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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...

Monday, December 31, 2012


As noted in Part 1, Carl Jung's ruminations on child development in the womb would never have satisfied an empiricist.  His description of the psychological functions-- sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking-- is deductive, not inductive, in nature.   Jung consistently calls for psychology to make all possible use of empirical sources of information, but notes in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES that the best one can hope, when dealing with the subjective subject matter of internal psyches, is that one should not be "too subjective" in making one's conclusions.  I take this as an up-front admission that such judgments will always be colored by the subjective state of the analyst-- a subjectivity that Thomas Kuhn finds even in the work of those who labor in the fields of the physical sciences, as noted in passing here.

Jung states that the first two named functions appear in the fetus while still in the womb, which makes sense to me as a working hypothesis though there may be no way to prove that the fetus, while certainly capable of sensation in the womb, is also capable of intuition at that early stage.  In fact, the author of the Jung site to which I referred in Part 1 feels that intiution might be prior even to sensation:

This, I believe, describes the thinking function as the fourth function (when intuition is seen as the first, in the womb), a total conscious orientation that is a result of the number three, the creative flow of the feeling function. Thinking appears as the last in the evolution of the functions as they turn, and appears to be the picture of what has previously taken place in the other functions, via the archetype which is later expressed as images, ideas, or language. Thinking is not the experience, but the copy, stamp, imprint, or image of the experience.
I'd prefer a more Kantian take, in which we posit that sensation is the first thing the gestating subject experiences, though intuition may pre-exist in that subject as an "a priori" potential.  This would seem to follow from Jung's primary definition of intuition within his system as "perception via the unconscious."

As I said in Part 1, it's important for any literary criticism-system to make a determination as to whether or not there exists " meaning within the chaos of sensation," whether one is speaking of a fetus becoming slowly aware of its surroundings but lacking any context for them, or a fully developed subject within what Cassirer calls the "symbolic universe."  Though I think critics of an empiricial stripe dismiss this level of unconscious meaning too quickly, at least those that ground their opinions in some discipline, such as cognitive science, are better off than those who simply don't even consider the question.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Believe it or don't, but I really didn't exhume the remarks of Charles Reece in this preceding essay simply because those specific remarks had been plaguing me over the course of six months.  They just came to mind as relevant to my general theme of self-assessment as to where my lit-crit theory stands.

The core of the theory remains indebted to the myth-critical work of Northrop Frye and Theodor Gaster, who had the misfortune to produce their works at the sunset of the "literatute-as-myth" meme that dominated the first half of the 20th century.  I say "misfortune" because the countervailing tendency of the 1960s and later, while not barren of worthwhile work, became, as I noted with respect to comics-critics here, tied to "those well-traveled titans of tedium, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx," as well as their equally tedious derivations.  But as I said at the end of TERMINOLOGY OF ENDEARMENT, there's nothing I can do, or would do, about judgments founded in taste.

All things considered, 2012 stands out for less for my contretemps with Reece or Kelly Thompson or Old Chickenheart than for my formulation of the Mode of the Combative and the Persona of the Demihero.  Contra Reece's remarks about the supposed defects of a "private lexicon," it's only with such a lexicon-- whether one approves of mine or not-- that one can make any useful formulations about the structure and meaning of fictional narrative, while still resisting the understandable temptation to overintellectualize phenomena.

I remarked here I didn't have Kant on my mind when I started attempting to analyze the nature of combat as a special mode within the sphere of general conflict.  When I made some of my earliest attempts at comparing-and-contrasting characters within a "superhero idiom," as in the 2009 BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER, I could only speak in terms of "elements:"

A given work may share elements of all four myth-themes in varying proportions—may include elements suggestive of conflict, of catastrophe, of abjection, and of rebirth—and yet still have be more strongly oriented toward one theme rather than to any of the other three.

Nothing about that statement is wrong in terms of basic narrative analysis.  But thanks to a lexicon able to deal with the differing manifestations of conflict/combat within literature, it's much easier to address the archetypal elements and motifs that inform a work in the mythos of adventure-- such as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER-- and then see how those elements are given different structural emphases within the mythoi of irony, drama and comedy.

I won't discuss the potential usefulness of the Demihero concept at present; it's a little too new at present.  I'll just note in passing that for some time I've been thinking about the difficulties of the multiple meanings of the word "hero" in fictional narrative (one of those words that means more than one thing under different circumstances, CR!!)  But this is the first time I've felt I had a means by which I might talk about the very different contexts in which heroes might be ruled more by "courage" or by "endurance," or better yet, by "glory" rather than "safety."

Thanks to these breakthroughs, I feel I finally have the underpinnings of a work that might in part supply a Theory of the Superhero Idiom-- which, within the context of a will-based hermeneutics, would be no less a key to every other literary idiom, though I don't expect those of divergent taste to concur.

I predict that 2013 may prove an interesting year for those who find this blog interesting, few though they may be.  Further, the affiant sayeth not.




I'll read your response as long as it's not just a series of definitions for your private lexicon.-- Charles Reece in this comments-thread.

Clover refuses to call identification with the Final Girl feminist, because of the many reductive psychoanalytic assumptions that have been a hallmark of feminist film theory: she is “a male surrogate in things oedipal, a homoerotic stand-in, the audience incorporate; to the extent she ‘means’ girl at all, it is only for purposes of signifying phallic lack, and even that meaning is nullified in the final scenes [where she picks up a ‘phallic tool’ and inserts it into the killer].” -- Charles Reece quoting Carol Clover here.
I refuted the particulars of Reece's accusation of my so-called "private lexicon" in the above comments-thread.  However, I didn't explore the irony that the same guy who was criticizing me for being in a "private language bubble" and claiming that he only utilized "common definitions unless specifying a definition."  I would assume that Reece's own bubble allows for such private-lexicon wonders as the "homoerotic stand-in" and "phallic lack" seen above-- to say nothing of elsewhere applying "Jeremy Bentham's panopticon" to a fictional situation that does not literally reproduce anything like a panopticon.

The point here is that Reece's claim above, like most of those who abjure anything but "common definitions," are practically meaningless in the world of literary criticism, which really does require a "private language bubble" of terms and specifications-- though obviously not in the negative sense Reece gives the "bubble."

Just as I noted in my refutation that words mean different things to different people, different critics will build their terminological topologies around whatever they find meaningful.  I can argue against the Freudian dependence of a theory like Carol Clover's, as I did here. But there's nothing I can do to dispel whatever emotional attachment Clover or anyone else has to the terms they find endearing. 

Indeed, I would be hypocritical to argue against the endearment itself, as opposed to arguing against the fallacious logic used to support it.  I'm aware that my lexicon of terms on this blog has been and probably will remain daunting to most readers.  But I believe that no critic worth his salt is ever comfortable with passively receiving terms set down by other analysts, whether lit-critics like Frye or persons from other disciplines like Big Sigmund.


Though I've only recently chanced across a reference to the pioneering work of endocrinologist Hans Selye-- a Nobel-Prize winner credited with formulating the 20th century concept of "stress"-- even a quick Wikipedia reference points out a useful comparison with the compensation theory of Alfred Adler, first examined on this blog here.

Here's a Wikiquote I've cited before re: positive and negative compensation-- a concept I've found useful in refuting critics like Julian Darius:

Positive compensations may help one to overcome one’s difficulties. On the other hand, negative compensations do not, which results in a reinforced feeling of inferiority.
In 1975 Hans Selye pioneered a roughly similar "positive/negative" classification of glandular excitement states.  Again quoting from Wiki's essay on stress:

Selye published in 1975 a model dividing stress into eustress and distress.[16] Where stress enhances function (physical or mental, such as through strength training or challenging work), it may be considered eustress. Persistent stress that is not resolved through coping or adaptation, deemed distress, may lead to anxiety or withdrawal (depression) behavior.
Neither psychologist Adler nor biologist Selye applied their insights to literary criticism.  On occasion lit-critics have looked at fiction through Adler's lens, though Adlerian examinations are far outnumbered by those following the lead of Sigmund Freud, the past master of explaining psychology purely through acts of "negative compensation."

