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The Big Parade (1925)

Okay, so maybe it’s a tiny bit of a stretch, but I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of Renée Adorée (as The Big Parade‘s Melissande) and Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty” (“Leading the People”)

I’ve been calling King Vidor a “Romantic” and a “Transcendentalist”–and this exercise might help to clarify what I mean by those terms. The Delacroix painting, of course, is one of the quintessential products of European Romanticism–a multifarious movement which exalted human “spirit” (and/or “Nature”) over the dead letter of conformity, legalism and (in its extreme form) “culture”. Perhaps the most important corollary of Romanticism’s quarrel with the school of thought that had preceded it upon the intellectual stage was a tendency to celebrate “the particular” at the expense of that sine qua non of Enlightenment Rationalism–“the universal”.  I’m sure that sounds quite radical, and in a few cases (Shelley, Victor Hugo) it actually was–however, as the 19th century progressed, mainline Romanticism definitely hardened into the aesthetic fist of  Old World reactionary politics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Hegel and derivatives–except for Marx, of course). This occurred because the particular “particular” that most of these folks latched onto was a Frankenstein Monster of “national character” defined by language, scientistic theories about “blood” and pre-Enlightenment Myth. And so in the above painting, “Liberty” rises from the collective breast of the “people” and spurs them to some triumphant realization of the ideal French state.

There was no shortage of this type of Romantic in the “New World” either–especially in the South, where people like William Gilmore Simms hearkened back to a fantasy of Medieval Order that they believed had been “perfected” by that region’s “peculiar institution”. Proslavery romanticism invented a nation (of “whiteness”) within the nation, and gloried in its unique destiny. The really interesting thing, though, is that (with the disturbing exception of Edgar Allan Poe–an anti-democratic departure unto himself) the most vital products of American Romanticism depart markedly from the European pattern. My undergraduate thesis (written more than 10 years ago now!) speculated upon the sources of this divergence. The short answer? If you want to celebrate the distinctiveness of a nation that was brought into being by Enlightenment theory, you wind up clinging to a belief in universal human rights AS the leading “characteristic” of your “particular” heritage. Hence the paradoxical title of the piece: “Enlightened Romantics”. So what are you saying Fiore? America=”good”; Europe=”bad”. Certainly not! However, I do think it’s important to acknowledge this divergence–and to take its implications as seriously as possible. Each intellectual tradition offers its own strikingly different network of roads to (imagined) Utopia and (very real) Hell (and to a whole lot of places in between). As a weird latter-day Gramscian (hence the goofy non-anagrammatic title of my blog), I believe that leftist thinkers who cherish any minuscule hope of steering the ship in the direction of social justice must engage popular culture head on (Adorno is my bête noire; well, Adorno and Ronald McDonald).

Enter King Vidor (and his version of “liberty”–who must remain on the sidelines, while “the people”–exemplified by an American doughboy–clash senselessly). The King is dead (and therefore not making movies any more)–but I would argue that his oeuvre embodies the paradoxical Hollywood/Transcendental zeitgeist (which lives on–for good or for ill) better than anyone else’s. Moreover, his career stretches across such a wildly oscillating chunk of the 20th century–and was thus susceptible to such an extreme range of societal influences–that his auteur‘s progress toward the blinkered paradise that is Truth and Illusion provides a unique laboratory for the student of American cultural history.

I’m bringing this stuff into play with The Big Parade because this is where the King ascended to the vacant throne of D.W. Griffith and assumed the mantle of “America’s Auteur” (long before the term was invented, of course). By 1925, Vidor was tired of making movies that played one week stands and disappeared forever (until the advent of TCM, that is) and he made this fact known to his new boss (MGM’s Irving Thalberg). As most of you reading this will know, The Big Parade changed all of that, becoming the biggest moneymaker of the 1920s, creating the template for every anti-war film that followed it (without ever being explicitly “anti-war” in the way that, say, Milestone’s All Quiet is), initiating the meteoric rise and fall of star John Gilbert and giving Vidor the “prestige capital” to get away with making the inherently unprofitable The Crowd 3 years later.

It’s a major leap from the chamber melodramatics of Wild Oranges (which had 5 cast members) to BP”s grand canvas–and there are casualties along the way to the battlefield. Stylistically, this is pure Vidor–except for the numerous digressions into knockabout “comedy” that came from the Laurence Stallings original. However, thematically, The Big Parade is a real oddity among Vidor’s films–giving us a protagonist who generally seems content to be carried along by the whims of fate (having no vision of his own to oppose to the reality in which he finds himself). Actually, James Apperson (Gilbert’s character) reminds me a great deal of our old pal Reggie, from Bud’s Recruit:

Remember me?

and that’s pretty strange, because Reggie was NOT the protagonist of Bud’s Recruit.

