loved, and that may have been the bottom line, even more than exploring the themes of "letting go" or of "celebrating the moments of your life." But more than the jillion and one continuity questions that'll (mostly) never be answered, I'm bothered by the LOSTguys bringing a gun onto the stage and never firing it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


(The title will mean nothing to anyone who didn't grow up on western-spoof cartoons, where some character would find himself out in the desert, where he'd pass by a sign reading "Last Chance Saloon," followed by a "Really Last Chance" one, and finally a "Honest, Really Really Last Chance" indicator.)

Having said nothing about Timeline-A in my last post, I figured I might as well take a really really last shot at that one today.

Back in this post, I argued that LOST's finale should, going by the themes its producers have tenaciously pursued, comprise a "happy medium" between the C.S. Lewis type of narrative world, where "perfect service" leads to an apocalyptic "perfect freedom," and the Sartre-style narrative in which Pure Necessity rules all, and the only thing man can control is his attitude toward that fact, be it the happiness of Sisyphus or Nietzsche's "amor fati."

Desmond, whom I've called the Holy Fool, is possibly the key out of the Locked Room of Necessity. In "What They Died For" both Widmore and Unlocke speak of Desmond's status as a "fail-safe" which is something of a double-edged sword. Prior to his rather abrupt departure from the world, Widmore had some plan to use Desmond to defeat or kill the Monster, but now the Monster, who was perfectly happy to put a bullet in Desmond's head a few stories ago, suddenly seems to think it's a good idea to use Desmond to "destroy the island." Jacob has also apparently informed the castaways of the need to destroy Smokey, though I'll be surprised if Jacob has actually given them anything approximating a plan to do so. STAR WARS is the George Lucas film most often quoted in LOST, but on the whole the producers seem much more inspired by the philosophy of Indiana Jones ("I'm makin' it up as I go along!")

A happy medium betweeen free will and determinism would have to acknowledge the reality of all of the empirical factors that make a deterministic worldview possible, much as Kant acknowledges the reality of the contingent. LOST has made this acknowledgement consistently-- "Dead is dead," "Whatever happened, happened"-- but the show has also consistently suggested that, though contingency can't be abolished as it is in a C.S. Lewis apocalypse, it can be suspended for a time. The stone of Sisyphus must always fall, but where Sartre's stone always falls the same way, LOST's metaphorical stone sometimes turns up new ground in the WAY it falls. Desmond can't prevent Charlie from dying somehow, but the way Charlie finally DOES die discloses to the castaways information about their world that they would not have known, had Charlie died by lightning or by drowning. Faraday's pyrrhic use of the Jughead bomb doesn't get rid of the old, undesireable world, but it does spawn a new world right alongside it. The producers have been quoted as saying that it's wrong to see "Timeline-B" as less real than "Timeline-A," which I take as a warning that we're NOT going to see a reprise of "dueling realities," such as we get from the classic STAR TREK episode, "City on the Edge of Forever." I think it's quite likely that we will see one or more grand gestures of renunciation-- Sawyer looks like a pretty likely "candidate" at this point. But the notion some fans expressed, that Jack or others might have to choose their current Sisyphean lot over a more wonderful-looking life in "Timeline B," seems incongruent with the themes that the LOSTguys have diligently explored. Some sort of merging of the two worlds looks more promising for the "end" postulated by Jacob.

"It always ends the same," says the Man in Black, and this endorsement of cyclic repetitiveness would seem to reflect much of the recursiveness of LOST, where characters continually behold evidence of being trapped in patterns no less repetitive than the punishment of Sisyphus: Hurley's numbers, Charlie's multiple deaths, Jack's Christlike wounds (I'm going to guess that the neck-wound that B-Jack is experiencing reflects something that will happen to A-Jack, but it may be only a symbolic death a la Harry Potter's big finish). Jacob takes the Christian position, saying that there will be an end beside which all of the earlier repetitions will seem like mere "progress." But what form can transcendence take, if one does not nullify the world of the contingent? Surely it will be more than just Sartre's attitude change, or Kant's "immanent metaphysics." Even the extra-diegetic thematics I mentioned before, re THE HAPPENING, may not be enough.

"We shall be changed," insists First Corinthians. So I'm expecting some change in the finale. If it won't be a Lewis-style apocalypse, it should be at least as momentous as the changes wrought by Desmond and Faraday.

Friday, May 21, 2010


...to speculate where LOST will end up as of Sunday, May 30. Since I haven't done too badly in past posts I may as well take some shots.

My biggest maybe-spoiler relates to what the "unLosted" characters in Timeline-B are going to do for their part of the resolution. Given all the stuff about time-travel and teleportation I can't help a tendency to imagine a STAR TREK-y scenario in which all the "unLosteds" get together and their bodies give off an ILM light-show as they magically transpose the two continua. I know intellectually that's NOT going to happen, but I have to say it to get it out of the way.

A friend and I recently brainstormed a more likely scenario based on what the type of narrative stratagems that the LOSTguys have already used before.

Start with the notion of "eternal recurrence," as expressed in Nietzche's THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA:

'Everything straight lies,' murmured the dwarf disdainfully. 'All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.'

Now, in place of Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence," LOST gives us what I'll term "eternal recursiveness," in which patterns continue to propagate themselves in different arrangements. LOST's attitude toward the repetition should probably be distinguished from Nietzsche's concept, since for Nietzsche the only expression of "free will" in this situation was "amor fati," the love of one's fate. I think that the LOSTguys might be moving toward some less Classical, perhaps more Postmodernist conception of fate, but in any event, "eternal recursiveness" isn't quite the same as "eternal recurrence."

Now, how did the Oceanic Six work to alleviate the problems of the Island (even if they alone didn't effect the cure as such). By going back to the Island.

So how will the "unLosteds" right whatever's awry in two universes? I'm guessing that they, too, will have to get on a plane again, and fly to where an island hasn't "disappeared," but where one supposedly has never existed.