While Selye's biological research in itself probably would not lend itself to the analysis of literary constructs, its central conceit-- that of "stress" having both negative and positive connotations-- proves useful to a literary hermeneutics based in notions of conflict and will, as my own is.  The notions of "eustress" and "distress" may also prove an interesting gloss on Theodor Gaster's division of the emotional tones evoked by ritualized endeavors into tones of "plerosis" or of "kenosis."

Friday, December 21, 2012


IIn this essay I commented on my use of the terms "courage" and "endurance" to distinguish the persona-types of "hero" and "demihero:"

I still believe that Reeve's opposed categories of "courage" and "endurance" have strong applicability, though I never meant to imply that these categories summarized all distinctions between hero and demihero.
I'm glad I said that, given that the Hobbes comment I recently employed for the posts on goal-affects also seems to have broad applicability to personas.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.
These three motives-for-violence-- which I usually summarized as "gain," "safety,"  and "passion" of a specifically thymotic type-- also apply well to the motives of heroes in fictional narratives.  Or at least the second two do; more often than not, the motive of "gain/competition" is the motive assigned to the villain.

Thus, without dismissing the applicability of the "courage/endurance" reading, I'll offer a quick look at my proposed hero/demihero distinctions using "diffidence" (aka "safety") and "glory" (aka "passion").

As an example for a hero who evinces "glory," I'll use an example of one of the most microdynamic heroes known to me.

MIGHTY MAX, a character devised to promote a toy line in a 1993 tv cartoon, was one of the oddest "heroes" I've encountered in terms of his dynamicity. Though this simple Earth-boy was frequently referred to as "the Mighty One," he had no powers whatsoever, except a magical cap that could transport him to other realms.  In the company of a chicken-like entity ("fowl, actually") who supplied information on the threat of the week and a big warrior named Norman who provided the heavy lifting, Max foiled dozens of vile villains over the course of 40 episodes.  He did so largely through neither power nor skill, but just by having the dumb luck to constantly avoid being squashed by werewolves or dragons or whatever.

And yet, weakling though he was, he was still a hero squarely in the genre of adventure, in that the stories were all about his invigorating victories over evil.  He may prove a better example of a microdynamic hero than some of those I've used before, such as Brenda Starr and Doctor Who.

In contrast, there's the character of Mrs. Brisby from Don Bluth's dramatic cartoon THE SECRET OF NIMH.  As I mention in my review of the film, I have not read the juvenile book on which the film is based, so I confine myself to the character as depicted in the Bluth film.  From what I understand, only in the film does this mouse-character demonstrate what might termed "super-powers."

These powers are entirely the gift of a magical talisman, which Mrs. Brisby can summon only because, despite her humble appearance, she possesses the necessary virtue of "courage"--which characterization is ironic to me because I would have assigned her persona the quality of "endurance."  The magic she summons isn't used in any combative scenario, but to solve a non-violent conflict: how to transport her home to a place of safety.  But even if this mousey protagonist had used her power offensively-- as does Doctor Craven, an equally mousey protagonist whom I used as one of my first examples of a "demihero" -- would she have qualified as a hero?

By my current reasoning, no.  Brisby is a good example of "instinctive will" in that although she possesses courage, as the script says, it isn't the sort of courage that distinguishes the "intellectual will"-- a will which I link to the Hobbesian concept of "glory."  Everything Brisby does in the film is motivated by the Hobbesian concept of "diffidence/ safety," which might be characterized as more "reactive" than "proactive."

I've not advanced a "proactive/reactive" dichotomy here in so many words, but it does have applicability to what I wrote here about folklorist Vladimir Propp's opposition of the "seeker" and the "victimized hero."

I would say that the qualities of "glory" and "diffidence" also seem better matches for the characters discussed in that earlier essay, with Johnny Thunder following a pattern of "glory" while Jimmy Olsen follows one of "safety" (which I find that I prefer to "diffidence," as that seems to imply a trait of the character rather than a plot-action).

More explorations of glory and safety will probably follow, though probably not until next year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


“It was this unfathomable longing of my soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute”—narrator, Edgar Allen Poe’s THE BLACK CAT.


“Poe’s great contribution [to the spread of the murder-mystery and its sadistic nature] had been the enheroing [sic] of the avenger instead of the criminal… The reading public went on a century-long debauch of printed sadism to replace the sex notoriously absent in Victorian literature.  (For weaker stomachs, with a religious turn, the ghost story simultaneously served up masochist terrors.)”—Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH, p. 11.


Though I specified in NARRATIVEDEATH-DRIVE PT 2 that narrative conflict did not require literal violence, narrative violence does have a potential, beyond that of any other literary device, for escalating the immediacy of the conflict.  Even the kinetic appeal of sex—so earnestly defended by Legman above—cannot match violence in terms of fomenting the narrative principle of escalation. 


To be sure, narrative violence only has this potential when it is repeated within the narrative.  A single violent act, such the sort of unsolved killing that initiates most murder-mysteries—including two of Poe’s three efforts in that genre—merely serves to incite the average reader’s curiosity.  What incites that reader’s deeper identification is the repetition of violence.  Through repetition of violence, the reader’s potential fears for the story’s characters are escalated.  Which character may die next? Can the hero save the next victim from the villain’s machinations?


This response in no way validates the sort of syndromic sadism that Legman and his fellow travelers imputed to it.  I’ve called it “casual sadism,” in order to signify that the reader’s appreciation of a villain’s violence and/or sadism goes no deeper than a casual acquaintance.  The average reader wishes only to identify with the villain in order to witness that the villain’s acts fulfill his expectations—in other words, to fulfill the demand of the story that there be a violent and/or sadistic villain. Masochism, which Legman touches on ever-so-briefly, follows essentially the same pattern, though this psychological pattern is less frequently evoked than its counterpart, as it doesn’t lend itself as well to escalation of suspense—not even in the genre of the ghost-story which, contra Legman, does not universally deal with “masochist terrors.”


But all of the above deals with readers, as to what extent sadism, or its counterpart masochism, informs their responses. I said at the end of the previous essay that I would demonstrate examples of fictional characters who evinced sadistic or masochistic characteristics, in illustration of what I’ve called abstract goal-affects.


One approach might be to cite characters from the writers whose names Kraft-Ebing used to denote the paraphilias about which each one wrote.  But both Sade and Sacher-Masoch were syndromic writers, exorcising their personal demons into prose.  Neither was writing for the audience of “casual sadomasochists” that devours such genre-fiction as murder-mysteries and ghost-stories.  So those writers’ characters don’t suffice for my purposes.


If one were to credence Legman’s rant, Poe—writer of both murder-mysteries and ghost-stories-- ought to supply examples of both sadistic and masochistic goal-affects.  In Poe’s works, one ought to find characters either perpetrating violence or suffering it for no concrete goal, but purely to fulfill the abstract goal of “doing wrong for the wrong’s sake only.”


However, anyone familiar with Poe’s three Auguste Dupin stories will recognize the silliness of Legman’s claim.  “The Purloined Letter” contains no “printed sadism” in any form, unless one counts Dupin’s desire to confound the conniving schemes of the villain because the villain did Dupin some unspecified injury in the past.  Both “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”—to which Legman makes direct reference in the paragraph preceding the quoted passage—do concern mysterious murders.  However, though the fates of the murder-victims are discussed in great detail, so that the detective (and his readers) can form a forensic picture of the crimes, there is in the end no sadistic character in “Rue Morgue”—only an angry, befuddled animal—and the never-seen murderer in “Roget” seems to have committed the crime for reasons relating to his personal safety.


Poe’s horror stories seem to provide a little more grist for Legman’s mill; at least there are stories of torture-devices (“Pit and the Pendulum”) and of detailed murder-schemes (“Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”). But rarely do Poe’s characters kill for pleasure’s sake.  Montressor in “Amontillado” kills in the spirit of vengeance, and the narrator of “Heart” murders a man who was always kind to him simply out of some mysterious compulsion.  Given the conclusion of “Heart,” in which the narrator’s guilt forces him to reveal his evil deed, he, like the narrator of “The Black Cat,” would seem to be motivated by an abstract masochism; to commit evil that will “vex” his own soul in the end.       


