Month: January 2004


Well, they knew this at Turnabout already–but I’m goin’ to Hell!

(link via Josiah, at Christusvictor.)

The Dante’s Inferno Test has sent you to the First Level of Hell – Limbo!(I believe the current term for “virtuous pagan” is “straight-edge punk”)
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Level Score
Purgatory (Repenting Believers) Very Low
Level 1 – Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers) Very High
Level 2 (Lustful) Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous) Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious) Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy) Very Low
Level 6 – The City of Dis (Heretics) Very High
Level 7 (Violent) Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers) Moderate
Level 9 – Cocytus (Treacherous) Very Low

Take the Dante’s Inferno Hell Test

Update: Meet Christine! (& the habits that are gonna drag her into the pit!) I wonder–is it possible to arrange conjugal visits between the levels?

The Dante’s Inferno Test has banished you to the Third Level of Hell!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Level Score
Purgatory (Repenting Believers) Low
Level 1 – Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers) Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful) Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous) High
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious) Moderate
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy) Low
Level 6 – The City of Dis (Heretics) Low
Level 7 (Violent) Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers) Low
Level 9 – Cocytus (Treacherous) Low

Take the Dante’s Inferno Hell Test




I’m still immersed in Watchmen, along with the Canadian nature poems, T.S. Eliot, and Reinhold Niebuhr, but I’m making progress (I could dive right into Dr. Manhattan’s Proustian experience on Mars, but I’ll hold off–and that reminds me, I’m still planning to take you all on a guided tour of Montreal’s very own bargain basement red planet!) I also want to direct people to Bruce Baugh’s post inspired by the Silver Age Marvel Cover Index. I think he raises some very interesting points about the genesis of the Marvel Universe– the idea that these stories (and not just the Dr. Strange stuff) channel that late-fifties Kirby/Ditko monster energy makes a good deal of sense to me, and helps to explain why they feel so different from the contemporaneous “lab-tested” streamlined superhero revival at DC…it also supports my contention that the early Marvels draw sustenance from the American Romance tradition as exemplified by Hawthorne! But more on this soon!

Right now though, I’m feeling an urge to add to the blogosphere’s collection of high school soundtracks (I graduated in 1991. We graduate at 17 in Quebec, and then we move on to–or, as in my case, drop out of–“CEGEP”, which is an accronym for “waste of fuckin’ time”). Like those who have come before me–Sean Collins started it–I’ll list only one album per artist:

1. Public Enemy–Fear of A Black Planet
2. Beastie Boys–Paul’s Boutique
3. Cypress Hill–Self-titled
4. Third Bass–Cactus Album
5. De La Soul–Three Feet High and Rising
6. LL Cool J–Mama Said Knock You Out
7. Run DMC–Tougher Than Leather
8. NWA–Straight Outta Compton
9. The Cult–Sonic Temple
10. G N’R–Appetite For Destruction
11. Concrete Blonde–Bloodletting
12. Pat Benatar–Best Shots (my first Columbia house scam!)
13. Ramones–Loco Live (you couldn’t get the original albums on tape back then)
14. The Clash–Combat Rock (I was a fool not to be more interested in the earlier stuff!)
15. Joan Jett–Glorious Results of A Misspent Youth
16. Nat King Cole–Christmas Album
17. Bing Crosby–Merry Christmas
18. Ella Fitzgerald–Jerome Kern Songbook
19. Dance Hall Days–a wonderful Jerome Kern compilation, featuring the Pied Pipers!
20. Fred Astaire–A Fine Romance
21. Fleetwood Mac–Rumors (I didn’t know how great Tusk was back then)
22. U2–War
23. Buddy Holly–The Buddy Holly Collection
24. The Bangles–Everything
25. Michael Penn–March
26. Pogues–If I Should Fall From Grace With God
27. INXS–Kick
28. ELO–Greatest Hits (God bless Columbia House! they always had plenty of cheezy compilations on hand)
29. Harry Connick Jr.–When Harry Met Sally soundtrack
30. and last, but certainly not least, Boston–self-titled!

ah, there’s a lot of stupid stuff on there–but I love it all! “Nevermind” came out in the fall after I graduated, and my tastes began to shift punkward in a big way… I’m just a child o’ my time I guess!

Good night friends


Well, I got some birthday money recently, and thanks to Eve Tushnet, Jim Henley, Todd Murry, John Jakala, and Steven Berg I found myself compelled to use most of it to buy the Watchmen TPB. I’ve read the first two issues, and I should be ready to write something in-depth over the weekend, so please stay tuned!

I will say that I’m more convinced than ever that Moore’s Freudian/fascist/power critique still seems unbelievably shallow when compared to Morrison’s epistemological/narratological/existentialist inquiry on Animal Man and that the super-hero genre would be in much better shape today if comics creators in the nineties had attempted to define themselves by going up against the latter instead of the former–but what can I do? There’s no point in trying to rewrite history, and there’s no denying Watchmen its’ status as an epoch-making work. And, of course, on its’ own terms, the book is brilliant–and aware of what it omits in a way that the work of Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, Mark Waid, etc. just isn’t… But I’m anticipating dreadfully here, and I think I’d better stop–I’ve got ten issues left to read, after all…

good night friends!