Where it goes from there, who knows. But that's the sort of established narrative motif I could easily see the LOSTguys repeating.

Other stuff:

Jack and Claire are apparently going to the airport to claim their father's body. Since Desmond is the source of the message the coffin may or may not actually be there. If it is, I don't see that this stratagem leads much of anywhere, unless the siblings discover a clue to the mystery of the music box in the coffin. I'd speculate that both of them will be shanghaied at the airport by Desmond but it would seem to be more important that they should be at the concert the same night Desmond calls Jack about the body. If Jack finally gets to see his dead father laid to rest, though, that may provide some sort of important closure for the series.

Also, Desmond is apparently going to the concert with Kate. Kate will almost certainly have an "ah-ha" moment with Claire once more. Maybe she will repeat her delivery of Claire's baby? Good: I definitely did not want to see Ethan putting his hands down there.

Hurley is off with Sayyid again, doing their ADIOS AMIGO thing. I'm laying heavy odds that they're going to coerce Jun and Sin into leaving the hospital (probably ABANDONING THEIR POOR KID AGAIN), which might be somewhat feasible with Sayyid along for the ride, in that Jin knows he owes his life to Sayyid.

It's vague as to where the concert is, but possibly it's at Pierre Chang's museum, though that sounds like an odd setting for a concert. That would make it possible for Sawyer, Miles, Chang, Charlotte, Kate and Desmond to be there at the same time, as well as Jack and Claire if they indeed don't get hung up at the airport. Charlie might even find some excuse to show up, and my friend suggested that Jack might invite John Locke to the show, though the act sounds a little out of character for Jack. Odds are also fair that David's mom will be there, and that it will be Juliet, who will in turn meet Sawyer for that coffee she suggested back in Timeline-A.

That leaves Ben, Daniel, and the Widmores with no particular reason to be at the concert, but I'm sure they'll get in somehow.

As for Timeline-A-- well, maybe I need another post for that after all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


For the time being I'm mostly finished with the topic of incest in literary works, though I imagine it'll come up again, given that I stated that it was the best possible symbol of the transgressive nature of sex. However, while on this topical roll I couldn't pass over the chance to do a "compare-and-contrast" between this series and Charles Reece's AMOEBLOG article here.

Reece's 2008 article cites the two main influences on the "centrality of incest" theme I first contrasted with one another here: Freud and Levi-Strauss. However, Reece's essay isn't related to whether or not the two scholars were right or wrong about the centrality issue. Rather, Reece is concerned with the aspect of the "ick factor," the reason why the notion of incest seems almost universally condemned in most human cultures (as Twitchell also avers). Like Twitchell, Reece doesn't concern himself nearly as much as I do with the reasons why condemnation is so often linked with fascination, however.

The centerpiece of Reece's argument stems in large part from the "social intuitionism" of academic psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I find appealing certain aspects of Haidt, who argues that much of what we consider "moral" stems not from reason but from emotional intuitions as to what is improper. Reece says:

Citing a 1991 study of chimpanzees by Frans de Waal, Jonathan Haidt follows a Darwinian line of reasoning about the incest taboo, namely that it's built on deep-seated biological inhibitions which make it feel icky, even though we don't know explicitly why. While all species follow certain descriptive rules of behavior, primates actually turn those descriptive rules into prescriptive ones by threat of force. Thus, de Waal found that an adult chimp might interact with a baby chimp in an inappropriate way (e.g., like an incestuous adult human), but other chimps will go Bronson on him for doing so. That's morality by way of evolution. Haidt refers to this moral view as social intuitionism

Now, I'm at a disadvantage here in not having read any works by Haidt or de Waal, though I did run through a de Waal interview here and a Haidt interview here. But my first reaction to the citation of this one example of chimp-molestation is that by itself it can't be extrapolated into a general "rule against incest." By itself it might validate the notion that lower animals have a sense of "inequity aversion,". One might hazard that the "Charles Bronson apes" may be offended that the baby chimp is being forced into the relationship, not by the incest as such.

Are animals averse to incest? In the cited interview de Waal states that they, like humans, are subject to the "Westermarck effect," in which long propinquity discourages passion. Levi-Strauss seemed to feel that animals were far less discriminating than man, since man's societal prohibition of incest put him apart from the animal kingdom. Who's right? A reading of de Waal's work on the bonobo chimps might tell me if de Waal thinks that the bonobos deserve their reputation for flagrant incest or not, if I ever find time to read it. But is de Waal the final authority?

Fundamentally I agree with Haidt's concept: much of what we consider reasoned morality is born of taste, sentiment and "intuition." But social intuitionism by itself doesn't explain that "fascination" of which I spoke above.

Being influenced by Jung, my own "intuition" tells me to suspect any credo that reads a fantasy as a displacement for "something else." Reece starts his essay talking about the Greek gods (even as Twitchell does), noting that the gods constantly indulged in the very vice that should be repellent to most of their worshippers. Twitchell suggested that the lascivious freedom of the gods was meant to contrast with the dutiful lot of humankind, and Charles Reece seems to be writing in the same vein, though by essay's end he's addressing the example of "cinematic gods:"

Thus, Freud was on to something regarding fantasies. Whether they're about deities or sublimely beautiful actresses, they serve as an originary, primitive defining moment for the social laws that develop in order to protect us from ourselves. I'm guessing that the more beautiful the actress willing to make out with her equally beautiful sibling for the artistic ideal, and the less problem we all have with it, the more entrenched the incest taboo becomes.

