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Category: Postmodernism

“Do you still wish to penetrate me? Or is it I who has penetrated you?”

Ron Rosenbaum is going to upset some people. In fact, he already has. The bulk of Sean’s reply to Rosenbaum focuses on Rosenbaum’s perceived anti-white-male prejudice, and Jon Hastings has already pointed out the flaws in Sean’s invocation of race. And Sean has acknowledged the flaws and further claimed that his argument is really mostly against Rosenbaum’s “anti-male, anti-fanboy” prejudice. Which, first of all, being anti-fanboy isn’t the same thing at all as being anti-male, so let’s not obfuscate things. And as for being anti-fanboy—Rosenbaum is that, indeed. Is Rosenbaum talking crazy talk?

Now, most of you reading this blog probably have had some exposure to geek subculture; I’m sure you know what a fanboy is. And you know that there are—um, girl fanboys too, which is a problem for the gender-specificity of the term. Or is it? In the egalitarian twenty-first century, we can all be nerdy ????ber-fans, but who dominates? From where I’m looking, it’s guys, guys, guys. Sean specifically cites Elizabeth Avellan as a producer of Sin City—one of eight, and producers don’t really have creative input in modern filmmaking anyway. He also cites Uma Thurman’s collaboration with Quentin Tarantino on Kill Bill, which I don’t know much about. But that some women have creative roles in these movies doesn’t have a lot of weight against Rosenbaum’s argument, especially because, N.B., how many women direct these fanboy movies? (By the way, Jon makes the good point that Sin City is not referential in the same way Kill Bill is, but I think that’s only a minor flaw in Rosenbaum’s argument. Rosenbaum also mentions Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I’m inclined to think these movies use different means to reach similar ends.) I don’t know of any. Are there any? But even if there are, let’s face it, the dominant creative source, and the dominant audience destination, of fanboy movies is guys. They’re called fanboys for a reason, after all—it’s silly to claim women aren’t involved in this stuff (not that Rosenbaum actually claimed any such thing, that I see), but it’s equally silly to claim that the stereotypical association of fanboy stuff—manly violence, phallic symbols (swords!), pseudo-feminist “tough-guy women” characters, &c.—with guys is entirely false.

I haven’t seen Sin City and I’m not sure I will, so I don’t really know about that. But Kill Bill is, in its every aspect, fanboyism turned into an aesthetic. Deep morality? Oh ho. Maybe more on this later, or maybe you all have figured out what I think of Kill Bill by now, since I’ve written about it so much. For now, I might as well link back to “Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill.” Also, consider: a movie which portentously bleeps out the main character’s name, solely to set up two of the dumbest name-based puns in history, is the very definition of deliberately pretentiously stupid.

Postmodern Horror

I’ve been trying to write a post about Shaun of the Dead, but it’s been tough going. I know vaguely what I want to say, but I seem to have no interest in turning my vague thoughts into words. Oh well. Instead, I’ve been thinking about postmodern horror of an entirely different kind.

But should I first discuss what kind of postmodern horror Shaun of the Dead is, since I’ve already contrasted it with the kind of postmodern horror I actually want to write about? Yes, I suppose I should. Shaun of the Dead, of course, is in the tradition of self-conscious/ironic horror movies, movies like Scream and even Scary Movie. The authors (I will use “authors” to refer collectively to the people who made a movie) of Scream take on the relatively easy and ultimately banal task of making a straight slasher flick, with one crucial violation of the rules: the characters know about slasher flicks, spend much of their time discussing slasher flicks, and recognize immediately that they are living inside a slasher flick. The result is a movie that balances precariously on the line between jokiness and sincerity and isn’t quite deft enough to avoid stumbling. It’s reasonably entertaining, although the authors’ mocking indulgence in the slasher genre’s violent and exploitative virgin/whore morality makes for some particularly queasy scenes. The second and third movies might have improved on the formula—I don’t remember clearly.

Before I saw Shaun of the Dead, I expected a goofier, indier Scream. But whereas Scream approaches the problem of self-conscious postmodern narrative by presenting characters who discuss horror-movie cliches at the same time that they act out those cliches, the trailer for Shaun of the Dead suggests that it takes the different approach of riffing facetiously on little details and problems that tend to get glossed over in other movies—viz. the talk-show guest who insists on staying married to her zombified husband. Sort of a converse Scream, a self-conscious joke-horror movie that shakes up the familiar narrative by making the characters less clever instead of more—not only do they not notice the zombie-movie plot mechanics clunking along around them, they mess with the mechanics by failing to fall properly into their roles.

