Featured Post


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...

Friday, February 28, 2014


Empirical realism is underpinned by a metaphysical dogma, which I shall
call the epistemic fallacy, that statements about being can always be
transposed into statements about our knowledge of being. -- Bhaskar, p. 16.

Given that I have recently proposed the bifurcation of fictive causality into two intertwining but separable aspects, it behooves me to look back at some of the examples I've given in earlier essays to see if they support my conception of those aspects: "regularity" and "intelligibility."  I should note that of the two "regularity" is the primary aspect, given that the human conviction that the world is intelligible to cognition arises from the fact that some if not all phenomena demonstrate patterns of regularity, thus allowing human beings to create empirical hypotheses as to what forces make those phenomena act in a regular manner. Still, as Bhaskar points out above, it's a fallacy to assume that a statement about (physical) being can be transposed into a definitive statement about our knowledge.

In the INTERSECTING AXES essay, I pointed out that both the "naturalistic" and "marvelous" phenomenalities are unitary in terms of what I chose at that time to call the aspects of "body" and "non-body"-- also roughly comparable to Cassirer's "causality" and "efficacy." In contrast, the phenomenenality of "the uncanny" was one in which "body" was at odds with "non-body." I  surveyed examples of my "ten tropes" in search of the way that they could "reveal the uncanny affects in terms of the ambivalence between body and non-body." Now I would say that the ambivalence is one between the aspect of regularity-- that is, the statement that all physical aspects are regular and unchanging, at least in comparison to the irregularities found in the domain of the marvelous-- and the aspect of intelligibility.  In the sphere of the naturalistic it's impossible for anything to be truly unintelligible, but within the sphere of the uncanny it's quite possible to see the same forces of "regularity causation" at work, and yet to see them result in something mysterious; a.k.a. Rudolf Otto's "overplus."
Going trope by trope:

ASTOUNDING ANIMALS-- In the AXES essay I mentioned both Melville's Moby Dick and Steven Spielberg's Jaws as examples of this trope in its uncanny phase, but did not supply an example of the naturalistic phase. Since I've not read Peter Benchley's original JAWS novel, I've no idea whether or not he made his shark "astounding" in spite of the creature's naturalistic limitations. However, I have seen the 1956 film adaptation of MOBY DICK, and would say without question that its prime creators, John Huston and Ray Bradbury, were completely innocent of any intimation that the whale might be something other than a big dumb brute.  In contrast to Melville's leviathan, the whale is purely "intelligible." 

BIZARRE CRIMES-- I commented on three literary or cinematic examples of characters-- Sade's Juliette, Fleming's Blofeld, and Lew Landers' Doctor Vollin-- who committed crimes "for motives that go beyond the ordinary ends of 'acquisition,'" which was simply a very Bataillean way of speaking of the motives appropriate to naturalism.  I supplied no counter-examples in which "body" and "non-body" were in a naturalistic equilibrium, but in this essay I studied two Tod Slaughter films side by side. Whereas Slaughter's villain in CRIMES OF THE DARK HOUSE might be atypical in comparison to your run-of-the-mill naturalistic criminal, everything he does is characterized by nothing but simple "acquisition." In contrast, Sweeney Todd, like the three evildoers cited above, has become a pop-fiction boogieman, and his motives come down to "the psychopathic love of killing"-- which, being a very Sadean mindset, lines up with Bataille's concept of expenditure.

DELIRIOUS DREAMS AND FALLACIOUS FRAGMENTS-- For this trope I supplied no examples at all in the AXES essay.  This one, though, seems unproblematic given that every sentient human being has experienced dreams, and rarely do people ever dream things comparable to Alice's extended dream of Wonderland, or the peripatetic dreams of this fictionalized version of Hans Christian Andersen. Within the sphere of the naturalistic, such highly constructed dream-voyages are very unlikely if not impossible; real dreams are too chaotic to produce such narratives.  Thus a film like 1952's HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN subscribes to a more "intelligible" view of the dreaming process, for this version of Hans does not dream his great fairy-tales.  Rather, they spring out of the function of half-conscious day-dreaming, which in this film is explainable by virtue of the Adlerian theory of compensation.

ENTHRALLING HYPNOTISM AND ILLUSIONISM-- Here I cited the famous hypnotist Svengali as an example of a hypnotist/illusionist whose abilities went beyond the intelligible limits of real practioners of this art.  The 2011 HUGO, with its fascination with showing how a particular form of illusionism works-- that of George Melies' early cinema-FX-- provides a decent enough counter-example. Whereas Svengali's masterful hypnotism can create a silk purse out of the sow's ear that is Trilby, the fictionalized Melies is a brilliant showman, but his talent is still fundamentally intelligible.

EXOTIC LANDS AND CUSTOMS-- Again I cited only an "uncanny" example of this trope, citing how the 1941 serial JUNGLE GIRL took the real-life African tribe of the Masai and created a fictional lion-worshipping tribe.  But a better contrast between "intelligible" and "anti-intelligible" versions of the same concept is featured in this review of two versions of Wilkie Collins' famous mystery novel THE MOONSTONE, which concerns an exotic clique of Hindus who come to England to recover a stolen sacred diamond.  The 1934 film is so uninterested in the exoticism of the Hindu characters that their role is reconfigured into just one Hindu servant, who is innocent of any crime.

FREAKISH FLESH-- In AXES I mentioned one of the most famous literary "freaks" in the Hunchback of Notre Dame as an example of an "uncanny" freak, while in this earlier essay I cited a counter-example: the fictionalized version of "the Elephant Man" in David Lynch's 1980 film. I also mentioned that "phenomena like twins or dwarves" could "convey a sense of supernatural 'strangeness' under the correct conditions," and on my film-blog gave an example of such a contrast with these two films about twinship.  These remarks I find illustrative of the ways in which a creator can suggest the nature of the "anti-intelligible" even while the forces of regularity are constant:

But even without this [prophetic] aspect of the film, Neill confers a sense of  "strangeness" to the proceedings.  It's certainly possible that another filmmakers might have taken the same plot-elements and rendered something more naturalistic, along the lines of Joseph Mankiewicz's DRAGONWYCK.  But in BLACK ROOM the twins by themselves make a very strange pair, at once (as the myth-quotation above has it)  capable of bestowing both beneficence and malevolence equally-- while in RINGER, both twins are just two eccentric human beings.

OUTRE OUTFITS SKILLS AND DEVICES-- In AXES I mention both Tarzan and the Lone Ranger as heroes possessed of, respectively, "outré skills" and "outré outfits."  I've mentioned elsewhere that in western films with masked crimefighters, those crimefighters are usually the only uncanny thing in those films, and certainly the Lone Ranger is one of the most anti-intelligible, given that a majority of the stories must deal with him explaining that his mask "represents justice" rather than connoting the more common (and intelligible) meaning of a face-mask. There aren't too many characters who parallel Tarzan's origins without delving into the realm of the uncanny, but one of the few is this serial-hero HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS.

PERILOUS PSYCHOS-- Again I mentioned only uncanny psycho-characters: Norman Bates, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface.  For a time I debated with myself as to whether Hannibal Lecter of the cinematic SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was truly "uncanny" in the tradition of Norman Bates, beginning here with a somewhat negative appraisal, but much later deciding here that Lecter's madness did possess the same "mysterioso" qualities I sought in the earlier essay. In contrast, the film with which I compare LAMBS in this essay, 1999's EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, is satisfied to stick with a very doctrinaire psychological program for its psycho's evolution.  Both Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter are subjected to psychological paradigms, but they exceed the limits of the intelligible, even though they are subject to the same forces of "regularity" as the character from BEHOLDER.

 PHANTASMAL FIGURATIONS-- In TEN DYNAMIC DEMONS I mentioned the Phantom of the Opera as an example of this trope, but in AXES I switched to Conan Doyle's novel HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES because there's far more suspense in that novel as to whether the titular beast is really a spectre or not.  Of the Hound I wrote: "even after it has been revealed to be a phosphorescent dog, one cannot claim that reality has entirely won the game."  Thus far the only counter-example I have offered on my film-blog is producer Val Lewton's 1943 LEOPARD MAN, because though it attempts a hoax even as HOUND does, the hoaxer draws not upon phantasms of spectres or even of madmen, but only of a mundane killer leopard-- in other words, an entirely intelligible menace.

