Saturday, January 14, 2006

Infinite Interlocution: On Multiplicity (Postscript)

Imagine my surprise—not to mention my delight—when Marc Singer wrote a lengthy, thoughtful reply to my rambling, highly speculative musings on the cultural politics of Infinite Crisis. Too vain not to lob the ball back over the net, I tried again. Anyone who’s still standing after all that theorizing will be as excited as I was to learn that Marc has recently posted a dazzling fourth installment to our debate on I Am Not the Beastmaster. Marc’s eloquent riposte to Part 3 of On Multiplicity is, in a word, persuasive. His trenchant critique 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” sounds a warning that all cultural critics should heed—myself included. Thanks for the tremendous conversation, Marc. I will defer any further response until Infinite Crisis has run its course, but I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last about the politics of multiplicity around these parts...


Thomas said...

Reading this discussion from the sidelines, it becomes fairly apparent that what we are dealing with are two different types of readers. Jim is willing to “take what he can get” from art. Marc “needs more than blank multiplicity.”

Jim “takes” from art in a participatory manner, working with the text to uncover political radicalisms that may or may not have been intended by the author. Marc expects art to deliver a ready made political radicalism that fulfills his “needs”.

While Marc seems to take the more actively political stance in refusing to be lulled into complacency by a text which is only superficially radical in its multiplicity, I ultimately tend to side with Jim’s approach.

Once the text has been created and put forth into the world, the artists have done their part. It is then up to the reader/critics to turn that text into political reality.

Marc sits back, dismissing texts as ultimately conservative while awaiting a perfect text, fully formed in its political radicalism, which will never actually arrive. Whereas, rather than demanding more of the artist, Jim takes what he has been given and finds within it the politics which he seeks. Jim engages with these texts in the here and now, finding his politics wherever he can get it, rather than forever procrastinating actual engagement by continually bemoaning the current art as not radical enough.

I am vaguely reminded of a line from The Invisibles. The believe King Mob is discussing Timothy Leary, and Morrison writes something along the lines of how his misguided followers expected Leary to take them over the edge, rather than just show them the door. It seems as though Marc expects his artists to take him over the edge, while Jim acknowledges that it is his responsibility to walk through the door on his own. The art can only show the way.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I don't know...does Marc really do all that much bemoaning? Jim always surprises me with what he can tease out of a reading (how does he do it? Amazing!), but I feel Marc is plenty engaged, too, and I envy his acuity.

It's a good match. Interesting give-and-take. Can't wait for the next chapter!


Thomas said...


Reading over the post, it sounds a little more like I am attacking Marc than I intended. I just meant to point out that these two critics approach a text differently, which certainly makes for interesting reading.

Anonymous said...

Agreed back atcha! It certainly does.

It is interesting how Jim manages to get the maximum mileage even from things like the Satan's Seven issue of Fantastic fact I laughed out loud on first reading of his analysis, because it seemed like he was making Nicholas Scratch shift an awful lot of weight. It seemed like a devilishly elaborate version of that joke you see all the time these days, the joke on postmodernism's ability to draw large meanings out of small texts. But then, of course, I read it again, and noticed that damn if that stuff isn't all in there somehow. Yes, I forgot: that ability of postmodernism (forgive me for using that word) to draw such larger meanings out of even the smallest things is (I think) a big part of why we value it.

So while I don't necessarily think I agree with all the particulars of your comparison between the two guys (though I'm not yet sure I disagree, either), I am with you as far as the basic contrast goes: where I read Marc for the lucid (one is tempted to say "sparkling") quality of his criticism, I read Jim for the mad excess of his enthusiasm, and this - for me, anyway - is what makes the match. For you too, I take it.

Is cool, no?


Thomas said...

Very cool indeed!

You note that postmodern theory allows one to find big things in small texts. I don’t quite agree. It is not the theory that allows one to find layer upon layer of meaning within a comic book, or a TV show, or what have you, but rather, one’s enthusiasm for the medium.

Ask any kid about Pokemon or Star Wars, and they can go on for hours, with no knowledge of theory whatsoever. They are able to find seemingly endless depths of meaning within these “little texts” simply because they love the stories.

