Ah, September, Bloggers: when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of theses. Of course I don’t know if I’m really equipped, any longer, to chase one down or follow one up, but I hope at any rate even if I can’t figure out how to finish, I can at least puzzle out how to end…!
And so here’s to that possibility!
Mystery Machines: Trash Culture, Cargo Cults, and the Escape from Participation Mystique
Part Three: “Magic Mirror”
And then, finally…there was just us.
So here’s the thing about cargo cults that you have to know: apparently, like Levy-Bruhl’s “primitive mentality”, they’re bullshit.
I just found that out: apparently they’re not real things that people do…at least not for the simplistically irrational — “primitive” — reasons that we think they do. I’ve been hearing about them my whole life, but apparently in the real world they just don’t happen. Not that technologically advanced societies never create a ripple when they interact with pre-industrial societies! But the character of the ripple does not necessarily go unreflected-on by the people who are in it. The Gods must be Crazy?
Is it just another way of saying the People must be Stupid?
We in the West, all too aware of the relative failure of our scholastic methods to educate deeply (we hear those scientists talk and think whoa I can’t follow that egghead jazz, man, but if we can’t who should?) find things like the so-called “Clarke’s Law” very comforting I’m sure…since all science-fiction is really about the present time-and-place put elsewhere, eh? But is any sufficiently advanced science really indistinguishable from magic, after all? In the anthropological sense, the word “magic” is far from a catch-all; instead it’s a name for a certain type of pre-rational intellectual practice, a name for a series of perfectly-comprehensible mistakes that form a rudimentary edifice of explanation that remains valid even if it’s incorrect. It is not “pure irrationality”, but instead it’s a precursor to rationality, in our conceptual scheme: and even in the most “primitive” societies it’s a species of reasoning distinctly juvenile in tone…and yet useful even so, on its own merits. Very, very useful. Even to adults.
Like comic-book literature, it isn’t what we think it is. It’s true, when I see a seat on the bus shaking and dancing as though some invisible force was yanking it purposefully to and fro, I’m seized with a momentary fear that can only be called “superstitious”…but what makes it so, that it can be called only that? Just the absence of an apparent cause that fits into the scope of my general knowledge…that implies the context of that knowledge may have to be overturned, with nothing to replace it. Ghosts I might speculate on, and aliens too: in the technosocial context they are both possible, just so long as they are natural in character. But natural things must behave “naturally”, must be explainable at least in potential, even to a religionist — indeed, isn’t that the purpose of religion, as it is the purpose of science? To explain away the horror of superstition, which (we might say) is in essence the fear that Lesser will affect Greater, in such a way as to overturn that relationship’s proportionality for good? And then in the absence of cause, just chaos…and back we go into participation mystique, only we go deeper still, down into the stratum in which we’re at the mercy of events neither effected nor caused. Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic…now that’s a comforting thought for sure, but not in the way we usually think of it: since what it’s really saying is that pattern may still be perceived even if agencies aren’t known.
I mean, you look at crop circles: those were mysterious to the point where aliens did it became pretty much the most logical explanation most people had ready to hand. And ghosts were next! And neither of those was really any wronger than the “ball-lightning” explanation (and did I just read somewhere that ball lightning’s bunk too? But you see even I don’t believe that!), which frankly seemed like a hell of a stretch at the time anyway…and in the end most everybody missed people did it for fun as an explanation, because…well…
It actually wasn’t a “logical” explanation!
Because its cause didn’t arise in logic!
