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August 01, 2006

Comments

Marc

Rene, if you want to talk about unfair criticisms, I find it thoroughly unfair that you put words in my mouth. Other commenters have have suggested the "broad strokes" matter most, and nobody has based their readings on "gut feelings"--that's your phrase. I offer close readings supported by the text, not "quick interpretations." Do me the favor of addressing the arguments I make, not the ones that are easiest to shoot down, okay?

It seems like most of your comments have already been made earlier in the thread--Steven on the hero/villain conflict, Matthew on the contradictory meanings of Infidel, etc.--so there's not much point in rehashing my answers again. A few new(ish) points:

The Samaritan origin story that you're contrasting with the Infidel origin was written ten years ago. The Infidel origin is what came out now and what animates contemporary fears. As I've suggested before, a lot can change in a decade.

Samaritan's origin does draw on science, as I mentioned before. (Interestingly enough, though, Samaritan isn't a scientist--he's a historian who studied the twentieth century, making him, surprise, an analogue for the continuity-obsessed comics fan.)
But the religious elements were always prominent in Samaritan's design--we read his name and saw his emblem five issues before we learned where he came from. It is another example of a character holding multiple ranges of reference. I don't think I underestimate those multiple meanings or complicating factors at all. In the case of Samaritan they allow for a multivalent character; in the case of Infidel, they also indemnify the comic, allowing readers of good conscience to deny or apologize for Infidel's clash of civilizations imagery and his caricature of science.

Busiek may well lean left, but I'm not discussing his politics or beliefs. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is confusing criticism of a text with a criticism of its author's beliefs or an attempt to label its author's beliefs. I'm talking about the texts he's produced, not the man himself.

Finally, and most importantly, political caricatures rarely bother to be internally consistent. (How many movie villains manage to combine antithetical Nazi and Soviet elements, for example?) The presence of seemingly (and, I stress, only seemingly) contradictory subtexts of Islam and science in the same character could just as easily multiply their effect: perhaps someone more likely to consider one as "evil" then becomes more likely to carry it over to the other? And let's face it, none of us seem to be of the mindset that demonizes Islam and/or science, but someone who does might find Infidel a perfect incarnation of their worst fears. It's wishful thinking to assume that the two subtexts cancel each other out.

It also gravely underestimates the power of comics--or of any artistic medium--to assume that it can only embody one meaning at a time. You think I discount the story's multivalence, but multivalence is essential to its ability to deliver multiple meanings and shield readers from some of the more unpleasant ones.

Once again (and I hope for the last time), do I think Busiek "wished maximum effect at Christian propaganda"? Of course not--and I've gone to great pains to say so from the beginning. I'm talking about the comic, and the comic animates those fears whether Busiek intended it or not.

Rene

Sorry, it wasn't my intent to put words on your mouth. Let me explain my point better. I don't think you based your criticisms on "gut feelings" yourself. Instead, I had the impression that you were worried about the power of this comic (and similar works) to affect other people, because THEY would react to the most obvious elements (to gut feelings), instead of the "complicators".

Am I right in assuming that?

Anyway, continuing...

Then you said the apparent disparity between Islam and science, is a "pop culture" thing, I had the impression you were dismissing it, because it was a shallow view (and it is, I suppose).

And then I said that even though it is a pop and shallow thing, it's very much present in the current climate, and it could mitigate whatever negative "messages" this story could send, albeit unintentionally. Because impressionable, shallow people wouldn't find a Islamic Scientist credible, on a gut level.

I suppose that here is where we disagree?

Once again, I say that I may be underestimating the dangers. We don't have a certain kind of conservative movement in my country. Deeply religious conservatives here usually will oppose birth control AND American foreign policy simultaneously and with the same breath. I suppose Latin America just has a different climate.

Infidel's thought patterns and methods ironically make him seem "Western" and "Imperialistic" from a Third World standpoint, you see? To most Third Worlders it's "evil, arrogant" America that is coming with it's transgenic crops, it's pollution, it's science, it's shameless mass media...

I suppose my reading of the story is just different from your reading because my background too is different. The American movements that oppose *both* science and Islam seems distant to me, almost quaint.