Motime’s been having some problems, and in the meantime, Paul Cella posted this comment at Turnabout, and it’s definitely worthy of a response–so without further ado!

Mr. Fiore: I tried to post this comment at your own blog, but to no avail, so I’ll post it here.

May I take the liberalism you espouse as “the most ‘concrete’ political theory that has ever existed” [quoted from Mr. Fiore’s blog] to be, mutatis mutandis, the liberalism of John Stuart Mill? That is, a theory predicated on the principle that no man may lawfully force, or attempt to force, his moral views on another man? We might call this “Open Society Liberalism,” because it posits as its guiding principle the ideal of the Open Society.

May I also assume that you are an atheist?

Finally, let me just say this in defense of what you are disparaging as abstractions: Human civilization is, at base, a product of human imagination. To maintain it requires not merely that we punish and control barbarism and cruelty in concrete manifestations, but also that we “police” the imagination with the instruments of custom and prescription and inherited tradition.

To illustrate that, consider the effect it would have on you if an acquaintance turned to you and said, “Dave, occasionally I dream of violently raping your girlfriend. Of course, it’s just in my imagination.” Would you ever let this acquaintance, say, drive your girlfriend to work? I submit that you would think very hard about it.

My point is that, if men felt empowered at all times to utter their darkest thoughts, the cement of trust and neighborliness, so to speak, would rapidly dissolve; and the binding of civilization would follow in sort order.

Part of civilization is this control on our imaginations; our trained habit to repudiate our darkest thoughts, or at least, to never utter them. The prosecution of the crime, when it happens, is only the last option, and the state only the most obvious, but hardly the most important, element of civilization.

You write that “I am convinced that no problem was ever solved by silencing dissent,” [again, quoted from Mr. Fiore’s blog] but we have quite a number of examples of societies where all dissent was accepted, even celebrated and empowered. Two good examples come to mind: Weimar Germany and Spain of the early 1930s. In short, societies that just kept on talking without limits — and talked themselves into civil war.

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 29, 2004 07:50 AM

Yes Mr. Cella, you’re right to identify me as an “Open Society Liberal”, and I happily acknowledge my debt to the author of On Liberty–like Mill, I’m loathe to blur the boundary between what’s good for individuals and what’s good for society… I am an “atheist” (in the sense that I don’t believe in a personified Deity, or an afterlife), but keep in mind, I also describe myself as a “neo-Calvinist liberal”… I hold every relationship between myself and other beings sacred–which is just another way of phrasing Kant’s maxim that we ought to endeavor to treat humans (and, as far as I’m concerned animals) as ends rather than means. I’ve even had a “conversion experience” of sorts, which is what my first novel was about, in a way… No one likes hedonism less than I–but I’d rather let people “drift” than anchor them to a plot of ground that’s uncongenial to them. I don’t have any answers for anyone–and neither does the Catholic Church. You can’t legislate “groundedness”, or peace of mind–and it’s about time we stopped trying to do so.

With reference to your hypothetical “I want to rape your girlfriend guy”–I would say that this person would definitely benefit more from saying this stuff than bottling it up, although it might be preferable for him to say it to a therapist… If he let himself be guided by a sense of his indivdual relationships to the people in his life, he’d easily avoid the error you describe (making this admission to me, I mean). In any case–I don’t have the power to “allow” or “disallow” my girlfriend to do anything! She’s well able to take care of herself, and I trust her to make her own decisions, and to defend herself (both verbally and–since she’s done a good deal of Martial arts training–physically)

On Weimar and Spain–I could cite the very same examples to support my own contentions Paul. The problem in those places was that people became impatient with all of the talk and possibilities and decided to take “one road” in the interests of restoring purpose and unity to the body politic. I construe this development as a failure of nerve. This is why I’m as unhappy with softy liberals as I am with tradtionalists/patriots–liberalism is a faith. You’ll never hear me saying it’s “rational”. And a faith–as you folks at Turnabout know–must be defended! At this point in the West, the only choices are to go on with the liberal project or to embrace fascism. There’s no third way.

Good afternoon friends


It’s Jamotime!

My friend Jamie has checked in with some thoughts on the great big world of comics outside of my little super-hero/Peanuts/early-Cerebus bubble, and naturally this trumps my plan to discuss the slough of Despond that is Mars… I will, however, rejoin you on the other side of Jamie’s Black Hole entry with a response to this post on “Turnabout”, where they’re playing “Red Sheep, Blue Sheep” these days…

Okay–enter Jamo!

Black Hole by Charles Burns.

