Tuesday, 14 April 2009

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Enemies made or enemies born? On this day in history, two men—one of whom would say that the other’s life work represented “the utmost human degradation[:] an idiot’s vegetative existence”—were born. In 1885, the author of that statement, Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács, dewombed in Budapest. Often cited as the founder of Western (or philosophical) Marxism, Lukács can be considered the grandfather of the armchair academic activists who fought the radical fight from tenured positions at illustrious institutions. I only half-kid here: his claim in The Historical Novel (1937) that the role of the literary critic was to examine “the relation between ideology (in the sense of Weltanschauung) and artistic creation” (147) allowed otherwise sedentary scholars to label as revolutionary action an exegesis on Dickensian realism. Anyone whose work analyzed critical or socialist realism, i.e. literature which displayed “the contradictions within society and within the individual context of a dialectical unity,” could consider him or herself a soldier in the Great Class War Against Mystification. Like Susan Sontag, I find his definition of realism—socialist, critical or otherwise—unnecessarily reductive and his dismissiveness of non-realist works short-sighted (if not out-right anti-intellectual). In 1906, the same year Lukács received his Ph.D., was born the man whose work depicted “an idiot’s vegetative existence.” That Samuel Beckett’s novels, plays and poetry trafficked in “human degradation” was reason enough for condemnation: unlike realists novels, which were capable of creating dialectical conversations between singular narratives and the social totality of history, modernist novels wallowed in the singularity of their narrators: Lack of objectivity in the description of the outer world finds its complement in the reduction of reality to a nightmare. Beckett’s Molloy is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this development. (152) If an author grounds that nightmare in “the Aristotelian concept of man as zoon politikon” (151); that is, if an author provides a reference against which the consequences of the actions of social animals can be judged: only then can reader or critic differentiate between the concrete potentialities (what happens) and the abstract potentialities (what the character thought could have happened). Authors who refuse to declare what happened—who mess in the pseudo-realization of abstract potentiality—create readers who will never know from dialectical. They will not be social animals critically examining the societal structuring of their lives through the power of realist narratives; they will be unwitting dupes forever mired in the pathological subjectivity of Molloy, forever sucking pebbles. Their lives, such that they are, will be spent in the Grand Hotel Abyss, which Lukács describes as a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (qtd. 22) Needless to say, I disagree. I’ll close on an historical odditiy: not only was Lukács born on April 13th, so too was the French psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan. It’s as if the day conspired to give birth to the...
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What's wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually. Because late to the party is better than never, I’m reading Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics. When I’m not maybe being mocked, the book is a compelling read. This is a problem. Since tradition dictates picking nits with blurbs, I’ll start with the quotation from the Los Angeles Times printed on the cover: Deliciously quotable. Of all the Times blurbs to pick with nits, this one may not even be the best. From the back cover: Everything is here. If everything is there and there is deliciously quotable—but let me begin with the second blurb, because it concerns a minor point. No matter how you define “everything,” Reading Comics does not contain it all. Wolk periodically informs the reader of this fact: There are . . . several very big names I’m barely mentioning or neglecting outright in the following pages: Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb . . . (137) And we can ellipses away there because this is a book about comics that barely mentions or outright neglects Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb. Why the Times would make claims the author explicitly rejects I don’t know—but I suspect its decision relates to the tone of casual expertise Wolk displays throughout the book. Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print. The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this: [Steve Ditko] shared a studio for years with bondage/fetish artist Eric Stanton and has claimed they didn’t collaborate, but Ditko expert Blake Bell has a Web site on which he points out some work credited to Stanton that’s clearly Ditko—those hands are the giveaway. (157) Not only does Wolk punt academic form, he punts online decorum too. If you mention that someone has a “Web site,” you provide the reader with a way to find it. A link to Blake Bell’s discussion of Ditko and fetish comics in a printed book would be gravy, but at least provide the name of the site (Ditko Looked Up) and the name of the article. Speaking of which, the article is not on the “Articles“ page, nor is it listed on the “Creations." It took me some time to track down the reference—according to its address, it should have been on the “Creations” page—and once there I realized why Wolk obscured the reference. Behold the first evidence Bell uses to establish that Ditko collaborated with Stanton: The dead giveaway here is the man in both pages; especially the bottom inset panel on Page 2. How Ditko is THAT guy? Look at the fingers on his smoking hand! Did Stanton even TOUCH that panel? Now for the second: That cop in the bottom three panels of Page 6 (on the right) is so Ditko, it is scary. Look at the...

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