Mystery Machines: Trash Culture, Cargo Cults, and the Escape from Participation Mystique
Epilogue: The Blue Surf
It’s religion, isn’t it?
But let’s have the counterpoint first, before proceeding on…or in…or out…or wherever it is we end up going.
So: here it is.
And now we can digest our food. As previously mentioned, religion and science share both an origin, and a functionality: i.e. each is meant to reveal order in the patterns of the world. Now, religion gets a very bad rap these days, and so it should…but that’s largely because so many of its practitioners are so fiendishly corrupt in their own persons, rather than something morally cancerous being integral to the system. Neither is the contextual structure of religion, any more than that of science, simply a machine made to establish social control and nothing more! But instead religion — in broad terms — is at least as rational as any other kind of human intellectual activity, and indeed it bestows some specific conceptual competencies that science can’t match. Look at Moore and Morrison’s comics work, and you’ll see that every particle of it is animated by a religious understanding, a scheme of education designed to appeal in rational terms to alienated adults and near-adults. What do their protagonists fight for, and what forces do they fight against? They fight for freedom within the meshing gears of symbolic inevitabilities, by setting themselves against the totalist character of other peoples’ explanatory programmes…and especially with regard to the history of the field they’re working in, their heroic stories are all possibilizing rather than conciliatory in tone. Which makes an interesting contrast with most of the other major drivers of the four-colour morality play these days, Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis being only the most name-branded of these: whose work is similarly religious in tone, but resolutely non-ecstatic in intent. Return, return, but never to the source…only to the gallery that overlooks it.
It is, perhaps, the cargo-cult mistake in a nutshell: what are we to do with these forms that have fallen to us, these many Mystery Machines that have washed up on our shore? Essentially we have two options: treat them as we would messages, or treat them as we would messengers. Are they iconic, or are they informational? Are they artifacts, or are they invitations?
Is there a wider world without, or isn’t there?
To the Polynesian islanders, as to the inhabitants of Attabar Teru, the question would likely have been ill-formed on its face: surely if there is any anxiety distinctly Western in tone, it’s the anxiety of Being vs. Becoming! But for Westerners this anxiety is so overmastering that it comes to be seen everywhere, is warped up to universality, and so the Islanders’ independent faces are quite easily reconstructed as masks that modernity can wear in its own re-enactment, in the performance of its own values and controversies to itself. Gods, maybe; animal-spirits and icons, the ghosts of a conjectural past. Forces, from the world of the Forms.
Kirby certainly played with it, in the early days of storytelling subversion: finding no mythological being or setting that wouldn’t benefit from a little alien technology…
…And Morrison plays so much with it today he often resembles a kid splashing in a mud-puddle: throw off the mask and there’s another mask underneath it, throw off that one and there’s yet another mask…! Muddy hands draw warpaint on a muddy face, that shows a beatific grin: Pakistani Eternals, prehistoric King Arthurs, a little shit from Liverpool who’s never seen the holy name of Ixat glowing in the night…Batman and Superman, the sun and the moon, Frankenstein at the End of Time…
And where else should we expect to find him?
And meanwhile Alan Moore wonders what the pulps would’ve looked like if their guiding principle had been compassion. But it’s all masks, of course: that’s the precondition, that’s the deal. Because in the Western world, every belief is a mask…
But not every mask is a belief. Our friend Jonathan asked me, in the early comments to Blue Box #3, if the superhero comic used to be a sort of rehearsal for waking action in the same way that (I suggested) dreams are…and if it’s that still. And the answer is that, for the most part, I don’t think it is. Stories amounting to little more than Superhero Introspection, of which there are many, teach nothing but that the characters are ideally to be held in high regard by their readers…worth their dollars and cents simply because they are extant…and the matter of the intersection of fantasy and reality is acknowledged only in a desultory way where it intrudes at all. So to my mind, this definitely constitutes alter-education going off the rails at last: there’s very little you can take home from such stories. There’s little to fascinate, there. “Batman always wins”…it takes hard work to make that proof rather than precept, whether you’re a writer or a reader, and most people (it seems) are not particularly interested in spending the effort. So these aren’t the days of scientific education, nor literary education neither, but they’re the days of instruction in teleology…
As in: where the heck is this all going, anyway?
And in that question lies both a heaven and a hell, I think. In this real world of ours, according to the viewpoint of our scientific culture, teleological causes are out-of-bounds to the rational mind…and yet the belief in them still slips around the scientific barricade and joins the crowd, wearing all kinds of plausible disguises. The popular perception of “progress” is a teleological belief at heart, as is the popular understanding of “evolution”, and in these immediately pre- and post-millenial days those popular perceptions embody a constant conversation between science and magic. Will we have totems out of it, or travels? Are things sufficient to themselves, containing their own inevitable answers and outcomes, navel-gazing as the precepts of Ever-Winning Batman?