…And that’s how you make a good hoax, but forgive me, I don’t want to get too far off track, or in a minute I might be saying something really wild and irresponsible, like “superstition is pre-cultural”…and that might in turn lead me into still looser suppositions, like “if superstition is the same everywhere, then it must take the same form everywhere, like a kind of psychic noise“…and then before you know it I’ll be back at what I’ve been told is the “cargo cult mistake”, which is to assume that a pre-technical society that has a lot of gods and spirits in it, that has a lot of magical practices in it, will be prone on encounter with our trash, to make it their culture…
…When really it’s just us who do that sort of thing, and there are differences from culture to culture that are important and study-worthy in themselves, and it isn’t all about uncovering universals. Who takes the trash of the Western world and makes culture from it? The Western world does — because though you always arrive over the bridge from participation mystique as an adult and rational human being no matter what society you belong to, as mentioned before the bridges aren’t all the same: they do have some cultural specificity to them. The technosocial culture we live in has, as mentioned, a problem with education: there’s too much of it to go around, and even the factory-style system of education can’t spread it out there fast enough for everybody to learn everything they probably “should”…so we’ve developed other ways of teaching, other viewpoints on learning, to supplement our orthodox instructional methods. “Trash” is, in this sense, a freewheeling educational ethic that has value specifically to us: we take bits and pieces and throw them all together, we play with our different rational contexts, we mash it all up to see what happens, we superficially rebel against large-scale forces of abstract authority and coercive instruction in order to finish the mission…
And I think we always have done so, at least for the past couple of hundred years, which is why “trash” is a bit of a misnomer. The existence of a truly “trash” culture, in the sense of there being some degraded form of culture that you can just find lying around all over the place, something “just for kids” in the sense of being essentially devoid of intellectual nutrition (why, because play isn’t as important as work?) simply doesn’t exist…at least, not without a truly massive industrial plant. Contrary to (still, unfortunately!) popular belief, it takes lots and lots of work, and lots and lots of money, to produce a cultural artifact without a use, and without a meaning…I believe I may’ve quipped once before on this blog that Twinkies and french fries are the lark’s tongues in aspic of our day, and it’s just a measure of how much accumulated wealth we’ve got that such empty calories can be located and acquired with such ease. Meanwhile our cultural elites dine pretty much exclusively on the real food of the human past, and the more natural it is the more they’re willing to pay for it: meat, vegetables, fruit, milk, poetry. Well, culture can be the same as the Twinkie, but to be that way it has to ride on the back of the same monumental infrastructures: you can have “worthless” art, but you pretty much have to put your heart and soul into making it so, and it isn’t cheap to do. You can have “worthless” science, and for that matter worthless educational tools, but you have to work hard to achieve the possession of such fripperies. And perhaps that’s what led Werthem astray, that he didn’t quite understand this? Didn’t quite understand how rare “degraded culture”, culture not in conversation with context, really was; or mistook the fierce intention it requires to create it, for something clever people might do by accident.
Himself a victim, perhaps, of the technosocial education’s thinness! That warns and warns against making rudimentary mistakes, but fails to disclose the intensity of the hubris — or the sheer mixed-up-ness! — necessary to do so. Yes, maybe the “primitive” people have a story about how some god or other gave a special food to them, but to expect God to come down and tell you what mushrooms or berries are safe to eat when you don’t already know…well, that kind of extreme cart-before-horse-putting takes a decidedly modern mind, doesn’t it? And even then you gotta work at it, when even such dubious instructors as Robin the Boy Wonder and whacko nutjob Reed Richards are constantly reminding you that even the most magnetic conceptual gloss is always to be questioned, challenged, and related to some reality or other…and that even in a mad world of anti-logical technobabble, limits still determine knowledge. Especially there, even: as “critical mass” becomes a Melvillean metaphor in place of a properly-technical fact, and yet if you run against it right it still does a needful job, education-wise, because to embrace this “trash” is to discover the magical merit in illegitimacy that makes it so it doesn’t really matter where you pick up your lesson, whether it’s from Sleeper or Sartre or Spidey…but to paraphrase the great philosopher it’s what you do with it that counts…and there is always something you can do with it, so even the midden is still a location of meaning…
…As for example what happens with that old Anti-Earth of Jack’s, the Great Attractor of the Negative Zone. Superheroes and supercostumes, yes, but one look at Kirby’s adventurous collaging tells you that we are not going to learn much about the Grade Nine science curriculum here! Because the medium’s most definitely the message, and the message is most definitely about art, instead of science: most definitely about ungoverned collision and juxtaposition, the mixing of techniques and the crossing of traditions — the symbolic trangression that defines orthodox symbolic boundaries as nothing else can. You want another quote?
Here’s Samuel R. Delany (with thanks to David Golding):
“The abyssal split between literature and paraliterature exists precisely so that some values can circulate across it and others can be stopped by it. The split between them constitues literature as much as it does paraliterature. Just as (discursively) homosexuality exists largely to delimit heterosexuality and to lend it a false sense of definition, paraliterature exists to delimit literature and lend it a false sense of itself. Indeed, since both were disseminated by the explosion of print technology at the end of the nineteenth century, the two splits are not unrelated.”