With the exception of The Crowd, I’m more interested in Vidor’s “minor” films–but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to talk about in The Big Parade. For one thing, there’s the title itself, which sounds festive, but which is actually synonymous with these funeral processions:

Talk about marching to the beat of the same ol’ drummer! Henry David Thoreau would be appalled! And, so, clearly, is Vidor. If The Big Parade is an anti-war film, it’s not because it’s a pacifist film, it’s because, in good Transcendentalist fashion, it deplores the regimentation of army life. Sure, there’s brutality galore on the screen, but the extended battle sequence actually hinges upon Gilbert’s trenchbound interrogative epiphany: “Orders? Who’s fighting this war? Men or Orders?” The film is pretty clear about the answer–“Orders” all the way. As soon as the people we’ve spent the first hour with leave their camp, they almost cease to be “men” at all–they become merely the undead agents of the inscrutable metronome of “foreign policy”. (And you’ll notice that we never, ever get a sense that anyone knows WHY they are fighting in France… no “make the world safe for democracy” nonsense in this script! These people are there to march at machine guns and hope–not even TRY–to survive. That’s it.) Vidor is the great prophet of subjectivity in the cinema–and the film’s most carefully planned out scenes give us hundreds/thousands of human beings drained of every trace of that quality; the reified elements of a Busby Berkeley spectacle:

None of this would have anything like the impact that it does if we hadn’t just spent a reel or two watching Gilbert (literally) barrel into something like a sense of self, thanks to this encounter French peasant girl Adorée:

After this bizarre first meeting, she (significantly) recognizes him by a ratty tassel around his right leg (the one he does not lose in the battle):

Their courtship begins as something that is played for laughs, but gradually progresses into an almost-Borzagean fortress against the cosmos. Gilbert’s romance-awakened personhood becomes synonymous with the candle that Adorée holds in the fourth still below (and which Slim extinguishes with spit, when the troops are sent to participate in the big show-stopper on the front):



After the call-up, Adorée becomes the sole keeper of this flame of subjectivity. The “only light in the world”, as the American exceptionalists used to like to say, during the darkest days of the next World War. If you accept this interpretation, then nothing which happens in Belleau Wood actually matters. All of that celebrated battle footage–the reach for the flower (a jauntier precursor of the reach for the buttlerfly in All Quiet)–the deaths of Slim and Bull–the scene in the trench with the dying German (which also has its analogue in Milestone’s film)–Gilbert’s pointless act of  “heroism” (which is presented as pure vengeance)–and even the nonsense with Gilbert’s “cheering family” and the New York end of another (equally dead) “big parade”–ALL of it is just a subjective flatline between this goodbye:

And this hello…. “Liberty reunited with the (man of the) people”… And not “leading” him anywhere but to bed, if my guess is correct!

Here again, this actually seems more like Borzage than Vidor, with two strong visionaries bringing an improbable dream to life by catching reality in a passionate crossfire. (Generally, in Vidor, you only get ONE visionary–often paired with an unworthy romantic partner who becomes aligned with a fate that must be resisted at all costs). All in all, I find The Big Parade less compelling–as an example of what this director is all about–than something like Beyond the Forest or Ruby Gentry…but we’ll get to them, in due course…

As Charles Silver notes:

For Marxist critics, The Big Parade was anathema, since Vidor “centered his comment upon the war in an absurd love affair between a French peasant girl and an American doughboy while men were being blown to bits.” What this writer for Experimental Cinema didn’t seem to realize was that war for Vidor, as for most human beings, is precisely about love affairs and their impossibility under conditions of combat. The tragedy of war is the interruption not of dialectic, but of love and of life.

Absolutely. That’s the director’s position here. Implicit in that position is a characteristic horror of any kind of collective undertaking (which the huge number of Americans who keep voting against health care will certainly understand). This is something that will come up quite a lot (as you might expect from the director of The Fountainhead!) However, it is worth noting that, somewhere between this film and the Rand adaptation, Vidor will also give us perhaps the most astonishing example of subjectivized spectacle ever filmed–in Our Daily Bread. The Vidor oeuvre–and the principles of transcendental melodrama which animate it–contains…well, if not multitudes, then, at least, an unexpected range of attitudes toward the relationship between the radical subject, shared “reality” and the possibility of justice.

