Project Blue Box, Part One

That wise editor Zom of the Mindless picked up on one, Bloggers;  but he passed on one, too.

Which is unfortunate for you lot, because it only gives me the opportunity to bloat the thing up a little, droning on and on in my customary way about a topic hardly anyone was clamouring to hear about…maybe not even me.  Yes:  Zom got the bit about Kirby!

…And so we get the bit about Werthem.

In one-twothreefour installments, no less.

And here’s the first.


Mystery Machines:  Trash Culture, Cargo Cults, and the Escape from Participation Mystique

Part One:  “Aqua Regia”

Ah, comic books and cartoons.  Once, they were comfortably labelled “kid stuff”.  But now it seems we’re not so sure what they are.

But maybe…that’s because we can no longer see what they were.

Over the years, much has been made of Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s study of “primitive” cultures, and the miasma of participation mystique in which he concluded they must wallow: this being the developmental stage in which the subject/object dichotomy hasn’t yet been fully realized. Man is enmeshed in his environment so thoroughly that he cannot conceive of being apart from it — he cannot achieve objectivity enough, even to conceive of his own subjectivity. And so science is a foreign country to him, in this state: he can perceive and even imagine effects, but cannot quite work out the mystery of causes. And so it is that he discovers the cultural practice known as magic, which gets all that business backwards: whose chief laws are those of proximity and similarity, perhaps otherwise known to us as the principle that Lesser affects Greater.

Of course the big question is how we are to define “primitive”: because in the year 2009, the idea that there’s a qualitative difference between the reasoning powers of pre-industrial and post-industrial people must give us at least a mild shiver of cognitive distress — before we, you know, toss the fucker. But there are other ways of parsing this, that don’t make the old sociologist look so bad. Carl Jung, for example, proposed that participation mystique was less problematically observed in the stages of an individual’s development than in a society’s — as the child moves up from irrational to rational cognition with advancing age. And we will take yet a different approach to the matter, ourselves, but for now we might as well do at least this to salvage Levy-Bruhl’s reputation: by admitting that if Jung was on to something, then so was he. And if you remember your Frosty The Snowman, you’ll quickly see that yes, he was, and they were, for sure — because young children really do think, sometimes, that when the thermometer gets red that means the temperature’s going up, even if their parents know that the thermometer gets red because the temperature’s gone up. And the difference between those two knowledges (ouch! pomo word!) is, indeed, the difference between magical and scientific thinking. And as we age we do, indeed, give up the former to acquire the latter. Thus it is that we achieve full membership in our culture, whatever culture it may happen to be.

And yet a technical, scientific culture remains different from a hunter-gatherer or even an agrarian culture, and thus we should expect that even if the bridge to adulthood always starts from the same basic magical shore, it doesn’t always touch down on exactly the same sort of further shore of particular knowledge…to exactly the same, identical, form of conceptual destination. Because the transition doesn’t just happen — it isn’t just “development” — but it’s a matter of deliberate education too, and the technical culture has a didactic apparatus of its own, that’s distinct from the pedagogy found in other milieux. For one thing, it educates in the same bureaucratic mode that it does its adult business in: formalized settings, formalized curricula, formalized attire and social roles and achievement criteria and selection-processes and rewards and punishments…

…And for another thing, it has cartoons.

Found quoted online by Karen Green, out of the Columbia Spectator’s arts section:

“Bulliet has a theory that posits comic books as keenly accurate depictions of the inner lives and imaginations of the teenage boys of that particular era. “What distinguished the comic book industry of the 1960s and ’70s from the book publishing industry was that it was more demand-driven than supply-driven,” he says. “Stores were very cautious about what they stocked. Owners knew their stock very well, and they paid attention to what boys were buying.” The output of the industry became totally reflective of the desires, fears, and dreams of the boys who were fueling it. “You can watch, in the comics of the era, the evolution of a sensibility that is specific to a demographic,” continues Bulliet. In Bulliet’s view, comics provide a window onto an otherwise undocumented history.”

