Archive for the ‘Ian Hacking’ Category

Obviously, I hate comics

July 2, 2007

I never really went away.

That stretch of one set of footprints? That’s where I was carrying you!

The Three Paradoxes, Paul Hornschmeier. Fantagraphics, 2007. $14.95, 84 pages.

There’s a scene in Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix where long-suffering character Sinus O’Gynus gets sent to Hell. The devil leads Sinus to a well-stocked library where he is to spend the rest of eternity. Oh well, thinks Sinus, this isn’t too bad–and then he realizes it’s not a library. It’s a graphic novel library.

Naturally, he’s horrified. I know just how he feels.

As comics have gentrified over the last five years, they’ve drifted toward the sensibilities of their new, middlebrow readership. They’ve done this largely by imitating the worst tendencies in the modern non-graphic novels familiar to that same new readership. The worst tendency of all being their myopic focus on the minor travails of the middle-class (economic and intellectual), and the most banal of everyday epiphanies.

Exhibit 1,213 for the prosecution: The Three Paradoxes.

Hornschmeier’s last book, Let Us Perfectly Clear, was a collection of his earlier, shorter work. Some might say that book was strongly influenced by Chris Ware, but let’s not mince words. It might as well have been called Schmacme Shmovelty Smibrary, only it fell far short of Ware’s originality, or his savage gallows humour. Still, at least Hornschmeier was aping one of the five best cartoonists of his generation and not, say, Michael Turner. Or Art Spiegelman or Marianne Satrapi, for that matter.

The Three Paradoxes represents a definite step backward in Hornschmeier’s artistic development. For the Ware influence has attenuated, to be replaced by an equally heavy Dan Clowes influence. Visually, that’s troubling but not the end of the world. Thematically, it’s just disastrous. For it’s the trite, “literary” Clowes post-Ghost World that Hornschmeier has now applied the tracing paper to, and not the earlier, funnier Clowes.

Thus the book’s barely-there plot: Paul, a cartoonist, is back home visiting his parents. He has trouble finishing a strip, takes a walk, reminisces about his childhood, free associates about the check-out guy at the service station, frets about an upcoming meeting with an internet pen-pal, and thinks about Zeno’s paradoxes. The End.

A couple of factors mitigate The Three Paradoxes‘ overall slightness. First, Hornschmeier at least avoids the unearned self-pity that so often clogs the new “graphic novels”. His autobiographical proxy doesn’t feel sorry for himself, nor does he offers apologiae for making comics. This latter may reflect a generational difference between the young Hornschmeier and his older peers like Ware, Clowes, et al. Comics are so respectable now that you don’t even have to apologize for making them!

Second, even though his line remains derivative, Hornschmeier is still a visually appealing draughtsman, with an especially gentle use of colour here. The section recounting Zeno’s paradoxes is a treat, a pastiche of Dell Comics (home of Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge, among others). Extra kudos for his ugly-cute depiction of Socrates, notorious for his bad head.

In fact, the Zeno section is far and away the best part of the book, precisely because it wrests the book momentarily from (semi?) autobiography and thereby allows it to flourish. It flourishes by becoming something quite different, something we might call popular philosophy–explaining philosophy to the layperson.

Popular philosophy has a long and respectable tradition in the West, starting well before the current publishing craze for popular science, popular economics, popular cultural history and popular phrenology. Cicero wrote popular philosophy, as did Lewis Carroll (while cleverly alluding to Zeno, too) and Bertrand Russell, and the tradition is carried on by modern philosophers like Dan Dennett and Ian Hacking.

But popularizing anything is a tricky business, as shown by all the lousy pop books out there. Hornschmeier acquits himself admirably in the all-too brief pages where he discusses the paradoxes in question. Devised by the Greek philosopher Zeno, the paradoxes purport to show that our everyday notions of physical motion are incoherent. Hornschmeier, himself trained in philosophy, presents them succinctly and entertainingly, an object lesson to all would-be popularisers and educators.

By contrast, his attempts to connect the paradoxes with his navel-gazing ruminations in the rest of the book are unconvincing and half-baked. This isn’t so much a novel of ideas as a (dull) novel with some (very well explained) ideas tacked on.

In short, The Three Paradoxes is one of the most frustrating comics of the year. Hornschmeier is clearly talented and intelligent, and may have great work in him. But not yet. Visually, he would do well to develop his own style and get out from the shadow of his influences–no easy matter. Thematically, at least, the solution is clearer: get out of the generic cul-de-sac of autobiography and jump right into the real ideas. For the few pages when he does this here, The Three Paradoxes soars.

