i am not white
but days i
try to fit in
side this col
orbox on forms
& blank white
sheets in folks eyes
i grow pale

life is not they
say all black
& white but grades
of shady grey
but say I
see one shade of
black and fifty
shades of white


if I’m not white
I’m what. what
grey shade I? Greek
olive high
pink yellow, beige,
auburn burnt
sage orange, or peach

a million wo
men swimming
churn the sea foam
crimson and
the more we grind
the more handsome
it becomes


and if we’d search,
could any
pot of ivory
coal at the
zebra rainbow’s
end be seen
or waves only
of white noise?

cannot see
either either
or the sea green
or autumn’s


wolf gray fur, the
dove’s wing, a
fog’s heartbreaking
distance, or
bruised clouds—all these
were lost with
Oz’s techni
color dream?

as our man-made
grays betray
so black & white
too fly their
true colors, yet
still I feel
my vision cloud
ing over



bayous sweat and
wide deltas
with logs rotten
choke, a hag’s brown
stew in its
cauldron over
bubbles, and the
Nile’s muds vent

their sludge of earth
that I am
against the
clear gel of
I oppose
the vividness
of russet


against an an
instead I’d blend
to color
margins in and
blind the clear
window that a
voids its void

and at the jel
ly of shape
less character
would draw lines
and against the
pink era
sures would draw out
lines also.


but days I am
not white I
cannot fit in
side this check
ered colorbox
or form; I
am the pencil’s

choice; I am the
faint tracings; the
flicked pink flecks; the
sincerest err
or, well-meant.


the graphite dust,
and pencil
shavings in their
a child’s tongue bit
at her deep
before the

penmanship whorl
of an O,
her eyes, her desk,
the shared breath,
the room, the light,
the country
side and the whole
world I am



Going back to earlier texts of feminist literary criticism (from the 1970s) brings back to that practice a breath of fresh air, a revitalizing spirit, and a sword for the knot of Gordian of cooptation that has in many places since happened to that practice.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Josephine Donovan et al.’s (1975)[1] Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory (Updated Second Edition, 1989)

This book represented, in 1975, the “first major book of feminist critical theory published in the United States,” here adding in its updated second edition, from 1989, a new introductory essay and updated critical bibliography to the original five essays.

If it didn’t seem to need saying, then I wouldn’t emphasize the obvious gap or disparity between the (still-current) populist caricature of the feminist—I won’t repeat the stereotype—and the quality of what, in light of that caricature, might seem like “reasonableness” in the discourse of these essays.  It seems a credit (or irony or both) to feminists that they could have so quickly articulated a new stereotypical image (in Occidental culture) given that a significant early area of feminist research involved stereotypes of women.

One finds in these texts, sometimes in detail, sometimes in kernel, issues that present-day third-wave feminism (when it remains actually feminism) seems sometimes to as if like it only recently discovered the topic. Register’s (1975)[2] “American Feminist Literary Criticism: A Bibliographical Introduction” lucidly outlines many of these points.  And also (or perhaps “but also”) because this text, though comparatively brief, sets out to delineate some of the main lines of a potential future feminist literary criticism, the topics sty generally at a high level of abstraction, which I find a merit of the book, especially in Heilbrun and Stimpson’s (1975)[3] literally dialogic exchange about the characteristics, qualities, or aims of a desirable feminist literary critical practice. Speaking on behalf of the most capacious scope or reach of literature, that touches on the genuinely human condition and does not remain stuck in any mere societal fact (arising out of limited notions of gender), one speaker in the dialogue[4] notes, “There are virtues that come only with strength and power” (66). Contextually, this occurs to distinguish (and in a way defend) the notion of “disinteredness” as far as one’s criticism goes, but this virtue arises only for those critics (historically speaking, the male critics) who had to, or ought to have, exercised such disinteredness when critically appraising literature. From a position not of strength and power, such disinteredness becomes dangerous, if not undesirable—it becomes, by consequence, “submissiveness” (the choice of word is mine, not the authors’). We have here an argument for the necessity of interestedness (or non-disinterestedness) in the service of a criticism that speaks from the margins, or (more precisely) not from the cultural position of strength and power.[5]

What one finds in these essays most consistently missing from more recent feminist criticism (and pseudofeminist criticism, of course) involves its overly committed political consciousness, which in the caricatured version of the case would call it a Marxist analysis.[6]. By “Marxist,” I mean nothing more or necessarily more specific than the critic’s awareness of political economy, in the old sense of the word. I tend to believe, that just as we ought to cut out root and branch the ithyphallic patriarchy of Freud[7] and Lévi-Strauss from intellectual discourse, I expect that Marx must go as well on similar grounds—in order that something more wholesome, like an authentically full-blown feminism (perhaps an ecofeminism)—may replace them. Multiple authors in this collection refer to the need to re-visit and re-appraise the terms of the human condition as they have historically gotten framed through a male-only lens.

Yaeger (1991)[8] begins her afterword to Bauer and McKinstry’s (1991) Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic by noting:

It’s sexy these days to talk about silence. We like to celebrate the unspoken, the unsaid, the unsayable. To cozy up to the abyss, the lacuna, the rupture, the mise en abyme. We are in love with the aporia, the differand, the unknowable, the nonsymbolizable: these phantasms, these negativities, these slim deliriums have become our textual goddesses, our political deities (239).

This does not seem to deliberately echo back to Feminist Literary Criticism, of course, but it seems to connected nonetheless. In Donovan’s (1986)[9] Introduction to the second edition, she notes:

In the negative mode, the feminist critic observes the text’s absences, gaps, and omissions as well as the reified, destructive forms that are inscribed therein: s/he relates the text critically to the ideological context (patriarchy). Here it must be specified that feminist criticism, unlike “vulgar Marxism,” need not see a one-to-one mimetic or cause-effect relationship between ideology and text: often, as Pierre Macherey [1966][10] has pointed out, the text is positioned in contradiction to its ideological context. “A work is established against an ideology as much as it is from an ideology” (xvii)

Donovan, of course, complements this negative mode with a positive mode, and this further illuminates the state of affairs noted by Yaeger—the introduction and Yaeger’ essay were published more or less at the same time—where the overemphasis on gaps and absences has inserted itself unbudgably into critical (or, rather, often anti-critical) discourse. Thus, from Donovan, we might distinguish feminist literary criticism from “vulgar postmodernism” as well, which insists on asserting a none-to-none mimetic or cause-effect relationship between ideology and text. This provides another breath of fresh air moment, where feminism does not yet find itself embattled against a covert (sometimes overt) reactionary array of commentators.