That’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.


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Any scholar wishing to reserve a place for the emergence of critique from within the chrysalis of popular/mass culture in advanced capitalist societies must sooner or later come to terms with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. In fact, the postscript to that book—“The Culture Industry Revisited” (collected in Adorno, CI)—was written precisely in order to stress the dangers of mistaking the flashily (and rationally!) machined garments of modern irrationality for the social bodies they both comfort and smother. However, Adorno-the-aesthetician, particularly as interpreted (“stereoscopically”) by Christoph Menke, provides an excellent rationale for doing exactly what Adorno-the-sociologist, in “The Culture Industry Revisited”, inveighs against—i.e. “taking mass culture seriously”. When Adorno writes, in Aesthetic Theory, of the indirect, “subterranean” (AT, 242) effects of art upon social praxis, he clears the way for an understanding of certain nodes of mass culture as exemplary cauldrons for the generation of a critical perspective upon the authoritarian scripts penned by the modern Industrial State Apparatus. It seems obvious that the “negative power” latent in the “aesthetic experience”, as described by Adorno (i.e. a lonely encounter between the Hyperborean aesthete of discriminating “tastes” and the product of an even more rarefied individual’s mind), cannot blossom into anything resembling a valid critique of society, because it is inherently asocial. This caveat applies, a fortiori, to Derrida’s own preferred method of theorizing (quasi-)aesthetic negativity, in that deconstruction, as Menke rightly points out, completely abstracts the moment of “insight” from the experiential realm. Meanwhile, certain sectors of the “culture industry” (i.e. from among those works understood by Adorno to be saturated with utilitarian intentions, and thereby incapable of throwing aesthetic sparks)—particularly those which, like the comic book business, have been forced to operate on a more intimate (although equally profit-driven) basis, have necessarily trode a fine line between “fan entitlement” and corporate instrumentality that inevitably discloses the impossibility of a coherent narrative—“fictional”, metaphysical, national, etc.—in a spectacularly public fashion.

The concept of “the culture industry” was formulated by Adorno and Horkheimer in order to foreground the ways in which mass entertainment in the twentieth century has approximated the function ascribed to religion by Marx in the nineteenth—i.e. “opiate of the people” and chief obstacle to the achievement of class consciousness. According to the authors of The Dialectic of Enlightenment:

The sociological theory that the loss of the support of objectively established religion, the dissolution of the last remnants of precapitalism, together with technological and social differentiation or specialization, have led to cultural chaos is disproved every day; for culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system, which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system… The striking unity of microcosm and macrocosm presents men with a model of their culture: the false identity of the general and the particular. Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through (120-21).

This passage offers, in virtually the same breath, both the strongest and the weakest insights contained within The Dialectic of Enlightenment—and, in the spirit of the book’s title, these respective aspects of the argument depend upon one another.

In gesturing toward the seemingly undeniably galvanizing (“massifying”) influence of the culture industry, and in correctly subordinating the anarchist/revolutionary denunciation of the vote-as-ritualized sham to a subtheme of a larger cultural critique, Adorno and Horkheimer are forced to overstate the hermetic perfection of the system. Could they have made this argument without going to such paranoid extremes? At first glance, this of course seems tenable—an eminently reasonable modulation of an impassioned cri de coeur. However, upon reflection, it is difficult to think how it could be done. If Adorno and Horkheimer are right, and the “clients” of mass culture are in facts its objects, then the Culture Industry itself would necessarily have to be capable of acting and speaking univocally. Their argument falls to pieces unless we can posit a true subject behind the machinations of the culture industry. Adorno and Horkheimer’s apparent paranoid extrapolation from their sociological observations is in fact logically prior to the inquiry itself—it is not the end of their critique, but its beginning.

In light of this, it becomes a simple matter to demolish The Dialectic of Enlightenment’s analysis at its foundation. A demonstration of the cross-purposes at which cultural producers have always plied their respective trades would suffice for the purpose. The only possible defense of the Adornian position (in its strong forumlation) would be a retreat to the assertion (basically as an article of faith) that, at some deeper level than is visible to the observer’s naked eye, it can be proven that all purveyors of popular entertainment (and “infotainment”) both seek to preserve the status quo (which is not out of the question) and know exactly how to do so (which attributes far more omniscience to business and marketing professionals than is strictly warranted). Furthermore, even if these things could be established, the argument would have to be supplemented by the presumption of a basically superhuman level of coordination between the parties involved. Adorno and Horkheimer explicitly refuse the easy way out of this bind—i.e. one could argue that technology itself is the subject that takes modern human beings for its object. The authors acknowledge this contention, only to go far beyond it by asserting that “[whenever this kind of claim is advanced] no mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itelf” (121). So the logic of capitalist exploitation becomes the ghost in the machine, and, ultimately, The Dialectic of Enlightenment stands or falls upon its authors’ conviction that instrumentalized bourgeois philistinism and total physical and psychological domination are locked into a necessary causal relationship by iron laws.