I've said before that I think Bataille is more right than Freud. Where Freud thinks the taboo is there to prevent the transgression, Bataille "intuits" that the taboo and its transgression are joined in an interpenetrating dynamic, in which one cannot do without the other. I believe that this dynamic also underlines all of human art, which depends on depicting the conflict of wills, or of icons symbolizing the aspects of differing wills (I'm thinking of abstract artists like Kandinsky here). Thus I would not say that any gods, theological or cinematic, exist PRIMARILY to promote any taboo. Their primary function is to depict the pleasures of transgression, as well as, in a secondary sense, both the pain and pleasure of reining those desires in.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Given that Sigmund Freud regarded his Oedipus complex as the foundation of human psychological development, it’s surprising that Gershon Legman and Frederic Wertham, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of pop-Freudianism, said so little about matters Oedipal in their anti-comics screeds. They say a great deal about other perversions that are either caused or abetted by the incessant titillations offered by comic books and similarly unscrupulous media. But aside from Wertham mentioning one case where an oversexed boy wanted a look at his sister, the fear of encouraging incest is nowhere in the same ballpark as the fear of encouraging homosexuality.

Of course the Oedipus complex figures indirectly into their etiology of transgressions, derived, not without modifications, from Freud. As illustration, I'll repeat my earlier Freud-quote:

It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.-- Sigmund Freud, "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love."

According to Freud, if an individual did not follow the path of “normal” development, that of sublimating the early libinal feelings for the mother or father so as to allow for healthy relationships, that individual was more likely to stray into the realm of polymorphous perversity. However, as I noted here, Bataille demonstrates that Freud’s concept of “normal sex” was no less fraught with transgression than any paraphilia or perversion. The most that one can say of what Freud considers “normative” is that one can call it (as I do) “cooperative transgression,” which is sex which in theory takes place with the full cooperation of the participants and the full approval of their society. Any other form of sexuality that incorporated an aspect of conflict-- being either against the will of a participant or against some edict of society-- would then be best termed “competitive transgression.”

Of course Freud himself was a past master at asserting that even when one seemed to be obeying society’s edicts, one could be subconsciously transgressing them, if only figuratively. A man could marry a woman, have a consenting relationship of which society would approve-- and yet, if the woman was in some way “a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad,” then he would have figuratively transgressed society’s laws against sleeping with his mother by finding a mother-surrogate. Indeed, Freud’s entire ideal of sublimation would seem to be tied up with this sort of figurative transgression. It certainly never seems to occur to Legman or Wertham that the fantasies experienced by young comics-readers might amount to another form of figurative transgression.

For my purpose it doesn’t matter whether or not most modern psychologists dominantly recognize the Oedipus complex as valid. Within the sphere of literature, any storytelling trope that has expressive significance to humankind is, phenomenologically speaking, “real.” This is why the “four functions” that Joseph Campbell applies to mythology have so much potential for pluralist literary studies. Campbell's approach allows not only for the psychological and the sociological aspects of humankind, which I find to be the two modes on which most literary analyses draw. Campbell's formula also allows one to interpret aspects of the “cosmological” (the nature of physical reality) and the “metaphysical,” (the nature of reality beyond the physical). And just as myth-criticism doesn't judge a myth as "wrong" because it's built upon a cosmological or metaphysical conceit that moderns don't recognize, the same holds true for literary studies. Thus the Oedipus complex, whether "real" or not in the psychological sense, becomes real in the literary continuum by virtue of its expressive power. But of course, in contrast to Freud's exaggerated claims for his complex's universality, Oedipus shares his reality with Jung's Mercurius and any number of other formulas.

Following the popularization of Freud, many literary works went out of their way to consciously reference Freud. Sometimes the authors were trying to seem trendy; sometimes they may've felt some personal resonance with the Oedipal concept. Yet the most interesting instances to me are those that resonate with Oedipal concerns even where the author would seem to have no familiarity with Freud, except perhaps in the most simplified form. A Freudian would consider such subconscious resonance to be a validation of the universality of Oedipus. I would say, rather, that it merely indicates that Artist A may have thought-processes in some way comparable to those of Sigmund Freud, while Artist B’s may be more comparable to those of Jung, and so on.

But whenever one does find an apparent agreement with Freud’s complex, one needs to prove it much more rigorously than he and most of his disciples did. Stan Lee relates a story in his biography about a psychological pundit-- possibly Gershon Legman-- who claimed that a funny-animal comics-cover featuring a long-necked giraffe was actually a display of a disguised phallus. How does one avoid creating another Legman giraffe?

The only possible course is to establish a chain of probable symbolic associations from a close reading of the text, rather than simply trying to fit every work to fit an overriding model.

For instance, a poor example of an associational chain is to be found in Michael Fleischer’s BATMAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, where he reads Batman’s relationship with Catwoman in Oedipal terms, though possibly with more debt to Melanie Klein than Freud: “Bad women, like the Catwoman, represent [to Bruce Wayne] the wicked, irresponsible, unloving mother who, by dying, ‘deserted’ him in childhood when he needed her most” (p. 106) This reading might be minimally feasible if the backstory of Bruce Wayne were only about his mother’s dying, but it fails given that he loses both mother and father in the same catastrophe. By this logic, one would have to assume that the Joker and all Batman's other male villains were all stand-ins for the late father. But even without invoking Thomas Wayne, a solid chain of associations should at very least demonstrate some textual similarity between the mother and the mother-surrogate. In early Batman stories Martha Wayne is litle more than a visual signifier that means “mother,” so her character is too marginal to bear any textual similarity to the more complex figure of the Catwoman. Fleischer’s argument depends upon the notion that every relationship that suggests “forbidden fruit”-- in this case, one between a criminal and a law-enforcer-- must automatically connote the Oedipus complex in operation. But his chain breaks easily under the least testing.

A sturdier chain can be found in SUPERMAN, though again, the precise tone resembles Freud less than yet another psychoanalyst: this time Carl Jung. Roughly a year after both Superman and his girlfriend Lois Lane debuted in ACTION COMICS #1, authors Siegel and Shuster took the very minimal origins ascribed to Superman in the comic books and expanded it into a cosmic soap opera for the first set of daily SUPERMAN comic strips. The details of the origin are as well known as Batman’s, but to my knowledge only a few fans have remarked upon an Oedipal trope in the former story.