I draw attention, along with Yeager, to this because the sort of range of absences that she helpfully describes differ materially from the absences Donovan identifies. Donovan specifically identifies the paired twins: non-representation and stereotyping. Only to fret (or celebrate) non-representation, as Yaeger rightly objects to, leaves the absence represented by stereotyping out of the picture—more precisely, it denies stereotyping even has come into play when the representation of an Other or subaltern gets into a text (if at all). A stereotype (of a person of color or a woman, if not both) comes to masquerade(almost instantaneously) as a non-representation of an unknowability, which (for all the pseudo-complexity this seems to involve) merely recapitulates the erasure of persons all over again, but this time under a sort of theoretically complimenting fiction:  nothing can represent you (rather than the old racist/sexist saw: we simply won’t represent you).

This all brings into sharp relief the relationship with so called race-blind or color-blind policies, and no surprise, since the non-representation and stereotyping of women (in cultural productions) obeys the same logic as non-representational and stereotyping of people of color. It makes clear that colorblindness actually involves a form of seeing, not a kind of blindness. As poet-philosopher Aare Aakita puts it, if as yet still incompletely:

i am not white
but days i
try to fit in
side this col
orbox on forms
& blank white
sheets in folks eyes
i grow pale

life is not they
say all black
& white but grades
of shady grey
but say I
see one shade of
black and fifty
shades of white

if I’m not white
I’m what. what
grey shade I? Greek
olive high
pink yellow, beige,
auburn burnt
sage orange, or light

a million wo
men swimming
churn the scarlet
sea foam and
the longer grinds
the more handsome
it becomes

and if we’d search,
could any
pot of ivory
coal at the
zebra rainbow’s
end be seen
or waves only
of white noise?

cannot see
either either
or the green sea
or autumn’s

wolf gray fur, the
dove’s wing, a
fog’s heartbreaking
distance, or
bruised clouds—all these
were lost with
Oz’s techni
color wash?

as our man-made
grays betray
so black & white
aren’t color
less besides, and
still I feel
my vision cloud
ing over


[1] Donovan, J. (1989). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory. 2nd ed. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, pp. i–xxi, 1–90.

[2] Register, C. (1975). American feminist literary criticism: a bibliographical introduction. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 1–28. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[3] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[4] Unless I have missed something, the authors do not indicate how speaker X and speaker Y in the dialogue correlate to Heilbrun and Stimpson.

[5] The idea that certain virtues come only with a precondition has its echo in Wilde’s remark that some temptations take great strength to give into. But outside the domain of witty (and accurate) remarks, virtue that experiences no ordeal does not seem truly to warrant the name. Those who “resist” the temptation to drink who have no strong compulsion may facilely, with Nancy Reagan, say, “Just say no.” Although, just to continue the historical strand of this discourse further, Aristotle did not reckon the brave man (hence also not the virtuous man) the one who overcame his fear (who resisted temptation). The virtuous man—presumably the virtuous human being—deserves the name who never experiences the temptation in the first place. If so, perhaps we have little patience or sympathy for the virtuous being any longer, preferring rather the act of resistance as a sign of valor or moral worthiness instead.

[6] One finds very little card-carrying Marxism here compared to the other collection of feminist essays I read recently (see here). I like Marxist critiques generally, but when one takes them up they become problematic given how the imputation of even a whiff of it tends to get one branded and dismissed out of hand in US culture. Nor do I suggest that this text goes out of its way to avoid references to Marxism: in the introduction (admittedly to the second edition), Donovan specifically cites Solomon’s Marxism and Art, Angela Davis, and Jameson’s Marxism and Form. She references also how one essayist “cites approvingly Marxist critic Georg Lukács’s assertion that ‘every true artist … is instinctively an enemy of [reification]” (xvi). But it remains clear, however helpful a Marxist analysis proves, a feminist analysis remains at least something distinguishable from it, especially in how criticism as “a ‘process of constructing meaning’ (36)* points to ‘the very real radicalism’ of feminist criticism’s rejection of ‘masculinist’ ideology (35)” (xvi, emphasis in original).

*Donovan cites Schumacher’s (1975) essay: Schumacher, D. (1975).  Subjectivities: a theory of critical perspective. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 29–37. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[7] And Lacan and their dependents, female-bodied or otherwise.

[8] Yaeger, P. (1991). Afterward. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 239–45. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[9] Donovan, J. (1989). Introduction to the second edition: radical feminist criticism. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. ix–xxi. Lexington, KY.: University Press of Kentucky.

[10] Macherey, P. (1966). A theory of literary production (trans. Geoffrey Wall). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

POEMS (2013): Mother Crab

24 November 2013

Mother Crab
reaches up
out of the
slime waters
for Heracles

latching on
with her bar
nacled claws
that impend
to drag him down

but the fool
threw her off
as he failed
boldly to

her hand up
or that he
roes are to
our elements

into the
sweet muck she
sank again
to brood a
smarter hero


Against the structural “failure” of the Soviet Union, we should contrast the socio-personal transformations that occurred in human personalities during that time (Marya represents an excellent image of this transformation)—just as we might readily contrast the structural “success” of United States (following World War II), and the socio-personal degradation of both individuals and the social world they (we) inhabit as a result.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  P. Gelatt and T. Crook’s (2011)[1] Petrograd

This is a deftly accomplished graphic novel[2] that manages not to get bogged down only or merely in the murder of Rasputin, which figures centrally (in this version of the history of the Russian revolution at least) in the history of the Russian revolution. Nonetheless, one cannot write about Petrograd without acknowledging the fellow. As Wilson (1964)[3] wrote:

No figure in modern history has provoked such a mass of sensational and unreliable literature as Grigory Rasputin. More than a hundred books have been written about him, and not a single one can be accepted as a sober presentation of his personality. There is an enormous amount of material on him, and most of it is full of invention or willful inaccuracy. Rasputin’s life, then, is not ‘history’; it is the clash of history with subjectivity (11)

