untitled

(Im)Proving the Rule
(Soundtrack: Team Dresch — Personal Best)

Time for me to come out of the closet–I am a formalist critic (a neoformalist? a New New Critic? I think of myself as a “self-aware close-reader”–but maybe I’m not as self-aware as I think I am?)

The only difference between me and a modernist critic is that I believe that the reader is at least as responsible for the “structure” of a work as the author. Let’s be clear here–I’m only talking about narrative. It’s the only thing I care about! If that limits me as a critic, I’m ready to accept the fact! We’re all limited, after all…

So. Maybe there are folks out there who don’t read the way I read–and it was wrong of me to claim that I can speak for everyone–but it’s my belief that, whenever you encounter a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a sequence of ideas communicated through language, (in words or, as is often the case with comics and movies, visual language–yes, Virginia, I do believe in visual language!) you make a choice about what value to ascribe to the signifiers in question. You turn the thing over in your mind, and when this interpretive wheel stops spinning, you’ve got yourself a “reading” of what you’ve been reading (and if you’re lucky-it’s “big money!”). You’ve imposed a limited meaning upon a thing that is, in theory, unlimited! The reading process is composed of millions of those decisions (and you constantly “re-read” what you’ve “already read” in the light of whatever you’re reading). The lines of communication, after all, are kept open by our willingness to tell “noble lies” to ourselves (and each other!) about the possibility of intersubjectivity.


Alright. So. What does this have to do with Squadron Supreme? Am I overestimating the formal ingenuity of the series? Well, I’m not ready to admit to that! (not that it’s not up to me, or any other indvidual, anyway! there is no objective standard to which we can appeal in this matter… the work’s formal ingenuity–or lack thereof–can only be established provisionally, through a consensus of opinion on the part of its readers)


But here’s a question: does a work suffer–formally–when it deviates from its own rules? I don’t think so. In fact, this is exactly the kind of thing a formalist critic usually pays attention to! If a narrative is able to generate a certain expectation in the reader’s mind, and then thwarts that expectation, at strategic points…well, that’s a very clear example of where “reader-decision” comes into the process! You could view it as “sloppiness”, or you could interpret it as a creative variation that places emphasis upon a certain aspect of a text. This is, as far as I know, how all musical ingenuity manifests itself, isn’t it? There’s nothing exciting about a metronome. It’s those deviations from the established pattern that generate the excitement in a listener! A great musical composition is like a metronome that goes crazy at very specific moments…

But here’s my problem with music qua music (and anyone who takes note of the “soundtracks” I use here will probably have recognized that I don’t listen to music…not really…I listen to “shouted-word” poetry tangled up in three-chord excitement): it’s a purely autistic artform–i.e. it’s not open to conversation… Narrative, on the other hand, is conversation!

But now you’re asking yourselves–so Dave, last time you talked over these deviations from the pattern of the “one day-per-issue pattern” with the Squadron Supreme, what did the two of you come up with?


That’ll have to wait until next post, because I just took way too long of a break here!!!!!

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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8 comments

  1. I always find people who deny the reader’s role in creating meaning from a text fascinating but incomprehensible. I planned a blog post about different kinds of “lazy readers” who believe in the primacy of authorial intent and rely on various assumptions about the communication of intent as interpretive crutches, but I never got around to writing it. I ought to get to it one of these days….

    Needless to say, I agree with you about the influence of the readers’ interpretation on textual meaning.

  2. I always find people who deny the reader’s role in creating meaning from a text fascinating but incomprehensible.

    Well, obviously the reader reads it. If he or she does not do so, the meaning lays coiled in the text. Without denying the reader that important role in ‘creating meaning from a text’ (I don’t know why, but that sentence immediately grates on me. I don’t mean this to be a criticism, Steven, I’m just expressing the reaction.) You don’t ‘create meaning’. The meaning may be considered to be a collaborative effort between author and reader, but there is a transference here: the meaning goes from the author to the text and is then unlocked by interaction with the audience. Often, it can go no other way: once the act of writing is over, the writer cannot receive whatever textual interpretations most of his or her audience comes up with. He’ll simply never know what most of them have created out of his work. Authorial intent isn’t as important as what the author actually puts on the page, but what’s on the page is important, and can only go from the page into the minds of the readers, and from there be made into whatever it shall become.

    This is one of the reasons I’m personally fascinated in the idea of reading reviews of my own work: it’s the rare opportunity for the author to get the channel of information transfer moving back, to actually see ‘what the reader made of it’ as it were.