WEIRD FAMILIES AND SOCIETIES-- My only example here was that another "uncanny" version, 1943's THE SEVENTH VICTIM, whose Satanist cult maintains an aura of the mysterious even when its members are revealed to be nothing more than jaded human beings.  Off the top of my head I don't know if it's possible to make a purely naturalistic work about a Satanist or occult society. The closest parallel that occurs to me is a society or family existing in a milieu that is potentially uncanny, but which works against those associations. For instance, the appeal of most "old dark house" films-- including the original 1932 OLD DARK HOUSE-- inheres in the viewpoint character(s) interacting with some weird family or society within that house. But 1945's HOUSE OF FEAR
avoids this approach entirely, as I observed in my review:

The "fear" conjured forth by this work is purely naturalistic in nature, as in the fear of an entirely human killer.  Even though FEAR centers upon events in an "old dark house," the film could almost stand as an example of how to make the least spooky "old dark house" film possible, since familiar Holmes director Roy William Neill eschews most of the usual ghostly goings-on.  Even a stern-faced housekeeper doesn't provide any spook-juice.

In closing, I'll note that since I over-emphasized the "uncanny" versions of each trope in AXES, this time I'll provide illustrations drawn only from the "naturalistic" domain.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


My reading of Bhaskar's REALIST THEORY OF SCIENCE led me to advocate a bifurcated conception of fictive causality, characterized by "regularity" and "intelligibility." However, as it happens I had encountered a less persuasive use of the latter term, referenced in this 2012 essay.

But perhaps one should go a step farther than Barthes [in THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT] and say that the facts that lead him to propose these two views [of "joissance" and "plaisir"] indicate that we are dealing not so much with a historical process in which one kind of novel replaces another as with a kind of opposition which has always existed within the novel: a tension between the intelligible and the problematic.-- Jonathan Culler, STRUCTURALIST POETICS, p. 191.

I specified that Culler's dichotomy was "probably useless to my phenomenological project" because it arose "from a limited and hyper-literary classic novel/experimental novel comparison." But I did draw a limited parallel between Culler's terms and those of C.S. Lewis' reading of Rudolf Otto:

Thus, to invoke once again the C.S. Lewis trinity referenced here: the "tigers of fear" belong entirely the world of Cullers "intelligible," in that they may cause one to fear for one's physical safety but nothing more.  In contrast, both the "ghosts of dread" and the "gods of awe" belong in the world of the "problematic," if one defines the problematic as the human desire to exceed the limits of the merely intelligible.
Despite the provisional definition above, I didn't use "the problematic" as a literary term, since it was a little too-- problematic, and "the intelligible" wasn't much better in this context.  At one point I advocated viewing the two levels of the metaphenomenal as united by their common trait of their "strangeness," while the single level of the isophenomenal was characterized by what I called "oddity." I later moved away from this view in favor of one in which each phenomenality was characterized by the type of sublimity potentially possible in that phenomenality, detailed in this essay.

This tripartite concept of sublimity, though, was at the time dependent upon the traditional Thomist opposition of the "cognitive" and the "affective."  I tried to finesse these concepts with reference to the notions of probability derived from Aristotle and Lewis:

All three phenomenalities-- naturalistic, uncanny, and marvelous-- are established by the ways in which the authors of works in each division choose to present "evidence" for the nature of their worlds.  For a critic like Tzvetan Todorov, this means establishing whether or not a "fantastic" event is "real" or "unreal."  But as I've demonstrated in my formulation of the NUM theory, even the most 'realistic' narrative merely reproduces gestures suggestive of a reality dominated by causality.

Now, in keeping with my readings of Bhaskar, I would revise this to read that a naturalistic narrative would be "suggestive of a reality dominated by both regularity and intelligibility." Roughly four months after writing PROBABILITY SHIFTS, I determined here that my usages of "probability" were no longer viable, drawing as they did on 'the now untenable, Aristotle-derived association of "the impossible and improbable."' 

Thus I rejected the idea of a "probability factor," which would fluctuate depending on the "evidence" presented by a given author regarding the world he portrays. I then returned to Cassirer's concept of magical efficacy as a counterpart to traditional causality in the three-part AFFECTIVE FREEDOM series, here, here, and here. Basically, I sought to unify Cassirer's opposition between causality and efficacy-- the latter representing a "free selection of causes" rather than classical "cause-and-effect"-- with the "affective freedom" I found in the literary phenomenalities of the uncanny and the marvelous.  Within these phenomenalities, a reader could experience the intertwined affects of either "dread/fascination" or "awe/exaltation" without necessarily believing them to be reducible to the affects that dominate the naturalistic: i.e., "fear/admiration." 

I don't reject Cassirer's concept of magical efficacy, in that I still believe what I said here:

Eventually I discerned that the “free selection of causes” Cassirer identified in archaic mythologies was identical in mode to the “fudge factors” writers use whenever they describe all manner of marvelous beings and devices.

But Cassirer was only interested in a dichotomy between the views of "theoretical thinking," represented by traditional causality, and "mythic thinking," represented by the multicausal nature of efficacy.  Ironically this allows for a conceptual divide between the two-- a divide suggestive of Tzvetan Todorov's dichotomy between "the real" and "the unreal," which I rejected in my earliest essays on his theory:

 It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.-- Todorov, THE FANTASTIC.

I believe "critical realist" Cassirer sought to avoid this sort of empiricist reduction, as did rationalists Rudolf Otto and C.S. Lewis.  I might have expected a post-Kantian, more than a rationalist, to have ferreted out the need for an interstitial category between traditional causality and multicausality.  But for whatever reasons, Otto and Lewis managed to supply the rationale for this category, as well as some of the clues as to its relationship to traditional causality. 

 It's a further irony that Roy Bhaskar, concerned in REALIST THEORY with the phenomenology of scientific investigation, should suggest my current-- and hopefully permanent-- solution to the problems of causal relations in fiction.  Prior to reading Bhaskar, I would have thought it no more possible to split causality's aspects than to follow King Solomon's advice about splitting a child down the middle to satisfy both of the child's putative parents.  Now I perceive that causality is not unitary, at least not in fiction.  Therefore the splitting of fictive causality is more comparable to a separation of conjoined twins-- twins who can live either together or apart, depending on what effects a given author wants to achieve.

Friday, February 21, 2014



I'm now asserting that causality in a literary context-- which, contra Todorov, is not homologous with the causality human beings experience in life-- has both a cognitive aspect and an affective aspect, summed up as "regularity" and "intelligibility." 

And in the first installment of OF SHERLOCK AND PSYCHOS I defined the uncanny aspect of the film as inherent in Sherlock Holmes' foe Jack the Ripper:

 ...in what qualities does Jack the Ripper's metaphenomenality inhere?  As his only qualification for the metaphenomenal is his status as a "perilous psycho," that metaphenomenality must inhere in a mental, "non-body" quality.  His madness is his method, and therefore his metaphenomenality.

I then debated whether or not Sherlock Holmes' "polymath" qualities might qualify him for as a "mental metaphenomenality," but decided that I would have to re-view STUDY IN TERROR to see whether or not Holmes showed such uncanny qualities himself.  However, in OF SHERLOCK AND PSYCHOS PT. 2 I acknowledged that the Holmes of the 2009 SHERLOCK HOLMES film definitely did use his special deductive powers in an "uncanny" fashion:

What I did not then note is that in this scene Holmes-- who is obviously less heavily muscled than his opponent-- is utilizing his deductive skills as Doyle never did and probably would not have: to suss out his opponent's weaknesses and to plan his attack with machine-like efficiency.  Thus this film, which I have not yet reviewed, would fit the uncanny version of my trope for "uncanny skills." The film's use of graphics to depict the way Holmes thinks-- projecting words or images onto the screen, to share diegetic space with the actors-- also imparts an aura of "strangeness" to Holmes' computer-like cogitations.
I have no problem in stating that this sort of mental acuity, while it does not violate the regularity aspect of causality, does defy its intelligibility aspect, even as does Jack the Ripper's madness. And though I explored a couple of Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories briefly, I have not yet decided whether or not Holmes' unusual command of arcane knowledge can be termed "anti-intelligible." I am tending currently to think not.

Fictional reiterations of Jack the Ripper, though, do not show the same ambivalence. 

I do not render any final verdict here as to whether "the causality human beings experience in life" is entirely naturalistic or not.  But it is certainly of a different order than anything we experience through fiction, and so the two are not homologous.  That said, when I think of the historical figure of Jack the Ripper, I opt for the default characterization that almost everyone does: that he was a real human being who killed out of some lunacy and eluded the law.