One visual joke of the comic-strip sequence is that Superman’s parents, Jor-L and Lora, are dead-on ringers for Superman and Lois Lane, respectively. Some fans have argued that Joe Shuster was simply drawing a standard female type, but limited though his skills were, Shuster was certainly capable of having drawn Superman’s mother to look like someone other than Lois Lane, had he wished to.

In terms of tone, this is less Freudian than Jungian incest. Jor-L and Lora are “heavenly” echoes of the couple that Superman and Lois will become, however long the latter relationship may be deferred. (Critics who make windy arguments about the perpetual childhood of the superhero should remember that in 1940 Jerry Siegel attempted to set the stage for a more mature Superman-Lois relationship, but was overruled by his editors.) But even though the visual resemblance of Lois and Lora is probably just a visual joke, the resemblance of their names may carry a little more psychological heft. Critics may never be sure exactly why Jerry Siegel used the name “Lora” for Superman’s mother, in contrast to the name of the father Jor-L, whose name is certainly derived from JERry SiegEL. But as we don't know of a particular "Laura" who influenced Siegel in these years-- at least I find none in Jones' MEN OF TOMORROW-- it’s possible that consciously or subconsciously Siegel modeled the mother’s name on the girlfriend’s. Not only does “Lora” have the same number of letters/syllables as “Lois,” one finds an interesting congruence given that the first two letters of Lois Lane's first and last names come out to LO and LA. And if one makes a metathetic substitution of the letter ‘R’ for the second ‘L,’ one sees that the name of the prospective wife symbolically embodies that of the mother.

Further, it’s arguable that Jerry Siegel did find the verbal joke worth telling again. In ACTION #2, still months before the 1939 strip debuted, Lois Lane is framed by a spy named “Lola Cortez,” whose cognomen is patently derived from the real-life adventuress Lola Montes.

Years later, Siegel would introduce in 1959 one of Lois Lane’s earliest romantic competitors, mermaid Lori Lemaris, whose name strongly resembles the original name of the Kryptonian mama, though by that time she had been re-dubbed “Lara” by someone other than Siegel. And then in 1960 Siegel took his hero back to “Mother Krypton” herself. There he not only becomes friends with his parents in their youth, but also meets another beauty with a name just like the name of the girl who married dear old dad: “Lyla Lerrol,” which name seems determined to pun --probably unconsciously-- on both the “Lola” and “Lora/Lara” constructions. Within the narrative Superman’s own mother even contrives to make sure that he ends up dating the sweet young thing with the soundalike name.

I’ve argued before that there are deeper sexual symbolisms in the earliest SUPERMAN stories, and the same is even more true of the Silver Age tales. What’s interesting is that even though on these surface these stories stress the most innocent-seeming form of sexuality possible for an audience of eight-to-ten-year-olds, that sexuality still incorporates aspects of the transgressive, in keeping with Bataille’s notion that all sex is a transgression of some sort. Nevertheless, a responsible critic won’t just force everything to fit on the Procrustean beds of the Oedipus complex or queer theory or what have you. The conflict between law and crime in Batman-Catwoman tales may be transgressive enough without bringing in Freud in that particular manifestation, and it may be that one can still find elements of “cooperative transgression” even in the blandest Superman-Lois encounter, whether the name of the Kryptonian uber-mama is invoked or not.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


One hopes that with the airing of the next to the next to last LOST episode, no one will again fret about the creators of the show suddenly turning the show into a LORD OF THE RINGS-style good vs. evil contest.

At most, "Across the Sea" gives viewers a vision of the powers behind the island-happenings as being pretty much like the castaways themselves: intermixed with elements of good and evil. All three of the characters-- Jacob, the Man in Black, and the woman I'll call the "Unmother"-- perform acts of evil for reasons that can be viewed as partially good. The Unmother commits murder and deceives her adopted sons in order to protect a treasure from impious mankind. The MIB ends up killing her, but only because she foils his plans to escape the island. Jacob assaults his brother and consigns him to a living death, because of MIB's murder of their mother.

But then, this vision of interwoven good and evil was pretty much the same as what the creators presented through the main characters, so I never quite understood this Tolkien-phobia. Or maybe it's a King-phobia, since I've seen various sources cite Stephen King's THE STAND as an influence on LOST.

I haven't read THE STAND for years, so offhand I don't know what aspects of the show the novel is supposed to have affected. But although THE STAND's moral opposition is fairly simple-- much simpler than what one finds in the worlds of Tolkien or, for that matter, J.K. Rowling-- I can't see why some fans of LOST had so little confidence in the creators who gave them such a complex new playground.

Maybe that's the disadvantage of their not being-- "men of faith?"

Or at the very least, being people a little too afraid of being considered "suckers."

Thursday, May 13, 2010


...so called because I am drunk with happiness to hear someone say/write them:

"Karl Marx was a lousy economist and ideologist, but he was a gifted social scientist."-- Fareed Zakaria, THE POST-AMERICAN WORLD.

Nice to see Marx's strengths and weaknesses summed up so adroitly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I suppose I may continue to post this or that item on LOST once it's all been wrapped up (even though I know intellectually that it won't REALLY get "wrapped up.")
But it'll be different once LOST solidifies into a Canon of Known Stuff, much like what happens when a famed author dies and critics can finally start talking about his work in such terms. The message is clear:

Canon= Death.

Before talking about "Across the Sea," a prediction: now that Unlocke has made his nature known to the surviving castaways, they're certainly not going to let him get near them. Given that he probably can't assault them directly or trick them further, that can only mean-- It's Catspaw-Usin' Time!

But who can devilish Unlocke tempt?

Surely not Richard. Richard almost surrenders his soul to Unlocke in "Ab Aeterno," but is pulled back from the brink by the ghost of his dead wife. Richard's not likely to listen, though he is likely to get his earlier wish about dying before the series ends.