That’s what I thought before I saw the movie. Mostly, anyway—I’m partly reconstructing my thoughts in light of having seen it. What do I think now that I’ve finally seen it? Well, it’s sort of like I expected it to be, but it also has other more interesting things going on. It starts with a strong romantic-comedy foundation. Shaun is a 29-year-old guy who suspects he ought to take things more seriously but seems to have trouble finding things that right taking seriously. His sidekick is Ed, who “doesn’t have too many friends,” which is an understatement. Shaun’s girlfriend is Liz, who has tired of Shaun’s inertial inability to discover nightly entertainment opportunities outside the local pub. Her sidekicks are David and Dianne, a pretentious twat and a flightly failed actress, respectively. Liz is one botched date from dumping Shaun for good. David is in love with Liz and doing a pathetic job of hiding it from his girlfriend Dianne. Dianne wants to know when Shaun’s going to hook them up with free cable. Ed’s single endearing quality is his ability to perform a remarkably poor impression of an orangutan. Shaun—well, he doesn’t exactly want to spend the rest of his life drinking himself to death at the Winchester (the aforementioned local pub), but all the better alternatives have the flaw of requiring him to do something other than sit around the local pub.

Hmm, it’s been several days since I looked at this post. I seem to have been writing some kind of plot summary of Shaun of the Dead. But what’s the point—I don’t have the movie anymore, so I can hardly do a close reading. It’s been weeks since I saw the movie! I will now speak vaguely and noncomittally.

So Shaun of the Dead starts as a romantic comedy, and it could easily have kept going without zombies for a whole movie. Throwing in zombies is dangerous, because it means people like me might say, “If they wanted to do a romantic comedy about the unresolvable opposition of needing to grow up and not wanting to become one’s parents, why are they wasting their (and, more importantly, my) time with zombies?” But I didn’t say this while watching this movie. Partly because the authors take the time to play connect-the-themes. The shots of a stumbly, zombie-sounding Shaun who turns out to be merely a sleepy, yawning Shaun, the zombified wage-slave drones who are literally zombified and then put to work as—zombie slaves, I guess—funny jokes, but also plugged right into Shaun’s real-life concerns. (And, yes, terribly obvious and presumably done in every other zombie movie ever. Well, it’s a zombie movie, you work with what you’ve got. Shaun of the Dead works with what it’s got stylishly and intelligently. [???????But if they wanted to do a movie about the unresolvable opposition &c., why did they waste their time with zombies?” I’m not going to get into a defense of using the fantastic in art here, sorry. Um, because sometimes mere naturalism isn’t enough for some others, and then they break out the zombies.]) Let’s continue that line of thought, but outside the parentheses. What the zombie stuff does is latch onto specifc real-life concerns in the narrative, complicate and modify them, cause them to resonate with greater intensity.

Damn, I’ve been sloppy in talking about the romantic-comed aspect of Shaun of the Dead. Because, when you think about it, romantic comedy as a genre functions like a lot of fantasy—i.e., it latches onto specific real-life concerns, complicates and modifies them, causes them to resonate with greater intensity. So Shaun of the Dead has the romantic comedy and the zombies messing with the narrative. But is that enough for Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg? Certainly not. They add that extra layer of self-consciousness, which allows them to slip back and forth between zombies and romantic comedy without getting bogged down in either. There are three big things going on in the movie—the romantic comedy, the zombie stuff, and the mucky “human drama”—and each is so emotionally intense (and gorily harrowing, in the case of the zombie stuff) that it could easily overwhelm the whole movie. But the extra layer of irony allows the movie to flip deftly with precision timing from the chilling revelation of Shaun’s mum’s impending zombification to jokes about David wanting to shoot Shaun’s mum to simple “human drama” as the relationships between characters build tension and explode in heady conflict. The section of the movie from the musical zombie fighting/dancing choreographed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” to the moment when Shaun, Liz and Ed find themselves trapped behind the bar is the final buildup and climax of the movie. These scenes have everything going on at once, and it really shouldn’t work but it does anyway, and it’s lovely.