I have yet to encounter a fictionalized Jack the Ripper, however, whose spectre does not suggest either "the uncanny" or "the marvelous."  This is in contrast to many other perilous psychos. 

In this essay I showed how Norman Bates, though his character was based on the real-life aberration Ed Gein, exceeded what I now call the intelligibility aspect of causality.  Despite attempts by writer Bloch and director Hitchcock to inject standardized psychological readings of Norman Bates, Norman is not reduced by these readings.  He remains a figure who dominantly suggests the antipathetic affect of dread, as signified by the famous shot of Anthony Perkins at the film's conclusion, which I like to call the "Mona Lisa Death's Head."

Ironically, the A&E BATES MOTEL teleseries manages to reduce Norman to the more mundane level of "fear"-- although to be sure, the opening episodes focus more on the fearful nature of his mother, Norma Bates, and softening Norman as the series works toward its "evolution of a psycho."

I admit that I have not seen or read every fictional portrayal of Jack the Ripper, which this Wikipedia list purports to cover.  There may be renditions of the Ripper that do to him what A&E did to Norman.  Yet because the real Ripper was never apprehended, his figure resists the naturalistic straight-jacket.  Of course, many "imitation Rippers" may fall into this category.

 This 1927 Hitchcock film departs from its source by renaming the serial killer "the Avenger." Further, though Hitchcock had wanted to keep some ambivalence as to the guilt or innocence of the man suspected of being the killer, he was overruled, with the result that the accused man is proved innocent and the real killer, though his capture is mentioned, is never seen on-screen.  Without question Hitchcock introduces visual motifs to suggest the dread associated with a serial-killer boogieman, but one may argue that these are overpowered by the film's naturalistic focus.

And of course, Hitchcock himself did a seventies-era version of this type of serial murderer in 1972's FRENZY, reviewed here.  I noted in the review that despite an early comparison between the film's "Necktie Killer" and the legendary "Jack the Ripper," there was no "strangeness" in Hitchcock's handling of FRENZY's strangler, in contrast to his handling of Norman Bates.

By contrasting Hitchcock's approach to the serial killer in this and a genuinely uncanny film like PSYCHO,  I find that Hitchcock's approach with FRENZY has more in common with his 1943 film SHADOW OF A DOUBT.  In my earlier essay I asserted that the psycho-killer of SHADOW lacked any of the "strange or unworldly aspects" I find in Norman Bates, and the same is true of the "Necktie Killer" in FRENZY, even though he's compared to Jack the Ripper in the film's first ten minutes.

To my knowledge, though, whenever a modern writer attempts to write of the actual Jack the Ripper-- the tendency is to see him through the lens of the uncanny affect of dread, whether he is seen as a man hiding a psychotic secret (A STUDY IN TERROR),  a delver into supernatural secrets (Moore and Campbell's FROM HELL), or even-- as in one novel I won't name to avoid giving away the "big reveal"-- Sherlock Holmes himself.  There are, as I said above, also versions in which Jack the Ripper is some marvelous being, as in Robert Bloch's short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." But more than any other famous madman of reality or fiction, the Ripper seems to work best as an image of dread--one that bends, but does not break, the normal configurations of the causal world.


Thursday, February 20, 2014


For this essay I'll just tie together the observations between the previous essay and my last general-theory essay on the NUM formula.

In the former essay, I'm now asserting that causality in a literary context-- which, contra Todorov, is not homologous with the causality human beings experience in life-- has both a cognitive aspect and an affective aspect, summed up as "regularity" and "intelligibility."  Though I have not stated it in so many words, the same would be true of the Cassirer-esque parallel to causality, "efficacy," whose cognitive and affective aspects would be "anti-" versions of both concepts above.

In THE INTERSECTING AXES essay, I was still regarding causality as unitary in this statement:

It occurs to me that with both my categories of "the naturalistic" and "the marvelous," all of the "intangible shit" is highly dependent on whether or not the diegetic world depicted is one in which causality can or cannot be disrupted.

Now, I would say that it is only the regularity aspect of causality that has been violated in the domain of the marvelous.  Works of "the uncanny" and "the marvelous" both violate the "intelligibility" aspect of causality, and the affects associated with the over-ruling quality of "strangeness"-- a quality Rudolf Otto insightfully termed an "overplus."  But many audience-members, when looking at works in the domain of the uncanny, tend to ally such works with the domain of the naturalistic simply because all they can see is that the author has not violated the cosmos' appearance of regularity.

For instance, take the case of the Batman, whom I used here as an example to demonstrate the problematic status of such an alliance:

Like the Todorov book I’ve recently critiqued, the naïve critic’s assertion, “Batman isn’t a superhero because he doesn’t have superpowers,” contains a fundamental insight despite being essentially wrong. The latter also takes a lot less time to refute. The naïve critic has chosen to view the adjective “super” in “superhero” as meaning one thing and one thing only: the possession of powers, giving one the ability to perform “super” feats that human heroes cannot perform. However, “super” clearly does not connote this, either in dictionaries or in the opinions of many readers who do consider Batman a superhero—usually for an equally simple reason, because he wears a costume.

It's clear to me that even if Batman never encountered any marvelous entities or used any marvelous weapons, he would have a stronger alliance with the domain of "the marvelous" than that of "the naturalistic." His case would be the same as Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and many other costumed types who had no powers and dominantly opposed only naturalistic menaces.

The only affects appropriate to the domain of the naturalistic, then, are those governed by what I have called "the atypical," which combines the regularity and intelligibility aspects of causality.  Those affects were described in AFFECTIVE FREEDOM AND THE UNCANNY PT. 1:

In a fictive world where affectivity is defined by the causal order, the dominant sympathetic affect is "admiration" of things characteristic of the causal order, particularly what Jung called Freud's "physiological factors," while the dominant antipathetic affect is "fear" of aspects of the causal/physical order.

Now, I have chosen in other essays to make clear distinctions between the two different types of "strangeness," types I labeled by the relation of their sublimity-potential to the depiction of "reality" in the narrative.  But though I still feel those distinctions are important to a discussion of how sublimity occurs across the three domains, those distinctions do not bear on analyzing the maintenance of fictive causality.

Thus, I would now revise this sentence from the AFFECTIVE FREEDOM essay:

the uncanny flourishes precisely in the contrast between the monocausal nature of cognitive reality in a given work, while affectivity "symbolically exceeds the cognitive order," taking the dominant forms of "fascination" for the sympathetic affect and "dread" for the antipathetic affect.
It is not a "cognitive order" that has been exceeded, but the "affective aspect" of fictive causality.

The statement I make in that essay regarding "the marvelous" regarding its affects also requires some revision:

Where affectivity exceeds the causal order in accordance with the multicausal nature of the world's cognitivity, the dominant sympathetic affect is "exaltation" toward the multicausal, and the dominant antipathetic affect is "awe" toward it.

The affectivity alluded to above is in effect the same "anti-intelligibility" that makes a more muted appearance in works of the uncanny, but now it is allied to an "anti-regularity" that dominates the causal order of works of the marvelous.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I've finished another book that I started back in December: Roy Bhaskar's A REALIST THEORY OF SCIENCE, first mentioned here.  I'm not going to devote anything like the extensive coverage I gave to Edward Skidelsky's book, however.  Bhaskar's book started out well, but quickly became repetitious and devoted to Wittengenstein-like logic-chopping.  The most interesting section is this one:

Regularity determinism must be straightaway distinguished from two
other forms of determinism: which may be called 'ubiquity'
determinism and 'intelligibility" determinism. Ubiquity determinism
asserts that every event has *a* real *cause*; intelligibility
determinism that every event has *an* intelligible *cause*; regularity
determinism that the same (type of) event has the same (type of)
*cause*. The concepts of 'cause' involved in the three determinisms
are of course distinct. For the ubiquity determinist the *cause is
that thing, material or agent that is productive of an effect*; for
the intelligibility determinist it is simply that which renders an
event intelligible to men; for the regularity determinist
it is the total set of conditions that regularly proceeds or
accompanies an event.-- Bhaskar, ARTOS, p. 70.

It occurred to me that given how often I talk about "causality" with respect to the NUM formula, as I do in this essay, I might experiment by comparing Bhaskar's distinctions about the "concepts of cause" to the nature of causality in my Cassirer-indebted schema.

The most obvious disconnect is that I'm interested in a schema that takes in all of the "symbolic forms," while Bhaskar is interested only in a theory of science.  Further, as I noted here Bhaskar cites three philosophical approaches to science and allocates each of the "determinisms" above to one of the three.  But Bhaskar's three approaches are irrelevant to parallels to Cassirer's opposition of causality and efficacy, which I've also identified as the split between the *cognitive* and the *affective."