   “Pit and the Pendulum” probably comes closest to the model of a “casual sadism” entertainment. Here the unnamed narrator has no wish, conscious or subconscious, to be victimized, for he welcomes his providential escape at the climax.  The faceless Inquisition-priests seem to be Poe’s most thoroughgoing sadists, for they have condemned the narrator to death and have nothing to gain from his prolonged sufferings but the knowledge that he suffers at their hands.  Further, it’s the only Poe tale that uses its sadistic terrors to escalate suspense, albeit just for one character, as opposed to the multiple victims one finds in novel-length stories.


In terms of the escalation of masochistic terrors, Poe’s “Black Cat” is the standout example.  Though the unnamed narrator might be mistaken for a sadist due to the violence he metes out upon his pets and his wife, he takes no pleasure in his violence, and seems, like the “Heart” narrator, to be soliciting punishment by his repeated acts.  However, because the majority of Poe’s tales are short, his oeuvre does not make the ideal illustrations of the principle of escalation.  If I do a Part 2 to this essay, I will undoubtedly choose another author or perhaps authors.  I may or may not stay within a particular genre, but the best illustration of how the principle of escalation works will certainly be in formats—be they novels or films—that can take advantage of plots that develop over a considerable amount of time and with a sufficient number of characters.


In conclusion, Poe’s use of sadistic and masochistic character-motivations validates my concept that such abstract goal-affects need not appear only in syndromic narratives directly concerned with sadism or masochism as such.  And despite the horror Legman shows regarding Poe’s inimical influence upon readers, it’s obvious that Poe has remained one of the most-read American authors without causing those readers to become syndromic sadists or masochists.  I reiterate that this is possible because the “death-drive” that implicates much though not all narrative is not about literal death, but is a formalized anticipation of the real thing, a pure gesture made in the face of the infinite.     


Tuesday, December 18, 2012


What I have called "concrete goal-affects" in Part 1 are, whether directed toward the goal of gain or the goal of safety, governed by a simple logical cause-and-effect, to wit:

(1) Subject A wants X.  Subject B owns X.  If Subject A attacks Subject B, A can get X as long as A feels he can overcome B without consequence.

(2) Subject B is attacked by Subject A.  Subject B responds violently to prevent his being injured or killed by A.

These scenarios don't deal with the affects, the emotional states themselves, which are more various than Hobbes' analysis, also in Pt 1.

For instance, both the attacker and attacked can experience the related emotions of fear and anger. The attacker may fear never possessing X, and thereby experience righteous anger with the psuedo-logic that the attacker does not deserve to own X.  The attacked will certainly feel both fear and anger in response to the attempt to rob him.

The desire for vengeance is also oriented on a concrete goal, though by its nature we understand that it applies more often to seeking redress wrongs done at some other time, either at a time when the one attacked could not fight back and was otherwise constrained against responding.  We think of this as being a response to one's being directly attacked, but in some circumstances an attacker may feel that he is attacking a race, creed or profession that has offended him, rather than a particular person.

A more attenuated affect-- sometimes associated with the motive of gain but more often with promoting the general safety of some group-- subsumes such concepts as "discipline" and "duty."  It's possible for Subject A to rob Subject B not for A's personal gain but for the enrichment of his ingroup, while B may risk his life to stop A on the same terms: not because he personally would lose but because the theft imperils his ingroup.  A further refinement is that violence can be perpetrated from the member of one ingroup to another for purpose of a particular type of discipline called "training," though such violence is theoretically designed to "toughen up" the one subjected to it, as with the Spartan rituals whereby older boys within a communal society would beat the younger ones for that purpose.

Doubtless I've omitted some affects in this sketch, but I consider that these three emotional states are the most frequently used concrete goal-affects within the sphere of fiction, which, as noted earlier, in my main consideration.

However, abstract goal-affects are not governed by the same straightforward logic.  At the end of Part 1 I said:

...outside this circle of "attack-and-defense," there is a much rarer species of quarrel-motivation, whose goals are as abstract as any goals can be. I will deal more fully with these motivations, at least in terms of fictional narrative, in Part 2.
Abstract goal-affects relate more properly to *thymos,* the emotional need for esteem.  Receiving high esteem in a given society does, to be sure, sometimes manifest in concrete benefits: lofty political advancement, sexual partners who want to sleep with someone "famous."  Yet without doubt there are individuals who labor to do things they deem difficult but right without any remuneration, because they can better esteem themselves for having performed such actions.  Neither the logic of the desire for gain nor the desire for safety seems to govern the operations of *thymos,* whether one speaks of real-life or fictional motivations.

I've repeatedly emphasized that the radical of all fiction is conflict.  This is far from a new notion, but it's virtually ignored by those critics who prefer to see canonical "art" fiction as phenomenologically separate from "popular fiction."  I reject that separation, of course.  Most popular fiction concerns itself with the immediate, kinetic threats of violence and/or death, and I find that these kinetic effects illustrate a "death-drive" that is present in all narrative, though it's generally disguised in fiction aimed at a minority audience. 

Popular fiction is also particularly adept at providing its characters with motivations that seem unrealistic from a mimetic standpoint but which nevertheless resonate in terms of illustrating the raw human need for "esteem," which as stated earlier parallels Hobbes' motive of "reputation."  Esteem, whether experienced within a society of peers or within one's own self-evaluation, can take many different forms in fictional narrative, but the form I find most relevant is the notion of strength, be it physical or moral.

I borrow the term "death-drive" from Freud, but reject the logic he applied to it, rooted as it was in the concept of sexuality as the fundamental form of human "libido."  Freud's late concept of "thanatos," a death-impulse to parallel "eros," the life-impulse, never proves persuasive, but the two terms could be adapted to better effect in a system that admitted, as Jung did, that "libido" must relate to all phenomena in which humans descry the phenomena of strength and/or energy.  Not infrequently human observers relate to high levels of strength or energy with what has been variously called "the sense of the sublime" or "the sense of wonder."  One might also regard this as functionally covalent with the paraphilia known as "sthenolagnia," though obviously one would not be dealing with something possessed of the same specified intensity that appears in a sexual fetish.

Narrative requires the movement from one equilibrium to another, which is usually accomplished by some form of conflict.  Of course said conflict need not require a violent or strength-oriented conflict.  However, in an etiological sense violent conflict, ranging from cave-paintings of bear-hunts to the Gilgamesh Epic, has been played a vital role in the evolution of human narrative, and cannot be reasonably set aside as irrelevant to the nature of art.  Thus the "death-drive" of narrative is that aspect of narrative that most often resolves transitions through the threat of violence and/or death.

In this essay I coined the term "sthenosadism" as a counter to the Freud-Delueze interpretation of the phenomenon of sadism, as well as to argue that Freud-influenced critics Wertham and Legman had misjudged the potential for syndromic sadism to develop in mass audiences due to their exposure to popular fiction.  My corrective position suggests that most audiences participate in a "casual sadism" insofar that they may wish to see even "good" characters put through the wringer, what Schopenhauer considers the things that the audience finds "interesting" but which are often painful for the fictional characters.  The one failing of this formulation is that this might be better called "sadomasochism," in that the reader can both identify with the character's sufferings ("masochism") and also step outside and regard those sufferings clinically ("sadism.")  Thus I'm refining the earlier position to include masochistic identification in the sthenolagniac context-- an extreme case of which can be found in Kafka, touched on here.

As a closing clarification, I am not saying that concrete goal-affects do not appear in hero-villain narratives.  Maybe the Joker sends Batman a mocking note so that Batman will come chase him, but clearly the Penguin would rather get away with the loot rather than tilt with the Caped Crusader again.  But the act of reading about Batman's struggles with both types of villains is in itself an example of an "abstract goal-affect," since the pleasures we derive from reading fiction cannot be said to promote either gain or safety in a direct relationship.