Or is there anything left to learn from this crazy superhero poetry?
Well…possibly. Because the world inside a superhero comic is rather resolutely teleological in a way the real world outside is not, being as how it’s all thought up by somebody…and yet these fabulously extended serial narratives are made of endless deferrals and course-changings too, discontinuities everywhere — catastrophes under every rock, and hiding behind every blade of grass. Pattern and paradox are endlessly mixed, and the superheroic discoverers inside the pages have to cope with that cosmological troubling in a serious way, even as their fancily-iconographic costumes announce the absurdity of asking such unserious beings to do so. And there’s a lot for us to find in such a dynamic, as the Blue Surf keeps rolling in…because we, too, are in just that same position. So the question becomes: is there something of the Real in this, or isn’t there? Are the superheroes figures of us, or are they simply figures for us? In Moore’s hands and Morrison’s, the quality of admiration located on or near these Mystery Machines is precisely what gets vexed and twisted along the road to answering that question, and so in the magic they manage to find a mirror…while for other artists that quality of admiration is such a given, such a superheroic Pole Star, that “mirrors” aren’t necessary. Why would mirrors be necessary, after all, when you already are being given something to look at? In many ways, the “bad” sort of modern superhero comic is more instructionally-oriented than ever before, because it conceals a deep vein of social prescriptiveness within it: here is what the world is like, here is what you must become to find your place in it. Here is what you must become if you do not find your place in it. It’s sometimes a cruel, sometimes a brutal system: offering comfort and belonging, but also violence and caprice. And how can Robin The Boy Wonder survive this juggernaut?
What have precocity, and then complexity, come to?
Only a fork in the road, perhaps. Along one path, the engagement with text becomes ever more monological in character: this is where this was all going, this is how the story ends! If you don’t like it too bad, we’re busy making sense here!
And along the other, a more difficult participation: escape and return and enlightenment all writ small, in gaudy clothes, and intersectional hopefulness. What is there to learn from these things, anymore? The more cogent question is what is there to teach, that they can help with. And it seems that the answer is “purpose” — more specifically, the problem of purpose. And part of the problem of purpose is:
Does it simply arise within ourselves? Or does it come from interaction with the larger world?
And if it’s the latter…then how do we find it? How do we get there?
How can we plausibly imagine its possibility into being?
Like I said: none of this is new. But the accent is new. The causal arbitrariness of the superhero’s world grows more pronounced every day, and the direction of its cosmic powers more vague and opaque; what little logic things do exhibit is borrowed from other sources, pasted in as comforting familiarity…and yet, still preserving a jarring alien quality that cannot quite be assimilated into pattern. Once, at each major company, the baroque adornments on the universe caused its ceiling to crash in…and each found an answer in the fact of the rubble, that answered the question of what they had been doing when they’d supposed they were doing something else. But now that their universes are reassembled, the problem is resurrected along with them — as supervillains always are, aren’t they?
And so what is the point of all this?
Well, in 2010…perhaps that is the point.
“Oh see ye not yon narrow road, so thick beset with thorns and briers? That is the path of righteousness, tho after it but few enquires.
And see ye not that braid braid road, that lies across that lily leven? That is the path of wickedness, tho some call it the road to heaven.
And see not ye that bonny road, that winds about the fernie brae? That is the road to fair Elfland, where you and I this night maun gae.”
Sure, you’ve heard it before. But then you’ve heard all of this before, eh? Everybody’s been talking about it for years, and they’re still talking about it.
Marking time ’til we see what sort of shore we land on.
I’m telling you, the wider world: it’s out there.
Okay, now I see the substance. This is not just an aspect of the culture we’re reviewing, this is a project. Probably keep us going for years, I should think.
Going off to rethink my response. Tell you what though, this one really justifies the “Criticism of (imaginative) luxury” tag.
Your wish is my command!
It kind of grew, this thing.
To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art […] That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians. In this world it is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor betwitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves. — Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories.
I’ve picked this Blue Box up by the wrong end a couple of times, and maybe this is just the latest false start. Tolkien’s essay (1939) is a landmark to me, because it is very definite in its statements (the above is the most high-flown part of it, a statement JRRT can make because of all his examples preceding it), and because it makes the case for story-telling in itself as a self-sufficient, self-justified business — no matter what other function it might perform, no matter what purpose it might serve.