Miles, being no angel, is a stronger possibility, but down deep he's essentially a good guy. He's also probably too suspicious for Unlocke to manipulate. Additionally, it's marginally possible that with concentration Miles might be able to read the thoughts of Unlocke, since Unlocke, as "Across the Sea" informs us, is really if not sincerely dead.

Ben Linus, then, is inevitably the favorite. Unlocke knows all of Ben's weaknesses and will probably think he can exploit them again. A typical LOST dramatic moment would be Unlocke giving Ben some powerful motivation for knocking off the candidates, not to mention wild card Desmond. What would the tempter use? Giving Ben sovereignty of the island has already failed. Vengeance for his slain daughter, in the form of Charles Widmore's death, would probably be more likely, which might theoretically put Desmond in the position of saving his bastard father-in-law. But will Ben Linus go even lower than he ever has before? Methinks not. Heroic death through helping defeat the "villain" seems more probable.

I feel good about this prediction. Earlier I predicted that Unlocke would use some catspaw to penetrate the Temple: I only erred in guessing the wrong catspaw. (And I mighta selected Sayyid instead of Sawyer had the writers not SPUN OUT OF WHOLE CLOTH the sudden revelation that the Temple's security depended on Dogen's continued life!)

Next: A Sea-Change.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


As noted in my last essay I thought of writing a long piece on the notion of "critical standards" that Matt Zoller Seitz raised but did not demonstrate that he understood. But since I've now read Tom Spurgeon's reactions to the Seitz piece, I'm just going to open fire on some of the fish he was kind enough to offer.

"The strongest part of Seitz's essay comes out of the simple fact that he pays superhero films the respect of holding them to a high standard."-- I might agree with the possibility of someone, somewhere managing to do so. Since Seitz doesn't even begin to articulate standards, beyond his praise for the "rainbow spectrum" of zombie movies, I don't see Seitz's bare assertion of standards as anything but empty rhetoric.

"Then Again, Many Superhero Films Also Fail To Meet Most Low Standards"

Nonsense. The fact that most superhero films in recent years have made excellent-to-respectable money demonstrates that they did, in fact, meet the low standards of the audiences, who often do want nothing more of such films than what Seitz calls "their capacity to kill two hours and change." It would certainly be correct for Tom to say that the films have not met what he considers to be *his* lowest possible standards, by which (for instance) he judges that "all the superhero movie fight scenes combined make a poor cousin to the hallway brawl in Oldboy or even the casino fight in Kung Fu Hustle."

Sidebar: KUNG FU HUSTLE? Really? Yukk.

"Very few emerging film genres have made this kind of money while offering so very little in terms of quality construction, let alone art."

Two words: disaster films. Beside either the earliest or more recent moneymakers in this genre, HELLBOY comes off like a freaking Hegelian tract.

"To return to our original example, Fantastic Four isn't an all-time great comic book because it's about *family* or *exploring* -- give me a break! -- it's a great comic book because Stan Lee is a funny and inventive writer and Jack Kirby had one of the great visual imaginations of the last 100 years and exercised it constantly."

While I don't disagree with the argument that the FF films are incredibly mediocre, the core of the FANTASTIC FOUR comic's success cannot be seen apart from its representation of the dynamics faux superhero family. The exciting stuff was there, but it wasn't the main attraction, as it might've been for (say) CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, which title managed to keep going for almost ten years even w/o Kirby's visual imagination.

"One of the reasons a lot of people grow tired of superheroes as comics readers is because it's a relatively narrow genre that's harder than many to connect to some sort of human experience."

"Human experience" is a loaded phrase. If it means what Tom sardonically referred to as *exploring,* then no, superheroes will probably never be as adept at audience-identification as are, say, the films about the "stone cold killers partnered with daffy blonds" that Tom also mentions. But "human experience" also takes in a wider range of thoughts and emotions than one gets from sitting around BS-ing about relationships (which is one of the attitudes that kills the two FANTASTIC FOUR films for me). Maybe in a future essay I'll enlarge on the reasons why I think why superhero films, like their cousins in the pure-fantasy and pure-SF genres, can tap and have often tapped that range--

And why said superdude films have often done much better in that range than Seitz' beloved zombie films.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I really hate to give any more publicity (however minor) to Matt Zoller Seitz' goofball essay for Salon.com. From the essay's first paragraph it's clear that this isn't anything resembling serious film criticism. "Superheroes Suck!" is just a sharp stick designed to provoke the grizzly bear (OK, Pooh-bear) of superhero comics fandom. I wouldn't think twice about seeing such poorly reasoned drivel on, say, the online COMICS JOURNAL site, but its appearance on a site with a considerably better rep surprises me. I have to assume that Salon.com's editors commissioned this mess simply to exploit the debut of IRON MAN 2. Given that the essay currently sports almost 100 responses, I guess Salon.com succeeded in manipulating its audience at least as well as your average film sequel.

So, in order to spend as little time critiquing this rubbish as possible, I'll just sum up my disagreements as "Six Things I Hate About Puff-Critique Pieces:"

1) The easiest shot-- just to get it out of the way-- is one that many people have already jumped on: Seitz starts out talking about the superhero genre in his title but within moments is labelling all films in this genre to be "comic book movies." Granted, that's probably what the average filmgoer thinks as well, not taking time to remember all those great comic book movies of other genres. But a critic with any mojo simply can't oversimplify like that, especially since it means not giving due credit to all those other stellar works-- you know, CASPER and RICHIE RICH.

2)"The comic book film has become a gravy train to nowhere. The genre cranks up directors' box office averages and keeps offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material..." Again, others have pounced on this remark with reference to other "Hollywood blockbuster" film-genres. I'll add that a lot of critics from Hollywood's Golden Age would probably have said the same of most of Hollywood's adaptations of literary prose works, ranging from Lewis' BABBITT to Kerouac's SUBTERRANEANS.