That two of the main conspirators practiced transvestitism or homosexuality similarly seems a fanciful (and rather distracting) addition. That the British secret service had anything at all to do with Rasputin’s murder offers the most egregious conspiracy theory angle but, perhaps much as Alan Moore selected the “theory” of Jack the Ripper that offered him the greatest range of narrative possibility (more than any likelihood or conceit of historical factualness), Gelatt may have made a similar decision. I don’t mind—one shouldn’t read history for its conceit of factualness; even the least interested text devoted to history involves no negligible degree of constructedness or fabrication, and a text like this—as also Moore, Campbell, and Mullin’s (1999)[4] From Hell—does (or should) forthrightly avows this fact; or we, as readers, may (and should) remember that fact when we read a purported history (or any text for that matter). The insertion of the Irish-born British agent Cleary into the text offers, then, the “purpose” or narrative center that Gelatt seems interested to pursue. In the arc of his story, he winds up a pawn in the Great Game of empires—betrayed by his own boss, of course, and with a deft counter-betrayal as a sort of form of personal revenge—but his redemption, as a character, occurs through tricking his former boss into giving him information on Russian troop movements, which he then supplies to the Bolshevik underground. He had previously contrived to spare his lover, Marya, from a police raid by the Russian authorities. When she learns of this generous act, Marya handsomely denounces him, feeling herself cheated of sharing the ate of his fellow conspirators who had gotten arrested, out of a sense of her own accountability to those who had (and were) enduring such a fate. When, completely friendless in Petrograd, Cleary returns to her in desperation, she takes some measure of pity on him, but sharply interrogates him as to what kind of man he represents: an Irishman on the side of his own people’s imperial oppressors, working for those people on behalf of the Tsar to oppress Russians. Her revolutionary zeal throughout the book stands as a model and admirable characterization on Gelatt’s part. And he gives her also what seems the centerpiece speech in the work. Following the February 1917 massacre of demonstrators by Russian authorities, the powder keg of Russia seemed finally on the very brink of blowing up. In the wake of that event, Gelatt has Marya state at an organizer’s meeting:

This has caught us all off-guard. Nobody thought it was going to be 1905 again and perhaps it isn’t. But it is clear we stand now on a cusp. The empire is teetering and the world is watching to see which way it will fall, which way we will fall. Future generations will look back on this moment and judge their possibilities by our success … or by our failure. This is not just a struggle for bread, not just a struggle for today, for whose flag will fly at sunrise tomorrow. This is a fight for freedom for all of the oppressed. For a system of rule that will take us into the future. The time has come to take this city, to wrest her from the hands that have strangled her, to breathe new life into her. We will force the Tsar from his throne. We will unmake the Duma that has failed us. Do not doubt that many of us will die, but we are this city now and they cannot kill a whole city, as much as they might try. Blood that is spilled in this fight will be forever honored … once the Petrograd soviet has risen again (236).

This sense of moment, of history, of scope, rings powerfully and certainly captures something not much experienced these days. Most assuredly, we can locate this kind of personal significance in moments of religious conversion—of any stripe—and I don’t doubt that certain folks in the Tea Party have a sense of the moment and the scope of things, but we all know that their aspirations have nothing of “a fight for freedom for all of the oppressed, for a system of rule that will take us into the future.”  Whatever one might say, the progressiveness of the Bolsheviks stands in stark contrast to the regressiveness of the Tea Party, as all reactionary pseudo-revolutions do. The almost instantaneous political representation of Tea partiers in congress, as opposed to candidates from Occupy, point to the reactionary character, to the fact that the Tea Party breaks no new ground but, instead, merely rolls through the very deeply entrenched patterns of culture already available. They represent nothing new, only a more pitched intensity of the old, just as the proliferation of blackface this past Halloween represents nothing new in culture, but merely a resurgence of an old pattern in a renewed intensity.[5] Needless to add, the scope and moment of personal salvation in religion similarly participates in renewed, rather than genuinely new, social forms—to say nothing of merely selfish, i.e., non-social, forms. This emphasis on the specifically social scope of things, this engagement with the historicity of one’s times, seems Gelatt’s inspiration for writing his novel. It closes when Cleary meets Mayra one last time after the tsar abdicates. She asks what he will do, and then says, “I think it’s time for you to decide, Cleary. What are you really? A spy? A revolutionary? An opportunist? A reactionary? None of them? What are you, Cleary” (249). Clearly, we may ask ourselves the same question and should. I do not read from Gelatt’s text any intended irony—that we should, while reading his text remember what subsequently happened in Stalin’s Soviet Union. As one critique has it, Soviet communism failed—excellent (and no surprise, given how things ran), let us now in light of what we learned from that failure build true communism. But even within the context of the Soviets themselves, the high seriousness with which the Russian people undertook to transform themselves, however cynically Zinoviev intended the term homo sovieticus, cannot simply get swept away in brainless cynicism of a US sort. Against the structural “failure” of the Soviet Union, we should contrast the socio-personal transformations that occurred in human personalities during that time (Marya represents an excellent image of this transformation)—just as we might readily contrast the structural “success” of United States (following World War II), and the socio-personal degradation of both individuals and the social world they (we) inhabit as a result. We can hardly (much less cynically) dismiss the utter sincerity and earnestness and motivation of the Soviet people, who leapfrogged Russia over the nineteenth century and directly into the twentieth (for better or for worse an despite the enormously high human costs)—just as one cannot declare as meaningless the centuries of suffering that African people endured as slaves in the United States . I will accept no such declaration as anything less than the most obscene human vulgarity imaginable. Lastly, Gelatt’s book reminds us that revolutions do occur, and specifically presents some of the factors involved in bringing them about. Besides the generalized chaos Russia found itself in—ruled by a weak personality, surreally influenced by a rogue monk, impoverished an starving due to the world war and prevailing economic superstructures—it also involved what Gelatt records in a conversation between Cleary and a random Russian man in the street. Having asked if Cleary can spare him any moment, the man—more than middle-aged, with a few strands of comb-over but with star-lit eyes—says of a bread line:

MAN: Wait. You see that line over there? CLEARY: I do. MAN: Twice as long today as it was last week. Twice as long last week as it was the week before. It gets harder every day to be among the living in this city. CLEARY: So why not go join the dead, then? MAN: Ha! Is that how you feel, my friend? Look at me, I’m not yet defeated. CLEARY: Funny, you certainly look it. MAN: Perhaps in fortunes, but never in spirit. You know what they say, sir? Stormy weather cannot stay all the time. The red sun must come out, too. Hold out for that sun, Sir! Hold out for the storm to end! CLEARY: They sound like fools to me (77).

