Saturday, November 26, 2005

What is Multiplicity? A Response to Marc Singer

Marc Singer paid me the compliment last week of writing a collegial critique of my own rather scattered musings on the politics of multiplicity that I saw (or hoped to see) in DC’s Infinite Crisis. Marc’s reply to On Multiplicity: The Pleasures and Politics of Infinite Crises on Infinite Earths was both thought-provoking and fair—in fact, I wish that all academic interlocutors were as generous about disagreeing with someone as Marc is in Multiple Articulation. As Marc’s essay makes clear through its numerous asides and qualifications, our positions are not always as far apart as they might seem. Nonetheless, he raises two significant (and interrelated) objections to my argument that I can’t resist exploring a little further here. As will quickly become evident, Marc’s essay stimulated a lot of thoughts, and although I begin each section by responding to some of his concerns, I usually end up wandering off along tangential paths that are no longer direct responses to his critique, and sometimes circle back to common ground.

Marc’s first objection to my reading of the DC multiverse concerns my claim that comic book representations of multiplicity could have genuine political value. “As a scholar of popular culture I wouldn't dismiss [such arguments] out of hand,” Marc writes, but it’s “a pretty big leap” from the insular world of comic book Hyperverses or Multiverses to “political manifesto[s]” about multiplicity because what such imaginary stories give us is “multiplicity without any practical effects.” I’ve written about my critical method before, and I could simply take the coward’s way out and say that I’m not doing pure criticism here so much as using Crisis as a sounding board for my own tedious preoccupations, as I so often do. But that wouldn’t be entirely true, since I really am interested in thinking about the political implications of popular culture—particularly in what are regarded as its most conservative forms. On this point, Marc and I agree on one thing at least (maybe more); as he acknowledges throughout the essay, I share his scepticism that “any particular narrative framework guarantees any particular type of politics.” But I would frame the issue in a slightly different way, and this has to do with that slippery word, “guarantees.”

Marc’s warning about the danger of seeing something like Infinite Crisis as politically subversive takes issue with what I would call “strong” formulations of the relation between culture (“narrative frameworks”) and politics. His argument here is really with Will Brooker, who, by Marc’s account, does appear to offer a genuinely “strong” formulation to the culture-politics relation (in his discussion of Hypertime’s political frisson) and thus seems to leave himself vulnerable to the accusation of naïve wankery that haunts all avant-garde criticism. Of course, my own blogging courts precisely this accusation as well! But my starting point is quite different from the one that Brooker stands accused of adopting: I’m asserting only a “weak” formulation of the culture-politics relation on the grounds that, with the possible exception of pure propaganda from either the left or the right, most forms of popular culture are ideologically uneven and contradictory, containing both reactionary and subversive political messages and that this ideological unevenness is especially visible in popular forms like superhero comic books—mass market yet strangely subcultural fantasies which do not simply mythologize but also interrogate the cultural/political contexts in which they are produced. Certainly, I agree with Marc that no narrative framework “guarantees” politics, but narrative frameworks do constantly “register,” “reflect,” “map,” or “model” ways of conceptualizing political thought, even if they do not overtly or primarily “intend” to—though, as every fan knows, mainstream comics have had ambitious, explicitly political content for a very long time now. What this might mean for interpretation is that even mainstream, continuity-driven events like Crisis contain alternative forms of political modeling that strain against their overt (corporate) aims, and exist in tension with what Johanna Draper Carlson has recently called the innately conservative nature of all superheroes.

Are images of pluralism (even pseudo-pluralism) in superhero comics simply an example of “multiplicity without any practical effects”? Perhaps. But that depends in part on how one defines “practical effects.” Again, I would offer a “weak” formulation of this concept rather than a “strong” one. If comic book multiplicity has any “practical effects,” these would necessarily be pedagogical, long term, and probably unconscious (which is not to say inconsequential, particularly if you believe, as I do, that our political choices are profoundly determined by unconscious investments and not simply by our dispassionate weighing of options on the one hand or by media-manipulation on the other). Moreover, many forms of cultural production, comics included, are capable of providing optics through which to view the world in which we live with fresh eyes. Like Brechtian drama, in other words, comic book representations of postmodernity might have a defamiliarizing effect, something about which Mark Fossen has recently reminded us.