Okay Motimers, you’re tired of Mr.Fiore’s vision of the comic world and you’re gasping for a word from the outside, from the alternative adult world of comics or comix as some mid-lifer writing for the New York Times might say (though many of us have known this since Tony Stark started drinking). What I’ve brought you today is THE comic of the 21st century. The Penultimate issue hit stands at the beginning of the month. The covers are gorgeous. The characters sublime. Charles Burns’ Black Hole.

Burns has captured teenage life in all its beauty. The discomfort of change that we have all or are still going through (I’m 28 and still battling the puberty demons) expressed through the metaphor of actual metamorphosis. A sexual transmitted disease known as The Bug is rampant amongst teenagers in the 1970s. Anyone who is contagious is literally transformed – antlers, shedded skin, etc. Burns’ images of these transformations are contagious themselves – shivers, goosebumps, grimaces – as a reader you want to look away and pretend this is not happening, that you haven’t seen a face that actually looks like that. Unlike those laughable b-horror movies of the fifties which seem to have been an inspiration for Burns comic you never doubt that the transformations in Black Hole are anything other than for keeps.

Another aspect of the comic to pay attention to is Burns’ use of the page. His juxtaposition of images, the portrait pages of characters, what the characters see, etc. As good as any shot in any art house movie, No, any movie period.

That’s Black Hole. In brief I want to mention Joe Matt’s on going storyline in Peepshow that started with issue 11 and has now reached 13. His series about the repetition of his life (porn, friendships, problems) is some of the best writing on this subject. Funny, truthful, and exact. In issue 12 he sits in his rooming house apartment taping porn from one VCR to another. That is all that happens. That is all that needs to happen. This issue should be thrown from every roof top to every citizen in every country of the world to prove that there are still honest ways to present ourselves to ourselves (and no you don’t have to watch porn or tape porn to appreciate this).


Manny Hernadez

Thanks Jamie!
Okay–I’m back! And now that we’ve built up some Jamomentum (one thing you should know about me: I’m incapable of leaving a bad pun alone–something in my brain just screams–“exacerbate”!), let’s move on to our latest round of historian vs. “traditionalist”!

I’ve been teasing Jim Kalb for the last few days by calling him a “Foucaultian” (try that one next time they hassle you in the playground and see where it gets ya!), and I truly believe that the description is apt. Rose made a very good point tonight when she remarked that she’s not sure that the “marriage debates”
are debates at all–“because all of the terms are contested”. This goes for almost all of the “debates” that “conservatives” are fond of engaging in. The crux of the matter is always, in Jim Kalb’s words: “[the need for “liberal-rationalists”] first to put their view on the same common footing as other competing views, rather than on some pedestal of supposed neutrality that makes it a priori a superior authority for all other views… [and then] to contemplate its implications in life and thought and consider whether those implications really make sense.”

It’s about “what works”. “Proven ways of life”. You’ve heard these phrases before, I’m sure. But the problem is–you can’t make judgements about “what’s best for society” until you’ve decided upon the criteria you plan to use. So–if you are wedded to the idea that children “suffer” when they grow up in a single-parent or “non-traditional” household, then OF COURSE YOU ARE GOING TO OPPOSE THINGS LIKE GAY MARRIAGE AND, YOU KNOW, DIVORCE…

But is Jim Kalb willing to question that first principle? If he is, I have yet to see any evidence of it… You see–“conservatives” are fond of attacking “liberals” for adhering to “rational criteria” instead of “reality”, but if you compare me to Jim Kalb, you will quickly see that he’s the one clinging to abstractions!

My point of view is–and has always been–that no idea, no institution can possibly stand up to the mind’s scrutiny (and thus nothing in this line has any claim to our reverence), but that no human being has ever lived who did not deserve to be “looked in the eye”. You see, when you say that “the idea of the stay-at-home wife” worked very well in the past, what you’re really saying is–“the people for whom this did not work were effectively silenced in the past”. This goes double for the institution of slavery, which Jim tries to stay away from, because even he thinks that that’s wrong, but he has no answer when I ask him how it could have been eliminated without “heroic intervention” from outside of the Southern “body politic”. If you had asked most white Georgians in 1850 whether slavery “worked well” for them, they would probably have said yes. If you had asked most slaves, I think your impression of cultural unanimity would quickly dissipate (although, as Eugene Genovese shows us, many slaves also bought into the IDEA that slavery was a necessary, and Godly institution–they submitted to their own enslavement out of deference to an ABSTRACTION!)

It’s pretty clear isn’t it? Every time a “traditionalist” opens their mouth, they vomit abstractions. Gay marriage will erode public morals? Why? Because without two-parent heterosexual parent-couples, our children will suffer! Why? Because they will! You must have a mommy and a daddy. It cannot be questioned! That’s as “abstract” a statement as you’ll ever hear, but people are getting away with sounding like “realists” because they make an appeal to “tradition”, and “tradition” sounds rooted.

