Monday, January 7, 2008

Man of Yesterday

Over the holidays I sped through a delightful popular history of the early comic book industry, Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. Packed with fascinating biographical details about the men (they were all men, it seems) who put together this mass medium, the book benefits from a fluid and propulsive prose style, sophisticated ideological assumptions, and a great deal of very smart research.

What I want to note here about the book is a strange textual characteristic that has been around for a while but has recently become increasingly common in scholarly works published by non-academic or semi-academic presses: rather than footnotes or endnotes, the text is supplemented simply by a “Notes on Sources” section at the back of the book. The only difference between this approach and traditional footnote/endnote practice is that there are no superscript numerals in the main text; thus the “Notes on Sources” section must reproduce the first few words of any quotation in order to identify its source. This practice seems to be less efficient, though it does have the aesthetic advantage of maintaining a certain uncluttered look on the pages of the main text. But I have been assured that publishers’ actual motivation for preferring this practice is somewhat more troubling. Apparently bookstore browsers are turned off by the appearance of note reference numbers within the body of the text, because (or so the publishers believe) these numbers make the book seem like “work.”

This is all by way of introduction to Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Published as it is by an academic press (The Johns Hopkins University Press), Wright’s book stands by the traditional notation practice. Sadly, that’s the only advantage the book has over Men of Tomorrow. Wright’s text makes for boring reading by comparison to Jones’s, though not for the reasons one might expect. In fact, the adherence to academic convention in notational style is the only way in which this book is more “academic.” This is obviously a text written by a fanboy posing as a scholar.

I knew I was in trouble with this book when I read the following sentences in Wright’s introduction:
While I am familiar with a number of theoretical approaches to “decoding” the meaning of popular texts, I find few of these very compelling, and I confess to finding more than a few bewildering and tedious. My basic theoretical assumption regarding audience is the rather simple but well-grounded contention that audiences consume particular forms of entertainment because they hope to find something pleasurable in the experience. (xviii)

As they say in the biz: No shit, Sherlock! That’s scarcely a “theoretical assumption” at all, and I can think of no legitimate theory that would contradict it. Legitimate theoretical discourses, such as psychoanalytic criticism, attempt to explain what that pleasure consists in, and why audiences seek particular forms of it. This Wright steadfastly refuses to do, preferring to rely on unexamined assumptions about what is or isn’t “entertaining.” His palpable distaste for critical thinking pervades this 300-page book, leading him to condemn many comics, creators, or even entire movements, as and even (a word that appears numerous times in the text) “self-indulgent.” Sadly, Wright's stated aversion to theory doesn't prevent him from repeatedly misusing the word "deconstruction" when he means simply "critique." It's a common error in nonacademic discourse, but unacceptable in a scholarly text.

Although Wright pays lip-service to the now commonplace notion that comic books are a medium, not a genre or narrow range of genres (superhero, sci-fi, fantasy), his text frequently slips into privileging the “big two” (Marvel & DC) superhero offerings over all other comics. This is a mentality common to superhero fan culture, and it has been so roundly attacked in recent decades both by competent comics critics and even, increasingly, by mainstream journalists, that it is shocking to see Wright so frequently reproducing it in the later chapters of his text. The original 2001 hardcover edition ended with a sickeningly uncritical paragraph that reads like the closing sentences of an opinion column in a small-town newspaper. It’s founded on a number of assumptions that constitute a crucial part of our culture’s dominant ideology but are almost universally rejected by critical intellectuals. See if you can spot them all!
[A]s recent outbreaks of violence at Columbine and other high schools have so horribly illustrated, young people continue to face a confusing, lonely, and sometimes frightening world that so often seems to spin out of control. For many, adolescence can be an age of intense pain and isolation, when emotional demons must be exorcised either through fantasy imitating life or by real action imitating fantasy. Should the former alternative be exhausted or denied, then some may choose the latter, possibly with tragic consequences. In these times it is as essential as ever to offer young people a wide choice for self-expression within a culture of empathy, compassion, and imagination. In this culture, comic books do have a place. And they will endure so long as they bring out the superhero in us all. (280-281)

If the reader can choke back the little bit of throw-up that rose to the tongue as he or she read that passage, he or she may continue to the disgraceful epilogue added to the book’s 2003 paperback edition: “Spider-Man at Ground Zero,” in which Wright outdoes himself with the following final paragraph:
Can comic books continue to balance escapism and relevance in this frightening post-9/11 world? Will superheroes still hold the power to stir our imaginations and inspire our dreams? I hope so. For we need them now more than ever. (293)

This is poorly executed political rhetoric, not responsible scholarship. Johns Hopkins should be ashamed.

Within this gross epilogue lie a few pages of further details about post-1980 comics, addenda of the “oh yeah I forgot to mention…” variety. It’s a shoddy patchwork applied to a textual boat that, someone must have informed Wright, was taking on water at an alarming rate, and it serves only to remind the informed reader at the end of his or her long slog just how incompetent Wright’s survey has been. The epilogue contains the book’s only references to such crucial comics events as The Sandman and even the existence of Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics. Of the latter companies we read nothing about creators’ rights, only a brief list of licensed movie characters; the former, Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, we learn, “epitomized recent comic book culture at its best and its most frustrating” (the reader can sense Wright narrowly avoiding yet another repetition of his meaningless insult of choice, “self-indulgent”). Wright’s statement that The Sandman “went relatively unnoticed by the mainstream” is every bit as bewildering any theoretical approach to understanding meaning. And the informed reader of his book will find his omission or denigration of any comic that doesn’t offer simplistic and formulaic stories of heroism and villainry to be every bit as tedious.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Can you hear me now?