    – Matt Rossi

  3. You don’t ‘create meaning’.

    Hmm. Yes, I think David’s notion of imposing a limited meaning on a text that has theoretically unlimited meanings is a better way of saying it. I don’t mean to deny the author’s role in creating meaning.

  4. Dave, my statement about your overestimation was more of an aside, and an invitation to dscuss. I think you’ve already noted some of the other formalistic innovations that SS has introduced–for example, the Lady Lark/Golden Archer scene, which when imitated over a decade later in Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ Batman #531 (part of “The Deadman Connection” story) on page 10 between the Dark Knight and the South American shaman was much lauded as a “innovative” narrative device.

    As far as a visual language is concerned–I’m not so sure that this isn’t more of a parasitic mis-reading of a different kind of re-presentation–just because we can read something visual doesn’t imply that that what is read is language–we can read signs (iconic, indexical or otherwise) without having to create a textual or language narrative to supplant or compliment the reading. This is not to say that the reading couldn’t be more “fleshed out” or “more meaningful” if it amplified by a narrative language (but I’ve already made some of my objections to Neil’s theory of VL here and here).

    whenever you encounter a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a sequence of ideas communicated through language, (in words or, as is often the case with comics and movies, visual language–yes, Virginia, I do believe in visual language!) you make a choice about what value to ascribe to the signifiers in question.

    I think that some of the “choices” are already made for us–given anyone’s linguistic background and environment, there will ultimately be certain features in any presentation that we will either be more likely to pick out, or in some cases, will never be able to pick out–I think this is one of the reasons why I think translation is impossible–there are just some things that we can never comprehend, and that will differ between subjects. And as to “You’ve imposed a limited meaning upon a thing that is, in theory, unlimited!”–meaning is necessrily limited–we just happen to impose further limitations above and beyond how our reading skills (these would be what you refer to as our “choices”) have developed due to our particular individual histories. As far as text being unlimited–I think I touched upon that a bit in response to JW Hastings’ post about The Intentional Fallacy Fallacy–I’ll parallel you with “The lines of meaning generation, afterall, are kept open by our willingness to tell ‘noble lies’ to ourselves (and each other!) about the limitless possibilities of iinterpretation.”

    Getting back to my comment about your overestimation–what you had proposed, as I said before, was intriguing, except it didn’t quite work out that way–and you ask “does a work suffer–formally–when it deviates from its own rules?”–but how are we to know that there was indeed a rule that the work itself is deviating from in the first place? My reading of the series wouldn’t have allowed me to have come up with that provisional conclusion regarding the series flowing in real-time. It wasn’t until you pointed it out that I started reading it that way and found that to not be the case. You address this, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “sloppiness” on the reader’s part–and truth be told, I’ve found much of your reading to be very involved and precise–but precision doesn’t insure certainty (not even in mathematics) or the ability to get at “an essence” (whatever that may be) of a text–and while we could interpret that “as a creative variation that places emphasis upon a certain aspect of a text” we could just as well state that the text itself doesn’t unambiguously designate the rule.

    I look forward to seeing what you think the two of us have come up with regarding the deviations from the pattern you picked out.

    And Matt, to echo your sentiments, meaning isn’t created ex nihilo, just as there are critical periods in neurophysiological development that if not met by certain environmental conditions will preclude the possibility of the biological organism from interpreting the world, there’s also the bare fact that without a text as a prompt, meaning cannot be created about the text. I think the operative phrase here is meaning about the text, non? So yeah, the reader reads it, and creates meaning about it.

    Sure, we can generate meanings, but only as the result of interaction with the world. I think too much has been made of the Chomskian nativist approach in this regard–language (and therefore meaning) hardly arises spontaneously like Athena in our minds as a mentalese. If we as a species don’t get the right range of inputs during certain critical periods, there would be far more feral children running amok…

    Any conflation of “meaning created solely in the reader” with “meaning about a text created solely in the reader” is rather specious at best, and just poor logic otherwise.

  5. Dave, my statement about your overestimation was more of an aside, and an invitation to dscuss. I think you’ve already noted some of the other formalistic innovations that SS has introduced–for example, the Lady Lark/Golden Archer scene, which when imitated over a decade later in Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ Batman #531 (part of “The Deadman Connection” story) on page 10 between the Dark Knight and the South American shaman was much lauded as a “innovative” narrative device.

    Fascinating!! This just shows how my lack of exposure to comics post-1991 limits me as an historian of the genre…I had no idea that these later texts existed!