We may mark Cleary’s cynicism here as (1) a betrayer of his own Irish heritage, but also as someone who by the end of the novel (2) aids the cause of those who hold out for the storm to end as well. Gelatt, perhaps wisely or not, does not offer a “full rehabilitation” for Cleary, preferring to end with the question:  “What are you really? A spy? A revolutionary? An opportunist? A reactionary? None of them?” (249). We can dismiss that question cynically because cynicism provides something of a noble-seeming cover for cowardice, but we well know that something needs doing and that so long as we do nothing for that something, then we have betrayed our own people just as surely as Cleary.


[1] Gelatt, P., & Crook, T. (2011). Petrograd. Portland, OR: Oni Press.

[2] Typically, I find that graphic novels ultimately live or die by the visual storytelling more than the writing,[2] but Crook’s illustrations, here black and white with various hues of sepia, only serviceably do their work. With the exception of the head of the Russian okhrana (the secret police) and a few ably realized choice frames here and there (Crook seems very deft with eyes), usually Gelatt’s writing carries the day.
[3] Wilson, C. (1971). Rasputin and the fall of the Romanovs. Secaucus, N. J.: Citadel Press.
[4] Moore, A, Campbell, E., and Mullins, P (1999). From Hell (collected edition). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf.
[5] Assuming, of course, that the increased visibility of blackface this past Halloween doesn’t result most of all from the technology of social media, that makes an already extant, but otherwise widely invisible, phenomenon widely visible.

Introduction & Disclaimer[1]

The nineteenth post in a series that adds commentary to Nichols’ (1980)[2] Jungian commentary on the major arcana of the Tarot, here I engage with card 17: the Star.

Over the past two or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[3] and will continue to do so,[4] in part not only because his approach to psychology resonates with my own experience but also because when I read his works I experience a dislodging of psychic imagery that seems interesting and/or fruitful and/or inspiring. In addition, I have been doing Tarot card readings since 1986,[5] when my friend in college introduced them to me, and have even worked “professionally” as one.

So it proved very on-point and kind of my friend to think of me when she saw a copy of Nichols’ (1980) Jung and Tarot: an Archetypal Journey. This series, then, embodies my reactions to and commentaries on Nichols’ commentaries, &c, and will work through the major arcana (the trumps) of the Tarot deck chapter by chapter as Nichol’s book does in order from 0 to 21.

The Star: Ray of Hope[6]

EDITED: for those following, in what follows I especially emphasize the sense of the Star as it relates to the emergence of a new sense of destiny, to the detriment or seeming negligence of it as “simply” a source of spiritual illumination. Of course, one may easily see how these two instances represent similar moments at different “scales” of spiritual life. Still, in order not to seem to neglect entirely this aspect, the following insert gives a quick sketch of this more “immediate” sense of the Star and may also seem familiar in its imagery, especially in the falling five-pointed stars. Jung (1912) [3a] writes:

This symbolism is expressed very plastically in the third logos of the Dieterich papyus: after the second prayer, stars float down toward the neophyte from the disc of the sun–“five pointed, in great numbers an filling the whole air.” “When the sun’s disc has opened, you will see an immense circle, and fiery doors which are closed.” the neophyte then utters the following prayer:

Give ear to me, her me, Lord, who has fastened the fiery bolts of heaven with thy spirit, double-bodied, fire-ruler, creator of light, fire-breathing, fiery-hearted, shining spirit, rejoicing in fire, beautiful light, Lord of light, fiery-bodied, giver of light, sower of fire, confounding with fire, living light, whirling fire, mover of light, hurler of thunderbolts, glorious light, multiplier of light, holder of fiery light, conqueror of the stars (quoted in Jung, ¶135)

In my understanding of the Major Arcana arranged (excluding card 0 the Fool and card 21 the World) in sequences of four cards each (1–4, 5–8, 9–12, 13–16, and 17–20), where the first four sequences represent one of the puruṣartha or life-purposes (e.g., pleasure, power, dharma or service, and liberation, respectively), then the fifth sequence represents that state of one’s atman or spirit in an intermediate state in-between lives. From card 17 (the Star), through the Moon (card 18), the Sun (card 19), and then Judgment (card 20), these steps point to a process one undergoes during what I will call the Bardö state—whether you want to read this liminal life-state in a literal or figurative sense does not change the argument, only its application.

I find it helpful to think of myself as having chosen the whole course of my life—everything good, bad, indifferent—even if I often enough forget this assumption or get all gripey about something. I imagine I chose it all in advance during my previous Bardö stateforeseeing all of the details of it in advance, of course, because in the Bardö state I become (as we all do) omniscient—though, in my present (limited, physical) incarnation, I no longer remember any of those details.

I say this in this slightly tortured way, because I do not want to give the impression I require some commitment to any specific metaphysical reality for this “approach” or idea to remain consistent. Whether a Bardö state actually exists or not, I can choose to look at my life as if every detail in it I chose in advance.[7] Thus, instead of the absurdly tortured Christian theodicy in order to explain suffering in a context of an omniscient, omnipotent, and (theoretically) omnibenevolent divine being, the question, “Why do I suffer” gets answered, simply, “I chose it.” Perhaps as a challenge. Perhaps it arises as a consequence of some other detail in my life. The simplicity of the answer thus answers what remains an eternally vexing and thoroughly unfair situation—that I got born into a world without permission, and now I experience suffering as a result—and permits me to get past the problem of blame (e.g., my parents, or some divine being) and to move forward.

The power of this in my life personally stands in marked contrast to the inhumanity of it when advocated to others: to tell the child starving in Darfur, the woman sexually assaulted in the Congo, the cancer-ridden Chinese worker, or the Arab man unjustly tortured in Guantanamo that they chose those fates becomes, at times, not just a cornerstone in a grotesque indifference to human suffering but even a justification for it. In the notion, for instance, that suffering builds character (or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger), then simple logic dictates that we should beat the fuck out of children, the younger the better, so as to truly build up their character into saints or captains of industry or whatnot.