I'll give more extensive examples of abstract goal-affects that are within a given diegesis, rather than located within the reader's motive for seeking fictional "quarrels," in a future post.


For later use in analyzing the concept of freedom

"The subject's fundamental nature is to overturn all external constraints, and then to realize that this is a futile and irrational activity."-- HEGEL'S PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT: AN INTRODUCTION, Larry Krasnoff, p. 65.

Monday, December 17, 2012


So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.
The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.
-- Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN, Chapter 13.
Spock: There is no logic in Gav's murder.
Shras: Perhaps you should forget logic and devote yourself to motivations of passion or gain; those are reasons for murder.-- STAR TREK, "Journey to Babel," 1967.

Spock never comments on the advice given him by Shras. but he could presumably refute the Andorian's terms.  While the term "passion" can embrace a variety of emotions, including murderous ones, the motive of committing violence-- what Hobbes calls "quarrel"-- for the purpose of gain can be pursued with the coldest of cold logic conceivable.  And as the plot shakes out in the TREK episode, "gain" is indeed the motive behind Gav's murder and various other acts of sabotage.

But what of passion?  Is passion just one thing that one should see as ineluctably opposed to cold logic, as writer D.C. Fontana suggests?  Admittedly Fontana was not propounding this notion as philosophy, merely as a notion to round out an exciting melodrama, but the question comes up in other venues as well.  So the question becomes, is it feasible that the word "passion" subsumes a variety of mental activities, two of which could in theory subsume two of the "principal causes of quarrel" Hobbes cites, "safety" and "glory?"

As it happens, the question of the various meanings of the word "passion" has come up on this blog before, quite apart from any associations with a popular teleseries currently held in simple-minded contempt by the Bloody Comic Book Elitists. In THYMOS BE DE PLACE PART 1 I devoted considerable space to refuting Noah Berlatsky's conflation of aesthetics and desire.

I don't think "desire" (which Noah defines as inherently erotic) is at the heart of human experience. I think that desire is but one interdependent chamber of a three-chambered heart that Socrates chose to call "the tripartite soul," with the other two parts being nous (intellect) and thymos (passion).

But I hear some wonder whether or not "desire" and "passion" aren't the same thing...
There follows a citation of a passage from Plato's REPUBLIC, which I confess I've seen cited in both Francis Fukuyama and James Twitchell, albeit to different ends.  Having noted how Socrates demonstrates the existence of a "passion" that is not goal-oriented, I continued:

Thus Socrates demonstrates that what we translate as *passion* (though the most accurate translation seems to be "spiritedness," as the root word for thymos comes from "breath"), is not identical to desire since it can oppose desire. I can think of examples in which *passion* might side with desire against intellect, but that doesn't undermine Socrates' distinction, for in both cases thymos is still a separable concept. Further, this *spiritedness* has a lot to do not with just satisfying one's temporary appetite to have something, be it food or money or sex, but to have esteem for oneself regarding one's own personal self-control. Socrates' example applies to one's internal esteem but it obviously has a wealth of applications with respect to gaining the esteem of others in more social situations.

So in this argument I've defined "desire" as both covalent with Plato's "eros" and with all goal-oriented affects, while "passion" is covalent with Plato's "thymos" and with affects that are more abstract in their satisfaction, whether they take the form of a subject establishing one's "reputation" (Hobbes) or identifying with a host of fictional characters (my own contra-Berlatsky take on aesthetics). 

I won't explore aesthetics or character identification in this essay-series; the interested readers (?) will have to assume that both can be subsumed by what I now call "abstract goal-affects," which quite naturally contrast with "concrete goal-affects."

In his time Hobbes was certainly aware of Plato, so it's not impossible that his "three principal causes of quarrel" owes some debt to Plato's concept of the tripartite soul.  But whereas Hobbes makes no distinction between his three causes, the aforementioned Fukuyama asserts that Plato's faculty of *thymos*-- more than a little comparable to the cause Hobbes calls "reputation"-- is distinct from eros/desire in that *thymos* was properly a "desire for a desire," that is, to be seen as a person of esteem in a given community.  In my terms this makes *thymos* an "abstract goal-affect." 

Eros/desire is without question within the sphere of "concrete goal-affects," whether one wishes to "gain" one's wants goals with passionate emotion or cold logic/reason.  For Plato nous/reason would have been the highest faculty of the soul, set to control the others, but the closest parallel it has in Hobbes' formulation is what Hobbes calls "diffidence" or "safety," which to the extent that it's a desire is principally a desire for self-preservation, for rational homeostasis.

Extrapolating from Fukuyama's reading of both Plato and Hegel, I would say that the first two quarrel-causes in Hobbes fall under my heading of "concrete goal-affects."  In fiction as in reality, violence is most often-- though not always-- motivated by the prospect of "gain."  This in turn prompts violence perpetrated in the name of those victimized to protect their "safety."

However, outside this circle of "attack-and-defense," there is a much rarer species of quarrel-motivation, whose goals are as abstract as any goals can be.  I will deal more fully with these motivations, at least in terms of fictional narrative, in Part 2.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


As this is a blog devoted to the critique of popular fiction, I don't often discuss current events or politics.  The notion that the discouse of fiction is a dog wagged by the tail of political discourse remains as much anathema to me now as when I refuted Frederic Jameson's work on that subject in 2009.

Still, like most persons I'm revulsed by the news of the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school December 15, 2012, less than six months following the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

By chance this week I reprinted some of my attacks on the two earliest anti-comics crusaders, Gershon Legman and Frederic Wertham.  Both men were firmly convinced that violent entertainment, including but certainly not limited to comic books, could inculcate a "monkey see-- monkey do" influence upon those who were easily influenced, particularly young patrons of such entertainment.  As anyone able to read knows, the debate did not end with Legman and Wertham, but has multiplied into a bewildering array of studies, op-ed pieces, and rhetorical defenses of artistic freedom.

One day after the Newtown shooting, little information has been released on the man accused of the crime.  Earliest information suggests that the accused, 20-year-old Adam Lanza-- who apparently shot himself to death after killing 27 victims, mostly schoolchildren-- had some sort of grievance involving his parents.

At present this would not seem to be a "monkey do" type of crime, in contrast to the Aurora shooting last July, where mass gunman James Holmes was taken alive and *may* have claimed that he was imitating the Joker from the BATMAN franchise.   But even without a link to popular entertainment in the Lanza case, it's easy to argue that such horrendous crimes take inspiration from a culture that enshrines violence, selling visceral entertainment to kiddies in the name of the almighty dollar.

Such transgressive entertainments only have an appeal, whether in capitalistic societies or any other kind, because most if not all human beings nurture resentments for wrongs real or imagined throughout their lives.  Legman and Wertham feared that most patrons of violent entertainment would have their societal inhibitions broken down by media able to speak to those persons' darkest wish-dreams.

To answer my titular question, while Wertham and his fellow-travelers were not right in any general sense, it's certainly possible for isolated individuals to take inspiration from any number of things that break down societal inhibitions-- though with the caveat that almost anything can trigger such a breakdown, from the Bible to cheerleader magazines

That said, the violent fantasies entertained by Lanza and James Holmes seem to go beyond the bounds of getting even with the teacher who flunked you, the cop who gave you a ticket, etc.  Do the persons committing such crimes-- sometimes with a great deal of forethought and planning-- view themselves as gutsy barbarians avenging themselves on the whole of society, as represented by the occupants of a movie theater-- or by little children who haven't even become a part of society as yet?

That's the best stab I can make toward understanding what moves this apparent rash of mass shootings.  Vengeance fantasies would seem to spring from a fear of being marginalized or mistreated.  The majority of persons who consume fantasies of violence or revenge-- and I include myself as having identified with the many mad, mistreated avengers of fiction-- can keep a sufficient mental distance as to avoid identifying fantasy with reality.   Individuals who take pleasure in mass murder, whether after the fashion of the serial killers or of the mass shooters, would appear to have lost the ability to prioritize real life above their own fantasies.  As contemptible and cowardly as the killers seem to the majority of human beings, they apparently believe themselves heroes, or at least anti-heroes like "Joker" Holmes.