We might consider this evidence of the (perhaps unique!) “informal” pedagogy of the technical culture, that parallels its more legitimate system of education: “trash” culture, kid stuff, is rank magical thinking recast as easy wish-fulfillment, a substitute-world that gains depth, texture, and popularity through being the very site in which childish mental competencies are reconstructed as equal to (and frequently, even triumphant over) adult ones. Left ungoverned by official authority-sources, the appeal of this magical alter-didacticism simply grows and grows, piggybacking on the commercial interests of mass communication; and yet in this apparently-subversive body of counterinstructional literature (we shall soon see real subversiveness in it, but not yet), is the very substance of the bridge to adult thinking: the Trojan Horse of rationality, as it were. Fredric Werthem probably wouldn’t agree, but I hope the rest of us can unanimously assent to the idea that we’d have some mighty stultified adult thinking around here, if we had missed that avalanche of essentially anti-bureaucratic science-fantasy and adventure fiction in our formative years. And that’s not just because the value of a creative imagination is nowhere more exalted than in children’s literature, “kid’s stuff”. But it’s because hidden inside the role of low-down, subversive social trash cartoonist is the role of teacher; as hidden inside a child’s fantasy of efficacy and empowerment is always a tinker-toy model of alternative logic, part of whose enjoyment is the process of learning to perceive its intersection with reality. Robin the Boy Wonder is trapped by the Joker and must build a crystal radio set to alert Batman — for those of us whose parents couldn’t afford to put us in Scout Camp or buy us an Electronics Kit, this unexpected access to the world of adult knowledge and powers is a marvellously democratic compensation: it will be years yet, if we are the children this comic is aimed at, before we’ll be introduced to the practical nature of these mysteries in a more properly-licensed environment. Yes, there’s a good reason why Jimmy is wrong, and Superman can’t run for President…but can YOU guess it, Reader…?

So just from this, I would hope anyone (saving Fredric Werthem, naturally: but SHIT! He was actually RIGHT! Just sort of misguided, and swimming against the good flow he thought he was aiding) can see that the “subversive” nature of a child’s entertainment has a vital preparatory function; and if there’s anyone who can’t see this, might I just point out that I still meet people who are convinced I must be a genius, merely because I know that aqua regia is the only acid that can dissolve gold? And yet I got this knowledge from Green Lantern comics, as I learned what I know of dirigibles from “boy’s adventure” stories, as I learned how to pronounce “Vercingetorix” from Goscinny and Uderzo. And it isn’t that I’m claiming there’s nothing to be learned from The Iliad or from Robinson Crusoe. But I am saying that these informal, illegitimate, superficially “subversive” stories have been considered “kid stuff” for a reason. Because that’s very properly what they are.

Except, that isn’t really what I’m saying. Or, at least not all of what I’m saying.

Because merely to acknowledge the existence of the bridge to adult thinking still won’t adequately describe what it’s made out of. Not when Green Lantern’s ring, though nominally a product of some other world’s super-science, is really a crystalline example of our own world’s “rules of magic”; nor when Robin the Boy Wonder doesn’t go to school, never gets any sleep, and ought to dislocate a shoulder a night fighting the nightmare-glyphs of dream-logic, but doesn’t. Scooby-Doo’s aphasic gang of skeptical teens may do a great job of debunking the supernatural, but never seem to notice their dog can talk — and that they themselves have no visible means of support, logical or otherwise* — and this is really quite a fascinating conjunction, a fascinating play, wherein magical entity fights magical entity less in the name of Good, than in the name of a social order practically indistinguishable from the values of science and rationality. “Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot”, Batman reminds us, as he prepares his vampiric costume; in the first issue of the Fantastic Four, the denizens of Monster Isle (“But there’s no such place!” protests the golem-like Thing) are defeated by “an enemy whose every cell is charged with cosmic rays…an enemy who can’t be stopped!…”

So where in older fairy-tale adventures the wild places of the world held special meaning, as the spots in which mundane people went out to encounter the hidden magical forces that ruled their lives, here they are the places where magic fights its last battle, in its last redoubt, and loses. But! As mentioned, it doesn’t actually lose to “science”; it only succumbs to the values of “science”, in such a way that the traditional ethicity of supernatural fist-fights is reconstructed as a specific kind of psychosocial maturation. Because of course the alien technology isn’t real, and the supercharged individuals have no genuinely rational mechanisms behind their powers; it’s all magic anyway, and largely it’s all equipotent, and in a way that’s precisely the point. Because even in the oldest folk-stories, in the oldest parts of human culture, the hero’s success is gained not by natural superiority (in which he is frequently outmatched) but by cleverness, sometimes little more than cunning, in many cases superior (even if surprising) spiritual commitment; and regardless of the form these triumphs take, or whether the heroes are people or godlings (usually they are the latter: the people’s representatives or advocates in the supernatural realm), what all these personal virtues boil down to is a demonstration of the value of human-style ratiocination over mere magical, powerful, symbolic assertion.

But in the folk-wisdom of the technical society, that’s manufactured by technical means, this moral naturally assumes a technical expression: the magic power of the supernatural enemy is not just defeated by cleverness — not simply deceived by it! — but it’s actively denatured by it. Thus, in the world of the superheroes especially, it is more usually human beings themselves who stand as their own representatives against “higher powers”, because the moral of the story includes the reduction of all magical agencies and arenas to scientific ones: as, typically, the conflict of eerie magical power vs. other eerie magical power happens to be decided (just as in the Green Lantern story!) by the application of some technical fact found in the high-school curriculum — in other words, some building-block or other of the technosocial worldview. Thus the superhero’s own power might be outclassed by a more cosmic one, or his own magic power might have an Achilles’ heel, but so long as he wields the irresistible metaphors of magnetism or chemistry, or even optics, even a fictional world of supernatural powers (in at least a superheroic comic-book adventure or a Saturday-morning cartoon) must at least yield to a grade-schooler’s idea of what science is like…if not what science itself actually is.