Or, to put it another way: less whining, more opining.

Recommended?Maybe in ten years’ time, when we can look back at the early promise shown in this book. Until then, not so much.

IYL Graphic novels. You know who you are.


Sexual assault, incest and chicken-f**kers

February 15, 2007

Part 1 of a gripping 2-part maxiseries!

To anyone who got here through a perverted google-search: you’ll have to wait until Part 2 to get the incest and chicken-f**king. Yeah, I’m a dirty little tease. Everyone else, jump on in.

A few days ago, I posted a review of The Essential Ant-Man, making hay out of Hank Pym’s domestic issues. My thesis was that ole High-pockets’ domestic abuse made him an irredeemable character. Domestic abuse, I claimed, left a moral stain on the character, one that could only be washed away by exceptional means.

Several commenters took me to task for this, pointing out various fictional examples where domestic abuse didn’t leave a moral stain on a character. Marc Singer even pointed to cases where sexual assault didn’t leave a moral stain.

So: mea culpa. I wuz wrong. Hardly an auspicious start to my future of blogging fame, stardom and all-night coke parties at Studio 54. But I still think I was onto something, just not the right thing. Stick with me while I try to get at the right thing, and ultimately tie it all back to comics.

First, I did conflate three different issues in my original review:

(1) domestic assault

(2) sexual assault

(3) violations of sexual morality.

(1) and (2) are easy enough to grasp. What’s (3)? Well, our culture–like any culture–has certain norms about what is and what isn’t appropriate sexual behaviour. Some of these norms are “moralized”–that is to say, among other things, considered to deserve harsh punishment. More on that in part 2.

I maintain that (3) really is generally treated as unforgivable in our culture, except in extraordinary circumstances. But I now admit that our culture equivocates on (1) and (2).

Consider sexual assault first. In most contexts, sexual assault is also a violation of sexual morality. For example, there’s an unsettling scene in Mike Leigh’s film Naked, where Jeremy/Sebastian rapes Sophie. [Uh, SPOILER, I guess] This rape is clearly also a violation of sexual morality, and therefore unforgivable. It underlines Jeremy’s diabolical nature, that he is utterly morally vile.

But commenter Marc Singer pointed to some fictional contexts where sexual assault doesn’t violate sexual morality. Notably, a certain kind of lurid romance novel where rape is presented as sexually liberating (this is also a motif in some erotica, although Marc is too much a gentleman to mention this).

Presumably the reason these fictional acts don’t violate sexual morality is that, in some sense, they aren’t really rape. Precisely because the action is presented as liberating, there’s some sort of idealized consent on the part of the victim. Now, I don’t want to dwell on the semantics of “rape”; someone could very well insist that those really are rapes, they’re just special kinds of rape. And how would we resolve this disagreement? My point is just that these kinds of fantasies, where rape can be “good”, are the exception in fiction rather than the rule. And they have certain kinds of constraints, e.g. the victim must be “liberated” by the act (whatever that means), must recognize that s/he has been liberated, must accept his/her liberation and so on.

As for domestic assault, the point I take from the comments is that domestic assault is rarely considered a violation of sexual morality. Where my review fell down is that I assumed otherwise. Wrong!

Why did I think domestic assault was a violation of sexual morality in the first place? Here’s where things get wonky, folks. The historian and philosopher of science Ian Hacking has some interesting material on the history of “child abuse” as a concept. One of his claims is that this concept didn’t exist until the 20th century. It was only in the 20th century that various interest groups promoted the idea of child abuse as a unified entity–a “natural kind”, as philosophers say–including both physical and sexual abuse.

The result of this conceptual development is that physical abuse of children has become even more morally potent. Sexual morality evokes powerful responses, and one of the strongest elicitors in our culture is sexual abuse of children. Seriously, apart from incest, I cannot think of a single sexual act you could perform that would be as morally outrageous as pederasty. You could peg the pope while forcibly tea-bagging the president, and it still wouldn’t seem as bad as sexually abusing a child.

Then again, I’m a lapsed Catholic and not American, so your mileage may vary.

Anyway, because sexual morality elicits such powerful emotions, some of that bleeds into our response to physical abuse of children. Hence physical abuse of children is now strongly moralized in our culture, too.

So I, rather dunder-headedly, got to thinking that the same might be true for domestic assault and general sexual assault. Maybe domestic abuse got some of that same moral charge from its sexual associations. And I was wrong. Duh. In the educated West, beating your wife is considered wrong. Just not as wrong as, say, tea-bagging the president.

Tune in later for part 2 where things get even wonkier, I talk about sexual morality in comics, plus: chicken-f**kers!