However, regardless of whether one is willing to make that leap of faith with Adorno and Horkheimer, their book obviously does afford many crucial, if less all-encompassing, insights into mid-twentieth century culture, particularly in the context of the authors’ refuge for the duration of the Nazi regime: the United States. The less-than-convincing assertion that movies, the comics and their ilk exert such an hypnotic (and debasing) influence upon their audience that they are actually capable of draining all trace of subjectivity and social responsibility from the population at large becomes a great deal more powerful, as an explanation of the fascination of these commodities, when it is tweaked in such a way that it takes more serious account of their role in the economy of subjective desire.

There is absolutely no question that the appeal of mass culture depends, in large part, upon the alienated human being’s desire to observe his or her own self in full-bodied, unfragmented action, on a literal or figurative screen. Thus it follows that successful commodities in this line (most spectacularly the products of Hollywood’s studio system) do facilitate a kind of temporary fusion between the subjects in the audience and the objects they gaze upon. However, it should also be apparent that, if the results of this quasi-reification operation were anything like permanent, or damaging in any to the “core of personality” (as it is romantically conceived of by Adorno), there would be no need to repeat the process at such frequent intervals. It is the persistence of human subjectivity that keeps audiences ravenous for more of these types of experiences; and “experience” is the key term here—time spent at the theatre or with a comic book is no less “empty” than any other moment of a human life. Every such moment furnishes objects of contemplation, and if a particularly rapt spectator does make the leap into the objectified world on the screen, this will not stop her or him from contemplating it later. More to the point, it will not stop him or her from wanting to discuss the problematic experience with others.

The necessarily participatory nature of the experience of mass culture is, quite simply, lost upon Adorno and Horkheimer. Their writing on the subject is saturated with images of absorption, engulfment, nullity, and vaporization, which arise from an absolute refusal to approach the phenomenon from a hermeneutical perspective. Mass culture, enjoyed from the inside (and particularly if viewed through the prism of its most characteristic social product—“fandom”), has had a demonstrably more energizing effect upon its congregants than the authors of The Dialectic of Enlightenment are willing to imagine—which is not to say that the net result of these transactions has been any less politically reactionary than they imagine all too well. In fact, if there is a parallel to religion that can be drawn here, the reference point ought not to be the Statist, obligatory Catholicism and Lutheranism of Central Europe, but rather the free-wheeling multi-denominational Christianity of the 19th Century American “religious marketplace”.

Fandom—energetic though it may be—has always been as productive of schism as it is of community; and subcultures, like Protestant sects, are unstable by nature. Indeed, the argument can be made that, if the American public has been “defanged” politically by the culture industry, it is not because citizens have been reduced to mute simulacra of humanity by its machinations, but rather because they are too busy discussing the meanings and minutiae of its products (at the proverbial water cooler) to bother with anything else.

In this sense, mass culture merely stole the spotlight from bibliocentric Christianity upon the country’s psychic stage.  The difference, of course, is that while religious disputes in the 18th and 19th centuries generally paralleled and reinforced political divisions (thereby helping, at least in some cases, to force a resolution—i.e. the contest to determine whether the scriptures ought to be considered pro- or anti-slavery), movies, comics, pop songs, and bestsellers have dwelled far less relentlessly upon questions of individual and collective morality. Moreover, these diverse entertainments (Adorno and Horkheimer to the contrary) cannot be made to cohere into a monolithic conversation piece capable of drawing audience members from across the ideological spectrum into one spirited and potentially politicizing debate.