Rene

Just to finish, my reading of the comic may have been influenced by the fact that, to the average Brazilian and the average Third Worlder, the Infidel character embodies, in a very archetypical level, "ugly American thought", that individualistic drive to bend everything to his will, to seek answers, to trust in empirism and proof, instead of "spiritual" things.

It makes Infidel immediately nuanced, because it's very funny that a character so "American" in his thoughts is decked in the trappings and appearance of America's "enemies".

But that is gut feeling reaction that Americans may not share with me.

Marc

Rene, thanks for the follow-up questions. Having seen them, I think I can see where we misunderstand one another.

My arguments aren't really focused on the comic's power to affect impressionable readers any more than they're focused on figuring out what Busiek intended or accusing him of deliberately creating an ideologically troubling character. I come from a New Critical background in which matters of authorial intent and audience reception are both subordinated to a focus on the content of the work itself. I'm interested in decoding the images and themes of the Samaritan special, but I don't think I can predict how others will read it.

Also, because I do much of my academic work in popular culture, I take it very seriously and I don't use "pop-culture" as a pejorative--sometimes I forget that many people still do use it that way. So when I write that ideological messages in pop culture are often self-contradictory, I don't mean it as a dismissal. Quite the opposite, I think any analysis of mass culture has got to understand that mass culture texts often try to have it both ways, to produce a barrage of meanings that they must then hold in somehow hold in suspension--like creating a villain who's both Muslim and not-Muslim, enslaver and enslaved, magician and scientist. There's nothing trivial or shallow about that.

Interesting thoughts on your Third World reading of Infidel, which seems to downplay his "clash of civilizations" aspect to focus on him as a symbol of modernity (that, of course, is the aspect I found most troubling and most wanted to focus on). It is fascinating that the comic projects these fears of modernity onto a character who signifies to American readers as anti-modern... but all the better to displace those fears and criticize their objects, right?

Rene

I'm relieved that we're communicating. I'm sorry if some of my former posts seemed aggressive. I do get carried away when I'm debating.

One thing I'm in full agreement with you is that anti-modernity, anti-science thought is scary and troubling, and it unsettles me deeply.

What I think saved the story for me is the fact that Samaritan isn't trying to convince Infidel to abandon science and experimentation. Instead, he is prodding Infidel to use his scientific brilliance to benefit the whole of society.

If Samaritan said something like, "Hey man, you should stopping playing God and looking for answers, you'd be happier with a simple life as a farmer or something." Then I would have burned the comic myself

But I agree with you, with political and religious matters, emotion plays a larger part than logic. Maybe in the USA of 2006 Infidel can represent the fears of the right wing that associates modern science with godlessness and sin. But in the USA of the 1960s, for instance, and in most of the Third World right now, Infidel's brand of heartless science is seem as a right wing thing, it's "hawkish".

Marc

Infidel does have one line--when he asks Samaritan, "Are you ready to shed your pointless and regressive ethical bounds and really use your power? Change the world?" that could be read as a precis of neoconservative arguments for disregarding the U.N., or the Geneva Convention, or any other political/ethical boundaries that prevent the U.S. from using its power to invade, detain, and torture as it sees fit. (It could also be read as a precis of The Authority and its imitators.)

That same line, though, also replicates the way religious conservatives (not the same group, but an allied one with considerable overlap) have framed the debate over embryonic stem cell research; they like to claim that the advances gained from such research would only come at the cost of creating and exterminating human life (when in fact embryos are not human life, and stem cell research would not create any new embryos anyway). Infidel is voicing what the Christian right claims stem cell researchers are advocating; as a quasi-scientist himself, he becomes the perfect straw man for their fears. This is what bothers me about the Samaritan special--even if Busiek doesn't intend to endorse these viewpoints, he recreates the way they frame the issues, and that more than compensates for any mitigating factors.

Dave

I just want to chime in and say that I've found the article and ensuing conversation to be quite intruiging.

The first comment from Dan:
"the ways that dedication to nostalgic tropes unintentionally (one hopes) reinforces the unfortunate cultural attitudes underlying those tropes"
was especially insightful, in light of Marc's interpretation of Infidel as a characterization of the Christian Right's deepest fears.

Rene, it was fascinating to learn about a non-American reading of the comics, specifically regarding how "Infidel's thought patterns and methods ironically make him seem "Western" and "Imperialistic" from a Third World standpoint."