Er, I guess I ended up writing a lot about Shaun of the Dead after all. And not about the kind of postmodern horror film I claimed I’d write about at the beginning of this post. I suppose I could edit the beginning of the post to make things make more sense, but I think I’ll leave it as is. More to come on postmodern horror… some time. I won’t promise timeliness.

Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill

An essay on postmodern remix aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill from a college film class I took last year. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

“NOBODY cares about your stupid hat.”

You can’t say I didn’t warn you. Back when I read Seaguy #1, I said the story was boustrophedon, and of course I was right. (Although I’m convinced enough not to bother looking it up that the hieroglyphs are not boustrophedon, because nobody writes boustrophedon script vertically.) While it was awfully prescient of me to recognize that the story would swing around so that its end is the beginning only up a notch, in retrospect I realize a lot of Grant Morrison stories do that. But Seaguy does more than that. When people are discussing what happened and what happens next, the bigger question seems to be whether Seaguy knows this is boustrophedon, whether he has fought his way down one line and back another to find himself right where he began though slightly different. Or is it a Moebius strip or a circle or something like that, where he passes Go and grabs a new pal and ends up back at the start as if nothing has ever changed?

That’s not a question that really interests me, or at least not one I want answered. I don’t have any problem believing this is a cycle Seaguy has repeated before without knowing it, and that at best he’s learning incrementally as he goes, but that requires the Mickey Eye system to be something like the Matrix, giving Seaguy free will and freedom merely to be able to take them away when he (mis)uses them. The idea isn’t just that a person can only give away self-awareness by consensual choice, because we see naked Doc Hero being coercively brainwashed, and Seaguy goes through a similar process less nude process. Other readers think Seaguy is more aware and planning subversive activities. If he isn’t now, I’m sure he will be soon, if we clamoring readers get our promised “Slaves of Mickey Eye” sequel. I like the am-bi-gyoo-ity, and I like it that it’s not clear whether Mickey Eye (whoever the Eye corporation/government may be) approves of it.

And since I’m now a pro at clairvoyant exegesis, I have a new theory. Although it’s perhaps not obvious in Seaguy’s plot, Seaguy is himself following closely in the path of another famously watery hero, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know this. I realized that the servants of Mickey Eye who were reeducating Doc Hero and Seaguy had a strangely consistent way of reminding them about consensual reality. “Nobody wants the Eye to be unhappy.” “Nobody actually thinks you’re crazy… you just got bit by a crazy thing.” “Nobody cares about your stupid hat.” At first I thought these were just versions of “We have always been at war with Eurasia,” but I think it runs deeper. Who is this nobody who opposes all that is accepted and acceptable? Seaguy, the hero and protagonist and subverter of the enforced status quo! Well, maybe he will be, or is sometimes. But that’s what made it clear who he resembles, a more famous nobody, Odysseus.

As we all recall, Odysseus left the Trojan War having angered Poseidon, who kept him from going home until he’d wandered for ten years and lost all his crew, though he retained the love of his canny wife. His most famous exploit, the one we all recall, is his runin with the uncivilized Cyclops, Polyphemus, whom he blinded. Polyphemus wanted to know who his visitor was, and ever-wily Odysseus said his name was “Nobody” (well, sort of, since it’s hard to translate accurately, as well as being an elaborate pun on the name of Athena’s mother) so that when the other Cyclopes came to check up on their screaming relative Polyphemus responded to their inquiries by saying, “Nobody is hurting me!” And so the Cyclopes left, and soon Odysseus left too, with plenty of cheese and wine and goodies, though minus a few companions.

So where does this leave Seaguy? He’s been losing beloved companions, and he’s definitely dealing with a one-eyed menace. He’s a nobody in a larger sense, an unemployed slacker who would like to be a hero but can’t even outhero iron umbrellas. He enjoys stories to the point where he doesn’t seem to differentiate between the Mickey Eye show and Aten-Hut’s hieroglyphic history (and even though I’m super-picky about joke names, because no joke was made about it, that is the best joke name I’ve heard in a long time). And it’s possible he has a faithful woman waiting for him, She-Beard, who loudly laments the fact that “not one man [has she] found,” perhaps because she hasn’t yet had the dramatic unveiling scene in which (he hopes) she’ll recognize Seaguy as her own and take him up to her bedroom, or perhaps because she’s looking for a hero who is also a no-man and she hasn’t yet figured out that this is Seaguy’s gig. Of course, it’s not clear whether she’s a wily Penelope who’s manipulating the more powerful forces around her or whether she’s merely bait Mickey Eye uses to bring heroes out into the open, but there’s time for this to become clear. There’s time for all of this, since time, too, waits for no man.