Yes: and so here’s the leap from scientific context into literary context, here’s what filled the Seventies Boys with such subversive fire! The controversies in science are distant ones, out of the ken of the non-specialist — immune to casual inquiry as perhaps they must be, if the social order is to be preserved — but they are mirrored by controversies in the arts, through which that distance can be broken down. The notional science it employs to make its points scents of the fantastic, of course; but when real science is scented that same way (through its distance, natch) it can’t very well object to destabilization on the grounds of lack of realism, can it? Especially when all the logic is essentially the same, all human logic: through the Radical Cube and on to the Crossroads of Infinity (if you can stick it out through the Distortion Area), you arrive eventually in the very realm of opposition itself, on its own home ground, and you mean to get in, get the job done, and get back to “normal” reality, your “normal” Earth…that is, if you can just avoid the one confrontation with opposites that will end your story. Which is tough, you know, because all the gravity bends that way…
And the kicker of it all is, that not only may Anti-Earth be nothing more than “normal” Earth just seen from the other side, but additionally — and notably! — the only reason the FF find danger in it is because they attempt to choose an assiduously moderate path through what is clearly some pretty transcendental territory. Eschewing the path of the saint, who might abandon himself to Oneness’ reward in the infinite profusion of different universes…and equally pushing past the more complex realizations in the Distortion Area itself, the great cloud of unknowing, the static where all the discarded signals are found…the ground of the figures, finally…finally, because they stubbornly continue tumbling on into worldly confrontations, a worldly (illusory?) confrontation is just what they get. The collision with Anti-Earth awaits…the collision of matter and anti-matter that produces, well…
…And so maybe it isn’t so bad as all that really, just another path to the same place as all the other paths, but the problem is that they still don’t want to wind up at the vanishing point no matter how insistently inevitable it becomes…and how elusive the path of moderation is, in this trippy psycho-Buddhist collage! Where the laws of physics do not apply…
…But then, suddenly, they do: and the lesson comes clear again. Well after all, what is it Reed Richards is always saying? “Don’t go too far, kids”?
“Be careful, Ben”?
Or you’ll overload; you’ll attain “critical mass”, possibly. You’ll overflow the limits of the enclosure, and you’ll have to leave the story.
And so the image of superhero-as-teacher here becomes complexified: becomes the image of superhero-as-boddhisatva, the orphic superhero, and isn’t it a most curious transformation? Don’t you think it carries a most peculiar instruction along with it? The superheroes, battling up through the incarnated oppositional reflections to Truth, crash towards the White Light, the Black Hole, whatever you want to call it…but then find an improbable timelike path turning back from it again, and in that improbability find their heroism as they find, once again, the status quo…
…Of the trash-heap. Like so many messages-in-bottles washed up on the shore, or fallen from the sky, but let’s just step back a bit — like the heroes from their apotheosis — from the easy conclusion that the enclosure must be either an Eden or a Gehenna…instead to consider once again engagement with text: since that’s what this is really all about, and has been all along. Science. Philosophy. Education. Subversiveness. Complexification. Ownership. Participation. Trouble. It started at DC, with the intersection of logic and reality: the bridge to adult thinking, if you recall…but it was a bridge for children, most definitely “kid stuff”…just because it was far from meaningless, far from wasteful. Well, but then things got a little more complicated, because of the unusual position of Marvel Comics: they got a little more abstract, and they got a little more stylized. Sure, horror and SF…maybe even some romance…but that wasn’t all Jack Kirby was interested in, nor Steve Ditko neither. Nor, let’s be fair, Stan Lee. There was a fair amount of ambition at work there, I think we can reasonably be forgiven for assuming: Jack was the official sci-fi nut and the avid reader of mythology, but Stan was a manic little logovore too, and you don’t have to look too long at Ditko’s trippier compositions to see that the mind behind them was pretty nimble when it came to texture…and after all, where does texture come from?