Which is an extremely important instruction, one might even say critical: because these building blocks do not simply stack themselves up for our benefit out of pure necessity, they are not “just” facts — they don’t just “happen”! — but also in themselves they are part of the contextualization of facts, through which facts are permitted legitimacy in the first place. After all, what is magnetism to a child but a law of proximal attraction, repulsion, and cause? It is nothing less than pure magic itself, until it’s fitted into the puzzle of our culture’s technosocial awareness. And yet this fitting-in is a far more complex activity than it seems. General science education in a technical culture is of necessity very widespread, but it is also (again, of necessity) very thin by its own standards: the summit of knowledge is so far away that full membership in the culture comes not from having mastered all there is to know, but simply from having absorbed the atmosphere of the scientific well enough to recognize it by odour. That the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection is a gross simplification in the eyes of a physicist; but as an example of what scientific and rational principles are supposed to look like it is absolutely immaculate, and so it’s an immaculate exemplar of the kind of knowledge that wins heroic success in the modern fable, the technical folktale’s aqua regia, if you will. The true acid test. Even if it’s, you know…

Kind of wrong.

But again: that’s the point. Robin is the Boy Wonder because he has more general knowledge than you do, but also he is the Boy Wonder because in gathering such a precocious store of general knowledge he has successfully taken the general technosocial worldview completely on board, right or wrong: he’s never frightened by ghosts or vampires, and himself can prey on the “cowardly, superstitious lot” because he’s escaped the cowardice that superstition breeds. Similarly, the more cowardly (and just incidentally, younger-pitched) Mystery Machine crew constantly declare that “there must be some logical explanation for it all!” because this is precisely their credo: that so long as the explanation is “logical” the facts may, and must, stand…but without that logic they can’t, and mustn’t, no matter how they appear. Well, truthfully it is also my credo, and yours, and everybody’s if they happen to be operating outside of the specific deep knowledge of their field — facts without “logical” explanations are as uncanny to us as zombies, and so we reject their existence: we will reject what we see right in front of our eyes, if we have to, just waiting for the logical explanation to swoop down and save us…!

As it always does — dramatically, too — because that’s its job. Or, to put it another way: our job, because these building blocks won’t stack themselves, as uncanny facts are just opportunities to build a better context, and as noted the modern, youthful, technical reader is always crucially involved in a “trash” cultural form. Doctor Doom tells the Fantastic Four that if he uses his shrinking ray on them for a few minutes, when he restores them to normal size they’ll be even more powerful than they were before, because if the dinosaurs had been smaller their brains would’ve been bigger in proportion to their bodies, and so they might not have died out — the implication being that a shrunk-down FF would have powers in “greater proportion” as well, and once they were un-shrunk they’d retain them. Which is, you know, crazy; but the FF fall for it since it’s couched in scientific terms. Hey, it sounds all right to them! However then Reed Richards swoops down to save the day, saying that it wasn’t really a scientific explanation at all, but just a trick, that the real science is thus-and-such, and thus-and-such, and if you were shrunk down to ant-size it wouldn’t change anything except you’d be smaller.

Naturally, we accept his explanation as true within the context of the story. However! We shouldn’t forget that it is only true within the context of the story because he says it is, and because we choose to accept it! Because of course there are no such things as “shrinking rays”, and if there were they wouldn’t work as Doctor Doom’s shrinking ray does, because the facts of real science make that utterly impossible. Or: “crazy”. In fact if you think about it long enough and hard enough, it might even be easier to believe that a “real” shrinking ray would work in the way Doom describes, because of what it would have to be able to do!** And so “the context of the story” is an illusion we accept largely because the alternative model of logic that’s enforced in it isn’t entirely introspective: and also, importantly, because it so happens that we aren’t entirely introspective, either. Both of us, the story and the reader, are using this comic to model real-world thinking about the difference between magic and science. Well, these blocks aren’t gonna stack themselves, are they Big Shot? And so since our own understanding of the real world is implied (or at least intersected) in the understanding of the Fantastic Four’s world, Doctor Doom is more deliciously villainous to us because he’s presented as an anti-scientific didact within a fantasy setting that’s partly of our own creation; and we love Reed Richards’ heroism the more, because although he is no less coercive a figure in terms of authority than Doom is, he enforces a distinction between rationality and irrationality that preserves the real-world contextualization of what science is “like” to a grade-schooler. Even though that contextualization itself is built up of the story’s spurious “facts”. Well…

But perhaps we love him the more because it’s built up out of spurious facts? That we have assented to: and because the temperature doesn’t go up because the thermometer gets red, but the thermometer gets red because the temperature goes up. Of course here there is not only no thermometer, but no temperature to measure: it’s just all made-up.