I continue to believe, for whatever it's worth, that the pleasures of fictional violence don't deeply influence that majority, whether it's to commit crimes or to talk back to a nasty cop.  All such pleasures have their deepest roots in that aspect of human ressentiment that seem part and parcel of the human condition, one perfectly captured in this aphorism by Nietzsche:

"Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.”

Friday, December 14, 2012


At the conclusion of PRIDE OF PREJUDICE 2 I said:

Sensationalism, with its ability to grab the audience by the lapels and make them want to see "the Parliament of Monsters" (to invoke old Wordsworth again), remains the chief foe of anyone attempting to sell something that is allegedly more elevated, more incisive, more devoted to telling the real truth (whatever that truth-framework may be). The hunger for the Big Important Themes is a genuine intersubjective experience, true enough. But it does not define the boundaries of art.
In that two-part essay-series I largely confined my argument to disputing the priorities of those who privilege an alleged rationality over all forms of sensationalism.  However, there are also ontological dimensions to the argument.

Back in my essay-series THE GATE OF THE GODS I pointed out that Northrop Frye, who eventually became a moderate defender of pop fiction, penned an amazingly scathing putdown of "sub-literary" narratives in one of his early writings:

All of us, even the most highbrow, spend much time in the sub-literary world; all of us derive many surreptitious pleasures from it; but this world is, from the point of view of actual literature, mainly a babbling chaos, waiting for the creative word to brood over it and bring it to literary life.
At the same time, in the same essay I pointed out that Frye was not being as utilitarian as many of those who advance similar arguments, many of which come down to, "If the sensationalistic story isn't part of the solution, it's part of the problem."  Still, Frye's early metaphor for sub-literary works, that of a "babbling chaos," touches on a misconception common to the ratiocentrists.  For them, any work that might be termed "pulpish" or "sensationalistic" is just such a chaos, unredeemed by any discursive meanings-- which for the ratiocentrist, are the only possible meanings.  Since the rise of modernist literature, elitists of all stripes tend to regard the world of pure sensation as no more than epiphenomena.

In PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, Jung theorizes a possible ontogenesis for meaning within the chaos of sensation as said chaos is experienced by the infant in the womb.  I'll be examining Jung's theories more thoroughly in future essays, but with the upfront admission that Jung had no credentials as an expert on child development.  As this site clarifies: 

A developmental model that begins not only at birth, but with conception and the experience of the child in the womb, can be constructed that reflects and extends the psychological concepts of Carl Jung, based on his theories of the four psychological functions and on his theory of the transcendent function. This model would include not only the beginning of ego development, but the development of the soul complex and its origin in human consciousness.
Jung did not construct a developmental model defining the origins of human consciousness. A model that defines and reflects his concepts in a developmental theory that begins with the beginning of life would contribute to the understanding of the Self. There is presently no developmental psychology that provides a model based on Jung's description of psychological functions that begin in the womb. The Jungian analyst Michael Fordham does discuss issues relating to the child in the womb, and early ego development. His model uses Jungian concepts that describe the process of individuation in childhood.
More to come.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In my previous essay I wrote:

This isn't to say that the "sensuous frenzy" of sadism doesn't have some relation to the world of the "combative" form of conflict. But clearly, contra Legman and Wertham, violence takes a radically different form in the idiom of the adventure-hero.

The factor that underlies this "radically different form" is that of the struggle between two or more superior forces, a form of conflict that has (to my knowledge) no occurence in the works of the Marquis de Sade himself, nor of most works that could be fairly labeled "sadistic," whether the sadism was of a syndromic or a casual nature.

Now the nature of what can be considered a "superior force" must be analyzed, as with most other qualities mentioned on this theory-blog, in terms of narrative function.  Batman, a costumed human being who uses a few unusual gimmicks during his first ten years of existence, is clearly a superior specimen.  Fans remember best his bizarre criminals-- from the favorites (do I need to invoke the names of the Big Three?) to one-offs like the Red Devils and the Duc D'Orterre.  However, in that initial ten-year period most of Batman's foes were not costumed or super-gimmicked villains, but common crooks.  Can common crooks qualify as "superior forces?"

Narratively they can, of course.  Though Batman can frequently fight his way through four or five plug-uglies without raising a sweat, the plug-uglies represent what would prove a superior force to most ordinary citizens.  This is reinforced by the fact that on occasion this or that story finds it necessary for the crooks to get the upper hand, as if to remind the reader that these aren't pushovers just because they're often treated that way.  I presented an example of this narrarive necessity in this essay.

However, what about the heroes whose power-level is like that of gods to men?  If one surveys the first ten years of heroes like Superman and the Spectre-- both creations of wunderkind Jerry Siegel-- one will find those heroes most frequently battling ordinary thugs rather than aliens, mad scientists, occult menaces, etc.  Going by the Legman-Wertham hypothesis, would this not mean that features with godlike heroes, who can rarely if ever be menaced by most of their opponents, are just stand-ins for sadistic abusers of innocent criminals?

Not quite, and again, the analysis of narrative trends holds more relevance than the simple power discrepancy.

Consider Superman.  It's true that within his first decade, he hardly ever encounters a foe who can shake him up. Does this mean that his stories are, as the two psycho-babblers claimed, just excuses for the pleasures of inflicting pain?  Hardly, for while the original concept of Superman depended on his being superlative in power, the hero usually had a different form of conflict.  Because his creators and/or editors didn't want him simply beating up crooks unless he was doing so to put them in jail-- in keeping with societal priorities of the period-- Superman had to make some use of his brain.  Not infrequently the Man of Steel had to play detective in order to figure out not just who to hit, but also how to find evidence that would put the malefactors away.  Thus, as I've pointed out elsewhere, Superman had to be as much a trickster as a warrior.

The Spectre presents a more involved case, for this hero's origin story implies that God Above has given the Spectre limitless power to fight crime and to execute whomever the hero may care to execute.  And to be sure, some of the fates the Spectre visits upon his early victims might be cited as cases of sadistic pleasure, as noted in the quote above.

What I find significant, though, is that even with this scenario-- in which the Spectre never (or hardly ever) had to answer for his actions-- Siegel's scripts still had to find ways to throw in conflict, so that even the omnipotent Spectre had to struggle somewhat.  Thus, in the midst of the hero hunting some blackmailers, Siegel would throw in some cosmic mishap that would temporarily flummox the hero, so that he had to go the extra mile to save a damsel from her distress.

Thus it would seem that even the most powerful heroes within the "combative adventure" mythos are more limited than the protagonists of the Marquis de Sade, who exist to do anything they please.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Though I'd been reading Kant off and on over the past twenty years, I'll readily admit I didn't invoke him often in the early years of this blog, aside from drawing on his logic to come up with my term "metaphenomenal." I didn't make comparisons between Old Immanuel and any of the scholars who had provided primary influences on my theories, such as Frye, Jung, and Cassirer-- for all that Cassirer himself was a loyal post-Kantian, and Jung probably owes more than a small debt to Kant's categories.  I didn't start assiduously studying the possible benefits of Kant until 2011.  For that I have to thank in part the wrongheaded misapplications of Kant by one Douglas Wolk, for having spurred me to delve more deeply into Kantian philosophy.  Still, even without Wolk,  I think I would have forged pretty much the same link between "sublimity" and "sense of wonder," given my considerable interest in that aspect of literature.

Now, of course, a great deal of my current theory incorporates Kant's commentary on art and sublimity, as well as parallel thoughts by authors like Burke and Schopenhauer, and a reader can't swing a cyber-stick around here lately without encountering discourse on "might" and "dominance", etc.  However, though I wasn't invoking Kant much back in 2008, I find it of archetypal relevance that I touched on elements very like the Kantian concepts above in a series of essays whose purpose was to refute the Wertham-Legman theory of literary sadism.