From a leftist perspective, this is not at all the best possible situation. Adorno’s analysis, in Aesthetic Theory, of the relationship between aesthetics and politics (when conducted at an explicit level), is extremely apt (242). Politicized art cannot ever do much more than “preach to the converted”—and may even backfire by presenting itself as an ideal target for backlash-minded rabble-rousers. So, paradoxically, it is the impossibility of reducing the entire complex of genre-texts which compose “mass culture” to a form capable of hosting such an explicit debate which has preserved the potential of this patch of the human imagination to nourish a radical critique similar to that which emerges from the “aesthetic experience” discussed by Adorno, but infinitely more social in character. It is well known that Christianity, as a truth-system, has survived in America by stressing the political relevance of its fundamental text to the problems of its particular day. “Truth” is never at rest. “Social control” cannot work through the purveyance of platitudes—it subsists upon constant agitation. Apathy poses, in most ways, far more of a threat to the status quo than blinkered hate—and Huxleyan “soma” could never deliver the kinds of results that a well-managed national pogrom can. Be that as it may, the fact remains that, in the transition (which is far from completed) from a religious to a mass cultural template for American society, it is the very banality, and the multiplicity, of the modern genres that have partially replaced the Christological narrative as the hosts of the “notional pastime” which may enable them to contribute to the emergence of a truly radical popular critique.

Adorno’s theory of “aesthetic negativity” remains by far his most important contribution to the body of literature on politics and art, and this passage, which contains one the clearest descriptions of the concept, is worth quoting at length:

Art recapitulates praxis in itself, modified and in a sense neutralized, and by doing so it takes up positions toward reality. Beethoven’s symphonic language, which in its most most secret chemistry is the bourgeois process of production as well as the expression of capitalism’s perennial disaster, at the same time becomes a fait social by its gesture of tragic affirmation: things are as they must and should be and are therefore good. At the same time, this music belongs to the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, just as it anticipates its apologetics… The more deeply artworks are deciphered, the less their antithesis to praxis remains absolute; they themselves are something other than their origin, their fundament, that is, this very antithesis to praxis, and they unfold the mediation of this antithesis… the dialectical relation of art to praxis is that of its social effect. That artworks intervene politically is doubtful; when it does happen, most often it is peripheral to the work… the true social effect is an extremely indirect participation in spirit that by way of subterranean process contributes to social transformation and is concentrated in artworks; they only achieve such particpation through their objectivation (Aesthetic Theory, 241-42).

Specifics aside—it is at the very least debatable whether a piece of music can contain “bourgeois apologetics” submerged beneath its soundscape—the assertion that the truly political “content” of an artwork resides in its formal structure is indispensable to the proper understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and social praxis. Adorno’s mistake, in his analyses of popular culture, was in neglecting to properly apply this dictum to the task he undertook.

Adorno’s failure to detect/react to the specific formal challenges posed by structures such as American film or comic book genres could perhaps have been predicted, given his manifest predilection for artworks that can be construed as self-contained sites of resistance to instrumental reason; but he also gestures, most notably in his writing on the “aesthetic experience” or “shudder”, toward a more reception- based understanding of aesthetics that would have served him in good stead as a rudder during his more single-mindedly sociological excursions into culture.

“The Culture Industry Revisited” surveys the scholarly landscape of the then-emerging field of cultural studies in the author’s characteristically infuriating and insightful manner. On the one hand, Adorno presciently anticipates a justificatory brand of pop culture scholarship that has become all too prevalent in the contemporary academy:

The blending of aesthetics with its residual communicative aspects leads art, as a social phenomenon, not to its rightful position in opposition to alleged snobbism, but rather in a variety of ways to the defense of its baneful social consequences. The importance of the culture industry in the spiritual constitution of the masses is no dispensation for reflection on its objective legitimation, its essential being, least of all by a science which thinks itself pragmatic. On the contrary: such reflection becomes necessary for precisely this reason. To take the culture industry as seriously as its unquestioned role demands, means to take it seriously critically, and not to cower in the face of its monopolistic character (CI, 102).

However, when the time comes for Adorno to actually ply his trade as a critical social thinker, his powers of imagination fail him. The properties that he finds lacking in mass culture are either chimerical, hopelessly Romantic, or both:

The concoctions of the culture industry are neither guides for a blissful life, nor a new art of moral possibility, but rather exhortations to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests… Human dependence and servitude, the vanishing point of the culture industry, could scarcely be more faithfully described than by the American intervieweee who was of the opinion that the dilemmas of the contemporary epoch would end if people would simply follow the lead of prominent personalities… [the culture industry] impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves. These however, would be the precondition for a democratic society which needs adults who have come of age in order to sustain itself and develop (CI, 106).

What this tirade neglects to consider, of course, is whether these “autonomous individuals who decide consciously for themselves” have ever existed, and, if not, why this might be so. The whole thrust of Adorno’s critique is toward a recapitulation of the kinds of ideas that the fan cultures which were taking shape before his eyes might have problematized in his mind if he had actually paid any attention to them, particularly those developments which occurred in the “fan pages” of the Marvel superhero comics of the 1960s.