    Getting back to my comment about your overestimation–what you had proposed, as I said before, was intriguing, except it didn’t quite work out that way–and you ask “does a work suffer–formally–when it deviates from its own rules?”–but how are we to know that there was indeed a rule that the work itself is deviating from in the first place? My reading of the series wouldn’t have allowed me to have come up with that provisional conclusion regarding the series flowing in real-time. It wasn’t until you pointed it out that I started reading it that way and found that to not be the case. You address this, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “sloppiness” on the reader’s part–

    no no! I just meant that, in a case like this, a reader could dismiss the author as
    “sloppy” and absolve him/herself of the task of thinking about what the “lapse” might mean! Now, as to whether there is a rule in the first place, well, that can’t really be proven…I mean, it felt to me as if there was, and the best evidence I can produce is that, most of the issues do take place over a period of no more than 24 hours, and the fact that every issues features some statement to the effect that the events of the issue which preceded it had occurred “one month ago” (as opposed to, in most comics-“some time ago”, “recently”, “A little while back”, etc… even if the events in question were published before the reader was born!)

    but precision doesn’t insure certainty (not even in mathematics) or the ability to get at “an essence” (whatever that may be) of a text

    true–“essence” and “certainty” are lies too, and not even “noble” ones!


    Any conflation of “meaning created solely in the reader” with “meaning about a text created solely in the reader” is rather specious at best, and just poor logic otherwise.

    No question about this–all meaning must ground itself upon some text–and, moreover, some “other” must be present to provide a pretext for the process… You can’t have meaning unless you’re involved in a conversation–and, even if you’re just talking about the proverbial weather–you can’t talk about “nothing”!

    Dave

  6. Fascinating!! This just shows how my lack of exposure to comics post-1991 limits me as an historian of the genre…I had no idea that these later texts existed!

    Yeah, I wouldn’t have thought about it if you hadn’t mentioned the predecessor in SS (and to tell the truth, I’m still trying to find some of my other portions of the run of the limited series)–I might just have to pick up the trade instead. Also, I’m going to try to find the reference made regarding that particular Bat issue and the claims to innovation of that particular narrative sequence.

    no no! I just meant that, in a case like this, a reader could dismiss the author as
    “sloppy” and absolve him/herself of the task of thinking about what the “lapse” might mean!

    Right–and I pointed out that it wasn’t what I thought you were doing (being sloppy, that is), since I have been reading your work for some time now, and therefore have that background to use as a measure of your critical abilities.

    I think it’s far to easy to just pejoratively to be dismissive of a viewpoint when you’re not up to the task of figuring out a reason why such a viewpoint is had. In fact, I had some things to say regarding the this type of rhetoric that’s dismissive of another reader’s context as well as how these types of rhetoric can be used to dismiss or conflate another veiwpoint.

    I mean, it felt to me as if there was, and the best evidence I can produce is that, most of the issues do take place over a period of no more than 24 hours, and the fact that every issues features some statement to the effect that the events of the issue which preceded it had occurred “one month ago”

    Except for the one issue I pointed out that indicates two months progreesion between issues 2 and 3. To be fair to you–Gruenwald is certainly “compressing” time–most of the instances that do actually represent some passage of time take place within a frame or two with the textual narrative giving the duration passed. So there’s something going on there–I’m jsut not sure it’s quite what you made of it.

    true–“essence” and “certainty” are lies too, and not even “noble” ones!

    Hah–I have come to realize that despite our many differences regarding reading, there are lots of things that we do agree upon. I just like to refer to “certainty” and “essence” as useful ideological fictions for a western post-enlightenment context.

    Now one really interesting question for me is that, since there was (or rather, “will be”) a cure for cancer, and we purportively have one of the most brilliant, if not the most brilliant minds in Tom Thumb, why is it that Gruenwald felt the need have Tom Thumb so easily give up when presented with cure by the Scarlet Centurian? I think this more pressing–and in a sense more relevant–issue for any time is quite indicative of the theme of the series as a whole–and in a sense Tom Thunb might be allegorically the “unsung” dissident to the Utopia project that both Nightwing and Amphibian, through their more conventional and active rebellion, could never be.

    I think that Tom Thumb’s rejection of the pill of argonite is an index of what Gruenwald may have though was how we should reject SS’s methods as a whole–a sort of rejection of the “magic bullet” solution that has come to symbolize not only the Western medical profesison, but just the general approach by modern post-industrial societies to problems as a whole…

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