Remix Aesthetic

In my last Kill Bill post, I wrote “I much enjoy the collage aesthetic (I usually call it a remix or DJ aesthetic), but I prefer the playful expressiveness of, say, Moulin Rouge to the cynical play of Kill Bill.” Now, it’s possible I’m a little obsessed with Moulin Rouge, so I’d better say more about it!

Walter Benjamin, in 1935, wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Here’s what he had to say:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

And a bit later:

Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. […] With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products. It is easier to exhibit a portrait bust that can be sent here and there than to exhibit the statue of a divinity that has its fixed place in the interior of a temple. The same holds for the painting as against the mosaic or fresco that preceded it. And even though the public presentability of a mass originally may have been just as great as that of a symphony, the latter originated at the moment when its public presentability promised to surpass that of the mass.

With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.

Benjamin’s idea is that a work of art loses its intangible “aura” of authority and authenticity when it becomes mechanically reproducible—the Mona Lisa becomes a little less special when you can get it on a refrigerator magnet and don’t have to go to the musée du Louvre to see it. The quality of a work of art, which used to be all about its special aura of artness, now becomes much more a matter of its exhibitionary and entertainment value.

This may lead to one a big question of (post)modern thought: nihilism or anti-nihilism? When fundamentally authoritative things lose their authority, does that mean there is no authority—or that everything has authority? Nothing is worth anything, or everything is worth something?

There’s another consquence: if art loses its authority, we no longer have to ‘respect’ it. The original isn’t what’s important, what’s important is the exhibition of a reproduction of the original which “meet[s] the beholder or listener in his own particular situation” and “reactivates the object reproduced.” Interpretation may supersede original meaning. Recontextualization may supersede original context. The text stops being a cathedral and becomes a playground. We get Troy and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (hilariously referred to as Wiliam Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet).

And there’s another thing to consider: information overload! Meme invasion! Thanks to the Internet and mass media, we have access to a ridiculous amount of information. What do we do with all of it? There’s no way we can process it all. Things are decontexualized. A lot of kids probably think “Revenge is a dish best served cold” really is an old Klingon proverb. What to do?

Remix aesthetic is a response to all this. Mash-ups. The Grey Album. Moulin Rouge. For artists like Luhrmann, everything is worth something, but not for whatever it’s ‘supposed’ to mean. Decontexualization and crises of meaning provide opportunities to play in the text, recontextualize, make new meaning.

Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!

David Jones (a.k.a. Latin hedonist extraordinaire Johnny Bacardi) on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill:

Tarantino’s simply making film as collage, passing on the styles he loves- no more, no less. He’s not really aspiring to ART, even though if it happens during the course of the flick that’s just fine with him.

Most certainly! However, I’m not so sure the ‘artistic’ stuff in Kill Bill (the parts that seem to make a ‘statement’) are quite as accidental as David implies. I don’t think Tarantino is aspiring to art, I think he’s aspiring to undermine art. Every scene in which B.B. appears is full of critical commentary on the very revenge flicks Tarantino references incessantly. Bill’s Superman speech is especially perceptive in rejecting exactly the ending which the movie eventually gives us. Superman isn’t really Clark Kent, can’t really be Clark Kent, and Beatrix Kiddo can’t really be Mrs. Tommy Plimpton. Being a Mommy isn’t enough to get you out of the killing life, as Kill Bill so effectively demonstrates in its depiction of the Bride’s bloody revenge—revenge motivated by, how ironical, the loss of her child. Of course, you might aruge that Mommyhood does allow the Bride to escape her killing life, and the reason she goes back to it for her gory revenge is that she has lost her child and thus her ability to escape. But Bill’s argument is that this is a false hope, that maybe Beatrix thinks she can just be a Mommy and a non-assassin civilian, but she’s (ha ha) kidding herself. Besides, her escape into Mommyhood really was only temporary, and ended abruptly when her past arrived to murder her and her new surrogate family in the church. (Besides, being a Mommy redeems you? If that were really the ‘point’ of Kill Bill, what a cloying mess of smarminess it would be!) So the movie seems to go out of its way to point out that Beatrix is kidding herself with this Mommy stuff, but then it comes up with the most cynical possible ending, which is that yay, Beatrix gets to be Mommy and live happily with little B.B.! Tarantino seems to say, “You may think this movie means something, but I’ve made damn sure it doesn’t.”