It is the same with Double Articulation. Jim’s writing is able to make such fascinating observations because he loves these stories and this medium, not because he has such a great handle on theory. The theory is just the means by which his enthusiasm is understood, harnessed, and (if you will pardon the pun) articulated.

Jim Roeg said...

Thomas, Merriman: Thanks for the great discussion and reflections--it's been an incredibly busy few weeks so I haven't had time to reply until now, but I've really been enjoying the back and forth here. I almost hate to break in and add anything since you've both already articulated some of the distinctions between my approach and Marc Singer's so well, but you have tempted me into a small confession.

As I have already admitted to Marc in a private email (and as I've admitted somewhat more coyly in this post), I find Marc's critique of the type of reading I've been attempting incredibly persuasive on its own terms. When making claims for the "political" value of a text, there's one crucial test: at the end of the day, will it change anyone's mind? Will it affect--even if only indirectly--the order of things? Sure, it's great fun for me to do my thing, and my secret hope is that my rarified enthusiasms will, themselves perform a kind of politicizing of some of these texts that the texts themselves (in some cases) might not fully support. (Yes, my vanity is boundless.) But, from an absolute, evaluative point of view, will anyone who is not already among the "converted" (i.e. lefty pomo/poco types) really derive meaningful political messages from the "multiplicity" of Infinite Crisis spontaneously, without these interventions--these "doubled articulations"? Marc's answer is no; and I almost completely agree with him. (Some days I agree completely, some days I'm not sure.)

His concern, clearly, is that it would be a mistake to equate the kind of "active" reading I do with either (a) "doing" real politics or (b) "discovering" real radicalisms within the text. I take his point. At the same time, though, I hold out the faint, utopian hope that something like what Thomas very flatteringly describes as taking the "responsibility to walk through the door" where interpreting art is concerned might be made possible in the first place by the defamilizations of popular fantasy (be it superheroes, "high" fantasy, horror, SF, what have you). In other words, maybe these texts really do have a kind of political charge by virtue of their formal and thematic departures from a reality that is unjust and unsatisfying. Maybe I'm just guilty of inverting whatshisname's notorious conclusions about The Seduction of the Innocent. In any event, my own take on these issues owes more than a little to Fredric Jameson's remarks about the utopian function of art, and for many, Jameson's neo-Marxism is a shaky foundation upon which to build. I have not fully worked through what I think of Jameson's reading of popular culture (and he keeps writing more books about it!) but I do find much food for thought in his work. No doubt I will revisit all these issues in the coming months (and years, god willing) in various ways as I sort them out for myself.

For now, though, as the ambivalence of even this brief reply suggests, I want to have my cake and eat it too--that is, to amuse myself with my wild excesses and still to feel that they may--may--have some redeeming social value. Augh! The guilty hedonist speaks!

Sharif said...

I don't really think a Jamesonian reading is in order. Jameson thinks you can fly over a text and literally "see" class down below, or politics or whathaveyou in the text. It's as if Oliver Queen were to imagine he got some kind of x-ray vision. In any case, I think fending around for ideology will always dredge up ideology. Multiplicity brings you different moods; infinite tempos on infinite worlds; worlds that are shaped around genres (western, romance, etc). One ideology can cross different genres and it might buckle depending on its implication in that genre. I don't know Pre-Crisis DC well enough to comment more fully. But those are just my thoughts off the top of my head.

Jim Roeg said...

Sharif - LOL! Oliver Queen with X-Ray vision is about as perfect a caricature of Jameson as I can imagine. And yes, Jameson's X-Ray vision certainly produces some tendentious political readings (as does mine!). Nonetheless, I'm doubtful that any text evades ideology completely--it's there whether we search for it or not; the only question for me is whether we register its presence consciously, or whether it works on us unawares. At the same time, though, the reason I like Jameson has even more to do with the space he preserves for utopianism within popular culture and fantasy. I'm aware that, on the basis of my take on all respresentation being ideological in some way, any defense of "utopianism" may be the most ideological position of all. Which is why I feel so ambivalent about my guilty pleasures and my mooning after multiplcity. A knotty issue.