So Jim Roeg and I had this great back and forth going on about the politics of interpretation, multiplicity, and DC comics crossover events. (I thought it was great, anyway. Your mileage will vary to the extent you’re interested in cultural studies, critical theory, postmodernism, and political rhetoric.) I promised Jim a reply to his latest essay in “a couple of days.” That was back in November. More than a little embarrassing, especially since I’d just praised him for prompting the kind of exchange of ideas that motivated me to start blogging in the first place. In the interest of keeping up my end of the exchange, here are some belated comments on multiple interpretations and multiple Earths.
Since Jim and I agree much more often than we disagree there’s no need to mount some tedious blow-by-blow response to his last essay (I think the part about comics’ true ideological tensions existing within the characters and genre conventions is particularly spot-on), except to clarify one point. Jim draws a useful distinction between “strong” and “weak” formulations of the relationship between culture and politics. But my objection to Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked isn’t against “strong” formulations per se, so much as critical accounts that appear to confuse the “weak” formulation, or formulations with no appreciable attention to politics at all, with the “strong” one.
Distinguishing his argument from Brooker’s (or, more accurately, from my very fragmentary representation of Brooker’s), Jim writes:
I’m asserting only a “weak” formulation of the culture-politics relation on the grounds that, with the possible exception of pure propaganda from either the left or the right, most forms of popular culture are ideologically uneven and contradictory, containing both reactionary and subversive political messages and that this ideological unevenness is especially visible in popular forms like superhero comic books—mass market yet strangely subcultural fantasies which do not simply mythologize but also interrogate the cultural/political contexts in which they are produced.
Actually, this is fairly close to Brooker’s positioning of Batman as a polysemic character who can sustain a number of contradictory readings (and cannot, in fact, be reduced to a single meaning). I don’t disagree with it, since it’s also pretty close to my own approach to interpreting popular culture. I only part company in my objections to two consequent (if implicit) arguments in Brooker’s text:
1. Polysemic texts and multiple interpretations are critically, aesthetically, and perhaps even politically preferable to singular ones.
2. The qualities of polysemy or multiplicity are sufficient to label a work postmodern—regardless of any other qualities of production, content, historical context, ideology, etc.
The first I could chalk up to a matter of personal preference and leave it at that, if part of Brooker’s case for valorizing the empty, gestural pluralism of publishing frameworks like Hypertime didn’t rest on the second claim. Equating the plural with the postmodern, Brooker implies that these metanarrative publishing events are not just notable or even laudable, but politically progressive.
The money quote comes when Brooker suggests The Kingdom
offers an interpretive pluralism in the face of the restrictive grand narrative. Instead of attempting to force continuity on the character and ruling that earlier, incompatible versions ‘never happened,’ The Kingdom approach seeks to reconcile difference […] with the unity implied by the character’s consistent ‘template’ and the need for a recognisable brand. As such it implies a new flexibility on the part of the producers which could in turn be read as a bending to the demands of fans, particularly those vocal Internet campaigners who bemoaned the Crisis and longed for the return of the ‘infinite earths.’ (323)
(And so we come full circle.) Brooker casts continuity, and particularly continuity custodianship of the Crisis on Infinite Earths variety, as a hegemonic, restrictive, coercive grand narrative. Against it is arrayed the multiplicity of The Kingdom (or Infinite Crisis), which “reconciles difference”—albeit it reconciles it with corporate imperatives to maintain brand identity, a point Brooker doesn’t pursue nearly enough—and “implies flexibility” and maybe, just maybe, distributes authorial power among the fans as well as the authors, editors, and corporate owners. This is the language of political liberation, stripped of politics and applied to comics that admit the existence of Ace the Bat-Hound. Brooker never argues for more than the “weak” formulation, if that, between these interpretively pluralistic, authorially decentered narratives and any larger cultural politics; but his language implies an equivalent political project, the one Jim explicitly connects to narrative multiplicity in his posts.
However, Brooker’s representation of the postmodern aesthetic studiously ignores any political or economic factors that might shape that aesthetic. To take his concluding chapter at face value, a work needs only to be nostalgic and polysemic to be postmodern—an argument I suspect Brooker himself would not make, although that’s the one he leaves on the page. He doesn’t acknowledge the economic transformations that shaped the emergence of postmodernism, described so well by Jameson or David Harvey, even though he name-drops Jameson. He doesn’t acknowledge that the postmodern moment—in fact, there’s no sense that there is a postmodern moment, that postmodernism consists of a particular set of responses to modernity and not just a set of aesthetic preferences, but that’s another matter—he doesn’t acknowledge that the postmodern moment incorporates a number of ideological positions quite opposed to the interpretive pluralism and reconciliation of difference that he exalts. There’s no concession that some postmodern ideologies neutralize difference by reducing all texts to pastiches or objects of pastiche (to oversimplify Jameson’s argument), or that a leveling of all interpretations can in fact provide ideological cover for some of the most reductive and insupportable ones (to reference Fish’s more recent points, mentioned in my last post). Simply being pluralistic is enough reason for a text to merit the praise of this parodic revolutionary language. Far from being a “strong” formulation of the politics of popular culture, this isn’t nearly strong enough.
Instead, I’m afraid, it’s yet another manifestation of the “populist reflex” too common in cultural studies, which celebrates the revolutionary potential of popular culture without paying attention to any conflicting political implications in its production, context, or content. (Consider the irony of Brooker finding a counterhegemonic narrative in a spin-off of the reactionary, anti-multiculturalist Kingdom Come.) Thomas Frank eviscerates this critical impulse in the brilliant One Market Under God, where he finds this pseudo-revolutionary populism runs in a direct line from cult-stud academics to Rush Limbaugh, with frighteningly little variation in between.