I began in THEORY OF SADISM by disputing the validity of the Freudian paradigm of sadism, which clearly influenced both Wertham and Legman, as well as the much more sophisticated but still erroneous take of Gilles Deleuze.

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. "Disavowal" is just another intellectual construct devised to emphasize "absence" rather than "presence," thus putting both thinkers in line with similar types like Sartre and Lacan. 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. With this caveat in mind one can schematize the respective attitudes so: the pure sadist wants to actively inflict his power/strength upon others without opposition; the pure masochist wants to have the power/strength of others inflicted upon him, albeit under controlled conditions. I prefer the term "strength" to the now-dated term "phallic power" employed by Freud and Deleuze, since the former term does not limit itself to the phallically-endowed gender.
As a side-point I would later reference the fascination of "clashing bodies" within the framework of Georges Bataille's concept of "sensuous frenzy," a metaphor that could subsume both sex and violence.

Within the essay called POP GOES THE PSYCHOLOGY, it seems that I anticipated Kant's formula of "might" as applied to a literary context, described in MIGHT MAKES FIGHTS PT 1 as the type of fiction that unleashes a superior force upon inferior forces-- though of course I didn't say anything in 2008 about finding this form of narrative to be statistically dominant.

... most current analysts of genre would tend to see "crime" as a distinct genre, almost entirely focused on the depradations of 20th or 21st-century gangsters, usually in an urban environment. Wertham and Legman have a good rhetorical reason to emphasize "crime" as applying across the board, for the specific crime genre usually does emphasize the criminal rather than his law-abiding opponents, and could be, with some small fairness, accused of lining up with the paradigm of the Marquis deSade. Admittedly, Sade's stories are usually about victimizers who capture and then torture victims for pleasure, rather than gunning down little old ladies in the street as did the comic-book gangsters during the heyday of crime comics. Still, one may grant that the essential Freudian paradigm seems common to both: the aggressor vents his aggression on the helpless, and in theory the reader of crime comics enjoys and internalizes the spectacle, "unless he is a complete masochist," as Legman helplfully tells us.
A paragraph later, I disputed Legman and Wertham's oversimple identification of this one-sided contest with the triumphant combat-scenarios of heroic adventure.

Now, while the jury may remain out on the question as to whether the adventure-genre can inspire any sort of sadistic vibe in their audiences-- a question I'll address more fully in a future piece-- it seems obvious to me that when heroes fight villains in adventure-tales, the narrative action could not be less like a lynching, much less a Sadean sadist torturing helpless victims or a gangster shooting down old ladies in the street. Wertham and Legman dance around the difference by trying to make it sound as if the villains are merely stand-ins for despised minorities and the like, which argument remains a linchpin of Marxist oppositional thought, both in modern comics-criticism and elsewhere. But neither author can totally expunge this difference of narrative action: in the adventure-genre, *the villain can defend himself.* He may be fated to lose the struggle-- indeed, until recently he always did-- but the struggle itself is essential to the adventure-genre, as it manifestly is not with the crime genre. As Wertham and Legman both point out, the crime-genre books usually ended with a last-minute destruction of the rampaging crook as a "sop" to morality. But the struggles of hero and villain in the adventure-genres-- best represented in comic books by the superhero-- are not thrown in at the last minute. Narratively, structurally, such physical struggles are the selling-points of the genres, and so cannot be conflated with either the crime genre or the Sadean paradigm by any truly rational approach.
I feel sure that when I pointed this elementary difficulty in the reasoning of the two anti-comics authors, I had no idea of invoking the Kantian categories of sublime force.  Now, given my current line of thought-- that the formula "superior force is arrayed against inferior forces" is the one that most dominates popular storytelling-- does that mean that the dominant form of popular fiction is of a sadistic nature?

On that matter, deponent saith not-- except to say that if it's probably no less true of canonical lit-fiction than pop-fiction.  Camille Paglia devoted her book SEXUAL PERSONAE to that argument, and whereas one could quarrel with some of her terms, her findings would suggest that sadism can manifest quite as well in a world where no "might" manifests-- say, the works of Henry James or Honore de Balzac-- as in worlds with a very definite "mighty" presence, which we see in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and MOBY DICK.

So where does that leave the concept of "dominance?"  I stated above it's a given that the victory in most "combative" stories will go to the character who embodies the force of life-- or who at least comes closer to it than his opponent.  But even allowing for this pre-ordained victory, it's clear that the readers desire to see the hero *earn* his dominant status following a struggle of powerful equals-- a struggle goes against the grain of the sadistic concept.  This isn't to say that the "sensuous frenzy" of sadism doesn't have some place the world of the "combative" form of conflict.  But clearly, contra Legman and Wertham, violence takes a radically different form in the idiom of the adventure-hero.  It's because stupidities like those of Legman and Wertham remain pervasive that there remains a need to suss out the many complexities of conflict and combat, even if the sussing-out is likely to fail, in keeping with the old adage:

"Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."

Sunday, December 9, 2012


In STRENGTH, IN NUMBERS  I made this generalization about the corpus of stories within the famous folktale-collection Grimms' Fairy Tales:

I would generalize that most of the Grimms' folktales fall into one of these two categories [i.e., having the plot-dynamicity labeled "basic strength" or the one labeled "might"].
In contrast, I only pegged one Grimms' tale which displayed the plot-pattern of "dominance," focused on two contending superior forces.

But that's just one story-collection.  How do these three deductively-extrapolated patterns disperse over the whole of literature?

I suppose my view may be influenced by a lifetime of genre-reading.  Nevertheless, genre-- and I consider folk literature to be a close relation to genre literature-- has been the dominant type of narrative (both in written and oral forms) favored by the majority of human beings in historical time.  And basing my view on everything I've read of what other people generally read, the "middle type"-- the one that Goldilocks pronounced as "just right" in another context-- is the one that I believe would rack up the highest statistics, were any kind of statistical evaluation feasible.

I hinted at the predominance of the "might" pattern in my QUICK SCHOPENHAUER POST

As I've mentioned elsewhere I find Cioffi's term "anomaly" useful to describe the element or elements that provide the motive force of the narrative, so it would seem that the anomaly expresses the narrative's need for conflict/transgression.
To make my meaning more explicit, I'm saying that the dominant type of story within genre narrative-- which narrative is the dominant narrative experience of historical mankind-- is one in which the characters who inhabit a normal, "typical" continuum-- characters usually possessed of no more than "basic strength"-- is confronted with an atypical anomaly-- be it a natural force or a character-- which impinges its "might" upon the continuum's static equilibrium. The anomaly may be any number of things within the scope of the Num Formula: a ruthless criminal (naturalistic), a bizarre psycho-killer (uncanny), or a blood-hungry vampire (marvelous).  As different as these three examples are in terms of phenomenality-- with one appealing to what I've called the "odd-sublime," the other two to the "strange-sublime"-- they are identical in terms of function in terms of how the plot-dynamicity works out.

If the "might" pattern is, as I assert, the dominant pattern in genre-literature-- thus supervening the patterns of non-genre literature as well-- then this would support H.P. Lovecraft's belief as expressed at the start of his critical history of the terror-tale, SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE:

THE OLDEST and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Of course no one can be sure as to which emotion was the first to be kindled in the breast of nascent humanity.  But it's possible that the confrontation of mundane "basic strength" with the power of sublime "might" is the dominant pattern because it has the greatest appeal across all genre-types.

More on these matters in a forthcoming Part 2.

Friday, December 7, 2012


In the previous essay I wrote:

At base, the two have in common a particular kind of "pride": a pride in one's own ability to discern what aspects of literature are best-- aspects which are almost always oriented upon some intellect-based comprehension of some given subject matter. It could be argued that in so doing those guilty of this form of "pride" are guilty of Kant's pronouncement upon Leibniz, that of "intellectualizing phenomena."
I want to make clear, however, that this species of "pride" is not a mere personal quality in the persons so characterized.  This attitude of ratiocentrism in the attitudes of particular critics is merely a proximate cause.  The real cause transcends any single person, having been passed down throughout so many cultures and era that it might well labeled "intersubjective" as defined here.