Which I suppose is part of why I didn’t get a lot out of Kill Bill. I guess I liked it fine, but by the time it’s over Tarantino seems to have flipped right off the deep end of pomo whatever, and I’m not so sure I want to follow him. I much enjoy the collage aesthetic (I usually call it a remix or DJ aesthetic), but I prefer the playful expressiveness of, say, Moulin Rouge to the cynical play of Kill Bill.

Hypertime on Infinite Invisible &c.

Did I say I was going to write more about The Invisibles? I may have lied about that… I’d like to reread the whole series before I get into it.

David Fiore’s latest topic is Joseph Campbell’s nefarious influence on some branches of superhero criticism, and further explanation of corporate superhero universes as postructuralist narratives. Here’s my crazy theory for the day: Crisis on Infinite Earths is Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s attempt to mythologize the DC Universe. See David:

Obviously, myths are the products of many minds—but myths qua myths certainly aren’t perceived that way. Mythology is a “homogenous” body of work, the structuralist’s dream come true—it is taken for granted that, given enough time, a rigorous exegete could tease THE meaning out of the canonical writings.

And again:

Joseph Campbell is the ultimate modernist—at war with the “superstructure”/“false consciousness”. There’s only one hero see? And there aren’t many archetypes, either. Just focus kids, that modernist light will see you through the haze of multiplicity.

Just replace “hero” with “universe,” and there you go. I don’t have a lot to add now beyond what I’ve already written, except to note the connections. Of course, Crisis didn’t succeed in its goal of homogenizing the DC Universe even remotely, and it seems to have created the conditions in which Mark Waid and Grant Morrison were able to incorporate poststructuralism into the very textual fabric of the DC Universe with the introductoin of Hypertime. Just look at this, Warren Ellis’s attempt to describe Morrison’s description of Hypertime, taken from the Unofficial Hypertime Website 5.0:

Take a glass sphere studded all over with holes, and then drive a long stick right through the middle of it, passing exactly through the center of the volume. That’s the base DC timeline. Jab another stick through right next to it, but at a different angle, so that they’re touching at one point. That’s an Elseworlds story. Another stick, this one rippled, placed close in so that it touches the first stick at two or three points. That’s the base Marvel timeline. Perhaps others follow the line of the DC stick for a while before diverging, a slow diagonal collision along it before peeling off. This sphere contains the timeline of all comic-book realities, and they theoretically all have access to each other. In high time, at the top of the sphere, is OUR reality, and we can look down on the totality of Hypertime, the entire volume.

Hypertime is a tool for the consideration of fictional reality.

The funny thing about Crisis is that it posits “trying to discover the orign of the universe” as the action which leads to the splintering of the universe into a frightening multiplicity—and then not only must the characters in the story go back to the origin of the universe themselves in order to prevent the disaster which was caused by somebody observing the origin of the universe, but Wolfman and Pérez and all the other creators who built the post-Crisis universe necessarily look to the origin of the DC Universe in “recreating” it and bringing it “back to basics.” According to the mythology of Crisis, it’s practically a cosmological law that John Byrne would come along and fuck everything up with his Man of Steel!

Can anybody who knows more about this stuff than I do tell me if DC still uses Hypertime? Readers, at any rate, seem unaware of it, or at least don’t seem to consider it as an implicit textual explanation for, say, why the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee Batman is so different from the Brian Azzarello/Eduardo Risso Batman. I know Mark Waid uses Hypertime in The Kingdom. Are there any Morrison comics that use it? Does it come up in JLA ever?

“God takes special care of little animals, honey.”

It was David Fiore who inspired me to buy and read Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. I’m sure it’s not the Greatest Comic Ever and I wouldn’t want to set anything apart like that, but I feel a lot of affinity for it and it makes good sense to me. And did I mention it’s fun? I breezed through it gleefully, leaving mental notes for later exploration. And now I’m finally trying to get around to that part, which is not as easy or as much fun as the fun.