With such a comparison in mind, both "ubiquity determinism" and "regularity determinism" seem like two closely related statements about the nature of "real causes," which means that they could be subsumed under Aquinas' definition of the cognitive: "how we know the world." By contrast, "intelligibility determinism" makes a statement regarding humankind's perception of "real causes," which may be subsumed under Aquinas' definition of the affective: "how we understand the world." In so saying I assert that the conviction that all things should prove intelligible is an affective, not a cognitive, state of mind, which may well be at odds with Bhaskar's intention.

In this essay I attempted to reconfigure my older cognitive/affective schema with one more aligned to Cassirer's concepts:

NATURALISTIC-- cognitivity and affectivity are defined by the causal order; i.e. "one definite cause yields one definite effect"

UNCANNY-- cognitivity is defined by the causal order, but affectivity exceeds causal order and participates in the multicausal nature of "efficacy"

MARVELOUS-- both cognitivity and affectivity exceed the causal order and participate in the multicausal nature of "efficacy"

But as I said above, this configuration doesn't adequately define causality.

I hypothesize, then, that causality within the sphere of human art is reducible to two interrelated aspects: that of regularity (cognitive) and intelligibility (affective).  With that in mind, then:

In the NATURALISTIC category, all phenomena are both "regular" and "intelligible."

In the UNCANNY category, all phenomena are "regular" in that they do not exceed the cognitive//physical nature of causality, but some phenomena are not "intelligible" given that they may prove unintelligible by the standards of the NATURALISTIC.

In the MARVELOUS category, some phenomena may be neither "regular" nor "intelligible."

This breakdown would allow for both of the following definitions of fantasy to be true.  The first speaks primarily of causality's cognitive aspect:

“The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday reality.”—Roger Caillois, AU COEUR DU FANTASTIQUE.

While this one challenges causality's affective aspect:

“The fantastic in literature doesn’t exist as a challenge to what is probable, but only there where it can be increased to a challenge of reason itself: the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle.”-- Lars Gustaffson, cited in Franz Rottensteiner's THE FANTASY BOOK.

I also note that Cassirer, in his comparison between the discursive mode of theoretical reason and the expressive mode of myth, essentially takes aim against the "regularity" aspect of causality:

Whereas empirical thinking is essentially directed toward establishing an unequivocal relation between specific "causes" and specific effects, mythical thinking, even where it raises the question of origins as such, has a free selection of causes at its disposal... Mythical "metamorphosis"... is always the record of an individual event-- a change from one individual and concrete material form to another. The cosmos is fished out of the depths of the sea or molded from a tortoise; the earth is shaped from the body of a great beast or from a lotus blossom floating on the water; the sun is made from a stone, men from rocks or trees."-- Cassirer, MYTHICAL THINKING, p. 46-47.
And, a couple of pages later, he contrasts them on the principle I call intelligibility:

Here again it is not the concept of causality as such but the specific form of causal explanation which underlies the difference and contrast between the two spiritual worlds [of theoretical reason and myth]... Science is content if it succeeds in apprehending the individual event in space and time as a special instance of a general law... The mythical consciousness, on the other hand, applies its "why" precisely to the particular and the unique.  It "explains" the individual event by postulating individual acts of the will."

It's worth noting, too, that a page later Cassirer emphasizes that for myth-consciousness "all the forces of nature are... nothing other than expressions of a demonic or divine will."

Thus, when I experience "strangeness" in either an uncanny or marvelous work of art, I am feeling myself divorced by its violation of either the "regularity" or "intelligibility" aspects of causal law.

Monday, February 17, 2014


I don't have anything further to say about the assorted pluses and minuses of Edward Skidelsky's Cassirer book, but I should note that the following quote raised my eyebrows a bit.

Man is held fast, even more inexorably than by the mechanism of work, by the mechanism into which he is thrust by the mechanism into which he is thrust by the products and proceeds of technical culture, and in which he is thrown, in a never-ending frenzy, from appetite to consumption, from consumption to appetite.-- Cassirer, "Form und Technik."

I didn't need Skidelsky to point out the similarities to doctrines propounded by uber-Marxist Theodor Adorno.  Adorno and Cassirer were both German-Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany to the bosom of the United States.  In one of Adorno's most famous works, he too took aim at the "never-ending frenzy" of America's consumerism and technological standardization:

A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardisation and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.-- Adorno, DIALECTICS OF ENLIGHTENMENT.

Skidelsky points out the similarity between Cassirer's remarks and similar observations by both Adorno and Martin Heidegger, but does not comment except to point out that "[Cassirer's] protest is not against social injustice so much as hedonism: his stance is not that of a Marxist but a classical moralist. Gains in efficiency cannot, for one raised on Plato and Kant, weigh against the much graver forfeit of virtue inherent in modern consumerism."

Not having read "Form und Technik," I cannot comment on Cassirer's logical arguments against modern consumerism, though I am happy to see that the quotes given are not as shrill and as poorly constructed as Adorno's argument, critiqued in detail here and here.  But I have wondered at times what Cassirer, a man raised in the high mandarin culture of the German intellectual tradition, made of American popular art when he emigrated to this country. I have occasionally argued that I felt that the logical extrapolation of Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was one that, by logical extension, should embrace the diversity of the popular arts:

It's clear (to me at least) that one can plausibly extrapolate from this endorsement of human freedom in all its cultural forms an ethos which also tolerates all forms of literature, ranging from the great works that have endured for decades to those works that were intended only to please a particular, perhaps ephemeral audience.

And also here:

To be sure, Cassirer does not address in this book the provenance of the mythical imagination in literature.  He does address in general terms the transition from “the mythical image world and the world of religious meaning to the sphere of art and artistic expression.”  But it seems plain to me that literature functions far more through “association” than through “analysis,” and that it depends just as much as myth on creating “networks of fantastically arbitrary relations,” a phrase borrowed by Cassirer from one Hermann Oldenberg.

I've mentioned that Cassirer never wrote a poetics, though Skidelsky asserts that art and literature were Cassirer's first loves before he gravitated to the study of philosophy.  From the quotes here it seems likely that had Cassirer written a poetics, it would have been one rooted in "classical morality."  Goethe was Cassirer's literary idol, and Goethe's circle may have favorably influenced Cassirer's acceptance of myth and folklore as valid expressions of human reason.

Herder and Goethe collected popular ballads; Humboldt and Schlegel studied languages and place-names; the Brothers Grimm anthologized folktales.-- Skidelsky, p. 72.

However, though it's demonstrable that European folklore serves some or all of the same aims as modern popular culture, it seems evident that Cassirer liked the "never-ending frenzy" of the latter no more than Adorno did.  At base, though, one can speculate that both men, like Frederic Wertham, were alienated from this culture simply because it was not their own.  This is not to say that some native Americans have not also inveighed against American consumerism, Gary Groth being the outstanding proponent of Adornite philosophy in the comic-book domain.  But what is a "never-ending frenzy" to one man is a thrilling wave of creativity to another.  "Fantastically arbitrary relations" govern the worlds of popular fiction no less than the worlds of myth, and one's appreciation for the tenor of those relations depends largely on whether or not one is "tuned to hear."


Liberalism may have triumphed in the political sphere, but it was the illiberal philosophy of Heidegger that won the day at [the Davos debate between Heidegger and Cassirer] and went on to leave the deepest stamp on 20th-century culture. Who now shares Cassirer's faith in the humanizing power of art or the liberating power of science?  Who now believes that the truth will make us free? Even optimists limit their hopes to economics and politics, disclaiming any broader vision of human redemption.  Francis Fukuyama's end of history is not the glorious consummation of Hegel or Marx, but a vista of endless banality. Contemporary liberals are faced, whether they like it or not, with the unpromising task of erecting a philosophy of political hope on a foundation of cultural despair.-- Edward Skidelsky, EDWARD CASSIRER, p. 222.

Skidelsky's profoundly pessimistic verdict in the final chapter of his book hinges on his conviction that the dominion of the technical sciences has effected a permanent "alienation of reason," one that can no longer countenance reason as a faculty beneficial to human beings or their culture.  When I first starting writing about the book here, I noted that Skidelsky had distanced himself from Cassirer's Goethean stance:

In his first draft of his book Skidelsky advocated Cassirer's goal of finding the unity of all human endeavors into terms of their value as "symbolic constructions."  However, in the finished version of the book, Skidelsky confesses that he changed his mind: that he somewhat devalued Cassirer because the philosopher "did not see what Heidegger and many others saw so clearly: that the secular idols of humanity and progress were dead."