But from about 1940 to about 1965, it works. Because we make it work.

However, after that

Christ, I sound like Ditko, don’t I. A-is-bloody-A. God help me, I’m lecturing

Must try to do better!

Hey, kids: stay tuned to see.

*Although I always assumed they were in a band. Funnier if they were just the roadies for a band, though: “Where the hell were you guys?” “Well, we stopped at this old amusement park, and Velma…”

**John Byrne decided to prove just this point, and artfully, in FF #236.

14 responses to “Project Blue Box, Part One

  1. Flash Fact! One of the pleasures of rereading the silver-age stuff is finding these scientific-sounding rationalizations for fantasy actions–ones where, when you first read them, you thought “Oh…that makes sense, I guess…” The Doctor Doom bit you cite is a great example.

    Alan Moore understands. In “1963,” the wonderful Marvel pastiche, Mystery Inc.’s Crystal Man, the Reed Richards analog, is so smart because he can think with “crystal-clarity.” Figurative language becomes science!

  2. Funny, I reread my Essential Fantastic Four vol. 1 a couple months ago, and that scene with the shrink ray and the dinosaur astronauts you mention really caught my eye for the first time for that very same reason. I kind of thought there might be a post in it, and here it is…

    Although, one of the things about that scene I like and that’s very important is that Doom is disguised as Reed, so OF COURSE the Fantastic Four believes him. As a character bit, it demonstrates the tremendous trust the other three have in Reed, that they’ll do ANYTHING he suggests as long as it sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. But of course (and here’s the bit it’s doubtful Lee and Kirby were consciously GOING for, but like everything else they did together, they had a way of making these things JUST SO such that you can read a whole bunch of cool stuff into it) we the readers are exactly as blindly trusting as Sue, Johnny and Ben…if we hadn’t been shown Doom swapping bodies with Reed at the top of the story, if we didn’t know it was him and he was lying, OF COURSE we’d just assume that Reed’s right because he’s REED, and that a shrink ray really would make you a Super Human Torch.

  3. The greatest is Kirby’s tiny moose and bear!

    Sorry, drinking some scrumpy tonight. Wait, wait…can pull it together, I think…

  4. Pingback: Linkblogging for 31/07/10 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!·

  5. FF does this more than a few times, both early and later on — for example the Super-Skrull, the Invincible Man (well…), those stories also represent to the reader that if there’s something that sounds fishy to them, then they don’t have to extend any suspension of disbelief to it. So it teaches this very fine discrimination in the granting of credulity, which is actually pretty advanced stuff, if decidedly more conceptual and less curriculum-based than Batman and Green Lantern. In FF, the science is all absolutely garbage, of course! But the lesson is that garbage comes in different grades. Byrne revisited this one too, of course: but turned it all towards reinforcing his own ideas of what kind of garbage is better than the other kind. You can see him edging toward it in his Superman, but then of course having to back off a bit because Superman is Superman: that Supes’ powers don’t make a whole lot of sense, and so must be something else. Well, he can’t really get that done, no one wants to be lectured about how Superman does what he does — that information’s not really proprietary anymore. But he can and does have Reed Richards lecture us about how Gladiator’s powers don’t make any sense, because as I think I may’ve mentioned about a hundred times already Marvel comics are built on Superman-commentary to a really hilarious degree. Note how clever Byrne can be in constructing these sorts of arguments, too: Gladiator isn’t just beaten by Reed Richards’ big brain, but by the fact that Captain America’s shield is indestructible…the one unalterable Official Fact of MU physics, and the one-and-only superpower belonging to the one-and-only Marvel character who was cast in the heroic mode without any monster-comics contamination, the only “fair copy” of Superman, of Superman’s own vintage, that they’ve got. So that’s a very devious appeal to authority Byrne makes there, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an out-and-out rehash of the original Super-Skrull story, because of course that’s exactly what it is…and as I’ve also said before, Byrne does a great job on FF for about as long as he confines himself to homage: it’s only when he starts to try to be “original” that he flounders.

    The Reed/Doom switch, though, is really important in the example I cite — makes that example a better example! — because again it’s that fine-discrimination teaching thing going on. Supervillain geniuses are totally allowed to set alter-physics rules too, naturally! It isn’t a power reserved to heroes alone!

    The heroes just get the last word when it comes to interpretation, that’s all.

  6. Pingback: Project Blue Box, Part Two « A Trout In The Milk·

  7. Pingback: Project Blue Box, Part Three « A Trout In The Milk·

  8. Pingback: Project Blue Box: Epilogue « A Trout In The Milk·

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