3) "And as a critic who made a point of clinging to my sense of wonder long past childhood, I've tried (too hard at times) to find signs of life in formula." Hollywood Writing 101: the critic with a harsh message tries to prove in advance that he's Not A Snob; He's Just an Average Guy. This in invoked again a little later as Seitz anticipates his being critiqued for being either an "aesthetic turista" or a "snooty killjoy." Don't holler before you're hit, Seitz.

4) "Even at the peak of their creative powers, big-budget comic book films are usually more alike than different. And over time, they seem to blur into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor-encased men) bashing into each other." I'm not sure what to make of this. Take away the bit about "pyrotechnic showdowns" and this could almost be a description of the panoply of Hollywood's classic film noirs. Maybe he doesn't like the similarities in film noirs either?

5)"The superhero movie too often avoids opportunities to summon tangled feelings, lacerating trauma and complex characterizations -- qualities that make genre films worth watching and remembering for reasons beyond their capacity to kill two hours and change." This statement simply assumes that his preference for trauma and entanglement is obviously a Greater Good, sans proof, than "pyrotechnic showdowns," but he's claiming that there are genre-products that have managed to do These Good Things, so let's see what he's talking ab--

6) "--let's set the most notable modern superhero movies alongside titles from another durable genre: the zombie film."

Pardon me?

The ZOMBIE film?

Not the horror genre as a whole? Not even some genre that more closely resembles the superhero flick's emphasis on heroic violence, like the western, but--

The ZOMBIE film? That's what he thinks has "poetry" and "soul?"

Yes, Virginia Seitz, there are some excellent zombie films out there. But this subcategory of horror films has benefitted in no small way from the rise and advancement of the "adult" horror film. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a cool little film, sure. But would we have some of the other films in Seitz's zombie-rific "spectrum of moods and modes" had it not been for breakthroughs in horror cinema as a whole? Is there an audience for 28 DAYS LATER in 2002 without the seminal breakthroughs of 1973 (THE EXORCIST) and 1976 (CARRIE)?

I'll make it easy for Seitz: no.

Given Seitz's stated distaste for sameness, the mind boggles to see him write as if there were no important differences between films about zombies (a subgenre at best) and films about superheroes (a distinct genre in itself, albeit allied to a variety of related works in what I've termed the superhero idiom). Clearly, the superhero film has been marginalized as kid-stuff to a greater extent and for a longer period than the horror film. Even going back to Classic Hollywood, one can find critics who swooned at the subtleties of Val Lewton or the disruptive scenarios of Franju while disdaining horror films as a whole.

By contrast, the general popularity of 1978's SUPERMAN notwithstanding, it's not until 1989 that Tim Burton gave critics a superhero film that forced many (though not all) of them to devoting a little more thought to the genre's appeal than your basic "action bad-- drama good" schtick (which Seitz is plainly happy to rehearse).

In a future essay I'll probably have more to say about the genre-components of the superhero genre, and how they impact when adapted into film. But I'm really going to try to make this my last endeavor to bomb Seitz.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


"Very often, though we imagine the avant garde to be taking risks, the art culture really reinforces the status quo while popular culture, which seems to uphold tradition, is far more experimental."-- James Twitchell, FORBIDDEN PARTNERS, p. 79.

Twitchell's 1987 study of the incest-motif in culture and literature, written with a heavy dose of doctrinaire Freudian and Bettelheimian interpretation, followed his similarly-Freudian study of horror-fiction (DREADFUL PLEASURES) but preceded his Freudian study of fictive violence, PREPOSTEROUS VIOLENCE, whose thesis I touched upon here. Despite my finding some strong insights in both PLEASURES and VIOLENCE, I put off reading PARTNERS until recently, when I finally decided what Twitchell had to say about the complex that Father Freud thought to be the fundament underlying all human consciousness.

Unfortunately, PARTNERS is a heavily-researched but unimaginative survey of the incest-motif, which repeats some of the basic concepts from DREADFUL PLEASURES but doesn't enlarge on them. And though I agree with Twitchell's opinion above re: the merits of "art culture" and "popular culture," I disagree entirely with his reasons for making that statement.

Like Freud, Twitchell is an empiricist who sees art as primarily a mirror to outward (rather than inward) nature. He defends pop culture as carrying content that can be analyzed in greater depth than your average elitist would admit. And yet the content just comes down to a more tedious recapitulation of the omnipresent Oedipus complex than Freud himself rendered.

Most modern elitists would probably dislike that he largely uses Romantic-era poetry as representative of the "avant garde," but his use of this span of literary work is reasonably well-justified by his assertion that when the Romantics used the incest-motif, they did so less for titillation or instruction (as Twitchell says their literary predecessors did) than for "self-knowledge." Inasmuch as I can see a similar thematic current that informs many works of the later avant-garde, both "modernist" and "post-modernist" alike, I can agree with this proposition.

Further, since it would be impossible for anyone to do a broad survey of all popular fiction as much as to do one for all "art culture" literature, I don't have a problem with his choice to survey only two species of popular culture that arose roughly around the same time as the Romantic era: Gothic novels and novels of pornography.

As a devotee of Jung and Campbell I can picture many ways in which a popular novel might prove itself more "experimental" than a novel shooting for the status of canonical art. Empiricist Twitchell, however, can only picture one: does the work in question portray the threat of father-daughter incest? If so, it is considered more "radical" than the work that elides or displaces the incest-motif into something else, usually sibling incest.

In this skewed survey, Twitchell is probably less directly beholden to Freud than to another of Freud's intellectual descendants: Bruno Bettelheim. Just as Bettelheim argued that fairy tales were essentially about teaching juvenile audiences the cruel ways of the world, Twitchell asserts that the Gothic novel is all about "one general message to young women... with regard to relationships with an older male relative: always stay away from him" (p. 155). In his appendix Twitchell even seeks to ground the prevalence of the motif in terms of sociobiology's take on incest:

"Sociobiologists have conjectured that intense, although unconscious, competition may account for the fact that father-daughter incest is far more common in all human societies than mother-son incest."