I would not deny that most discussions of culture today, whether from the "left" or the "right," are consumed with utilitarian "economics and politics."  I'm not as certain that these utilitarians are alienated from reason in the sense Skidelsky defines alienation.  To them, reason and utilitarian ends are identical, and "redemption" is simply a matter for those with a taste for religious concepts.

That said, Francis Fukuyama isn't a particularly well chosen exemplar of the utilitarian attitude.  It's true that his seminal work, 1992's THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, does not delve deeply into such matters as "the humanizing power of art" or "the liberating power of science."  Nevertheless, END OF HISTORY, written in the full bloom of 1990s optimism, does demonstrate a conviction in the idea that the reason typified by liberal democracy can indeed "redeem" society, even if Fukuyama doesn't advocate Hegel's more ambitious visions.

Further, Fukuyama certainly does not claim that the triumph of liberal democracy will inevitably lead to any "vista of endless banality."  I surmise that Skidelsky may be thinking of those sections of Fukuyama's book in which he takes the other side of the liberal-democracy thought-experiment.  In these sections Fukuyama speculates that a truly "isothymic" society, one in tune with the ideals of liberal democracy, *might* result in a culture devoted to what C.S. Lewis called "men without chests;" i.e, human beings who lack the deeper passions of *thymos* and are indeed concerned with nothing but means and ends.  But at no time does Fukuyama claim that this is an inevitable development, and I for one find it heartening that he considers the possibility of such a downside, as most modern utilitarians will not.

It's true that Fukuyama is not as ambitious as Hegel about considering all aspects of human culture, but then, Fukuyama is not a philosopher like Hegel or Cassirer.  He's a political and economics theorist, so it's understandable that he should frame his arguments strictly in those terms, even though I've argued that his Hegel/Kojeve-influenced mediations can have meaningful application to literary studies. 

In a much more recent essay-- one written over 20 years since the aforesaid 1990s optimism-- Fukuyama admits that he sees the need of "an ideology of the future that could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies," and that at most he can only suggest a few potential aspects of such an ideology.  It's true that nowhere in the essay will one find a Goethean belief in "the humanizing power of art," but "the liberating power of science" does put in an appearance:

The ideology would need to somehow redesign the public sector, freeing it from its dependence on existing stakeholders and using new, technology-empowered approaches to delivering services. It would have to argue forthrightly for more redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics.

Is this a "vista of endless banality?"  I would say not, and the fact that Skidelsky propounds this demonstrably false argument shows that he's oversold his own vision of the extent to which the current world must erect its hopes upon "a foundation of cultural despair."  Fukuyama may not be as visionary as Hegel-- indeed, some of his later books are less ambitious, perhaps because END OF HISTORY was in some arenas hijacked by American right-wing political groups, and led some commentators to falsely claim that Fukuyama was about nothing but "triumphalism." 

Nevertheless, while I don't entirely credence Skidelsky's "foundation of cultural despair," I will reiterate that it is rooted in the real polarizations of culture, as I expatiated at the end of my first essay of this new year:

...[Skidelsky] offers a useful warning about how extremists can deliberately misrepresent the arguments of others-- especially of those offering a synthesis between extremes-- and with that warning in mind, one can view just how long the road ahead will be.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Good intellectual intuition first:

I think the real reason many fans (and some creators) of the character may see him as a secular Christ-figure is that, unlike many of the exotically-powered superhumans that followed him (Green Lantern, the Flash, and even the Spectre, who had the literal "Power of God"), Superman always seemed like an ordinary fellow despite his having been born with "power from above." That touch of the mundane was also a pronounced aspect of both Judaism and Christianity, and marks one of the dialectical elements that most separates them (as well as that later "Religion of the Book," Islam) from earlier myth-systems, where arguably the mundane is subsumed by the mythic.-- Gene Phillips, CHRIST WITH MUSCLES, 2008.

And now the bad one:

Superman himself is a response to fascism, a kind of New Deal mirror image of the Nietzschean Nazi Superman, both embodiment and critique.-- Noah Berlatsky, THE RUNNING SUPERHERO, 2014.

To be sure, this observation on Superman's mirroring of Nietzsche is just a throwaway in an essay on a tangentially related subject, so here's one from an essay explicitly on Superman:

In an article in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Chris Gavaler argues that the Klu Klux Klan was one of the main historical sources for superheroes. Specifically, Gavaler says, pulp pro-Klan novels like Thomas Dixon's 1905 The Clansmen put in place many of the tropes used by Siegel and Shuster when they created their first Superman stories. According to Gavaler, Dixon's "Ben Cameron, aka the Grand Dragon, represents the earliest twentieth-century incarnation of an American vigilante hero who assumes a costume and alias to hide his identity while waging his war for good."

Now, my point in juxtaposing these takes on Superman is not to say that my intuition is right and Berlatsky's are wrong.  Given that I have defined "intuition" as "knowledge or belief obtained neither by reason nor by perception," both intuitions are rooted in the perceptions of each subject.  Neither intuition can be proven right, any more than one person's personal tastes can be proven right.

But obviously, I think that the intellectual procedure I use to argue in favor of my intuition is superior to Berlatsky's. Can I prove it to anyone who has not already made up his mind, either to like Superman or to hate Superman?  Possibly not, but it's worth a shot.

Berlatsky's judgment, I'll argue, depends on reflective philosophy as defined by Cerf:

It is typical of reflective philosophy... that it relies on arguments, proofs, and the whole apparatus of logic... that it tries to solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole...

The first Berlatsky quote links Superman to "the Nietzschean Nazi Superman" as if all the commonplace links between Nietzsche and the Nazis had been scientifically verified.  Many scholars have pointed out that this is not the case, not least Edward Skidelsky:

Nietzsche's philosophy was commonly read as an incitement to throw off these disguises [of "lofty creations of philosophy and religion"] , to assert the will to power in its glorious nakedness...Nietzsche was never a straightforward vitalist; he always insisted on the creative power of sublimation, symbolized for him by the figure of Apollo.  But to no avail, it was the 'Dionysian' Nietzsche who captured the imagination of Germany in the years after 1890... The German Jewish philosopher Karl Lowith was not alone in embracing the war of 1914 out of a "passion for 'living dangerously' which Nietzsche had instilled in us." An estimated 150,000 German soldiers went off to the trenches with ZARATHUSTRA in their knapsacks.

It would be correct to say-- and here I'm drawing on traditional reflective methods of judgment in saying this-- that the "Nazi Ubermensch" was "vitalist-Nietzschean."  Even by the reflective criteria Berlatsky follows, his pronouncement fails.  The real Nietzsche who suffered his mental breakdown in 1899 and who died in 1900 cannot be logically implicated in Nazi ideology.  All that can be implicated is "vitalist-Nietzsche," whom the Nazis did not create but used for their own purposes.

Again, by the standards of reflective philosophy, does Berlatsky provide any scientific proof that Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster was aware of even this pseudo-Nietzschean influence at the time they created Superman?  Or, to turn to the second quotation, that Siegel and Shuster borrowed "tropes" that they derived from pro-KKK authors like Thomas Dixon?  He does not, and therefore, by the standards he has professed to follow, his intellectual defense of his intuition fails.

Now, I cannot prove my intuition by reflective standards, either.  But unlike Berlatsky, I don't follow those standards as a primary guide.  I start by observing that assorted depictions of Superman in various media conflate him with Jesus Christ.  In the original essay I demonstrate that I'm aware that there are ways in which Superman's image radically diverges from that of Christ:

Of course, Superman/Christ is not a perfect fit, if for no other reason than that Superman's adventures are a lot less about "turning the other cheek."

Still, I argue that there are aspects to the character-- his mundaneness, his forbearance ("a god almost constantly forbearing to strike with full force even against the evil")-- that contributed the semi-conscious association of the two figures, one that becomes overt in Richard Donner's SUPERMAN and Bryan Singer's SUPERMAN RETURNS, as explicated in this online essay.  My project is, to revisit Walter Cerf's distinction for "speculative philosophy," one devoted to "the true conceptual vision of the whole."  That means that I, unlike Berlatsky, am willing to mention both the continuities and discontinuities that proceed from my intellectual defense of my intuition.  The only parallel to this in Berlatsky is the point where he claims that Superman is both "embodiment and critique," but there's no intellectual support given for this wishy-washy assertion.