And also because the essay is a parallel to the enquiry you’re making into the nature of superhero-stories.
And also perhaps a rebuke to it, and to any attempt to show superhero-stories to be reliant on a foundation of function or purpose.
At least, Tolkien refines out that part of fantasy which is purely the teller’s delight in his craft and the hearer’s delight in being carried along by it. (Details to follow.) We can then get a better grip on what agendas might be added to the simple story-telling business: they should stand out by contrast.
In the paragraph above Tolkien loads up two bolts in his crossbow. One of them aims at Sam Raimi, the dramatist who would realize Spider-Man more completely than poor, hobbled Steve Ditko and the whole insufficient comics institution; the other one aims at Alan Moore, the magician who would renew our apparatus of perception and meaning, our being-in-the-world.
Do Spider-Man stories have to be going somewhere? If so, are Raimi’s movies progress? If they are, can we regard Marvel’s Spider-Man corpus as obsolete now? Obviously no, absolutely and conclusively no! Stan and Steve’s stories are complete as fantasies; they aren’t born with a need to become realities. As fantasies, within their limits, they are endlessly repeatable, and if they’re not inexhaustible, they nevertheless offer a pretty impressive depth of interpretation, reflection by contrast of other fantasies, and reflection of their New York post-war grindhouse origins. They are, as Tolkien puts it, imperishable.
As for Alan Moore, who is he to consider our constructions of reality in need of repair? Well okay, that’s unfair, Moore presents his wares as comics, not magical acts, and I’m sure that insofar as he speaks of his own ceremonial workings, he’s only inviting us behind the scenes after the show is over, for a confidential cuppa and bikkies. We don’t have to commit ourselves to participate in his own altered consciousness, in order to enjoy Promethea for what it is. And so Promethea gets away clean, imperishable. But you can see how different the choice to read a comic would be if the institution were haunted by Aleister Crowleys and Chick Webbs bent on rearranging our noggins.
Now elsewhere in the essay, Tolkien speaks, I thiiink, of participation mystique. I’m more certain of what Tolkien says than what “participation mystique” means. What he’s talking about is the willing belief of the audience in the story, in full knowledge that it’s exactly a story, but nonetheless captivated. That’s what he calls Enchantment.
Thank you Wikipaedia once again:
Jung defines Participation Mystique as one of his basic definitions in Psychological Types, crediting it to Lévy-Bruhl.
“PARTICIPATION MYSTIQUE is a term derived from Lévy-Bruhl. It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”
Well I can see how this applies to the subject enthralled by a ripping yarn, enlisted in the conviction of what Tolkien would call “a secondary creation”. But there are much bigger and scarier implications to the term in a psychotherapeutic context; or a religious context; or a marketeering context. So I don’t like having the term bandied around lightly. Especially, if it involves some kind of slur on someone’s ability to distinguish illusion from reality. We have got to tread warily.
I think I count three applications of “participation mystique” in what you’re laying out:
There’s the idea that when we see Robin projecting a spectrum on the Bat-Lab wall, and he’s saying: “Gosh, that’s it! They traced the pathway through the Maze of Death in infrared reflecting paint!”, then we believe we’re participating vicariously in (numinous, pregnant) Science.
There’s the kind of imaginative participation that Tolkien’s talking about, where we not only accept that Highfather is standing there in his robes, but for a moment seem to catch the music of his exalted vision.
And then there’s the idea we keep passing around, perhaps with too little inspection of what the idea is, that there is an essence to, say, the Marvel Universe, a requirement for it to be what it is, a wish for it to be what it seems, a need for it to persist or complete itself on its own artistic terms. On the terms of our own imaginative enlistment in it.
Any of these three could be made a slur. “Make believe science!” “For god’s sake, it’s only a comic!” “If there’s anything worse than a Trekkie it’s an X-Fanboy!”
But, any of the three could be made a challenge and an invitation to participate as a contributor.
That (the latter) is what you do, with your memes. You say: Here’s a rationale for Superman’s powers which explains how he’d have to valve off red sun radiation, what do you think? You say: Given where Marvel’s gotten to, what kind of character becomes central in carrying the saga on?
You’re inviting me to participate. I accept. It takes a bit of work. It’s all honest; getting my thoughts in a row is rewarding in itself, but participation in a fandom makes all the difference somehow.
But, you know, nuts to Lévy-Bruhl. It doesn’t broaden my understanding of my activity, let alone the matter of the activity, to employ a term which implicitly compares it with mental disorders or anthropological anecdotes (possibly misinterpreted). Nothing at all in the above is about confusing my fantasies (at least my comics ones) with reality. To paraphrase P.K. Dick, reality is what doesn’t go away when I stop working at it.