I find that sociobiology, like Levi-Straussian structuralism, relies a little too heavily on tautology: "X did Y because it was advantageous for X to do Y." In any case what's noteworthy here is that Twitchell's justification of popular fiction is built upon pop fiction's supposedly superior ability to replicate some pattern of human life that is verified as statistically dominant through an empiricist's lens. My own take on popular fiction is precisely the opposite: it does indeed reproduce aspects of the consensual world, even as does "art fiction," but in both those aspects of the objective are fused with a subjective range of expressive emotions far beyond the scope of sociobiology's scope. "Art fiction" usually inculcates a more distanced and intellectual take upon subjectivity than does popular fiction, but at heart the two are more like one another than they are like such purely discursive disciplines as psychology and philosophy.

In conclusion, much as I disagree with Twitchell's take on art and empiricism, I did enjoy his breakdown of the Latin roots for the word "incest," which in essence comes down to "in + castus (pure)"= impure. Thus my punny title for this series could be boiled down to, "Impurity/unholiness we trust."

Bataille, who wrote that the transgression fulfilled the purpose of the taboo, might have approved.

Friday, May 7, 2010


The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness extends. For all ego-consciousness is isolated; because it separates and discriminates, it knows only particulars, and it sees only those that can be related to the ego. Its essence is limitation, even though it reach to the farthest nebulae among the stars. All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood. It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises, be it never so childish, grotesque, and immoral.

"The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man" (1933). In CW 10: Civilization in Transition. pg. 304

It's significant that even in the midst of Jung's highflown praise of the "all-uniting depths" one finds in dreams-- a propensity clearly related to what Jung calls elsewhere "fantasy thinking"-- he makes no bones about the fact that the dream in its raw state may be "childish, grotesque and immoral." For the pluralist critic this means that the grotesqueries he observes in popular fiction, whether personally attractive to him or not, must be understood as the products of "fantasy thinking" that realizes no boundaries of taste or intellectual purposiveness. The practice of railing against these products as being produced by secondary factors-- the racism or sexism of a given culture (Legman, Berlatsky) or even a given subculture (Groth, Deppey)-- is clearly the province of uncritical elitists.

On a related note, I said of the first significant pluralist comics-critic, Jules Feiffer:

He certainly did not argue that [junk] had no relevance, as does the "content elitist," for he asserted that its very value was being able to "say or do anything" and to be "the least middle-class of all the mass media."

In a way, though as an artist Feiffer seems much more influenced by Freud than by Jung, in his comics-criticism Feiffer seems to partake somewhat of Jung's more freewheeling appreciation for fantasy in all its forms, and a distaste for the demands of the opposing form of thought that Jung called "reality thinking."

"Reality thinking" is particularly on display in the two quotes of Sigmund Freud and Claude Levi-Strauss that I cited in Part 1 of this series. The two scholars have radically-opposed ways of seeing the way that the phenomenon of incest impacts on human beings, for one emphasizes individual development while the other focuses on societal development. But despite this divergence the two scholars are alike in their attempt to fit humankind into a monocausal straitjacket, based on a Johnny-One-Note conception of empirical evaluation.

In Part I I demonstrated the superiority of Georges Bataille's approach to the questions of sexual transgression in culture. Bataille, like Feiffer, is probably more influenced by Freud than by Jung: I don't see Bataille being all that interested in Jung's ideal of the "eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night." And yet Bataille comes closer to Jung than Freud too, in that Bataille can invest himself more fully than Freud in pure "fantasy thinking" in order to arrive at how any transgressive phenomenon-- incest, violence, war, man's relationship to the animals-- might have impacted upon the emotions of the primitives who originated most of humanity's concepts of transgression and of the resultant taboos.

A pluralist critic must practice this kind of "fantasy thinking" as well. It does not imply that one ignores empirical information where such is available, but it does require one to be constantly aware of the egoistic basis of the dreams from which we render art. This does not mean, contrary to Freud's school, that egoism is all there is to any form of art, even popular art. Feiffer sees pop culture as the "drunk" who can "get away with saying or doing anything," but Northrop Frye is probably more correct in saying that popular art "affords an unobstructed view of the archetypes" through which man expresses both personal egoism and the desire to transcend ego.

It was with this kind of devotion to the rigor of "fantasy thinking" that I made a partial defense in the essay TORTURE GUARDIN' of the idea of heroic protagonists using what I called "inquisitorial torture." I didn't say torture and sadism were necessarily good elements in all kinds of narrative, for I found their use in Brad Meltzer's IDENTITY CRISIS to be stupid and artless. In contrast, their appearance in Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS proved far more artful, resonating as they did with what I called the Batman's "Gothic world."

So too with the transgressive concept of incest. In Part I I went to some pains to explain why Georges Bataille was right to say that no particular transgressive form of sexuality was any more important to human development than any other (in contradistinction to Freud and Levi-Strauss). That distinction made, I will note that the phenomenon of incest is probably the best possible metaphor FOR transgressive sexuality as a whole. Unlike homosexuality and bestiality (for two), incest in its most popular conception-- that is, its heterosexual form-- can give rise to living progeny whose proper relationships will thus be confused after the fashion of the riddle in PERICLES:

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother's flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father:
He's father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

There's clearly more than simple egoism in the riddle of Antiochus' daughter: there's also a pleasure in breaking the boundaries of social categories and even of one's own physical nature ("I feed on mother's flesh which did me breed.") This transgressiveness is the essence of fantasy thinking, without which any kind of art, "high" or "low," is impossible.

Next: What else but--

Incest in the Comics.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I hate it when I foresee one of LOST's Machiavellian narrative motifs but I don't get around to saying so in print.

As soon as Unlocke dropped Claire the hint that maybe Kate was still a possible target for vengeance once the group was aboard the plane, I thought, "It's the old shell game. Unlocke can't kill the candidates, though we know from previous episodes that he wants them dead-- but he can maneuver them into killing one another."