The fan page—or “lettercol”—had been a staple public relations strategy of “pulp” (and, later, comic) magazine publishers since the 1920s (particularly of those companies which serviced the unusually self-conscious science fiction fan community). Initially, Marvel deployed the device in its standard “bouquets or brickbats”/”letter to the Editor” guise. However, audience response (called forth by the increasingly conversational/hyperbolic narrative/editorial style adopted by writer Stan Lee) soon dictated a change in policy, epitomized by the metafictional bleed between “story” and letters in Fantastic Four #10 and #11 (Jan and Feb, 1963). Even Lee appears to have been staggered by the degree of enthusiasm elicited by the material that he, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were creating; and his 1963/1964 editorials betray a certain uneasiness with the possibility that readers might well be more excited by their own role in fomenting “The Marvel Age of Comics” than by the nominal “content” of the books themselves. These qualms would soon evaporate under the glare of national scrutiny, as the company furled its banner around the nexus point between narrator and narratee, “reality” and “fantasy”, parody and epic, “high” and “low” culture, student and G.I., radical and conservative, producer and consumer, publicity and public, professional and fan.

Science fiction fandom, which coalesced into a demographic to be reckoned with in the 1920s, established a model for consciousness-raising that would serve as both an inspiration and a foil to Marvel in the 1960s. Sam Moskowitz traces the origins of the subculture to the “Discussions” column of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre (Moskowitz, 5). This immensely popular venture, the brainchild of cost-conscious publisher Hugo Gernsback, anthologised public-domain classics by the likes of Poe, Verne, and Wells alongside the tentative first efforts of their epigoni. The lynchpin of this low-overhead (and, by all accounts, low-yield, at least by aesthetic criteria) marketing strategy was the fan forum, which debuted in the June, 1926 issue. Gernsback printed the correspondents’ full addresses, thereby generating the connective tissue between fans who shared the publisher’s belief that every reader of these stories was a potential scientist, and a potential “scientifiction” writer (Tymn, 14-49).

In the past few decades, the theorization of mass culture has moved (although far from unanimously) away from an “effects” paradigm toward a discourse of “use”/“appropriation” (Brooker and Jermyn, 91-93) that Gernsback’s audience would certainly have understood. Subcultural insider Sam Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, published in 1954, provides a textbook account of the ways in which “some individuals may seek to express their otherwise silenced identities through a common interest in a symbol, icon, or text, and, then, redress their alienation through the social nature of fan practice” (Alexander and Harris, 5). Of course, Moskowitz’s particular fan/subjects owed their group allegiance to “science” (defined as “progress”) itself, and their sense of “empowerment” derived as much from a perception of intimacy with “the future” as from the communal ties they often forged.

In this respect, science fiction fandom could be described as having some of the characteristics (in hyper-teleological form) of what Theodor Adorno, in his analysis of faddish interest in astrological columns, calls  “secondary superstition” (Stars, 48-49). Gernsback’s slogan, after all, was: “Extravagant Fiction Today—Cold Fact Tomorrow” (Tymn, 16). However, Moskowitz’s typical actor is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Adorno’s simultaneously passive and calculating recipient of messages from the Irrational Beyond. While science fiction fans did (and do) tend to see a kind of providential logic in the vagaries of technological development, they most certainly did not commonly defer to “expert” forecasts of the trajectory of Absolute Science; and they were even less likely to wish to use “information” gleaned from the hobby to their material or social advantage. To be a fan was to contribute to a group hypothesis concerning the destiny of the human race, purely for the pleasure (or, in some cases, the displeasure) of the thing. Conscientious participation in the dialectic entailed a duty, on the part of each fan, regardless of his or her status within the community, to scrutinize and pronounce upon the plausibility of the narratives that emerged from the process. Consequently, the lettercol, as the institutionalisation of this imperative, retained its importance within fandom long after its catalysing role had been played out; although Moskowitz maintains, quite convincingly, that the most vital fan activity had moved on to other fora—i.e. the “fanzines”—by the late 1930s (13).