By contrast, liberalism is the most “concrete” political theory that has ever existed. The one fundamental premise of liberalism is that other people are real, and they matter, so consult them by gad! Find out what “works” for them–and let them arrange their lives accordingly… Sure there’s the rhetoric of “self-interest”–but as Jim is quick to note, what’s to prevent a self-interested atom from “cheating on the social contract”? The answer is quite simple Mr. Kalb–a concrete respect for other human beings, and a willingness to disregard “abstract” traditions when it’s clear that they’re just dead weight.

Jim’s chosen religion, in fact, has been built upon the most insane abstraction of all–“papal infallibility”. And what is papal infallibility? Quite simply, it’s a desperate “as-if proposition” on the part of freaked-out existentialists who cannot see that the way out of their metaphysical quandary is simply to accept their neighbours as real people… Catholic social theory boils down to this–everyone’s just a bad child on a rampage and someone’s gotta play “daddy”. So we find someone to fill the office, we build upon that foundation and we refuse to admit that our “tradition” is a compromise with fear. I don’t need to “understand” other people (you can’t!), I don’t need to know what my “role” is in relation to them, I just want to know if they’re being crushed–know what I mean?

Before I go, I’ll remind you to check out H’s discussion of Infinity Inc. #31-36, Steven’s thoughts on “narrative static cling” in Spider-Man & Morrison’s X-Men, and NeilalieN’s Barthesian dissection of a Doctor Strange cameo in Daredevil #56! (I don’t know about you people–but, at this point, I’m more interested in Doc’s appearances as triggers for Neil’s extended musings than for their intrinsic merit–and that’s saying something! I’m a very big Doctor Strange fan!)

I’ll do Mars tomorrow Steven–I promise!

Good night friends!


Is it just me or is Jack Kirby:

a vorticist?

Let me know if you think I’m totally off base… Perhaps I’ve just had vortices on the brain… As I’m sure you gathered from reading the proposal I posted yesterday (I hate proposals!), this essay I’m hatching re: the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga & serial stasis is spiralling out of control–but hopefully in a really good way!

Damn… My cable died (froze?) for quite a while and now I’m ready for bed–so I’ll postpone my portrait of Mars Comics/records/XXX, inspired by H’s recent unpleasant family experience at his neighborhood retailer/den of sophomoric idiocy and Steven Wintle’s Montreal “captivity narrative” (and he’s not kidding about the cold folks! Nights like this make you feel the distance between our planet and the sun in a way that no textbook ever could…) Anyway–I’m going to Mars (no charge American taxpayers! this one’s on me!) on my work-break tomorrow, and they’re bound to act crazy, which will suit me just fine, and put me right in the mood for a timely report from space!

Good night friends


An Hubristic Quiz and a Modest Proposal

Here’s a great quiz, via Julie Neidlinger (I’m guessing Jonathan Edwards wasn’t one of the possilities…)

“We reject the false doctrine that the church could have permission to hand over the form
of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the
prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.”
You are Karl Barth!
You like your freedom, and are pretty stubborn against authority! You don’t
care much for other people’s opinions either. You can come up with your own fun, and
often enough you have too much fun. You are pretty popular because you let people have their
way, even when you have things figured out better than them.

What theologian are you?

A creation of Henderson

One Damned Thing After Another:
Death’s Refrain and Narrative Stasis in Amazing Spider-Man

In his editorial capacity at Marvel Comics in the 1960’s, Stan Lee built a sense of “continuity” into the serial publications he scripted and helped to plot, barraging readers of the various series with exhaustive references (and footnotes) to the protagonists’ previous adventures (not to mention events occurring in other titles published by the company). The injection of “total recall” into these basically static—or, at least, anti-teleological—narratives (the characters don’t really age, and evil is never in danger of being eradicated) had unexpected side-effects. Inevitably, as each monthly issue established a new plateau of “presentness”—suspended above an increasingly protean body of temporally unclassifiable “past” experiences—inconsistencies arose, and narrative logic became muddled. This problem did not escape those readers who contributed to the letters pages, and the most persuasive instances of this epistolary exegesis bled back (at least implicitly, and sometimes explicitly) into the ongoing narrative.

This encounter played itself out to great effect in Amazing Spider-Man, wherein Peter Parker, a shy adolescent, becomes the eponymous protagonist when the freak combination of a radioactive spider-bite and the murder of his uncle Ben force him to embrace the motto: “with great power comes great responsibility”. From the beginning, Parker’s task is to endure the rigors of his predicament—he is not in any sense a “hero”, on a quest for a sublime object. Parker’s encounter with the sublime—the death of a loved-one—inaugurates the series, setting him on the road to nowhere; and echoes of this foundational moment would recur often in the issues that followed, particularly when “plot arcs” threatened to flatten out into linear progression. Death in Amazing Spider-Man functions as a “sublime reset-button”, continually recalling the character back to his anguished roots.