Not that I’m saying these guys were especially erudite, or especially interested in applying erudition to their four-colour creations. “Erudition”…that’s the wrong word. But “texture”, yeah…all teachers love texture, and they’ll sock in as much of it as they can manage into the little parables they tell. Things just work better that way, you know! And you can see that they do, in this case because it was just that greater texture, that more wrinkly storytelling surface, that attracted the imagination of Marvel’s readers…to the point where eventually they got all the new writers who were busy soaking up the literary obsessions of their own time (that Marvel itself was a part of too!), and preparing, though they may not have known it, to break away from the teaching of one worldview, to the teaching of another. The literary influences, the philosophical influences…the destabilization of the technosocial narrative. The path through the Distortion Area, that shows both hyperbolae and parabolae to be inadequate solutions to the plot of story. The times, right?
Well, we’re in them right now too, as it happens!
And they don’t stop. Consider Dhalua Strong’s vision quest in the Blue Surf, where she’s invited by Bala-Sibbi to touch his forehead and part the veil between herself and Great Chukulteh…and then she doesn’t do it, because she too is a hero rather than a saint, or a god. And these are still instructional tales, even if they’re a bit more complex…even, indeed, if they’re a bit more knowing about where they come from, than Superman was. Not that Superman never gets to know all this either: as Grant Morrison arranges for him to be told that “the gold in us, will survive in you”…
Thus the valour of the individual, beset in the field of symbols, is cemented. And, other sources of authority undermined? Well…yes, definitely. They are undermined. And yet…
…It isn’t quite so cut-and-dried a relationship as that, between us and our authority-sources…no matter what Werthem might have thought. So let’s think a bit more about Moore and Morrison for a bit here, since I bring them up and draw them out: Morrison, whose invention (or should that be codification?) “magic mirror” is…and who is pretty much continuously playing with various ideas of the value of the “cargo cult mistake” to the culture that invented it. Kirbyesque: like, Bruce Wayne met a UFO, you know? Magical thinking, you see? Meanwhile Moore is playing with exactly the same stuff, but from the “other side”…and all his magical Gehennan mash-ups are distinct from Morrison’s in that they ask what we might have learned from our alter-pedagogy, instead of what we may yet learn…and, paradoxically, Moore always wants us to see something brand-new in what we already know…while Morrison always wants to reacquaint us with what we already know about what we already know…
But even Promethea‘s Kabbalistic hopscotching through the reflections of Form, and even The Invisibles‘ staunch refusal of Ultimate Conclusions in the quest for enlightenment, even these crazily subversive uses of the alter-didacticism of our society are really nothing new…as good and as nourishing as they are, “new” is not the name for them. Back in the Seventies at Marvel Comics, the train of changing technosocial instruction that Stan and Jack and Steve had unwittingly jumped aboard started picking up steam, and drawing the attention of young bright people who found a fascination in their four-colour psychodramas, that answered their need to trouble character…not just on the level of the escape to adult rationality, but on the level of what the hell you’re supposed to do with it once you’ve finally got it, and as a result Stan got much more than his beloved (and perhaps somewhat fictitious) “college-age readers”: he got the readers who were going to become “college-age readers” in the Pop Art of his imagination. In other words: just us, folks! The fans of Robin the Boy Wonder had found something “apparently subversive” in being able to imaginatively sport with adult roles and competencies before their time, to develop precociously; the fans of Seventies Marvel had found something genuinely (and refreshingly!) subversive in exposing and exploring the shortcomings of those roles and competencies…not to “develop”, that is not to show excellence within the parameters of conformity, but instead to assert the values of the individual, and the individual’s right to be himself, that twentieth-century literature concerned itself so uniquely with.
The maturation of the personality (as Jung would say) goes on, into encounter with forces outside itself: forces not projected from the deep psychological reserves — whatever they may be — but from elsewhere: from independent realms of autonomous psychic existence. Yeah: aliens. Or ghosts. Spirits of higher fictions, with naturalistic desires of their very own, that we must be willing to tolerate belief in. How Werthem would’ve shuddered! But we’re older now, than he was then: we already know, surely must see, that this exposure to metaphysical uncertainty only reflects another fact of our existence that orthodox teaching scrupulously shies away from…
…Which is the fact that language itself is most mysterious for its outward-turning nature, and not its introspective self-referentiality. The flypaper of words and images catches associations, of course: no one denies it. But down at the root of language the mystery of onomatopoeia survives this Principia-like view of meaning — something unresolvable in how our linguistic expressions reach out, reach up, to some meaning external to themselves. Reality: the problem is, you see, it’s just like our science.