Be that as it may, Julius Schwartz and Mortimer Weisinger (charter members of New York’s “Scienceer” fan club in 1933) brought the lettercols with them when they acceded to editorships at DC Comics, just a few years after Moskowitz published his chronicle, and the move is generally seen as one of the key contributing factors in the revitalization of the superhero genre in the late 1950s (Pustz, 44). However, while the lettercols in Flash and Superman magazines undoubtedly did stimulate a certain amount of fan interest, they interfaced with the community in a markedly different way than their pulp predecessors had. In the first place, these books featured the adventures of continuing characters, rather than anthologized material, with the result that the letters tended to focus upon the imagined worlds contained therein, rather than the creative personnel (the majority of whom received no by-line) responsible for their production. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, DC’s (accurate) construal of its readership as largely composed of young children inevitably fostered an asymmetrical power dynamic between the editors and their correspondents. Older fans of these characters (in both their emergent “Silver Age” and World War Two Era—or “Golden Age”—incarnations) did exist, of course, and many of them wrote letters of comment to DC, but their concerns (and characteristic modes of expression) fitted awkwardly into the fora presided over by Schwartz and Weisinger. By 1961, fan publications such as Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails’ Alter Ego (Schelly) had arisen to capture the reactions of this estranged segment of the community on paper, but the peripherality of these glosses prevented them from performing the (potentially) heteroglossic function of letters imbedded within the primary texts themselves.

The importance of the superhero “lettercol” proper, as it developed under the tutelage of Stan Lee over the next decade at Marvel (during the 1970s it would spread to DC as well), lay in its capacity to exhibit or highlight the role of these texts (and the larger “grand narrative”, known as the Marvel Universe, or the DC “multiverse”) in the economy of desire while, simultaneously, foregrounding their readers’ complicity in, and responsibility for, the maintenance of these ultimately untenable structures. The advent of the “no-prize”, a tongue-in-cheek innovation within the lettercol, formalized the fans’ place as guarantors of the sanctity of the emerging “continuity” of the various interlocking superhero titles at Marvel in the early sixties. Under this new dispensation, every Marvel reader was expected to be capable of discerning inconsistencies in the manner in which the company’s overworked creative staff presented a character’s powers or history—and to propose a solution which would prove that there had, in fact, been no inconsistency at all.

The no-prize letters, and the discussions they generated, fostered two very distinct, yet intimately related, attitudes toward the textual world under construction at Marvel. On one level, readers demonstrated a passionate desire to believe in the narrative cohesion of the entire line of comics produced by the company. However, while the letters tended to “play it straight” at the level of content, they invariably performed this desire for “continuity at all costs” as a knowingly hysterical overreaction to the radical instability of the texts in question.

Marvel Comics fandom in the 1960s was an exercise in Derridean deconstruction. The “Marvel Universe” was a narratological house of cards which had to be propped up by the goodwill of its readership, conscious participants in the deception who contributed their widow’s mite to the erection of a stage upon which to view their fantasies of coherence and order.

The intellectual trajectory followed by these readers closely approximates the arc described by Christoph Menke in his fusion of Derridian and Adornian negative aesthetics, except that, in the case of these fans, the work of making and unmaking worlds is done publicly, in the company of other thinkers, rather than in reflective seclusion. The exact nature of the insight gleaned from this exercise is, of course, far more typical of Derrida than of Adorno (i.e. it has something to do with the making and unmaking of meaning, rather than with the progress or the hindrance of same toward Utopia); however, the knowledge is gained in a distinctly Adornian manner (i.e. it is “postaesthetic” and could not have been realized in any way other than through an experience in the autonomous aesthetic realm, albeit in a sector of that realm that Adorno failed to recognize as such).

The idea of the superhero “universe” as a doomed metaphor for the practical/political “truths” which undergird any passably functioning society has been taken up, in recent years, by several inheritors (most notably Grant Morrison—author of Animal Man, The Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, The Filth) of the storytelling/fan interface style promulgated by Marvel in the 1960s. Interestingly, in many ways, the narrative peculiarities of the “DC Multiverse” have proven far more serviceable to writers given to dwelling, with Derrida, upon the gaps in meaning, rather than winking at them and moving on, as Marvel (and Niklas Luhman) had been wont to do.

The Marvel Universe functioned, as a grand narrative, in a manner similar to the Wikipedia site (although it was, of course, constrained, in many ways, by the far more primitive technological conditions under which its creation was transacted). It existed, at all times, in singular form—but was always under pressure from the margins (in the lettercols—where readers made a practice of accounting for inconsistencies in the published narratives with explanations that became canonical).