1. knowledge or belief obtained neither by reason nor by perception 2. instinctive knowledge or belief 3. a hunch or unjustified belief 4. (Philosophy) philosophy immediate knowledge of a proposition or object such as Kant's account of our knowledge of sensible objects 5. the supposed faculty or process by which we obtain any of these--Definitions from the online "Free Dictionary"

In PART 1 I reiterated the difference between Hegel's proposed categories of "speculative philosophy" and "reflective philosophy:"

the speculative mode is an active one, imagining the interaction of an "intellectual intuition" with the world even as we apprehend it, while the reflective mode is passive, the same way that the mirror is passive in its reflection of appearances. 

Prior to this section I provided a link to an earlier essay in which the phrase "intellectual intuition" appeared.  A casual reader could be forgiven for not noting the phrase's appearance in that essay, courtesy of Walter Cerf's meditations on the two philosophies:

It was Schelling who tried to articulate this vision of the true nature of the relation of God, nature, and self-consciousness in his Philosophy of Identity-- so called because the relation was to be one of identity...The vision was of course not a sensuous intuition, but an intellectual intuition.

The question of what "intellectual intuition" means in a philosophical context-- referenced in the #4 definition from my chosen dictionary-- is an involved one that has only tangential relevance to the issues I wish to raise in relation to the two philosophical categories and their relevance to literary criticism. Anyone interested in the specific philosophical contexts-- and how it takes on different philosophical contexts, as in the works of Kant and of Fichte-- may care to read this academic essay on the subject.

But again, my focus is the domain of literature. When I read Edward Skidelsky's book on Cassirer, I'm only secondarily concerned with what the book tells me about the history of philosophical schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Cassirer is important to me less for his place in philosophical circles than for the application of his "symbolic forms" theory to the analysis of literature, religion, and myth.

So, given that I'm claiming that my critical orientation is one allied to that of speculative rather than reflective philosophy, what relevance is a phrase like "intellectual intuition" to literature, when one chooses to ignore its specific application to literature.

The Free Dictionary's first definition of "intuition" is the most relevant here: "knowledge or belief obtained neither by reason nor by perception."
Literature, as I noted here, is not dominated by the process of plain speech, but by indirect metaphor.

Gerard Manley Hopkins draws a distinction between the poet’s “overthought” or explicit meaning, and his “underthought,” or the meaning given by the progression of images and metaphors. But it is the “underthought” that is the real poetic meaning, and the explicit meaning must conform to it ...-- Northrop Frye (fuller context here).
How does one arrive at this "underthought?" It cannot be one overtly stated, for that would be "explicit meaning," which translates to knowledge "obtained by reason, by perception, or both." I would venture, then, that the only way to reach the underthought is through a process of intuitive reckoning.  Frye calls this "the progression of images and metaphors" in an attempt to intellectualize this intuitive process, but there can be little doubt that the process depends on a given subject's sensitivity to the plurisignative connotations of those images and metaphors.  However, the organization of the subject's interpretations must be organized in an intellectual fashion.

In literary terms, then, an "intellectual intuition" must be one in which a subject seeks to justify an intuition about a given work-- an intuition that cannot be proved in terms of "explicit meaning"-- in intellectual terms.  This relates fairly well to my frequent citations about intersubjectivity.  Whereas it is impossible to prove empirically that any single subject's subjective states relate meaningfully to any other subject's, we know that subjective interpretations have a degree of objectivity in that they are repeated between various subjects, albeit not universally.

In literary terms, it's virtually impossible to prove that anyone's subjective evaluation is wrong, as I argued in STALKING THE SYMBOLIC SNIPE:

Because so much symbolism is covert—sometimes hidden even from the author—the propositions of a symbol-hunter are not so much “X symbolism is there” but rather “X symbolism could be there, if it can be justified by some chain of associations.” 

This "chain of associations" is isomorphic with Frye's "progression of images and metaphors," but as I noted in SNIPE, it's possible to twist that chain to reflect one's own prejudices.  In that essay I demonstrated some ways in which Alan Moore had put forth a false "intellectual intuiton" of the James Bond character.  But Moore is not a literary critic, not even a bad one.  So for Part 3 I'll pick a "bad intellectual intuition" from a particular comics-critic to contrast with a good version of same.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


The title of the book identifies two common and antithetic metaphors of
mind, one comparing the mind to a reflector of external objects, the other
to a radiant projector which makes a contribution to the objects it perceives.
The first of these was characteristic of much of the thinking from Plato to
the eighteenth century; the second typifies the prevailing romantic conception of the poetic mind.-- M.H. Abrams, preface to his own THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP (1953).

Are the products of human culture bound to the finitude of human existence, or do they contain a moment of transcendence, an "eternal validity?"-- Edward Skidelsky, summarizing the positions of Heidegger and Cassirer vis-à-vis culture, in ERSNT CASSIRER (p. 214) 

I confess that I never got around to reading Abrams' famous lit-crit book.  Its title simply came to mind after I finished reading Skidelsky's book, and found myself returning to the dichotomy proposed by Hegel re: "reflective" and "speculative" forms of philosophy-- a dichotomy I first explored in this essay.  In that essay I complained that almost all comics-criticism today is practiced in the "reflective" mode, which would seem a natural analogue to Abrams' "mirror," given that the mirror connotes the ideal of reproducing the world as it is.  It's not much of a stretch, then, to see an analogous relationship between Hegel's "speculative philosophy" and Abrams' "radiant projector," given that the root word of "speculate" is "to look"-- and how can one look at anything, without a source of light?  Further, the speculative mode is an active one, imagining the interaction of an "intellectual intuition" with the world even as we apprehend it, while the reflective mode is passive, the same way that the mirror is passive in its reflection of appearances.  Mirrors don't show their reflective qualities unless some phenomenon provides light whereby those qualities may be seen.  The lamp requires human intervention to make its illuminative qualities come alive, but once activated, its nature in reality and as metaphor suggests continued activity rather than a passive operation.

I should note in passing that Abrams and Skidelsky propose tenable yet wholly opposed views of cultural history. 

For Abrams, the "metaphor of mind" in which a human subject seeks to reproduce the world "as it is" has dominated human culture from the era of Plato until the 18th century, while the metaphor that posits the mind as making an illuminating contribution to the world's ordering is one of comparatively recent vintage.

For Skidelsky, though, what I am calling "speculative philosophy," the philosophy of the lamp, is one that dominated human culture at least since the Renaissance, which is as far back as this author extends his cultural analysis-- and such cultural speculations have usually affirmed that, yes, some transcendent validity is indeed possible .  The rise of the technical sciences, which in Hegelian terms causes the rise of "reflective philosophy," is the comparative newbie on the block, and under the scrutiny of the so-called exact science, all culture is indeed "bound to the finitude of human existence?"

The solution to the contrast is not a hard one, though.  While it's possible to cite exceptions to Abrams' Aristotelian view of literary culture from Plato onward-- I mention one such exception in my reading of Longinus-- he's probably right that literature was dominated by the mimetic impulse, at least in Europe and the United States. Yet for many authors the "real world" was a glass through which one could perceive, however "darkly," the hand of God or similar abstractions.  Thus finitude could lead one to infinitude.

In contrast, philosophy was the primary home of such abstractions for many years.  But with the rise of technical sciences, philosophy had to throw more of a "light" on its own operations.  And so philosophy increasingly began to frame its abstract questions in more formally logical terms, as we have seen in the rise of "symbolic logic"-- which is another way of saying that the idea of infinitude is seen as derivable from finite causes. 

Yet it may be observed that at the same time the Romantics' aversion to scientism led them to endorse in literature abstractions no longer possible in philosophy.  This transformation of literary priorities didn't occur overnight, for even through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ideal of "fantasy" in literature remains disreputable for authors seeking a literary reputation.  Yet by the late 20th century, fantasy's highly abstract evocations of the infinite are embraced by such authors as Borges, Calvino, Lessing and Eco.  None of these authors maintain any continuity with the literary tradition of " the Romantics" as we know them today.  Yet it may not be a coincidence that some moderns find themselves embracing those modes of thought rejected by many modern philosophers, who apparently hunger for the validation given "the exact sciences."

This hunger for what Walter Cerf deems the tendency to "solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole" will be one of the subjects of Part 2.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


It's been at least ten years since I plowed my way through Wittgenstein's TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS.  I found it thoroughly uninteresting and couldn't understand why this logic-chopper had become such a major voice in modern philosophy.