Listen, mate, “Escape from participation mystique” is rubbish. The negative senses are canards, there is no need to escape; the positive ones are what you quite properly, claim as valid; that’s where we want to be.
You’re on the track of the implicit core of Kirby’s mighty images, Moore’s cleansings to make space for compassion, and all. You’re trying to identify the new mystique, proper to our time, in which you want us to invest our convictions.
How about I pick this up later?
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That’d be swell, Jonathan!
And you’re not alone in having picked this thing up from the wrong end a couple of times! “Participation mystique” is a pretty compromised term, after all: and it’s no wonder Jung picked it up for inclusion in his perplexing farrago of recapitulations between mythology and psychology, ontogeny and phylogeny…I mean yikes, once all the ingredients in that stew start to kiss each other’s flavours, it’s hard to say what it is you end up eating! The Tolkien essay (oh yeah, an old favourite) could easily be read as a manifesto aimed specifically at counter-reformation here, no doubt…were it not for the fact that Jung never sets his sights on anything less than a transcendent totalization of his own. “Enchantment”, yeah: from the pleromatic unity of subjects and objects we depart, but the idea is that we find a paradoxical synthesis later on, in the conversion of oppositions into harmonies. Well, it’s perfectly mad, really…perfectly religious, in the Western style, in that it’s full of attempts to turn the logic of things inside-out so that such a divisive things as desire might be satisfied perfectly, wanting nothing.
And not to go on about all that for too long, but…the Tolkien thing is nifty as a counter-manifesto to the Century of Psychology’s 95 Theses, and I’m glad you introduced it! Is it fair to put the Elvish art under the microscope and dissect it to find its “functionality”, as its true meaning and motive? Obviously I’ve tried to suggest the superhero literature as developmental device, that has acculturating biases either buried inside it or emerging out of it…a trick (though an accidental trick!) of society that uses our fascination with the miracle of the object, to guide us away from the absorption of object-oriented thinking and into “rational” abstractions. But even if all that’s true, or capable of being believed as “true”, it still won’t prove any larger points about stories and their telling, will it! The history of “causal conjectures” is pretty well the history of a bunch of nice-sounding explanations that are all without factual foundation, and Tolkien’s right on the money when he criticizes such mechanical philosophy. Hey, GKC would’ve said much the same thing, I think: talk about the confusion of fantasy and reality all you want, but you’ve got to bear in mind that people don’t actually do it…! So where does that leave me.
I’d not anticipated your finding a “sanity” prejudice implicit in Levy-Bruhl’s old term, so I’ve got to apologize for and backpedal on that! I thought those connotations thoroughly denatured by now, but maybe I’ve got too much of Jung’s disease myself, since I cheerfully link that line to the use of subject/object dissolution in other, less convoluted religious beliefs than the Western…just grouping like objects according to that rule, but completely missing its more pernicious applications, the club to beat the different with, the medicalization of creativity or even ethnicity, because I naively figured those issues dead everywhere…but of course they ain’t, and that was an oversight on my part to treat ’em so cavalierly. Whoops! Point taken! However for me the participation in Science of Robin The Boy Wonder, as absorbing as we may find it, isn’t a collapse into some degraded state where fantasy and reality can’t be told apart, but what we get absorbed in is instead the exploration of the differences between things and selves — the discovery of human action’s immense positivity. Similarly, for me anyway Highfather represents a discursion on the power of language to locate order in chaos…he’s great at that. BUT! The third bit, yeah…
It’s underexamined, for sure. As I keep going at the question, how do you bring something “back to life”…how do you “make it new”…I mean how do you manage those classifications so that they don’t just turn to meaningless dust in your hands? For a lot of our fantasy literature, we’ve got a problem of modern attitude towards it…what’s “real” and what isn’t, etc. But is the attitude “real”, is it actually founded in anything to speak of? Tolkien reminds me forcefully of that “Literature Of The Body” stuff himself, as it’s one form the rebellion against excessive false categorization falls into, towards the end of the 20th century…as it seems to ask, “yeah, but what about the experience of living, eh? Why have we left that out of the psychological calculus?” Oh yeah…because it blows the idea that the calculus is worth anything in and of itself, straight to kingdom come. Well, they used to call it “poetry”, when I was young…
Still a pretty good name for it!
(Okay, that may not have been the most intelligible comment I ever typed out, must come back to this in case it all fell apart somewhere along the way…)
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