The most arresting chapter to be found in Peter Brunette and David Wills’s now almost 20-year-old text Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory is “Black and Blue,” which presents on facing pages, as though a bilingual translation of a single text—a gimmick borrowed from Derrida—two analyses: of François Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir and of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. That chapter sports an introduction announcing that, unlike the rest of the collaborative text, the two portions of “Black and Blue” were written non-collaboratively—but without specifying which author wrote which analysis. A born sucker, I found myself ensnared by this ploy, wondering who had written the fair-to-middling Truffaut piece, and who had written the stunning Lynch piece. I had few clues to guide me; I know nothing of David Wills’s work, and all I know of Peter Brunette is that he committed a major gaffe in the first five minutes of his commentary track for Blow-Up by claiming that the protagonist, Thomas, is never named in the film (after which error I stopped listening). I’d guess that Wills probably wrote the Blue Velvet portion, based on the conjecture that that portion seems to read like what I imagine a Pynchon scholar would produce, whereas the Truffaut portion reads like what I imagine a Neorealism scholar would write. I suspect that consulting any other text written by either author individually would immediately solve the mystery, since the two analyses are written in such radically distinct styles of prose. But, neglecting that course of action, I’ll stick with blind speculation.

No matter. What matters? “Black and Blue”—the rectos, at least—amounts to the single most insightful piece I’ve ever read on David Lynch’s most enduring cinematic masterpiece. Fuller than Michel Chion’s analysis (despite, or perhaps because of, its refusal of anything like Chion’s assumed authoritative univocity), less routine than Todd McGowan’s, less hare-brained than Slavoj Žižek’s, and less amateurish than Martha Nochimson’s, Brunette/Willis’s reading is apparently the earliest major academic take on the film to reach publication. All the right theoretical moves are there, and all the crucial details are observed. As the author states, “the elements that invite a psychoanalytic reading have never been more explicit” than they are within Blue Velvet. And attached to that single word explicit—in the middle of a sentence that goes on to purportedly refuse the possibility of a “comprehensive” psychoanalytic reading of this film—we find the following long footnote:
Dismemberment, falling trees, scissors, knives, a man playing with a snake, the absent, emasculated father, the detective surrogate—the sorts of combinations that have given rise to close critical attention to the films of Hitchcock in recent years are all here. Central to such a reading would be the episode of voyeurism as Jeffrey watches Dorothy from behind the closet door, is discovered, and then witnesses her rape by Frank. Remember that he is drawn into this by the discovery of a severed ear; he determines to find out for himself the truth about such a castration—“I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” he will later tell Sandy, “I’m in the middle of a mystery and it’s all secret.” After witnessing the semi-nakedness of woman, the suggestion if not the fact of her castration, his attention is drawn to the frame Dorothy pulls out from under the couch. Later revealed as that of little Donny, it means that mother and son, although within different representations, were together on the plane of visibility exposed to Jeffrey, as if in the mirror. The scene is interrupted by Dorothy wielding a knife. “What is your name?” she asks. “Jeffrey,” he replies. “Jeffrey who?” “Jeffrey nothing,” comes the answer as he declines to assume the name of the father. Then, encouraged by a nick across the face from her knife, he fills in the gap. It is his turn to stand naked in front of the mirror—“Get undressed Jeffrey Beaumont! I want to see you”—and her hands, mouth, and the knife come dangerously close to the genitals. She invites him to consummate the incest wish, but he instead becomes the spectator of a primal scene more perverse than that of the Wolfman, and so on and so forth. Later, of course, there will be a song about the Sandman, who threatens in Hoffmann’s tale to rip out children’s eyes, which Freud reads as a fear of castration in The Uncanny. (153)

What interests me in this footnote is not the particulars of the author’s reading. That Orbison/ Hoffmann connection is the only one I hadn’t already made independently. “Black and Blue’s” truly stunning (and truly deconstructive) observations are to be found elsewhere; they pertain, for instance, to the synaesthetic slippage contained in the lyric “bluer than velvet was the night,” or to the anagrammatic play the film permits among “Don,” “Donny,” “don’t,” and the crime-scene tape that is cut by scissors through the Gordian “o” of “Not” in “Do Not Cross.” No, no, I want to make a critical move not nearly so impressive as all that dirty deconstructive dancing. I want merely to point out that the hogging-one’s-cake-and-disdaining-it-too attitude, the appropriativeness disguised as ambivalence, that is visible in the maneuver of disavowing psychoanalytic interpretation in the main text while offering a perfectly serviceable psychoanalytic interpretation within a footnote to that text—this maneuver is itself characteristic of psychoanalysis both in theory and in (critical and clincal) practice. For psychoanalysis theoretically instructs us to understand that appropriativeness-as-ambivalence as perhaps the central and originary psychic mechanism, and critically it produces readings (of texts and subjects) that infect us with delight in the beautiful performance of that mechanism; yet, as writers like Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips have begun to show, psychoanalysis also persistently reveals that mechanism’s inadequacy to our psychic experiences of desiring. The “cake”—whatever substance it may be—must thus become formally suspended in a double oscillation, between being-desired and being-disdained (the vulgar oscillation, which neglects to challenge the boundary between internal subject and external object) but also between having-been-consumed and never-having-been (the oscillation of shining, which disperses subjectivity throughout the world along pre-existing lines of correspondence).

What I am really (also) talking about, of course, is deconstruction’s own attitude toward the metaphysics of presence.