Towards the end of his second essay Jim states that we shouldn’t reduce postmodernism to the “shorthand caricature” of nihilistic relativism, and he’s absolutely right. Similarly, neither should we reduce it to the caricature of the revolutionary carnival, the strictly ideal movement that liberates through its own interpretive multiplicity, even if that caricature is beloved of some of the term’s greatest proponents.
(Incidentally, the best counterargument to my position might be that I’m welding Brooker’s rather shallow account of postmodern pluralism to Jim’s discussion of narrative multiplicity and political ideology, debunking an argument that neither person makes in its entirety. But I see each of the halves tending towards the other, and Jim’s first post is especially explicit in connecting aesthetic and political pluralisms—although his sense of postmodernism is both more nuanced and more pragmatic than Brooker’s.)
(I should also add that, as much time as I have spent inveighing against a couple of pages out of Brooker’s book, I appreciate Batman Unmasked a great deal and find it one of the more provocative works of recent, theoretically-driven comics scholarship. In fact, I think the book serves as its own best illustration that characters like Batman merit sustained academic attention, because a) after 350 pages it clearly hasn’t exhausted the topic, and b) it continually sparks this kind of discussion, in which questions about how to interpret a superhero comic lead to serious debates about culture, politics, and hermeneutics.)
Back to Jim, who writes:
My main point is simply that in the context of the current depressing ascendancy of strong ideologies like nationalism, imperialism, and religious fundamentalism (both within “the West” and outside it), I’ll take my multiplicity where I can get it.
To reiterate my position from the last go-round, we shouldn’t kid ourselves by thinking that interpretive multiplicity offers an anodyne against any of those ideologies, as Fish’s example of intelligent design so readily demonstrates. In fact, the degree to which religious fundamentalism and intelligent design, like claims of “liberal bias” and calls for right-wing “balance” in the media, have already co-opted the valorization of multiplicity to argue for their own propagation shows why multiplicity isn’t innately progressive and why blank multiplicity—which is the only kind offered by The Kingdom—is just as easily used to promote monolithic, reactionary, sinister ideologies as diverse, progressive, saintly ones.
As the last sentence hopefully indicates, one reason I’m skeptical about the Brooker-style exaltation of interpretive multiplicity for its own sake is that it degenerates so easily into polarized clichés like those I just listed. Jim doesn’t offer that kind of naïve celebration of multiplicity, although the arguments deployed in his first post can and often have tended in that direction. Anyway, to sum up my main point (as cogently, I hope) as Jim did his: in the context of all those current depressing ascendancies, to fight those current depressing ascendancies, I need more than blank multiplicity.
And I certainly need more than the blank multiplicity of DC universe comic book continuity. I’d like to leaven these political and theoretical ruminations with a little textual contemplation, i.e. talking about comic books. One of the reasons I’m so skeptical of Jim’s celebration of the DC multiverse as a site for ideological pluralism is because the comics have almost never supported such a connection. In an astute comment on Jim’s original post, Mark Fossen writes:
It seems that the old multiverse was, in fact, highly representative of colonial thought. It acknowledged diversity, but only as it served the Superpower (Britain, USA, or Earth-1). Only a multiverse where all realities have equal weight in the narrative would be truly postcolonial.
Casting the old multiverse as “colonial” or imperialistic is about as much of an overrreading as Jim’s claim that a new one could be postcolonial, but it swings back in the direction of skepticism and so serves as a useful corrective. And more importantly, the texts back it up. The worlds of the DC multiverse generally served two functions:
1. As spaces to house characters who had fallen out of publication (Earth-2) or characters from other companies DC had acquired (Earth-X, Earth-4, Earth-S), allowing the company to resuscitate them within its modern narrative diegesis (Earth-1).
2. As simple reflections of that primary diegesis (Earth-3).
The multiverse evolved other functions over the years—for example, the creation by editors and fans of additional universes that existed only to house impossible Bob Haney stories or DC-Marvel crossovers that couldn’t be reconciled with the primary continuity. Some of these universes existed only as suffixes in fanzines and “Answer Man” columns but they still did the job, leaving Earth-1 unsullied by continuity gaffes while still investing some feigned ontological value in the misfit stories. The multiverse was never really about narrative multiplicity, which was a kind of happy accident (as in some excellent Alan Brennert Earth-2 stories from the early 1980s), but about maintaining the primacy of the main publishing line.
And, following my earlier criticisms of Brooker, let’s consider the political economy of some of this multiplicity. Earth-S, for example, home to the Marvel Family, was only part of DC’s cosmogeny because National Comics pursued and won a twelve-year lawsuit against Fawcett Magazines claiming that Captain Marvel infringed on their Superman copyright. They forced Fawcett to stop publishing as part of the settlement and picked up the Marvel Family license twenty years later. Whether you consider this an example of a company marshalling its financial resources to squelch a more popular competitor or a case of intercompany plagiarism brought back into the fold, the old DC multiverse was a product of monopolistic business practices and a site for endless replications of the same basic character templates, sometimes capitalizing on the potential for telling varied and incompatible stories with them, most often not.
I hate to see comics scholars, or any cultural studies critics, confuse interpretive multiplicity with political liberation. (I don’t think Jim does, especially in his clarifying post.) While culture unquestionably bears an important relation to politics, not simply reflecting it but opening up a space to model or interrogate it, I distrust accounts like Brooker’s that flatly equate textual interpretation with political transformation. With the best intentions in the world, their celebrations of interpretive pluralism reduce politics to nothing but culture and suggest that a more equitable distribution of power is just one resistant reading away. The typical occlusion of political economy in most such celebrations provides a pretty good indication of just how radical they really are.