We can’t really know it.
We can only approximate tools with which to touch it…tools that fall just short of contact, every time.
And maybe — the thought occurs — we will never have any better tools, than these.
And so what are we to do then?
Perhaps, only: answer the question. I always say that from about the late Eighties or so DC worked hard to remystify itself as an aggressively metatextual space: fictions about fictions, all carefully nested inside one another and wrapped prettily by the reader’s own self-knowledge…well, then, suppose that’s all true, then what’s such a marvellous object supposed to show, or emblematize? What and who is it supposed to teach, and what’s it supposed to be teaching them about? Possibly, the answer is: that refreshment is always possible, because “return” (like Judaism!) is baked right into the superhero conceit…but, isn’t that another Very Odd Thing, when you get right down to it?
That the same storytelling mode that aggressively teaches heroism as a sacrificial return to the world, might also conceal a countermovement that teaches a return to contact with the divine as enduringly possible?
Odd or not, it’s there: the strange inculcation of alter-belief that says so long as one is willing to embrace the right sort of rationale about playing with Forms, one may avoid collapsing in a mere orgy of nostalgia and achieve an actual renaissance. Which is rather a bold thing to teach, I’m sure you’ll agree…!
Because there’s no evidence whatsoever that it’s true…!
But it is certainly a very desirable sort of technosocial instruction, that is if you can only get enough mustard on that ball to get it over the plate…and so those people who rejoiced/complained at the “Marvelization” of DC Comics may have sounded distressingly tribal when they did it, but then Werthem also sounded like an asshole when he said his thing, and he was Kind Of Right too. DC went subversive to itself when the Seventies Boys followed Jack Kirby’s path and showed up at its door, for the first time allowing in a truly literary contextualization of its comic-book science…and not only did it work, but it worked because it carried some DC-typical pedagogic charge inside it: still “kid stuff”, after all, in its astonishingly optimistic, radically anodyne message! Superman, very possibly, would’ve been proud…
…But meanwhile, over about the same span of time (as I also always say), Marvel was coming to the end of its ability to teach anyone anything at all…cluttering its universe with violently non-technical and (for the first time!) anti-logical symbols, the psychodramatic significance in their conflicts was being lost…and not just lost, but emptied-out. You could certainly still talk about the moral context of knowledge from within a Son Of Satan story, you see, even if you were a lot more interested in philosophy than Stan Lee was…but it was a lot harder to wring that stuff out of Onslaught, or the Clone Saga, or (perhaps most shamefully, given the ostensible subject matter) The Evolutionary War, because essentially these were all janitorial exercises, “tidying” actions…ideas based solely in the ability of tinkertoy story-logic to be introspective, rather than intersectional. And thus as far as engagement with text went, well…perhaps the kindest thing we can say about Marvel’s biggest failures is that they were just a little too onanistic to satisfy even a nostagic urge. Though there’s nothing wrong with playing with action figures, it doesn’t mean playing with action figures is equivalent to all other sorts of play…because as mentioned before, play’s not a worthless activity anyway, even if it isn’t work. And so then, out of little but necessity, came a series of reboots for Marvel that were (interestingly, at least to me) not designed to render an airtight metatextual storytelling space (a hermetic space?) so much as an openly participatory one: one in which (with the exception of the “Ultimate” line, which followed much more in the DC “Post-Crisis” line of renaissance-repetition) the reader was not just enlisted by implication, but explicitly invited in with a great deal of Stan-style hand-pumping and back-slapping and exclamations of how wonderful it was to see them again, and how they’d been missed. “Marvel-typical” stuff; and again it worked, and again (not coincidentally) it carried a profoundly engaging (and pretty darn metatextual) didactic charge — to wit, “the talent is everything, as far as this teaching stuff goes, and you the reader are part of the talent, so let’s break out the good whiskey and start talking about what kind of lesson plans we’d all like to get going!” In essence it was like going from Camper to Counsellor…as DC had staked out its resuscitative territory around the idea of going from Reader to Rememberer…
…And unfortunately, now that I’ve laid all the groundwork and finally gotten back around to talking about some kind of point that there might be to all of this…
…I find that the clock on the wall says our time is up.
So, pencils down; turn in your papers.
So I guess tomorrow I’ll be posting the grades.