As Kateb (1972)[8] remarks, in his discussion of pain and pleasure, “At times it seems that the antiutopians favor pain as men would favor it who never felt very much of it and think it may be good for themselves and surely could not be too bad for others” (126). This preference for physical pain over pleasure and an aversion to the flesh obviously go hand in hand; worse, that exponents of pain think that it “surely could not be too bad for others” provides a very ominous concomitant, since it remains a very short step from this idea to deliberate violence, if not to the sadism that masquerades as moral instruction. How many wives have been thrashed by domestic sadists to “teach her a lesson” in fidelity? How many teachers had erections as they paddled the naked buttocks of their pupils? How often was something other than atonement going through the minds of abbots or priests as they witnessed the physical penance of their monks? Kateb alternatively offers that “at other times, the antiutopians speak as men who have seen or had so much pain that they have become incapable of imagining that there could come a time when pain—at least in its more brutalizing forms—could cease to be” (126–7).

So, any choice to view one’s life as chosen in the sense I describe above may only rest on the choosing individual’s authority.  And if one makes such a choice, then the Star card represents that moment when, out of all the varieties of destiny or fate that one might choose for oneself, one in particular gets selected.[9] The Star in this sense represents a kind of center of gravity or a (literally) guiding star for the whole course of one’s life.[10] If we imagine life as an answer to a question, then the Star point to or symbolizes that question. In this sense, the conventional sense of the star (as one’s ultimate hopes or dreams) comes out, with the addition that one’s hopes and dreams (in this context) get discovered or uncovered or realized. If this seems to threaten too much a sense of predestination, for one thing, once one lies on one’s deathbed, when one’s capacity to choose outcomes or fates seems at its absolute nadir, then one can look back over the whole course of a life and say, “Well, here is exactly where I wound up.” All the other branching possibilities of life have gotten trimmed off (or shown as illusions), and there remains only the actual paths followed. That outcome, which we generally do not find unsatisfying unless we have chosen profoundly wrongly throughout life, every bit embodies predestination as the only possible outcome. The primary requirement, it seems, revolves around our maintaining a sense of choice, even as we choose the only possible outcome. So this all hinges on our knowledge, what we know—and that points to why, despite in the Bardö state already knowing how everything will turn out after all—we necessarily induce amnesia in ourselves, in order that the experience of life “startles us” or surprises us or catches us off-guard.

Nichols, commenting on the card in her deck, notes how a naked female figure pours water from two jugs, one into a stream the other onto the earth. She notes, “Psychologically speaking, the kneeling figure might be dividing and sorting out insights newly available to consciousness, separating out the personal from the transpersonal” (295–6). Nichols’ reading continues the terrestrial adventure of the soul (card 0, the Fool) from the previous sequence of cards, culminating in card 16, the Tower, but whether we should understand the sequence as a literal or physical continuation of one life, or the entry into the Bardö state to germinate a next life, does not matter: the argument scales not only in that direction but “backward” to smaller scales as well, i.e., when we go to sleep, we may understand this as “death” (with dreaming as the Bardö state), and waking the next morning as rebirth, &c.[11] Whatever the scale, this “dividing and sorting out insights newly available to consciousness, separating out the personal from the transpersonal” seem the crucial point in all cases.

Sine our hyperindividualistic culture tends to disregard the transpersonal entirely, the mere emphasis of it already portends a potentially transformative factor in our (literally “out”) life(s).

The card Nichols examines features seven, eight, or nine stars, depending upon how we parse them. Seven individual eight-pointed stars surround a central double star, formed by the superimposition of one eight-pointed star on a second one. Besides digging out these details by looking more closely at the card, the impression remains of seven lesser stars and one central one (making eight in all, perhaps signaled also in the eight-pointedness of each), and the fact that the central star itself (because of the alternation of the points) results in a 16-pointed star. That we have sixteen points (two groups of eight) on card 17 points to the sort of “transcendent” (or transcending) summary this card gets at. It seems technically redundant, if we remain sensitive to how this row of cards (17 through 20) functions relative to the proceeding sixteen cards. Meanwhile, the seven lesser stars themselves (each eight-pointed) suggest the days of the week, the chakras, “the seven stages of the alchemical process” (297), and (of course) the predominant astrological figures, with the double-star suggesting the sun itself.

Emphasizing trees as simultaneously “symbolic of the transpersonal, universal self” (298) but also representations of “the unique way the transpersonal self is made manifest in each individual” (298), Nichols then belittles her text:

The two trees in The Star might also remind one of the twin trees in the garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Perhaps, like Eden’s trees, the two in this picture stand for two impulses rooted in the human psyche which move us to action—the one which impel us to live life, and the other which motivates us to know life (298).

The tree, as a symbol of the transpersonal and personal—the transcendent and the immanent—simultaneously does not need an analytical distinction between “Life” and “Knowledge of Good and Evil”. This redundancy offers an unnecessary distinction that ultimately gets reified into good and evil itself (“good” and “evil” falling on “life” or “knowledge” depending upon the inclinations of the philosopher or commentating carrying on about it). But we might live with this error were it not compounded by the prohibition on eating from the second tree, since whatever high-falutin claims one might hear about necessary falls and the like, the prohibition itself gets lost as a gesture of power—in a fable written by men who sought to secure their power over others, &c.

So if we connect this gesture back to the sense of the Star as it relates to the Bardö state, then this Power would amount to esoteric Power (hoarded by specialists, men generally), magic most generally and thus all of the appurtenances of priests, shamans, &c. And whatever histories we may identify in India regarding claims of exclusive access to esoteric knowledge, the Bhagavad-Gītā shamelessly declares openly the “ultimate secrets” for anyone who happens to hear it. The obvious largesse of this stands in distinct contrast to most “revelations”. So I see no reason whatsoever to imagine, even for a moment, that the two trees here must represent the false and politically interested dichotomy of Eden’s two trees.