Daniel Tiffany has argued that Ezra Pound’s most important contribution to poetics is his theory of the “sublime aspect of the Image, [which] derives from its irrepressible “substance”; indeed, the negative practice of Imagism serves not to eliminate but to preserve the “life” of the crypt: its elegiac feeling, its eroticism, its fatality…” This paper will contend that, in the “Gwen Stacy Clone Saga”, writer Gerry Conway’s use of a Poundean “corpse-image” (generated mainly by the sense of loss expressed by readers in the letters of comment) amplifies “death’s refrain” in Amazing Spider-Man, thus shouting down the misguided call (by these very same readers) for some hint of “progress” in the narrative.

Parker’s first serious girlfriend had been killed in issue #121, and this editorial decision itself had been motivated, in large part, by the perception that Peter and Gwen’s relationship had been through so many ups and downs that it either had to progress (to marriage) or die. Killing Gwen effectively restored the status quo, which was all the more important at this time, because a new writer (Gerry Conway) had taken over the reins of the series, and–in keeping with the traditions of the medium—he was eager to “begin again” from first principles.

However, this plan was thwarted by the readers, many of whom refused to accept this development. It was one thing to kill off an elderly relative in the first issue of the series (and then to invoke his image every few months or so—with the help of any one of a number of antagonists capable of inducing hallucinatory guilt-fantasies), but it was quite another to eliminate a long-time (and beloved) member of the cast.

Meanwhile, in the pages of the comic proper, Peter’s relationship with another member of the cast (Mary-Jane Watson, who had benefited greatly from Conway’s more nuanced handling) had begun to deepen. All of this comes to a shuddering halt the moment that Peter comes face to face with “the living clone of Gwen Stacy”—the product of a madman’s necrophiliac revenge-fantasy. This second Gwen does not know she is a clone–her memories extend only to some indeterminate moment in the long, indeterminate Marvel-past—and she expects their relationship to go on as it always has. This introduces a fascinating conflict between two versions of narrative stasis in Amazing Spider-Man: Gwen’s (in which she plays the role of “the long-suffering girlfriend”–alternately loving and inscrutable, and often both at once) and Peter’s (in which he is an existentialist figure, consumed by guilt over death(s) that he may or may not have been able to prevent)… By bringing Gwen back, ostensibly to provide the readers (who had been too shocked by her death to say goodbye to the character the first time) a chance to mourn her properly, and then allowing her to walk out of the pages of the series forever (on her own power!), Conway masterfully purifies the “Spider-Man concept” of its’ narrative excrescences whilst intensifying the “logic of loss” at its’ core a thousand-fold.

Good night friends!


A few things

First off–I’ve received an unconditional early acceptance to the Michigan State American Studies doctoral program–which means that, no matter what fruit my other applications may reap, Saints, Anonymous is now a certainty!!! I don’t think I could possibly overstate how excited I am! I hope you’ll all be there for the finished product, a few years down the line… Meanwhile, I’ve got to get seriously to work on the Gwen Stacy clone paper I want to present at McGill University in March–the proposal has to be in by Monday. I’ll post what I come up with on the blog Sunday night!

Also, Eve Tushnet has turned in some fine work on Watchmen, and John Jakala has posted some cogent remarks on the piece… Personally, I don’t have much to offer for now, because it’s been about fifteen years since I looked at Watchmen, but I’ll say this–Eve, you’ve succeeded in making me want to re-read the series, and I certainly will, as soon as I get a spare half-day and twenty-five bucks! Thank you!

And to Jim Kalb:

Clearly, we’ve reached an impasse. We’re throwing “multiculturalism” at each other like the hot potato that it is. You claim that identity politics are somehow the brainchild of some “liberal elite” scheme to break down the traditional culture that you claim to belong to; while I maintain that this very same phenomenon is the product of a culture war between blocks of traditionalists (led, in each case, by small cadres of “lobbyist popes”)–each of whom (perversely) equate individual rights with group rights.

In a consistent liberal state, there is no place for group rights. We can blame prejudice and xenophobia for the fact that “group rights” have, historically, been necessary in the united states (& in other liberal countries)…

You don’t need Affirmative action programs in a colour-blind state. You don’t need hate-crime legislation unless you’ve got the KKK. But the fact is that these things do exist, and steps have been taken in order to improve the lot of the individuals within the affected groups… But only a traditionalist/conservative could approve of “multiculturalism” as a good in itself. Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a “human being”, liberalism has been thwarted. I agree with you Jim, when you say that “identity politics” are a sign of ill health in a state–but I blame continued intolerance for sustaining this plague. I blame “culture warriors”. In short, Jim–I blame you!

But let’s put all of that aside for a moment. As you say, “Identity politics” are a daily fact of life in Western liberal democracies. And what do you propose to do about this fact? Presumably:

1. shut down immigration, or reduce it to the point of insignificance; or bring in 1920’s style quota laws that would only allow the “right kinds” of immigrant into the state–and by the way, Catholics (like my Italian, Irish, and Quebecois forebears) were always near the bottom of those lists, my friend!