Of course, these are all somewhat airy speculations, and whether or not they really illuminate the new Crisis is highly debatable, not only because we’re talking about a work that is only half started, but because its ideological investments may end up swinging so far in the direction of 1950s values as to negate any meaningful “multiplicity” at all (though I doubt it). My main point is simply that in the context of the current depressing ascendancy of strong ideologies like nationalism, imperialism, and religious fundamentalism (both within “the West” and outside it), I’ll take my multiplicity where I can get it. (Yes, even if I have to make it up!) In all seriousness, though, the circulation of even very basic and decontextualized representations of multiplicity can only be said to do “nothing”—to have no “practical effects”—if we accept the premise that cultural artifacts must be free of the taint of a dominant (conservative) ideology to achieve political purchase. This is a question I think a great deal about, and to be honest, I have yet to answer it to my satisfaction. Still, I’m not prepared to accept the argument that superhero comics are an inherently conservative form, if only because this isn’t true to my own experience of reading—something about which I apparently have no shortage of things to say. (And just for the record: I don’t think that Marc is claiming that they are either—I’m just riffing here, as usual.)

Marc’s second and more serious objection to my reading of Infinite Crisis concerns the value of “multiplicity” as a political concept, and this may be a point on which we genuinely disagree, though even here, I’m not sure our positions are all that far apart. His concerns about my “celebration of multiplicity for its own sake” stem primarily from the extent to which he sees my position overlapping with Will Brooker’s euphoric brand of relativist postmodernism (a celebration of multiplicity as “empty pastiche” or “fluidity and play”) and, more tenuously, with what can only be called the appalling hijacking of “minoritarian” rhetoric from the Culture Wars debates of the 1990s by the cynical and opportunistic architects of the “Intelligent Design” lobby. As Marc acknowledges, the comparison of my take on the virtues of multiplicity to the obscene, depressing appropriation of a legitimate and necessary multicultural politics by religious fundamentalists is not just “unfair” but “completely unfair” (whew!). Nonetheless, I take his point: “a point that too many left-wingers and academics ignore,” namely that “openness and diversity are not always worthwhile goals in themselves, and certainly not the only worthwhile goals. They don’t automatically guarantee a progressive politics, or even a diverse politics.” To the charge of being a left-wing academic, I can only plead guilty, and of course, Marc is absolutely right about the dangers of an uncritical celebration of “multiplicity.” Anyone who argues for “multiplicity for its own sake” will inevitably get a bloody nose when they run up against the brick wall of such “diverse” viewpoints as fascism and fundamentalism.

So, what do I intend (beyond simply amusing myself) when I say hyperbolic things like “bring on a politics of Infinite Crisis. It’s past time to make an ‘infinite’ peace with multiplicity”? This certainly sounds like “multiplicity for its own sake,” but that’s not quite what I mean. In general, what I was alluding to were several different notions of multiplicity that I rather clumsily lumped together in an obfuscating rhetorical flourish.

1. In one sense, it’s true, I was taking multiplicity to simply mean “pluralism” or even simply a clash of ideologies. And on this point I would reaffirm Marc’s warning that an uncritical pluralism has many pitfalls and can lead to some dangerous impasses. But there is a difference between pluralism (as a social practice) and relativism (as a philosophical postulate), and I don’t think that the former can necessarily be reduced to the latter. The thorny question about pluralism obviously concerns how one adjudicates situations in which a respect for cultural diversity runs up against cultural practices that are either morally repugnant (according to one’s own cultural values) or which directly challenge the viability of the social contract. Within the context of civil society, institutions like the law ostensibly operate as a brake that prevents “pluralism” from become an anarchic clash of values with no common basis for appeal. There are all kinds of problems with this, of course, since the law is always someone’s law rather than a neutral bearer of “universal” values. My point is only that “multiplicity” in this social sense does not imply a sort of nihilistic “postmodern” relativism (and, as I will suggest below, postmodern multiplicity should not be reduced to this shorthand caricature). In a certain sense, superhero comics could be said to exemplify this kind of tension in the productive conflict that emerges between the multiplicity signalled by their main motifs (superheroes, sometimes thematized in explicitly minoritarian terms, as in X-Men) and their controlling themes (justice, right, the nature of good and evil—themes which have happily been complicated by the “dark” turn that DC has recently taken). In a work like Crisis, this tension is heightened further: the issue of multiplicity becomes more explicit and thematically central, even as, in a curious way, it is juxtaposed with the sort of simplistic 1950s morality that we have come, with good reason, to mistrust. Difference and sameness, multiplicity on common ground. In Culture and Imperialism Edward Said speaks eloquently of the need for a “new humanism” that would not eradicate or ignore genuine cultural differences, but would nonetheless provide the basis for a common language through which to negotiate urgent questions of global justice. It would be naïve to think that any contemporary society has achieved that “new humanist” dream of multiplicity on common ground, but it is not impossible to see such a utopian paradox represented (in a yet imperfect and contradictory form) in the weird hybrid genre of superhero comics, absurd as that may sound. Moreover, the fact that DC’s (formerly) “infinite” earths draw attention to the global dimension of these questions is, to say the least, suggestive.