One of the two manifestations of this ratiocentrism, at least in the United States, can be attributed to the exigencies of the educational system, as I observed in TRUISM LIES PT 1.

[Students] must learn how to recount, in a coherent and discursive manner, the underlying themes of THE SCARLET LETTER or MOBY DICK or whatever, in order to prove their ability to master the appropriate level of reasoning. For elementary and even secondary-school levels, it would be too demanding to speak of the expressive depths of any sort of literature, be it high or low.

This manifestation takes in the type of ratiocentrism I observed in both Gary Groth and Synsidar in the previous section.

Also in the essay cited, I quoted Northrop Frye  as having demonstrated, in his ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, the naivete of this idea of getting out of literature just what the author put there for readers to find.  In the same chapter where he makes this observation, he also excoriates a critical tendency that I deem a different species of ratiocentrism, and which Frye terms "determinism:"

The notion that the poet necessarily is or could be the definitive interpreter of himself or of the theory of literature belongs to the conception of the critic as a parasite or jackal. Once we admit that the critic has his own field of activity, and that he has autonomy within that field, we have to concede that criticism deals with literature in terms of a specific conceptual framework. The framework is not that of literature itself, for this is the parasite theory again, but neither is it something outside literature, for in that case the autonomy of criticism would again disappear, and the whole subject would be assimilated to something else.

This latter gives us, in criticism, the fallacy of what in history is called determinism, where a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics expresses that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less. Such a method gives one the illusion of explaining one's subject while studying it, thus wasting no time. It would be easy to compile a long list of such determinisms in criticism, all of them, whether Marxist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, neo-Classical, Freudian, Jungian, or existentialist, substituting a critical attitude for criticism, all proposing, not to find a conceptual framework for criticism within literature, but to attach criticism to one of a miscellany of frameworks outside it. The axioms and postulates of criticism, however, have to grow out of the art it deals with. The first thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field. Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these.

It might be easiest to think of one species as "underthinking" (regarding as significant only what an artist has stated in outright, near-allegorical terms) and the other as "overthinking" (superimposing some cognitive framework over the outlines of the poetic work).  I've devoted four essays to refuting the species of "deterministic ratiocentricism" in the OVERTHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT series, beginning here.  In the essays so refuted, author Charles Reece seeks to fit WONDER WOMAN comics to a Procrustean bed by-way-of-Karl-Marx.  This is a different approach than that of Synsidar, who has said that superhero comics could be good (or at least better) if they were infused with greater maturity, thus gaining appeal for adults.  Though Reece is no less addicted to the Pedagogical Paradigm than Synsidar, in that Reece refers to his subject matter as "these crappy children's comics" here, Reece takes an inductive approach: juvenile comics can be useful as examples of his chosen cognitive framework as in, say, Marxist ideas on the etiology of fascism.

I believe that both types of ratiocentrism take different routes but arrive at the same place: the calcification of plurisignative meaning into dead fossils of rational exegesis.  Said calcification I alluded to at the end of UNDERTHOUGHT series:

Everything I've written about the potential mythic content that arises from sense-experience depends on this idea of "diffuse meaning," which later becomes concentrated (or calcified) into ideological forms. To me the power of myth is the true expression of free will, while ideology always threatens to trap and bind even the people who most think they have control of its intricacies.

If I've not made it clear, I feel that all the protests against "the superhero as a juvenile construct"-- whether from Synsidar or Groth or Reece or Dirk Deppey-- signigy little more than a blind.  What is resented is not the aspect of juvenility, but the aspect of sensationalism which is for many characterizes children's entertainment (see Synsidar in particular), a sensationalism away from which adults supposedly mature.

(Except that they really don't; hence my assorted writings on adult pulp, which see.)

Sensationalism, with its ability to grab the audience by the lapels and make them want to see "the Parliament of Monsters" (to invoke old Wordsworth again), remains the chief foe of anyone attempting to sell something that is allegedly more elevated, more incisive, more devoted to telling the real truth (whatever that truth-framework may be).  The hunger for the Big Important Themes is a genuine intersubjective experience, true enough.  But it does not define the boundaries of art.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


          All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
          Are here--Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
          The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
          The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
          Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,          
          The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
          The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
          Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
          All out-o'-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
          All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
          Of man, his dulness, madness, and their feats
          All jumbled up together, to compose
          A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths
          Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,
          Are vomiting, receiving on all sides,                
          Men, Women, three-years' Children, Babes in arms.
         ---William Wordsworth, THE PRELUDE, Book 7.

What Wordsworth scathingly calls a "Parliament of Monsters" (including an "Invisible Girl" who apparently appeared long before H.G. Wells' "Invisible Man") was nothing more than the many attractions of the St. Bartholomew Fair in London.  Yet clearly to Wordsworth these "freaks of nature" signify something more. He's greatly affronted by the base appeal to the sensation-loving audience, to their love of "far-fetched, perverted things."  Although the archaic myth-figure of Prometheus often carried favorable connotations in Wordsworth's era, this poet is surely conferring no approval in speaking of such sights as "Promethean thoughts."  I would hazard that his invocation of the famous Titan is meant to suggest rebellion against the proper order of things, as also seen in the subtitle of a more famous work from the same era: FRANKENSTEIN, OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

Wordsworth was by no means original in decrying base appeals to sensationalism.  Socrates, insofar as he spoke through Plato's REPUBLIC, endorsed the state control of poetry, because it could set bad examples for youth.  Much of the history of literary criticism has been the history of validating "good literature" over "bad literature," with the implication that bad literature wasn't just formally bad, but existed as a snare and a trap for the unwary.

I am reminded of this salient fact by a particular excerpt from the post of comics-fan Synsidar, which I previously reprinted in OFF THE BEAT AGAIN:

There’s little effort made to write superheroes as people in stories for children, because the children don’t need the realistic details.
This is yet another permutation of that comics-fandom phenomenon I've called the Pedagogical Paradigm.  I coined the term with Gary Groth in mind in this essay.

Groth said of Will Eisner (among other things):

Eisner refused to take the [superhero] genre trappings seriously -- which was about the only intelligent way to approach a strip that was designed to imitate the look of comic books, which were at best semi-literate, yet appeal to the adult readership of newspapers.
I replied in part:

The Grothian superiority dance here also evokes the adult/juvenile distinction. Groth makes the assumption that Eisner's SPIRIT feature was superior because it (unlike all or most superhero strips in the juvenile-oriented comic books) chose to appeal to adults.
Of course not every individual who subscribes to the Pedagogical Paradigm follows it in the same manner.  Groth has said on many occasions that he regards the superhero genre as inherently for kids; that's why he approved of Eisner treating the genre in semi-serious fashion.  In contrast, as I understand Synsidar's frequently-repeated arguments on THE BEAT, he's convinced that by writing "superheroes as people"-- that is, with "realistic details"-- could garner an adult audience beyond the one that exists today.

On this issue, given that I've repeatedly expressed my view that the DM audience already comprises such an audience for "adult pulp" in the form of sueprheroes, I'm closer to Synsidar than to Groth, though both of them seem to be on a similar page as far as unilaterally condemning what's currently produced for the DM. Yet while the two writers are far apart on the Matter of the Superhero, they are alike in thinking that there's some intellectual "upgrade" that can be made to superheroes to make them intellectually respectable-- "realistic details" for Synsidar, an "unserious" approach to "genre trappings" for Groth.

At base, the two have in common a particular kind of "pride": a pride in one's own ability to discern what aspects of literature are best-- aspects which are almost always oriented upon some intellect-based comprehension of some given subject matter.  It could be argued that in so doing those guilty of this form of "pride" are guilty of Kant's pronouncement upon Leibniz, that of "intellectualizing phenomena."

I understand the appeal of this pride; I've felt it myself.  But I also take pride in my ability to see the many-faceted appeals of sensationalism in both genre-fiction and canonical literature.  The best writers do not, in my opinion, simply turn up their noses at sensation as do Groth and the poet Wordsworth.  They harness the power of the "Parliament of Monsters," without prejudice against the role it plays in their work.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Well, I thought my next essay would be a follow-up to STRENGTH, IN NUMBERS, but instead it's a reprint of an argument from this BEAT post. I reprint it here in case I choose to develop any of the points later.