It’s a superhero story of course, and does what I think superhero stories can do best, show limitations. In part of the recent controversy over superhero merits, Tim O’Neil said that a story in which Superman saves the whales would not be an effective method of getting across a point about the need to save the whales. I concur, although maybe not for the reasons he intended. A story about Superman saving the whale should highlight the fact that even though Superman is great and can do almost anything, we don’t have him. If we want our whales saved, it’s up to us. Any Kryptonian hope would be false, baseless. Much of the point of Superman is that we don’t have recourse to him. I think this is one of the major themes Morrison addresses, one well-suited to the genre. Animal Man is really about the limits of power and the tendency to believe that those limits may not be as confining as they are.

Tonight I’m going to look at power, control and cats. Cats feature prominently in the story as the first and last animals shown, and with major roles along the way. They don’t seem as heavily imbued with meaning as the apes or dolphins or the fox and eagle. They’re cats, the kind you see every day. And there are people who are cat people and those who aren’t, like in the world we know. I’m interested now in cats who are saved and by what means, because this is a story element that, like many others, gets replayed and respun so that it changes meaning and sheds meaning on its other instances.

Issue One begins with a stereotypical cat situation, a cat in a tree being retrieved for a dowdy, fretting woman by a muscular blond. This is of course Buddy, our eponymous hero, who lands on his feet and deposits the frightened kitten into its owner’s loving arms. Isn’t he the greatest? Not only has he carried out the most Boy Scouty move possible, but he is immediately contrasted with portly Morris, who seems to barely humor his wife’s love of cats and certainly prefers his own peace and quiet. The story opening is so straightforward it’s not clear whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or just has some sort of sweet-natured retro innocence. Perhaps that holds true for much of Animal Man. At any rate, Violet, the cat owner, mentions that she hasn’t seen her cat Sheba in several days, which is way too blatant to even be called foreshadowing.

Fastforward to Issue Two, a cat in the bushes. It’s not surprising that it’s Sheba and not surprising that there are now kittens to complicate matters. In the next issue we’ll find that Morris seems not to have moved from his spot, napping with his lemonade beside him. Buddy, though, has gone on to bigger things, fighting mutating beasts in the city, clad in spiffy goggles and spandex. So Buddy’s wife, Ellen, and daughter, Maxine, are off in the woods, where Maxine finds the kittens. Ellen, though, has found a dead doe and a beer can and a snake. It wouldn’t be surprising even if we hadn’t seen them already that the first two have been left by ignorant hunters and the last is there as an allusion in case references to “the garden of Eden” and “Eve” didn’t ring enough bells. This story cuts off there until Issue Three, because the comic is called Animal Man after all, not Animal Man’s Family. Perhaps it should have been called Animal Man’s Family, but not this early in the story. At any rate, we return in Issue Three, where Maxine sees the hunters feed a cat to their dogs and then hit Ellen. Maxine is off like a shot to Morris, who can move when it matters, and who eventually saves the day in a way that’s still painful to all involved. Ellen and Buddy never discuss this in the book, but because of his devotion to animals and more explicitly to being a superhero, he is unable to save his wife. That honor goes to a man who may not even care about whether laboratory dogs suffer and shows that heroism and humane action take many forms. There’s a reason the other superheroes don’t have families, as the JLI representatives remark. They’re incompatible with the dangers and demands of being a superhero. But Buddy doesn’t acknowledge that. He lets the gaps in the story escape his notice because it’s easier and it lets him be the person he wants to be.

The kitten story isn’t over, though. Ellen brings the orphaned kittens home, only to find she can’t save their lives. For me, this was the most emotionally intense and painful sequence in all of Animal Man. She has pushed all of the emotions and fear and anguish of her assault into these kittens she’s saving to create a redemption for herself, and she can’t even do that right. “Why does everything have to die? I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead.” And she buries them with the children and Violet, knowing all the while how close she was to being in a grave herself that day.

And when Buddy returns home, his fear for his children is the world they’ll live in, the pollution and animal testing. He doesn’t realize or can’t understand that danger is more concrete and visceral and direct for the humans in his own family. “There must be some hope,” he thinks. “Just some.” And there is. A kitten is going to live, T.C. (The Cat?) and he has a role to play still.

T.C.’s most major role is in wanting his food in Issue 19. He can’t get any because, as Buddy finds, the rest of the family has been murdered and T.C. waits patiently on the bloodstained floor beside his catfood tin and a can opener. Hope is still there, by why? The cat can be fed, the cat will keep going, but all that matters most to Buddy is gone before he realized this was possible. Ellen was wrong, too. Saving the cats and the hopes placed in them doesn’t matter either. Giving too much power to your symbols doesn’t make them strong enough to hold. It doesn’t make them mean what you wanted them to mean.