Happily, Edward Skidelsky throws some light on this problem for me, as he devotes Chapter 6 of his Cassirer book to the differing encounters of Cassirer and Wittgenstein with the logical positivists who dominated the Vienna Circle.

The author begins the chapter by foregrounding the cordial relations between Cassirer and the positivists, and then defining their differences:

...although Cassirer and the logical positivists both strove to advance the cause of enlightenment, they envisaged this task quite differently... [The positivists'] ambition was to establish a rule separating sentences of science from sentences of metaphysics or pseudoscience.

In contrast, Cassirer's "aim was not to sequester science but rather to reveal its continuity with the other forms of culture." 

After further exploration of the positivists' philosophical backgrounds, Skidelsky proceeds to analyze the influence of Wittgenstein's 1922 TRACTATUS on the Vienna Circle, and finds it "decisive."

[Wittgenstein's] doctrine that logic is nothing but a set of tautologies, combined with the logicist claim that all mathematics is reducible to logic, yielded the highly satisfactory conclusion that mathematics too is nothing but a set of tautologies. The main obstacle to radical empiricism was thereby removed.

However, Skidelsky stresses that while Wittgenstein was concerned only with the exercise of pure logic, the positivists chose to extend his meaning into the domain of epistemology.  In other words, if Wittgenstein wrote:

To understand a proposition means to know what is the case if it is true

The positivists extended this to mean:

To understand a proposition means to know how to establish that it is true 

Thus the positivists took the question back into the "truth-finding" direction which also governed Russell and Frege's transformations of symbolic logic.  However, Skidelsky finds that Wittgenstein did not perfect his "sentences of science" for the same purpose as the positivists.

Wittgenstein's purpose in tightening the bounds of sense was not to destroy what lay on the other side but, on the contrary, to guard it against colonization by science... Thus by a curious irony, a technique arising out of a highly individual, mystical vision of the world ended up in the service of an anti-individualist, antimystical political agenda. 

I cannot speak to the veracity of Skidelsky's findings on Wittgenstein's motives.  I will note that my principal response to the TRACTATUS was that I too assumed that the author shared the purpose of the positivists: to devalue "sentences of metaphysics or pseudoscience." 

Skidelsky then devotes most of the remainder of Chapter 6 to Cassirer's rejection of the positivist creed.  He expatiates on why Cassirer's believe in a Goethean concept of "unifying reason" was out of step with the times, which insisted on either pure empiricism (Comte, Mach) and pure "irrationalism" (Nietzsche, Bergson).  He concludes that Wittgenstein understood the standards of the "logicists," as Cassirer never completely did.

It is this that makes [Wittgenstein's] critique of scientism so much more powerful than Cassirer's. He has, so to speak, passed through and out the other side of the logicist mill, whereas Cassirer has not even entered it. Wittgenstein's humanism is radical; Cassirer's remains, in the last resort, that of a distinguished representative of a particular cultural tradition.

I cannot deny that Wittgenstein, even today, is viewed with more approval than Cassirer.  Yet I must ask: how many persons interested in philosophy are even aware of Wittgenstein's "mystical vision," or his critique of scientism, and how many have made the same assumptions that the Vienna Circle did, translating pure logic into empiricist epistemology?  Cassirer may not be understood by the average readers of philosophy today; he may well be regarded as "old hat." But do these readers understand that Wittgenstein opposed empiricist scientism?

I tend to doubt it, and I'm tempted to make a survey of philosophy blogs to determine how many people today write of "Wittgenstein, anti-empiricist."  Wittgenstein's focus upon a logic denuded of and distanced from all sensuous content is at base allied to the language used by science: what Philip Wheelwright insightfully terms "steno-language:"

  …meanings that can be shared in exactly the same way by a very large number of persons—in general, by all persons using the same language or the same group of inter-translatable languages. Examples are so obvious that they may be mentioned without explanation. Common words like child, parent, dog, tree, sky, etc., are steno-symbols, and their accepted meanings are steno-meanings, because what each of the words indicates is a set of definable experiences (whether actual or only possible) which are, in certain recognizable respects, the same for all who use the word correctly. (Metaphor and Reality, p. 33.)

While I wouldn't agree with McLuhan that the medium is always the message, in this case McLuhan's rule fully applies.  Words without sensuous content are steno-symbols, whether they are used for the purpose of science, logic, or philosophy.  One may disagree with Cassirer, or creatively misread him.  But his constant insistence on the "expressive" function of humankind-- an expressivity that lines up well with Wheelwright's "plurisignative" language-- makes it well-nigh impossible to ignore Cassirer's  critique of empiricism.

On a closing note, at the end of Skidelsky's Chapter 6 he makes this observation:

The logical positivists... were heirs to Wittgenstein's foundationalism.  Their goal was an a priori theory of meaning in general, a firm standard against which to measure the particular theories embodied in the special sciences. To Cassirer, of course, it looked as if they had simply sublimated the structure of one particular special science-- physics-- into the form of meaning as such.

Interestingly, in my readings of biological theorist Stuart A. Kauffman-- beginning here-- Kauffman finds his branch of science equally hamstrung by modern monocausalists who insist that biology must reduce down to physics.  It increasingly begins to seem like even true science has little use for the reductive qualities of scientism.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


For the purpose of another essay on the narrative function of violence in works about sports, promised at the end of this essay, I'll resort once more to this passage from an even earlier essay:

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other, though in rare cases fighters may simply spar with no intent of proving thymotic superiority.-- VIOLENCE *AIN'T* NUTHIN' BUT SEX MISSPELLED, PART 2.

The majority of sports-narratives, while they may deal with risks to life and limb, do not normally emphasize battles to the death.  Opponents who simply pit their skills against one another in a distanced manner, as in the various forms of racing, are not supposed to battle one another at all. Opponents who pit their skills against one another directly, as in boxing, are expected to fight within certain limits that keep the violence at a non-lethal level.  The term "blood sports" has been coined for those sports that increase the risks for participants, be they animal or human, so that the opponents not only fight but shed blood and so put their very lives at risk within the context of a direct fight.

Needless to say, almost all of these struggles do involve "proving thymotic superiority," whether they are in the direct or the distanced mode of competition.  Even purely intellectual board-games like chess involve one opponent proving superiority over another, and even in sparring matches, where the only purpose is to measure one's skills, both participants want to do their best, i.e., to win.  At the moment I can think of only one sequence, from a MASTER OF KUNG FU comic, in which duelists Shang-Chi and Leiko engage in a fluid kung-fu fight in which the participants are tranquilly above all personal striving as they exchange moves in a balletic exercise.  Most sparring-bouts, however, are all about the win, like this one:

In PROPPING PONDERINGS PT. 2 my concern was to show the contrast between Propp's categories for heroic personas, the "seeker" and the "victimized hero," with respect to two futuristic
sports-narratives, THE RUNNING MAN (1987) and THE BLOOD OF HEROES (1989).  I determined that the heroes of these respective sports-films were both "seekers," even as the heroic ensembles I compared in this essay were both "victimized heroes."  Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but in these essays my major aim has been to show that my two types of will transcend Propp's categories, as well as my own roughly related categories of "hero" and "demihero." At the end of PONDERINGS PT 2 I said that I would draw yet another hero-demihero contrast.  This one is devoted to sports-protagonists who, unlike Ben Richards and the Juggers, get drawn into extraneous life-and-death struggles while just trying to make a go of their particular sport.

At first SPEED RACER might seem to line up with what I've written of other demiheroes, for his main purpose in life is not to battle evil but to win races with his "powerful Mach 5." Nevertheless, it's the intent behind the narrative, not the conscious intent of the protagonist, that denotes the nature of his persona. And Speed, rather like the castaway-heroes of the 1999-2002 teleseries THE LOST WORLD, constantly plays the role of a greasemonkey Galahad, pitting his personal fighting skills and the fabulous gadgets of his race-car against a rogue's gallery of crooks, spies, assassins, and so on. I confess that because only a tiny amount of the original manga has been translated, I can only judge SPEED RACER from the translated TV cartoon, but I don't imagine there's a great deal of disconnect between the original manga and the anime.  Speed may be all that Speed *thinks* he needs, but viewers recognize that he functions to mount impromptu crusades against evil at the drop of a hat, rather than worrying about his personal survival.