"People commission and collect drawings of superheroines. How many people have ever commissioned text stories of any length about one?"

I can't offer you any stats, but I have heard that prose commissions have been purchased with respect to people writing sex-stories about superheroes and various other pop-icons.  Perhaps it could be demonstrated that that more comic-art commissions are turned out each year than prose commissions.  But even if such a generalization was confirmed over the space of (say) ten years, that in itself would not prove that prose intrinsically is less useful for purposes of raunchy stimulation.  It would only prove that there existed more customers for one thing than the other.

"Graphic child pornography gets a person in trouble immediately, while even ambiguous images raise suspicions. Pornographic text, conversely, is prosecuted very rarely."

This proves only that legal authorities feel more comfortable in prosecuting images rather than words.  This suggests that the law places an implicit faith that the image, more than the word, can inspire the fabled "monkey see monkey do" reflex.  But that's all it proves.

"It’s hard to imagine someone having the same reaction to a text description of a heroine that he would to a picture of her, especially after repeated exposures."

There are a lot of sites online focused on sexy pictures.  Also a lot of them focused on sexy prose stories.  Are there more of the former or the latter?  I would say the latter, but YMMV.

"There’s little effort made to write superheroes as people in stories for children, because the children don’t need the realistic details. "

Anything I could say to refute this opinion has already been better said by CS Lewis in refuting the notion of the inherent juvenility of fairy stories.

Friday, November 30, 2012


In the previous essay I wrote:

To reiterate the Harvey Pekar example, clearly the vignette in which Pekar makes himself some lemonade requires no "strength" beyond this elementary level-- and neither do a variety of mundane, life-sustaining tasks-- driving a car, building a birdhouse, etc.

Admittedly, I'm more likely to use the adjectival forms I coined in the THREE-PART essay: *microdynamic,* *mesodynamic,* and *megadynamic." But the one disadvantage of these terms is that they don't lend themselves as well as do the noun-terms in some regards.
What I should have written was that the "adjectival forms" were applicable to fictional characters, and, on occasion, non-human "focal presences."  Generally speaking, only characters are microdynamic, mesodynamic, or megadynamic, and only characters are to be designated as "x-types," "y-types," or "z-types," as noted in DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY.  I also used these terms to desigate the way a given character, even if he possessed "x-type/megadynamic" power as with Batman, might exert differing levels of power for different occasions, as seen at the end of THE THREE-PART HARMONY OF DYNAMICITY.

However, Kant's original use for his terms "might" and "dominance"-- from which use I extrapolated my third term, "basic strength"-- applied not to characters but to situations: generally, the manifestation of "might" in nonhuman natural phenomena.  I've repeatedly disagreed with Kant's proclivity to find sublimity only in natural forces.  Despite this disagreement, I assert that Kant's terms are elastic enough to be applied to wider use than Kant made of them-- as with respect to analyzing the *dynamis* within fictional plots.

Once again, then, I'm applying the "plot-character schism," referenced in terms of "mythoi-determination," and pressing it into the service of the "conflict and combat" distinction, if that makes things any clearer.

Patently my last few paragraphs of the previous essay applied to plots, not characters:

For instance, in my earliest discussion of "conflict and combat," I originally designated three levels of conflict. Later I simplified these to "combative" and "subcombative." Operatively, though, there is some significance to labelling some types of narrative as "noncombative." Certainly there is a mindset in some literary circles that true literary works don't deal in gauche violence. Pekar, with his kitchen-sink renditions of his own life, seems to have subscribed to this notion. In a similar vein, Northrop Frye once noted the irony that despite the popularity of Shakespeare, most later dramatists hewed more closely to the realistic example of Ben Jonson-- which means, if only in part, that this tendency eschewed the Bard's bloody-mindedness.

"Might," as situated in Kant's argument, is simply a superior force amid inferior ones. This would parallel the type of story in which there exists an anomalous force (say, the vampire Dracula) with which a group of ordinary people must contend.

"Dominance" generates a very different type of plotline, in which at least two superior forces are arrayed against one another. I'll explore this in more depth in my next essay.
I made a loose correlation between the level of "basic strength" and the overall idea of the "kitchen-sink fiction," but I don't want to imply that only modernist narratives exclude references to the sublimity-producing concepts of "might" and "dominance," though as a rule modern genre-narratives explore these concepts on a more sustained basis than do most modern would-be literary efforts.

For instance, there's no violence in the "Harvey Pekar lemonade" vignette, but it's not inconceivable that Pekar might have written of, say, some schoolyard tussle in his high school days. Had he done so, such an episode would have remained, plotwise, at the level of "basic strength," unless there were something extraordinary about the ability of one or both combatants.

Folktakes of all nations fulfilled the same basic function now assumed by genre-fiction, and many of them were, to use my earlier phrase, quite "bloody-minded."  However, there were certainly those that did not employ any sort of "might" or "dominance" in their violence, but remained at what I've called elsewhere a "functional" level.  One such tale was that of "The Bremen Town Musicians."  The story's one violent scene, occuring at the climax, is summarized on the tale's entry in Wikipedia:

Later that night, the robbers return and send one of their members in to investigate. He sees the Cat's eyes shining in the darkness and thinks he is seeing the coals of the fire. He reaches over to light his candle. Things happen in quick succession; the Cat scratches his face with her claws, the Dog bites him on the leg, the Donkey kicks him and the Rooster crows and chases him out the door, screaming. He tells his companions that he was beset by a horrible witch who scratched him with her long fingers (the Cat), an ogre with a knife (the Dog), a giant who had hit him with his club (the Donkey), and worst of all, the judge who screamed in his voice from the rooftop (the Rooster). The robbers abandon the cottage to the strange creatures who have taken it, where the animals live happily for the rest of their days.

By my lights there is nothing either "sublime" or "spectacular" about this form of violence, although there's some deliberate irony in that the robber who's been attacked by ordinary animals imagines that they were a host of powerful beings, including a witch, an ogre and a giant.

In contrast to this, we have a real witch in the Grimms' tale "Hansel and Gretel."  This tale is so well-known that I hardly need summarize its plotline, but  in it the cannibalistic witch with the candy cottage fulfills the same function of the "anomalous force" mentioned above; a force which, like Dracula, possesses such "might" that the protagonists can only overcome this antagonist through endurance and cunning.

I would generalize that most of the Grimms' folktales fall into one of these two categories, but there is at least one, semi-obscure story that qualifies as reproducing the narrative value of "dominance" in its plot, albeit with a comic touch at the end.  Again from the entry in Wikipedia for "The Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was:"

The first night, as the boy sat in his room, two voices from the corner of the room moaned into the night, complaining about the cold. The boy, unafraid, claimed that the owners of the voices were stupid to not warm themselves with the fire. Suddenly, two black cats jumped out of the corner and, seeing the calm boy, proposed a card game. The boy tricked the cats and trapped them with the cutting board and knife. Black cats and dogs emerged from every patch of darkness in the room, and the boy fought and killed each of them with his knife. Then, from the darkness, a bed appeared. He lay down on it, preparing for sleep, but it began walking all over the castle. Still unafraid, the boy urged it to go faster. The bed turned upside down on him, but the boy, unfazed, just tossed the bed aside and slept next to the fire until morning.
Most of the hero's encounters in the story are like this, where he easily bests whatever supernatural terrors attempt to strike fear in his heart.  Even at the story's comic conclusion, the protagonist still remains undefeated and never knows what it means to fear a superior power, so that the comedy of the story depends on his demonstration of Superman-like indomitability.

 Having shown how the three types of "plot-dynamicity" affect my chosen folktale-examples, I'll work my way back to current patterns of genre-fiction.

NOTE TO ANY REGULAR READERS: I revised paragraph 3 on 12-9-12 for hopefully greater clarity.