Nor must we even put too much on the fact of two trees at all. As images (in the background of the card, hence in the “past” of the card) of the immanent expression of the transpersonal, universal self, they may refer simply to our previous lives.[12] And if I had to pick something else they might symbolize, I’d incline to link them to the recurring dominance of duality occurring on the car—the balanced opposition of the many stars’ points and the doubled duality of water and earth, each with their own jug of pouring water. For me, this duality—which carries through this whole row of cards, by the way—point still to those two modes of consciousness: the radiant n the reflective (extroverted and introverted). However, if I find a “justification” for this in the card, it arises from the two jugs, and not from the fact of two trees—the trees seem more the historical fact of previous incarnations, rooted in the (literal) ground of eternity.[13]

Somewhat like trees as symbols, which simultaneously display the traces of a very distant past while also manifesting immediately in the present, stars too represent something like time machines. Imagined vividly enough, we can resolve the paradox of their (on the one hand) unimaginable size in contrast to their (on the other) utterly minuscule dimness of light by placing them at what amounts to an infinite distance away. The form of guidance they offer does not resemble a lamp or a moon, in other words, but only their relative position in the sky (relatively fixed or at least predictably in motion) as it relates to our own journey. Thus, Nichols notes, “In this way, the stars connect each individual moment with transcendental time” (299).

Eliade (1959)[14] notes how this connection with transcendental time crucially informs the broadest conceptions of New Years’ rites.  First, insofar as all “real acts” occur only in mythical time (through repetition), what we might call our archaic mentality therefore exhibits an “ahistorical” character. Thus, the abolition of time entailed by exemplary repetition—by repeating the acts of mythological culture heroes—shows itself as an abolition of profane (non-sacred) time; that time taken up by all the non-important acts of life not preserved as exemplary gestures in myth. Eliade later convincingly illuminates the advantages of such a view; principally that it makes the terror of history, with its suffering, misfortune, social injustice and so forth, tolerable. Moreover, by annulling personal history:

archaic man recovers the possibility of definitely transcending time and living in eternity. Insofar as he fails to do so, insofar as he “sins,” that is, falls into historical existence, into time, he each year thwarts the possibility. At least he retains the freedom to annul his faults, to wipe out the memory of his “fall into history,” and to make another attempt to escape definitively from time (158).

This access to freedom has a correlate implication of access to power and creativity. This seems obvious in the re-creation of the world in events like Mardi Gras, Carnival, Festival, or new years’ rites generally, but every repetition involves the re-creation of a first gesture, and hence becomes an act performed for the first time. Eliade further demonstrates the ubiquity of this type of personal creative power as cosmogenesis in ritual: in temple building and for lands conquered by war, at times of coronation, consummation of marriage, and the birth of children, or even as a response to bad crops or bad luck.

For the cosmos and man are regenerated ceaselessly and by all kinds of means, the past is destroyed, evils and sins are eliminated, etc. Differing in their formulas, all these instruments of regeneration tend toward the same end: to annul past time, to abolish history by a continuous return in illo tempore, by the repetition of the cosmogonic act (81).

Against the notion that such a connection to transcendental time amounts to nothing, Eliade notes how the archaic mentality has served in good stead “tens of millions…century after century” (152), particularly even since the original publication of his work we may still say that “a very considerable fraction of the population of Europe, to say nothing of other continents, still lives today by the light of the traditional, anti-‘historicistic’ viewpoint” (152).

As no small aside, Nichols reframes the alchemical notion of “as above, so below” in psychological terms as “between the self and the ego” (299). This reiterates that the literal reading of the phrase, involving actual stars, represents a projection; hence, one remembers also Thomas Moore’s (1982)[15] now long out-of-print The Planets Within as well of course as other essential projections such as identified in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s (1984)[16] Goddesses in Everywoman and (1989)[17] Gods in Everyman. For Nichols, she links the symbology of stars to archetype, i.e., “they symbolize the archetypes which are the images that influence our lives and through which we experience the myriad aspects of the godhead” (300).

Because only a naked human figure appears on Nichols’ card, a figure she describes as wholly human (i.e., not divine), it becomes unsettling that she says, “Significantly, the hero himself does not appear in this picture” (300). Perhaps he does not, but why can’t the female figure constitute the hero—especially since Nichols has insisted this figure represents no divine character: “in The Star we see for the first time a naked human. Stripped of all identification and robbed of every pretension, her essential self is exposed to the elements. Wearing no social persona or mask, she reveals her basic nature” (295); moreover, “she is a human figure without wings, and the urns are blood red, symbolic of physical nature and human feeling” (296).

This unambiguous  designation of the figure as human—even if a human who straddles the transcendental and immanent realms and sorts out psychological experiences from that vantage point—points, I would say, very clearly to an unnecessary sexism that can’t understand—or wants to make some amount of hay out of the fact—that the “hero himself” does not appear in this picture. We would have to further understand—if we would fantasize that the (masculine) “hero” remains the subject of the transit of the soul through the entire sequence of Major Arcana—why the hero has appeared in single, double, and triple form previously, as well as in both (apparent) genders, i.e., Empress, Emperor, Hierophant, Temperance, the three-fold imagery on the Lovers, &c. Just as the imagery and the term “mother “ has served part of humanity metaphorically as the most thoroughgoing symbolization of the Source (or that which we must remain separate from, even as we acknowledge it as our origin), and just as the imagery and the term “death” has served part of humanity metaphorically as the most thoroughgoing symbolization of the Other (or that which by definition we do not wish to integrate but must), so the imagery and terms “male” and “female” would seem to have served metaphorically as two of the most thoroughgoing representations for (incommensurable) difference. While the reification of these terms, as also the terms “mother” and “death,” have made literal and perilous (if not destructive) what (if left symbolic) portends liberation and growth.

So it seems wholly misguided, and misguiding, to fret over any disappearance or non-appearance of the hero in this card, just as it seems misguided or misguiding to think that this card would have (or could have, or should have) nothing for male-bodied individuals because the human figure in this card seems female-bodied. In  pitiful statement, Nichols contrasts the male hubris of card 16, which experienced a complete reversal in the previous card, so that “Now he discovers that he is nobody” (301). I find this pitiful because it inadvertently means that the woman on the card constitutes this nobody. Nichols does not intend this, but if the “hero” has disappeared (temporarily), who occupies this card? Moreover, this masculine ego can ‘only through the ministrations of the Star Woman … be saved” (301).

We see in this an abrupt reversal of the humanization this figure had earlier from Nichols; suddenly, she represents something more divine, a Star Woman (with capital letters). Now suddenly, “this woman is an archetypal creature of the deeps. She lives and moves in the timeless world of the planets—a world that existed millenniums ago, long before the advent of man and his clocks” (301). In light of such an abrupt re-definition, I feel compelled to repeat what Nichols wrote a couple of pages earlier:

“in The Star we see for the first time a naked human. Stripped of all identification and robbed of every pretension, her essential self is exposed to the elements. Wearing no social persona or mask, she reveals her basic nature” (295); moreover, “she is a human figure without wings, and the urns are blood red, symbolic of physical nature and human feeling” (296, quotation marks carried over from the original above).