The DC Universe, on the other hand, was very much a multiverse. It featured extremely clear lines of demarcation between the core and the periphery “worlds”—each of which, however, became increasingly riven by internal contradictions in the 1970s and 1980s. DC’s superhero line was 20+ years older than Marvel’s (Superman—its flagship character—was created in 1938; Fantastic Four—the first Marvel Universe title—debuted in 1961); and, until the publisher’s supremacy in the field was threatened by its younger competitor in the early-to-mid-1960s, its editors had never deemed it necessary to adopt any sort of a policy concerning the narrative coherence of its venerable slate of titles. Under pressure from Marvel—which had proven that most superhero readers  were sophisticated enough to appreciate the tight “continuity” that unified the Marvel titles, and also that many fans were actually old enough to have been reading the adventures of the perennially-thirty Superman for 25 years (although very few of them were sophisticated enough to appreciate the existential absurdities of this last)—DC took steps to rationalize its output.

The story in Flash #123 (September, 1961), entitled “Flash of Two Worlds”, laid the groundwork for the multiverse concept. This tale, by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, explains that the Silver Age Flash (Barry Allen) had adopted his costumed identity as an homage to the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick), a comic book character whose adventures Barry had enjoyed as a child. Things become more complicated when the current Flash bursts through a dimensional barrier and finds himself in the world that those old comics had chronicled. Naturally, he meets his counterpart, whose world would become known as Earth-2, and their growing friendship would facilitate a host of similar meetings between the heroes of the two different worlds (even between those—like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—whose identities are exactly the same on both planes). Gradually, the multiverse principle expanded to include all manner of peripheral worlds, including Earth-X (home of the “Freedom Fighters”—who struggle endlessly on against a German Reich which triumphed in World War 2), Earth-S (home of Captain Marvel—a popular hero/Superman “clone” of the 1940s absorbed by DC through a spectacular lawsuit against his original publisher), Earth-3 (a world ruled by the “Crime Syndicate of America”—villainous counterparts of DC’s Justice League of America), Earth-Prime (our world), etc.1

Many writers and fans grew attached to the multiverse, which underwrote the existence of numerous characters (i.e. the Legion of Super-Pets) and story elements (e.g. alternate histories, as represented by the Nazi-scenario; or a world ruled by superheroes; not to mention the entire sub-industry of books, some of them ongoing monthly titles, devoted to chronicling the further adventures of the “Golden Age” generation—and their children—on Earth-2) that would never have fit within the confines of the more streamlined narrative published by Marvel, the undisputed industry leader by 1980. However, an equal or greater number of participants in the subculture objected to this nebulous structure for the very same reasons. Moreover, the multiverse had proven to be less and less effective, even on its own terms, as a shield against the inevitable incoherencies of an increasingly sprawling corpus (e.g. when, exactly, did the stories in Batman begin to be about the Earth-1 Bruce Wayne instead of his other-dimensional predecessor? On which Earth(s) did Superman begin his career as Superboy?)

Matters came to a head when, in the mid-1980s, DC’s editorial staff conceded the necessity to gird its superhero line for renewed conflict with its younger, wirier opponent. The result: a twelve-month long “maxi-series” (which would have an impact upon every single title published under the DC banner) entitled Crisis On Infinite Earths (1985-86). The eponymous event was a massive conflagration that melted all of the myriad worlds into one brand-new diamond-hard Earth, the exact characteristics of which would be unveiled in comics published by the company after the final issue of the Crisis. In a symbolic move, many prominent titles—notably Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman—were cancelled and re-started (or “re-booted”) at #1. Naturally, as a corollary of this, many characters and, theoretically, all of the events of the preceding 50 years were purged from the continuity, leaving DC’s writers and artists in the ideal position to speak directly to the superhero fan of 1987.

Except that, of course, The Crisis could not possibly fulfil its mandate. The brand-new, univocal DC Universe never spoke a word in perfect voice. Roy Thomas, writer of All-Star Squadron and Infninity Inc., series which had been set on the now-eradicated Earth-2, fought a rearguard action against the master narrative imposed from above upon his carefully detailed pocket of continuity, until the books were cancelled. Characters that had been written out of existence, such as Supergirl, were quickly reinvented and reintroduced. Finally, in 1988, Grant Morrison began writing, in Animal Man, toward a second, purely negative (in the critical sense) Crisis, meant to expose not only the sham quality of the streamlined new universe his publishers had mandated, but also the stories that we, as humans, tell ourselves about our prerogatives upon this earth. In this series, belched forth from the smoking core of the Culture Industry (by Time-Warner), the very notion of coherence is reduced to an effect of futile rationalization, and every superhero comic fan is invited to reflect upon the impossibility of capturing meaning with the inappropriate tools (words, institutions, narratives, “universes”, metaphors) that we have at our disposal, and the radical possibilities that this entails.

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