In Issue 23, the Psycho Pirate unleashes a supercat from another earth. Like T.C., this cat sits beside its food, but it has laser vision that blasts open the tin for it. It doesn’t need human saving or human meaning or help to give it power. That’s what makes it fictional, even within this fictional story.

T.C. returns again in the penultimate issue to turn to a skeleton in Limbo as Buddy realizes he’s losing control of his metaphors. He’s carrying around a dead monkey to get to a place that doesn’t exist, and when he gets back, the cat is a skeleton. Everything around him has turned to nonsense.

And that leads us to the metacat, Jarmara. Grant Morrison writes himself into his story to explain that being a writer doesn’t matter enough. He has the power to make his characters (now including Grant Morrison) do whatever he wants, and yet this is meaningless to him. When it mattered he could not save the cat he loved. He had written the story and knew its meaning but he, too, found it easy to forget how much was out of his control. Superhero stories are supposed to be about great power and great responsibilities, but they’re really about what lies beyond the power, the responsibilities that can never be met. Even when you write the story, even when you create yourself, there are things that happen beyond you. What you do with them is up to you, but it’s easy to forget that being the author doesn’t mean you can stop it all, and sometimes assimilating the pain and making it part of your story hurts just as much. Grant chastises himself for thinking while Jarmara is dying that he can use her in his story, but he really couldn’t have done otherwise. He admits the boundary between Animal Man and Grant has gotten too permeable, that he feared “just becoming preachy” and that the his own life is being influenced by what he writes. He’s become inseparable from his story, which is why he finally writes himself in to wrap it all up.

The last episode in the book is a return to the fox story, which I haven’t touched on yet, but it’s a variation on the theme. It’s about looking for a meaning and a message when it isn’t there. No-longer-young Grant signals Foxy and gets no reply. That’s because Foxy doesn’t matter when it comes down to it, much as he’d like to believe in him. The last non-human creature in the book is Jarmara, yearning and hopeful in her photo with Grant Morrison staring back. Sometimes the stories you tell yourself aren’t enough. Sometimes there’s only death and loss of control and fear. And hope and love.

When Buddy’s family is “reunited,” there is no cat. There is only Jarmara, back in Grant’s dark room. I can’t believe this could be enough of a break or a boundary to keep out the pain, not for Animal Man’s Family. Probably not for Grant. Certainly not for me.

Theory is as dead as irony

Cultural theory is dead! (Link from David Fiore.)

In this age of terrorism, he [Terry Eagleton] says, cultural theory has become increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love, religion, revolution, death and suffering.” … The postmodern prejudice against norms, unities and consensuses is a politically catastrophic one,” he writes.

Now this is apparently a standard criticism of postmodernist theory, that it rejects norms and consensuses. You so crazy, Terry Eagleton! What postmodernists reject norms and consensuses? Stupid ones, I guess? I don’t. I say, as a postmodernist, we have nothing but norms and consensuses. But see, (some) non-postmoderists seem to think something like, “If we see a consensus among humans, that’s probably indicative of some kind of absolute or truth or something like that.” But postmodernists, or postmodernists who think like I do anyway, think more like, “Well, we have this consensus, so we’d better deal with that and not worry too much about whether it’s a universal absolute truth or whatever.” See how that’s different than a rejection of norms and consensuses consensi? It’s a loving embrace of them.

Derridean D&D!

Bruce Baugh uses Dungeons & Dragons to illustrate some very basic concepts of deconstructionism. I think I don’t like the term “deconstructionism.” I think deconstruction is a fine critical strategy, but I don’t see that it needs to be elevated to an ism. I mean, it’s a pretty basic and obvious (to me, anyway) concept—meaning is unstable, hierarchies and oppositions in texts are unstable and deconstruct themselves. Actually deconstruction doesn’t destroy stability of meaning, it shifts the site of meaning creation from the text to the reader. Well, meaning is not so concrete… meaning is not objective. Shall we say it is subjective? I say no. After all, there isn’t one Reader of a text, but many, readers who analyze and critique and discuss. Stanley Fish’s idea of interpretive communities. Meaning is a social construct. That is a central concept of postmodernism as I think of it.

Which is not to say I think there’s any problem with Mr. Baugh’s blog post. That’s a great little essay, I hope he writes much more.