Most assuredly, the atman (the Self) that “dwells” in the Bardö state (in between lives) does indeed inhabit  timeless world, i.e., eternity, which does not just preexist but precludes any notion of clocks. And if we wanted, we could mull over in what sense or for what reason we have the atman expressed (on this card) in female form, though that seems beside the point at this juncture, but Nichols does not let it rest. Identifying the Star Woman as something like an archetypal timepiece in rhythm with the sidereal motion of the stars (in contrast to the artificial motion of man-made clocks), then, “In the psychology of a man, such  female figure represents his anima, or unconscious feminine side. In a woman’s journey this figure, being of the same sex, would symbolize a shadow aspect of the personality” (301).

I almost never find any discussion of the anima by Jung (or, apparently Nichols) rooted in truthfulness, for want of a better word. The fact that here the Star Woman gets construed as basically a man’s essential Muse and a woman’s discardable or dangerous enemy shows the emptiness of trying to populate “male” and “female” psychologies with identically valenced complexes. And continuously stupid as I find it, Jung’s psychological theory also explains why he could have so continuously repeated this error—above and beyond, of course, the world of patriarchal sexism he inherited by birth. As a numinous  figure, the anima (and animus) have the capacity to possess us as complex—Jung’s theory provides this psychological mechanism and explanation, and I believe such possession explains the bulk of his commentary on the distinctions between male and female psychology, especially where the anima and animus get concerned.

If we ask an extravert—more properly, someone in an extraverted mode of consciousness—to describe herself, she might say “gregarious, outgoing, sociable” and if asked to describe an introvert might say “socially awkward, retiring, standoffish.” Similarly, if we ask an introvert—i.e., someone in an introverted mode of consciousness—to describe himself, he might say “thoughtful, tactful, reflective” while if asked to describe an extravert might say “overbearing, loud, thoughtless.” Keeping this in mind, and that we all at different times operate in either an extraverted or introverted mode of consciousness, then (to use the extravert as an example), at those times when an extravert feels socially inhibited from expressing herself in an extraverted mode, then she might “switch over” to an introverted mode of consciousness or being. But for her, to act in an introverted mode involves being socially awkward, standoffish, &c. Similarly, the introvert who “switches over” to his idea of extraversion will tend toward thoughtlessness and/or loud and overbearing behavior. The person who gets too drunk at the party and stands on top of a table dancing with his shirt off and waving it around may, more likely, constitute someone more prone to introversion who has switched over, just as the bitter, carping loner out in the backyard all by herself, who wants no one to talk to her, more likely constitutes an extravert who has switched over to her parody of the introverted mode of being.

In both cases, when we switch over from our more dominant or comfortable mode of consciousness, we take up a mode of consciousness based on an Other, but it represents little more than a parody, an ugly satire, of that Other’s mode of being. And since Jung insists that the difference between extraversion and introversion tends toward ‘fundamentally irritating,” the incommensurability of that distinction links it in type to the incommensurability of difference between “male” and “female” as well. And over and over in this commentary on Nichols commentary, the proposal that extraversion and introversion represent modes of consciousness (the radiant and the reflective respectively) has butted up against the conundrum of trying to link these things to gender, e.g., in the case of card 3, the Empress, and card 4, the Emperor. But when we understand that what a man means by “woman” and what a woman means by “man” falls into the same kind of parodying trap that extraversion and introversion represent, then we may already begin to start finding our way out of the futility at work in Jung’s distinction of anima and animus (and gender-identified differences generally).

At a minimum, it permits one to add a massive horse-block of salt to the dominantly patriarchal discourse, which Jung (and Freud even more egregiously) and “thoughtlessly” expressed in their attempts to universalize human psychology—with the difference that Jung’s psychology shows us a mechanism for understanding how this could have come about, while Freud’s theorizing does not. We can ask, with the feminists,[18] whether something like an incommensurably female psyche has a reality apart from the male psyche, or perhaps Jung’s admirably non-gendered psychological types more or less provide all of the incommensurable templates we might encounter.

However these large issues flesh out, to pretend that the “hero” disappears in card 17 represents a swerve into possession by a complex that distorts Nichols’ commentary, I believe. But, again to the credit of Jung’s theory, he provides a way to understand this. I have shown from the text how Nichols switches, with an impressive abruptness, from identifying the figure on the card as wholly human to one that represents instead the Star Woman “an archetypal creature of the deeps” (300, emphasis mine)—not even human, but a creature, this resurgence of the anima—a Muse in the psychology of a man—gets construed as a shadow in the psychology of a woman; so this manifestation of the anima represents (literally) a mistake by Nichols’ lights. That projections involve blindspots further explains how Nichols gives no sign of noticing this switch—once possessed by the anima, it speaks through her rather than her speaking for it. In the following, one can almost literally hear Nichol’s star “blowing up” (expanding), growing bigger by the moment, until the phrase “in either case”:

Since the Star Woman is drawn on the grand scale, larger than life, she could personify a quality far beyond the personal shadow and more akin to the self, that all-encompassing archetype which is the central star of our psychic constellation. In either case, the kneeling figure represents a hitherto inaccessible aspect of the psyche which, like a  fairytale princess, was formerly imprisoned in a tower and held captive there by cruel King Logos, ruler of our masculine-oriented society (301)

After “that all-encompassing archetype which is the central star of our psychic constellation” which also represents an almost total aphelion away from the notion of the card’s figure as a mere human being,[19] the phrase “in either case,” rings with a touch of calm down, after which point we suddenly enter a fairytale realm where the “hero” (the heroine) in fact appears, in the form of the princess held captive by cruel King Logos.

I suspect I will have to split a hair here. In card 16, Nichols identifies the hubristic hero (masculine) as the one imprisoned in the tower.[20] Here, in card 17 (as Nichols builds it up in this passage) we have a princess imprisoned in a tower as well, thus linking her with the hero of card 16. In such fairytales, we frequently find some Prince Charming who comes to rescue the princess, and in this current absence we might try to read the absence of the hero Nichols asserts. However, we also might recall that men relate such myths n stories, and that in historical epochs when women have penned such adventures, as occurred in droves near the end of the eighteenth century when female-authored Gothic fiction proliferated rampantly on the literary scene,[21] precisely female agency—not Prince Charmings—helped to get heroines out of the towers in which heavy fathers and cruel King Logoi had imprisoned them. Understood in this light, we need no Prince Charming to appear—the fairytale princess (heroically realized) has already the pugnacious wherewithal to save herself.