2.browbeat the people who are already within the country’s borders into accepting the wisdom of the ages, as interpreted by you.

Do I exaggerate?

And what’s my solution?
The liberal solution?
I think we’re just gonna have to keep working on it. Breaking up these little cliques in the High School Cafeteria of the State, and discouraging the kind of “entrenched traditionalist” bullying that fosters the disaffection that breeds political multiculturalism.

I guess you like your way better Jim–but do you even for a moment believe that it has a hope of succeeding? I believe my way does…

Good night friends


A real Liberal responds to Jim Kalb’s Traditionalism and the American Order

I’m sure many of you have been reading the Kalb interviews over at 2Blowhards with interest… I will admit that I erred a few days ago, when I fired off a little blast that dismissed Kalb as an intellectual lightweight/xenophobe. I have since read a very thoughtfully reasoned essay by Mr. Kalb, which makes it clear that he is no backwoods antiliberal red-neck, and knows full well that his version of tradition is in direct conflict with the American tradition itself. In a case like this, merely invoking Louis Hartz and saying “wake up dumbass” won’t cut it…

One does not come up against a mind like Mr. Kalb’s very often in today’s society (well, there’s Eve Tushnet–who swims in a comparable direction against the American current, and is even more intelligent than Kalb, but I haven’t read anything of hers that presents so global an argument). The man is no descendant of Southern Proslavery ideologues like Calhoun and Fitzhugh–and I agree Jim, if there is any trace of an anti-liberal tradition in the United States, it’s confined to the South. (At any rate, scholars such as Eugene Genovese and Larry E. Tise have worked hard to paint this picture, but the case is difficult to prove.)

Personally, it has always seemed to me that the antebellum South was virulently Lockean in orientation–and that their social system appears feudal to us because we accept a proposition that most Southerners at that time did not (i.e. that African-Americans were fully human). If I’m right, and, obviously, I believe that I am, then racially based slavery was the only “institutional bulwark” against liberalism that the region possessed. After emancipation, unofficial (but, for all intents and purposes, “institutional”) antiblack martial law managed to fill the void left by slavery, until the federal government finally began to put its foot down in the middle of the twentieth century. That’s the “tradition” that the Southern Agrarians stepped up to defend in the 1930s, and anyone who wants to take up the torch from them can safely and deservedly be condemned as an out and out racist.

But, as I was saying, this is not what Jim Kalb is up to. His position is more analogous to Orestes Brownson’s–a Transcendentalist who suffered through a number of spiritual crises in the 1820’s and 30’s before he joined the Catholic Church after the Democratic Party lost the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” election of 1840–an event which, inexplicably, convinced him that “the people” were simply incapable of making their own decisions, and wanted guidance that only the Papal See could provide…

I’ve had a strange academic career. I began as a historian, looking to make my mark by writing about the Hartford Convention, a fascinating event which still has not been dealt with adequately by scholars (and I may get back to it yet!). Later on, I became more interested in studying the means by which a radical “moral minority”–led by William Lloyd Garrison–were able to force the nation to deal with the slavery issue by provoking Southerners into “jumping offside” at the national political level, thus paving the way for anti-slavery (never a very popular cause in the North) to become Anti-Southernism (which was very popular–and damned instrumental in paving the way to the world we’ve got now, in which racism is seen as something that only an inbred jackass could want to defend)…

Since then I’ve been immersed in the study of Calvinism, and Transcendentalism, and aesthetics; plus I started writing novels… However, my undergraduate honours thesis, which is available here (sans footnotes, alas), dealt with the transformation of “rationalist” liberalism into what Harold Bloom has called “the American religion”, thanks to writers like Emerson and Theodore Parker… I offer this merely as proof that I’ve been thinking about American culture–and American liberalism–for a long time…

So. Fine. But what do I have to say to Jim Kalb?

Well. First of all–we’ve got to define our terms here. Jim is a little bit slippery on this point. He claims that it is “conservative” to oppose communism, and to have a population that is “visibly” religious. Now, maybe that’s consistent with current usage, but if you want to use “conservative” that way, you cannot use “liberalism” the way Jim Kalb does in the rest of this essay. Old world, “corporatist” conservatism–which is what Jim is espousing (his conversion to Catholicism gives this fact away)–is very much consistent with communism, but clearly, Lockean liberalism (which is the antonym of Jim’s brand of conservatism) will always be hostile to a scheme that puts the good of the “body politic” (no matter how you wish to define “good”) over the good of the individual.