The teleseries POKEMON, another work adapted from a Japanese anime whose manga-versions I have not read, has always been a tough nut for me to categorize. At times I felt tempted to term its Fryean mythos to be one of "comedy," given the general appearance of protagonist Ash Catchem and his various Poke-animal allies.  But I resisted this, and eventually formulated the rule that "having a "cute" or "funny" appearance-- as is the case with Underdog, Plastic Man, and the Adam West Batman-- does not necessarily denote that the character's adventures must fall into any of the "funny" categories," as demonstrated here.  I finally determined that the general context of the TV show's narrative-- which regularly involve Catchem pitting his Pokémon-critters against other Poke-antagonists, in generally bloodless matches-- falls into the mythos of adventure.

Still, unlike Speed Racer, Ash really does seem fixated first and foremost on his competitions.  Whenever adventure calls him to put himself or his beasties in harm's way, he does so out of a generalized sense of good will toward others.  But there is in my view no sense of "glory" in his actions, as there is the actions of Speed Racer.  Ash's adventures follow the pattern I described in EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT 3 with regard to the teleseries LOST IN SPACE:

Though the Robinsons are potrayed as being willing to go to the wall to save persecuted or put-upon victims from aggressors, they only do so as a last resort, which makes them very different from the concept of the hero as a more active defender of right.  For this reason I find that the tenor of the Space Family Robinson's adventures is concerned with "persistence" first and "glory" second if at all.

So, in symmetry with PONDERINGS 2, both of these follow Propp's structure of "victimized heroes," but Speed Racer's narrative nonetheless emphasizes the "idealizing will" that manifests in "glory," while Ash Catchem's belongs to the "existential will" that manifests in "persistence."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


In the past decade I haven't read as much academic criticism as I did in previous decades.  However, I suspect that not much has changed; that most literary theorists still stick close to what I've called "those well-traveled titans of tedium, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx." It's not surprising, then, that most comic-book critics follow the lead of reflective philosophy, given that Freud and Marx offer reductive paradigms which boast the rock-solid integrity of the physical sciences.-- me, THE DEAD-ALIVE HAND OF THE PAST.
My continued reading of Skidelsky's ERNST CASSIRER brought to mind my earlier, somewhat-Hegel-inspired judgment on the majority of those who attempt to practice comics-criticism.  The author reveals that some of the early contacts between Cassirer and the Vienna Circle were surprisingly cordial-- surprising, given that the Circle seems to me largely opposed to Cassirer's way of thinking.  Skidelsky writes of the Vienna Circle:

Their ambition was to establish a rule separating sentences of science from sentences of metaphysics or pseudoscience... Only thus could knowledge be purged of all subjective ideological elements...

However, Skidelsky adds that the Circle played favorites, which is the element that most reminds me of contemporary comics-critics ranging from Groth to Berlatksy:

Standing squarely in the progressivist tradition of Comte and Mach, [the Circle] applied its semantic razor only to ideologues of the Right. Marx and Freud it accepted at face value as genuine scientists. It would have to wait for [Karl] Popper, not himself a member of the circle, to question the credentials of these heroes of the Left.

Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms, of course, was one devoted to showing a continuity between all the cultural forms: science, myth, religion, and art. His type of philosophy, then, should be deemed "speculative" while those of the Vienna Circle would be "reflective," as Hegel used those terms, both explicated in my essay referenced above.

I may have more to write on this subject, but for now I'll close by noting Skidelsky's aside that Cassirer also had little use for a similar outlook expressed by phenomenologist Edmund Husserl:

Husserl's idea of philosophy as a "rigorous science" with its own clearly defined remit, technical language, and trained practitioners... was anathema to Cassirer.  Philosophy, in his view, is not something to be sequestered from the life of the mind in general. It is the critique of culture in all its myriad forms.

In this early essay I considered the possibility that Husserl's concept of "objective validity" might apply to finding "constancy" in the world of subjective emotions.  However, as I mention here,  I found that even a quick reading of Husserl's work convinced me that his "hyper-rational approach" was not to my tastes.  The concept of "intersubjectivity" at present has tended to better suit my needs with regard to gauging the "inconstant constancy" of the subjective.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


The above pun on a famous Shakespeare line might make more sense if one has heard that the name of the German philosopher is apparently pronounced the same as "Caesar."

My latest reading from Skidelsky's book-- which still earns high ratings from me despite my disagreements with it-- concerns Cassirer's debt to Goethe, who is to this day often regarded as the quintessential German literary figure of the period.  Skidelsky, as I mentioned here, advanced a view of Cassirer as a German-Jewish intellectual whose primary aim was to find a means of reconciling the traditions of his Jewish minority culture with the culture of the numerically superior German Gentiles.  (Note that I do not say "Christians," since there's ample evidence to indicate that the factions of fascism were not particularly observant of the dominant German religion.)

Skidelsky's research reveals that Cassirer's initial academic focus was literary, and only later became related to philosophy and its search for validity against the intellectual dominance of scientific inquiry, a.k.a. "Naturwissenschaften."  And of all Cassirer's favored literary stars, none shone more brightly than German romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had the ability-- along with fellow travelers like Herder, Humboldt and Schlegel-- to effect a "transformation of the Kantian heritage," redeeming the role of the "sensuous, emotional life" which Kant at best marginalized.

In Cassirer's 1916 FREEDOM AND FORM-- again, one I've not read-- Cassirer defends Goethe's attempt to formulate "an intuitive theory of nature," reacting against the materialistic empiricism of the burgeoning natural sciences.  Goethe sought to articulate a sense that human feelings were not mere epiphenomena to the physical world, that they were in their own way just as "objective" as physical matter.  Goethe did not succeed in convincing the scientists of his time, though arguably the later concept of *intersubjectivity* might throw a light on Goethe's ambitions.  Skidelsky, though, argues that the divide between the objectivity professed by the purveyors of physical-science theory and the objectivity proposed by Goethe is almost impossible to surmount.

Cassirer, he shows, did formulate a defensible rationale, even before he had fully developed his "philosophy of symbolic forms."  Cassirer did so through his articulation of the multivalence of the symbol:

The concept of the symbol is both broad enough to unite the various cultural forms and flexible enough to do justice to their individuality.  It thus replaces, in Cassirer's more mature thought, Kant's more rigid notion of "a priori" form.  In schematic terms, one can see the philosophy of symbolic forms as an attempt to encompass Kantian epistemology within a broader Goethean anthropology.

Skidelsky finds this project problematic, though, because it relativizes the truth-finding claims of science and religion:

The problem goes to the heart of the philosophy of symbolic forms.  The attempt to mediate between the various branches of culture threatens to rob them of their seriousness, to transform them into a play of symbols.

Having read and reread Cassirer's expatiations on symbolic forms, I do not agree that they reduce the complex subjects of myth, religion, art, or science into mere "play."  On the contrary, the very reason that these conceptual spheres even have coherent form is because countless intellectuals have put a great deal of work into honing all their complexities, work which Cassirer reports and evaluates.  By his emphasis upon truth-telling Skidelsky seems to be making common cause with Bertrand Russell's readings of symbolic logic, noted here.

I won't address the obvious problems inherent in this alleged "search for truth." But I will point out that Skidelsky, in attempting to invalidate Cassirer's idol Goethe, relies on questionable evidence.  The author claims that Goethe was only a liberal in his literary works, and that his true measure was the "political illiberalism" he practiced in real life-- though Skidelsky does not prove this assertion, except for citing a couple of lines about Goethe's admiration for powerful political figures.  Following this dubious characterization, Skidelsky draws upon the verdict of art historian Edgar Wind, who was critical of Goethe's "capacity to treat every interpretation of reality symbolically."  This is supposedly a marker of the inability of Goethe, and of Cassirer, to come to terms with reality.  Finally, Skidelsky draws upon, not a real-life account of someone who knew Goethe, but Thomas Mann's 1939 novella LOTTE IN WEIMAR.  This Mann work takes the viewpoint of Charlotte Kestner, Goethe's real-life mistress, to indict Goethe as "an aloof, inhuman figure" who barely remembers his tryst with Charlotte.

And yet, even supposing that Mann's portrait of the Goethe-Kestner relationship was as "true" as anyone, even a biographer, could reproduce it-- what does this prove about Goethe's particular outlook?  Are there ways in which individuals can ignore other individuals by seeing them as mere "symbols?"  Certainly, but there are thousands of other ways in which people can downgrade or ignore other people without seeing them as "symbols."  Thus Skidelsky's criterion for "reality testing" is rendered entirely suspect, and may compromise other aspects of his evaluative endeavor.