Marc: great thought-provoking article. My question to you regards your critical methodology and draws from Rene's unique (to us) perspective. You say that "I come from a New Critical background in which matters of authorial intent and audience reception are both subordinated to a focus on the content of the work itself." But the content of the work itself can only be focused on (by a human) through the lens of his or her own particular experiences and perspective (as demonstrated by Rene). Therefore, in terms of human perception, aren't 'the content of the work itself' and 'audience reception,' if not one and the same, then inextricablely intertwined?

Marc

I think New Criticism (especially the watered-down version I use) is most effective as a practical methodology for interpretation rather than a hermeneutic theory of where meaning originates. That is, I think all but the most hard-line formalists would probably agree that you can't have a meaning without a reader to interpret the text, and that each reader will interpret the text according to their own experiences and perspective.

New Criticism doesn't deny that, it just says that critics and scholars shouldn't be in the business of focusing on the psychological or emotional effects of the text, precisely because they are as varied and relative as each reader. Instead we should look for meaning by interpreting the only elements that are common to and known by every reader: the text itself.

My interest in textual analysis is also, in part, a reaction to two other models of interpretation: a Frankfurt School one that criticized mass culture for duping audiences into complicity with the dominant ideology embedded or reflected in its products, and a more recent cultural studies approach that celebrates works to the degree they provoke audience subversion of that same ideology. I have more respect for the Frankfurt School (in fact, what I wrote in the previous line is really more of a modern caricature of the Frankfurt School theorists, but I don't want to go off on that tangent right now) but the cultural studies approach evaluates works primarily for their putative, frequently imagined effects on audiences, often without bothering to research whether such effects actually exist. This terminates in one essay on Dilbert that actually suggests the comic strip is subversively anti-capitalist because a) it pokes fun at office mores, and b) one guy on one messageboard somewhere said it inspired him to be rude to his coworkers.

Such slender, spurious evidence makes a pretty poor basis for interpretation. I'd rather talk about a text's ideology by looking at our only constant, the text itself--not because I think author and reader don't matter, but because I think the text is usually the only reliable thing we have to work with.

Dave

Thanks for the clarifying response! I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog.

Vic Sage

Religion vs. science, and which is moral? Neither. Science can be used to whatever ends a man desires. But science itself has never inspired a war, or approved of slavery, or chained men's minds or gagged men's mouths; religion has. Science is amoral; religion is immoral.

Charles Hatfield

Marc, I did not imagine that your response to Astro City would inspire a metacritical discussion of methodology, New Criticism, and the Frankfurt School. But I'm glad to see it!

Glad, too, to see you taking up a defense of (dare I say?) close reading in the New Critical sense, but without, I take it, the overreaching asceticism, the blunt refusal of context, that characterizes New Criticism at its most extreme.

Food for thought, chomp chomp.

Marc

Close reading without the asceticism, the refusal of context, or the foreordained conclusions that discover in every poem an organic unity resulting from a harmony of contrasts. And, needless to say, without the renunciation or neglect of popular culture.

Mr. Sage, I wish I could say that science has never approved of slavery or discrimination but it did--usually through junk science or pseudoscience like physiognomy or eugenics, but those still marshalled the discourse of science to justify or inspire oppression. Of course, science tends to admit and correct its mistakes a lot faster than religious doctrine does--one of the advantages of that empirical worldview Busiek puts in the mouth of his retrograde supervillain.

Honest observer

On the subject of science- I can't say that it's too completely troubling. Mad scientists and science perverted has been a staple of fantasy and sci-fi since Frankenstein, hell, even before if you count Faust. There are high-tech science-wizards on both sides of the aisle in comics. It's not as if Samaritan is anti-science. Infidel is a representation of the concept of science perverted- he's not necessarily the embodiment of science itself.

Besides, to be an anti-science superhero is tantamount to the Futurama episode where Bender criticizes the progression of technology.

Marc

Maybe the sheer weight of the discussion is starting to weigh against it, Honest obs, but those points have already been batted around a bit. Most of the scientist characters in comics in general and Astro City in particular use a rather magical version of science as a plot device; Infidel is all but unique in that scientific empiricism actually plays a prominent role in his ideology, and the book demonizes him for it. Within the book's (and the series') particular context of religiously marked heroes, that is a little troubling.

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