On a related point–there is no conflict whatsoever between liberalism and “traditional moral/Christian” values. Liberalism (as opposed to “democracy”, which is a very old–and not very helpful–concept) is a new thing in the world–you can trace its’ roots back to the Reformation and no further (which is not to say that Calvin and Luther were “liberals”, but that their principles–well, Calvin’s anyway–led inexorably to Locke’s political theories). You can be a deeply devout Christian, obsessed even–at the existential level–with your own personal morality and prospects for salvation, without deviating from the path of liberalism. What you cannot do is reconcile theocracy with liberalism. You can even reconcile an addiction to the concept of “Original Sin” with a strong liberal position–I’m living proof of that. I wouldn’t give ya two cents for a work of art that grew out of the absurd conviction that the human subject and the objective universe are somehow at peace (“I refuse to make a pact with you Walt Whitman!”), but the point is that there is no need to concern ourselves with that kind of stuff when we draw up our social contract. To confuse the personal and the political is to court folly. (which is to say–don’t leap at the chance to embrace some political monolith just because you feel “uneasy” in the world–you’re supposed to feel that way!)

But even if we were to allow a metaphysical concept like “Original Sin” to creep into our thought re: the state–how is this an argument for “custom and usage”? If, as I (and all non-pantheists) believe, we have no access to the noumenal, then two thousand years of tradition are as useless to us in ascertaining what is “right” as the word of any living breathing person. And I, for one, am more willing to accept a slave’s antipathy to the institution of slavery than any “traditional” justification of same.

Contra Jim Kalb, I would argue that what we need, in the West, is less “traditionalism”, more thorough liberalism, and less confusion between the two. Case in point: Jim seems to regard “multi-culturalism” as the ne plus ultra of liberalism. And of course he’s wrong. “Identity politics” are anathema to Lockean liberalism–in fact, this is “traditionalism” multiplied, and running amok (John C. Calhoun would recognize it as his theory of “concurrent majorities” in action). The liberal subject is always merely that–he or she can have no group affiliation, no “sexual orientation”, no gender in fact! As far as the state is concerned, each person is a “unit” and that is absolutely all… Ideally, society is a pact between people that makes the existential struggle for meaning as pure as possible (which doesn’t mean that we can realize the ideal–this is merely a guiding principle, and it’s a far less fallible one than the Pope, believe me!)–Calvin would have called this the struggle for salvation, and he wouldn’t have been at all tolerant of other paths to meaning, but he set the whole thing in motion. I can certainly elaborate on this point if anyone wants me to.

By clinging to notions of Republican virtu, or “the standing Order”, or the feudal authority of the Catholic Church, or communism (yes, liberalism is utterly incompatible with greater-good socialism–which doesn’t mean that we cannot ensure that everyone’s material needs are met by passing an “economic bill of rights”; freedom should never mean the freedom to starve to death!) we are abandoning the freedom that Locke’s principles bestowed upon us–and I can understand why, it’s not easy to be responsible for yourself, it’s much more comfortable to plug yourself into a “traditional” pigeonhole; but liberalism isn’t about taking the easy path, it’s about taking the authentic one. We also take a wrong turn when we embrace ethnic/racial/gender/”queer” identities, but often we are forced to take refuge in these havens by the ghettoizing force of prejudice. However, as Frederick Douglass understood, the greatest demand that liberalism makes upon the historically marginalized is the obligation to discard the badge of oppression the moment that this becomes possible. As I say, our society wants more liberalism, not less–and we certainly do not need the return to tribalism that Jim advocates. We’ve got far too much of that already!

I’ve challenged Jim to read “Enlightened Romantics” and offer a rebuttal on his blog–Turnabout. The ball is in your court, Mr. Kalb!

Good night friends!

p.s. did you know that Tiffany Amber-Thiessen and I were born on the exact same day and year? The sad facts are right here..


Soundtrack: The Offspring — Americana

Tonight’s post takes its cue from the periphery of a discussion about unimaginative criticism over at the God of the Machine, in which Aaron saw fit to characterize It’s A Wonderful Life as a “good/bad” movie. I replied, of course, that it’s the greatest movie of all time–and you can’t get much more good/good than that… At which point Colby Cosh (who’s been added to the blogroll, by the way, mainly because he blogs about Diplomacy–which is a good/good game) broke into the discussion to opine that Capra’s film is actually “great/bad”. Upon reconsideration, I was inclined to agree with him… Meanwhile, AC Douglas demanded to know what kind of “subtleties” could possibly lurk within the heart of a film that he no doubt considers nothing more than a holiday circus for the plebes… (and you can just tell from his tone that he thinks we’ve all been taking way too many hits from the pop culture bong)

So, what’s special about IAWL? Well, Forager and I had a fun discussion of Capra last month (in which we agreed that George Bailey had a better than even chance of going postal someday, and I argued that Capra’s endings aren’t endings at all but “wrap parties”–we were also on about “eye-level aesthetics” at that time) and you might want to take a look at that, but tonight I want to discuss a part of the film that we didn’t get to–the Pottersville Sequence, a neglected item in the catalogue of great film noir.