2. But “multiplicity” has also acquired another set of connotations in postmodern thought that really pose a fatal challenge to the multiplicity of the sort that I’ve been describing so far. Whereas the more traditional way of thinking multiplicity as “pluralism” or even “cultural relativism” tends to emphasize the boundaries between cultures (to treat cultures and cultural viewpoints as if they were organic wholes), postmodern multiplicity (as it is articulated by Deleuze and Guattari or Judith Butler, for instance) challenges the idea that it is either accurate or desirable to speak of “multiplicity” on this level at all because, at the end of the day, “identity” (be it cultural, sexual, or whatever), is a falsifying projection. Human beings are really composed of a sort of micro-multiplicity that obtains at the level of both mind and body, now imagined as split, fragmented, polymorphous, and criss-crossed by diverse, often conflicting social codes and desires. This suspicion of “identity” arises from many sources, but it emerged especially as a challenge to the type of identity politics that animated (and some would say stymied) the Culture Wars of the 90s. The critique of identity this branch of modern theory offers is typically complemented by an endorsement of a notoriously idealist “micro-politics” that emphasizes somewhat dubious but sometimes effective forms of culture jamming and political protest organized around temporary fluid alliances based on shared interests, rather than on universalizing political programs based around a single unifying idea (eg. Marxism or feminism). This type of multiplicity might be signalled abstractly through the language of “crisis” and “infinity” in DC’s current crossover, but it is probably most evident more generally in the representation of the mutant or superhero body as a site of constant movement and transformation. I could multiply examples on this point, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.

3. Finally, this version of postmodern multiplicity is itself multiple, for it has another dimension that acknowledges the simple fact that identities are not simply “ours” to shape and control but are often (indeed inevitably) imposed on us by social codes and practices whose operation can be more or less violent, but is certainly not voluntary. Human beings, no matter how internally “multiple” they might be, have no choice but to engage with the power structures that address them and to demand recognition within those structures. For this reason even the most utopian postmodern tributes to the liberating annihilation of conventional identities often contain precisely the sort of caution that Marc’s essay eloquently provides against the dangers of uncritical multiplicity. The following parable is one of my favourite passages from A Thousand Plateaus, a book of postmodern philosophy by Deleuze and Guattari that for the most part extols the liberating virtues of demolishing conventional notions of identity and politics (which they associate with “striated space”) to create a “smooth space” of perpetual movement, flux, alliance, and transformation. Note the all-important qualification at the end:

What interests us in operations of striation and smoothing are precisely the passages or combinations: how the forces at work within space continually striate it, and how in the course of its striation it develops other forces and emits new smooth spaces. Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth spaces: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller. Movements, speed and slowness, are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.
“Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.” This is how Marc concludes his essay too, and it’s a caveat that I took to be implicit in my own musings about making “infinite” peace with multiplicity, even though it was murkily conveyed. It cannot be repeated often enough. As for the larger issues: how do these three forms of multiplicity fit together? can they be reconciled? do superhero comics provide a useful sounding board for thinking about multiplicity and its relations? These are not easy questions, but they’re certainly questions worth exploring further...


Anonymous said...

Just a quick note here on the Johanna Draper Carlson aside which takes up a large part of political sidedness she takes (not her assessment of the book in question)is a chronic assumption going way back to Ecco and his Superman essay. In other words it not a matter of "of course they are..."

Political bias perpetuated or practical analysis? Sounds like one is taking oneself to task over someone else’s “innately conservative nature of all superheroes.” The rest just builds on this assumption seeking not just political side but a political correctness.

Anonymous said...

After only a month and a half, I've finally added another reply here. Hope you enjoy it. Oh, and thanks for all the link action lately!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

As for the larger issues: how do these three forms of multiplicity fit together? can they be reconciled?

The thing is, I don't think they can't be reconciled--that there's the possibility (and/or actuality) of there being a multiplicity of viewpoints about multiplicity doesn't imply that there isn't some 'organic "whole"' somewhere (where that is is anybody's guess).

We may never be able to find that whole--or even know it, for that matter--but arguing for a fragmented essence isn't really all that different than arguing for an organically whole essence. They are realy just two sides of an ontological coin.

I don't think you're really arguing one way or the other here, Jim--but often the issue of fragmentation vs organic unity tends to become dichotomized in discourse.

There is still that Buddhist proverbial middle way, which isn't all that strange an interpretation when considering the fact that the technical negation of the quantified locutions all identity is fragmentary and all identity is essentially whole are, respectively, some identity is fragmentary (or the logically equivalent "not all identity is fragmentary") and some identity is essentially whole (or the logically equivalent "no all identity is essentially whole").

So much of critical discourse (imo) misses the mark on these distinctions (especially structuralism/post-structuralism) and would rather focus on the dichotomizing "all" or "none" or the play of opposites rather than seeing something more along the lines of a continuum from one end of an extreme to another. Most everything seems (to me) to fall in the messiness near the middle.