As it happened, the possible setup of Claire going after Kate wasn't even a vital part of Unlocke's plan. To be sure, I don't think any viewer could've foreseen the way Unlocke's actual plan would unfold, though, since it hinged on this whole "leap of faith" concept that Jack Shepard is now preaching, as received from the Testament of the One True John Locke.

It's a kind of "rock paper scissors" game of one-upmanship. One presumes that, had Jack managed to persuade all of his companions to ignore the bomb's countdown, the bomb would have failed to detonate as did the dynamite in the Black Rock when Jack played "truth or dare" alongside Richard. But because he couldn't persuade them to his newfound faith, the bomb goes off and Saint Jack is as much at risk as the others from being either blown up or drowned.

I have various problems with "The Candidate" episode, but I do admire the turnaround on Sawyer. At season's beginning Sawyer laid a heavy, and not fully justified, guilt trip on Shepard for Jack's alleged responsibility for Juliet's death. Later, Sawyer cops to his own survivors' guilt, but in "The Candidate" Sawyer is arguably pretty damn responsible for the deaths of Sayyid, Jin and Sun. (Maybe Lapidus too, though I find it hard to believe the writers dragged him across two islands without intending to make better use of him.) Will Sawyer walk a mile in Jack's shoes? He probably doesn't have the time to walk anywhere, much less expound on what he knew or didn't know about the "no kill the candidates" meme.

Jin and Sun's deaths-- I didn't call them either, but I pretty much expected them to "die together" after having "lived alone," or at least apart, for so long. The actors did a good job with what they were given but the setup wasn't especially resonant. Guess Widmore will do without whatever info he wanted from Jin.

Sayyid's death is more frustrating because I saw some openings whereby the writers could have resolved a lot of the vexing narrative questions about the whole "Nadia's death/Jacob's semi-intervention" business. While the topic might be touched upon in the remaining eps, I've a feeling that whole plotline is going end up as more fodder for DVD-commentary.

Hurley rescuing Sawyer from the briney deep reflects a little on the accident that originally caused Hurley's trip to the nuthouse, wherein Hurley's weight is a factor in the deaths of two innocents in the sea. Still, like the deaths of Jin and Sun it seemed more functional than poetic.

The incompetence of Charles Widmore's people seems to know no bounds, at least when it's convenient to the story. I certainly hope Charlie has something better up his sleeve than what we've seen so far.

Another journey into the dark night of John Locke's soul? Been there, done that.

At least we get more Man in Black next week.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


In the first essay in this series I've advocated two of Georges Bataille's concepts of sexuality: (1) that all sexuality is on some level transgressive, and (2) that, contrary to the assertions of Freud and Levi-Strauss, no type of sexual behavior/culture should be regarded as the central yardstick against which concepts of normality and deviation should be measured. Thus any theory of sexuality that posits such a central concept must be seen as incoherent and manipulative. All sexually-related cultural taboos, whether they are raised against spectres of incest, bestiality, homosexuality or menstruation, should fall within the sphere of Bataille's rather Kantian concept of a "universal prohibition." Through one's understanding of such a prohibition, one may form a more rounded concept of the range of existent sexual manifestations, and thus thus avoid the misplaced concreteness that one finds more often than not in ideologically-motivated literary interpretations, like That Ole Devil Queer Theory.

A wider understanding would also help lend one more depth if one chooses to make even a loose comparison of two different human cultures. For instance, here's Noah Berlatsky expressing sentiments I've heard a few times before, about the Japanese preference for deep relationships:

In Cardcaptor Sakura, and in shojo in general, the stories are held together by relationships. Many of those relationships are unrequited or unspoken...but that doesn't make them less important. The love you don't say can be the point of your life; secret love is meaning.

But guess who's not so into relationships? Ah, it's those demmed Americans:

In contrast, the American comics I've been discussing look suspiciously like the emotionally empty world which Sakura struggles to avert...Batman and Cerebus and Jimmy Corrigan all hide the fact that they have nothing to hide. The inside of their closets contain, not love, but love's absence — an incoherent dream of an identity that never was.

Elsewhere I've disputed the feasability of making "queer theory" interpretations that skip over actual content within the stories interpreted, as well as suggesting that it makes no more sense to fault one genre-product for not having the qualities of another than to complain that a rabbit can't fly as well as a duck. It goes without saying that Berlatsky, despite the fact that he seems better-read about kink than many comics-critics, is too busy trying to work his way to a foregone conclusion to appreciate the nuances of a truly polymorphous perversity.

Is it possible to write intelligently about a particular species of kink without overinterpretation? Here's a counter to the example of Berlatsky: this Comixology article by manga expert Jason Thompson, taking on the subject of incest-motifs in Japanese manga.

To be sure, Thompson isn't trying to place the particular kink on which he's reporting into some greater theoretical matrix. Thompson's brief survey of the incest-motif in manga is reportorial in tone as he tries to explain the prevalence of the motif. He gives some examples of the motif's manifestations in modern Western cultures before going into greater depth with an assortment of the Japanese manifestations. But Thompson makes no attempt to stigmatize the East for having too much incest or the West for having too little.

The closest Thompson comes to the abstractions of theory is to note the dichotomy between reality and fantasy that exists for Japanese audiences, and presumably for those American audiences who partake of manga as well. He says:

In all cultures, real incest involves uncomfortable power issues and squick factor, but theoretical incest is the stuff of myths. If the reality is Freud, the theory is Jung: forbidden magic and high drama.

The reference to Jung is not pursued, but it has relevance beyond the scope of Thompson's article. I'll pursue said relevance in more detail elsewhere, but for now I'll conclude with repeating Jung's admonition that analysts should judge any given fantasy for what it communicates in itself, and not (as I put it earlier) "what it looks like through an extrinsic [conceptual] lens."