The definitive book on Capra is Ray Carney’s American Vision … It’s more than just the only decent book ever written about the greatest of auteurs, it’s one of the finest works of scholarship I’ve ever read–my understanding of American culture owes almost as much to Carney as it does to Perry Miller. Believe me, that’s the highest praise I could possibly muster…

Carney’s broad take on the film is that it “documents the painful, slow, difficult, unending labor of wrestling the smallest impulse of personal genius into some marginal, minor, inevitably flawed and unsatisfactory practical representation.” (sounds kinda like this blog…)

On the subject of Pottersville (which he calls Nighttown), Carney writes:

the episode… makes explicit the issue that has been implicit in the whole preceding film: the consequences of the surfacing of energies that cannot be placed or represented in the forms of conventional life or Hollywood family film lighting, photography, dialogue, dramatic progression, or narrative eventfulness. What was walled off into isolated moments in the preceding narrative and contained by the narrative and social ceremonies that surrounded it eventually bursts all social and formal walls erected to control it and emerges enlarged, deformed, disastrous… George Bailey finally breaks free of the society that has hedged him round up to this point in the film, just as Capra breaks his own film free from the family drama organization of the preceding narrative… The dreamland sequence moves the viewer into a world of visionary ineffability and emotional intensity. Pictures and music replace words and dialogue. Operatic and melodramatic outbursts of intense feeling replace gradual, chronological, sequential narrative exposition. Low-key lighting effects, expressive close-ups, and emotionally powerful orchestrations communicate imaginative disturbances that have no social form of expression in the previous film or in George Bailey’s ordinary life. (417)

I think the man’s got somethin’ there, but, naturally, having seen the film at least fifty times in the past 15 years or so, I’ve got some thoughts of my own to offer on this subject…

Early on in his chapter on the film, Carney dismisses James Agee’s oft-invoked characterization of IAWL as merely an updated version of Dickens, and of course he’s right to do so, because Agee was blowing off both works, and his “critique” is worthless (I like Agee–Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is fascinating–but not when he’s in snark mode, as he generally was whenever he discussed Hollywood product)–but I think Carney makes a mistake by not looking at the genuine continuities between the two pieces, the better to understand where they diverge. Here’s what I mean. (a lot of this stuff is adapted from my first novel, actually):

First question–does the Pottersville sequence accurately depict George Bailey’s world, minus George Bailey?

Certainly not.

So what’s the point of it then? It gets clearer if we look at the film in its’ context as a modernist work, instead of as smiley-faced shock-therapy… Now, generally modernist solipsism festers in the scum pools of memory and imagination, or affects a glow of originary impact. The Pottersville Sequence is unique–a murky flight from experience set ablaze by its’ own contradictions. An illustrative comparison can be drawn between Geroge Bailey and Thurber’s Walter Mitty, a superficially similar character. Both men are trapped in the gerbil-wheel of the Protestant Ethic and yearn for release. However, where Mitty projects a daydream wonderland onto his drab surroundings, Bailey abstracts himself from reality and casts himself in a neon-lit film noir cliche. He drifts through Pottersville as an enigmatic stranger, clashing with the shades of characters he has known and helped, ravening for just one look of recognition.

Contrary to the criticial consensus, George Bailey is not an “everyman” but a god–an immanent one. The fabric of Bedford Falls is held together by his divine presence. “Pottersville” is the negative image of an impossibility–a creator lost in a creation that could not exist without him.
The sequence is a classic of American existentialist expression–an inversion of Emersonianism, or rather, the product of an Emersonianism that has lost faith in itself (sort of like Hart Crane did–right Aaron?). The whole world remains compartmentalized in a corner of the subject’s mind–only now it’s a dark corner.

It’s often argued that Capra merely rewrote Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for a more democratic age, making the clerk a hero and the miser a fixed referent; but there’s very little logic in this comparison. The protagonists face fundamentally different problems. The agents of Scrooge’s “conversion” come unbidden to force him back into society. Bailey, on the other hand, feels crushed by the weight of his relationships, and prays for some reassurance that his sacrifice has not been in vain. Scrooge’s ghosts show him that a joyful world awaits just beyond the confines of his isolation chamber. Clarence confirms that George’s reality, wothout George, would be a nightmare.

Compare the X-Mas present stave of the Carol to Pottersville–they differ drastically, although they purport to represent the same thing: “reality” untainted by the subjective presence of the protagonist. Clarence tells George: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. And when he’s not around, he leaves an awful hole.” Meanwhile, in a key scene, Fred explains to his guests that “the consequence of [Scrooge] taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he could find in his own thoughts.” There is so much less at stake for Scrooge’s world. It has a substantiality that Bedford Falls lacks. Even the Cratchit household, despite its’ poverty and Tiny Tim’s illness, functions autonomously, with enough agency left over to fuel a gratuitous toast to the old miser. These objects pull Scrooge into their orbit. George Bailey, on the other hand, is a sun on the verge of supernova…

I’d better go! I’ve got reading to do!

Good night friends