All of this goes far afield of the Star card, of course, even as it illustrates what seems a case of anima-possession on Nichol’s part, i.e., identification with archetypal imagery.

Briefly, Nichols alludes to the presence of the four elements of air, water, fire, and earth represented together “for the first time” (303) in this card, and that “not all analytical psychologists agree as to which element best symbolizes which [Jungian] function” (303).

My own notion is that air and water might represent thinking and feeling; whereas fire an earth might symbolize intuition and sensation. No doubt one’s function type influences the way [she] experiences and classifies the functions. The reader might find it useful to pause here and ponder on which classification feels right (303).

Instead, I would rather emphasize the dyadic relationship Jung propose for the four functions. Distinguish irrational and rational functions, which itself proposes a dyadic contrast, he contrast intuition & sensation (irrational) and feeling & thinking (rational). By this, he definitively insists on a sense of different but equal, though each of us will by habit or inclination favor one more than the others, which Nichols points to when she says “no doubt one’s function type influences the way [she] experiences and classifies the functions.” The mutual exclusivity of thinking compared to feeling or intuition compared to sensation largely involves a definitional exclusivity: we “think-feel’ all the time but in the moment of (rational) analysis we declare that we employ one or the other function and thereby assign by fit the precedence of thinking or feeling in that moment. The same applies for intuition and sensation. So that what I want to emphasize involves less that we preferentially declare various functions in various ways, but that to declare one function comes with a ‘value-structure” that simultaneously does not choose some other function. To employ the thinking function places the feeling function in the dark and vice versa, &c. This mutual exclusivity amounts to an incommensurability as well, between thinking and feeling or intuition and sensation, but also the irrational and irrational functions themselves.

With this in mind, it becomes clear how fruitlessly we might debate any absolutely “correct assignment” of the functions to the elements. Whatever scheme we might settle on must necessarily exhibit internal consistency, but the “rational” paradigm or the “irrational” paradigm itself (as only two examples) would not hold water, because we each assert our schemes from within “interested” positions. Related to this, Jung admits plainly that every psychological description represents a person’s own psychology; any talk of universal psychology then cannot rest at the level of form or content, but only at the level of (human) doing, in transactions between people.[22] For example, if I describe someone as predominating in an extraverted mode of consciousness, then I might further describe her behavior as remaining consistent with that description or “switching over” to a (parody of an) introverted mode of being or consciousness.  This mechanism of switching over—as the manifesting of a difference relative to a (recently observed) past—remains the only “universal” feature within the domain of my description of this other person.

We need, then, all of the varieties of (attempted) “correct assignment” we might get. Rather than never making an descriptive assignment because objective description remains impossible, we might desist instead in the habit of oppressively forcing others to admit only our absolute assignment represents the correct one—social injustice, oppression, and violence (I resort to redundancy) all begin in such a gesture. And at root, despite those times when Jung gets possessed by a complex (as we all do) and gets swept up into some hubristically overextended descriptive claim, Jung’s psychology supports the assertion of and recognition of (radical, incommensurable) difference.

Nichols seems more back on track when she notes:

Despite the fact that the ego is “out of the picture,” perhaps even because this is the case, it can now become passively aware of an expanding universe with dimensions hitherto undreamed. Flat on its back, the ego cannot participate in ordinary human activity; it can only lie inert in a deep depression. When the ego is immobilized, intuitions are free to soar. At this point the ego begins to be filled with a new sense of destiny and to experience its individual fate as part of the universal design. Purely ego-centered ambitions are now lost in contemplation of the stars, and life begins to revolve around a new center (304).

Widening the scale of this a moment, the disappearance of the ego during the Bardö state merely signals the disincarnation of whatever specific, limited life one’s atman had just experienced. Thus, the ego in its limited form, by definition, learns nothing because it has passed out of existence entirely. Now, to say this invokes the question to what extent can one even speak of a “course” or a “career” of one’s soul (atman) if, at the termination of each incarnation, we return to an omniscient, omnipotent state from which we select our next incarnated life-adventure. A simplest resort involves our omniscient self “preselecting” (so to speak) a whole series of “sub-lives,’ where each return to the Bardö does not automatically offer access again to absolute knowledge—thus, the process of one’s development over many lifetimes becomes conceivable.

But rather than remaining so literal, I would rather wonder what sense or value might get extracted from the notion that any “restart” might offer a total “disconnect” from whatever previous state we’d found ourselves in. We might enjoy finding ourselves stepped in some (lengthy) “journey,” but anyone who has played a video game knows sometimes the preference simply to end the current game (mid-stream) and start over, which seems the same thing as saying changing games in mid-game as well. In Cirillo and Wapner’s (1985)[23] very aptly named Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development, they point out that even the fundamental idea that we start in some kind of simpler or chaotic state and only gradually “develop” represents an untested hypothesis, that such a presupposition provides a way of thinking about how human beings experience time, but doesn’t automatically provide a priori some reason to assume that earlier represents something inferior, that later represents something superior, that normal development even exists or that we should regard certain kinds of development as abnormal or aberrant.

But if we assume a human need to (literally) make sense of our disparate experiences, if only because we live in a world where other people seem to insist on doing so, then we might speak of the self, whether in daily life or even in the Bardö state, as in a temporary suspension while a “bigger picture” gets more grasped t. This, precisely, seems the moment of sense making, when we construct (as authors) the necessary fiction of our life. For even the atman in the Bardö finds itself in that circumstance in media res (in the middle of things). It “wakes up” and says, “Whoa, here I am. What now?” so that the Star represents the moment of sense-making that answers that question. The point to emphasize here, it seems: the strictly delimited ego-consciousness does not serve as the primary author. The limited ego-consciousness, who more or less had the helm in each previous incarnation, now gets pushed out—something like a character in a play whose run has finished. And, insofar as the Self by definition stands in distinction to the ego-consciousness’s limited conception of itself, we might say that the author, therefore, stands as the audience (the watcher)[24]

So, whatever the scale we might settle on, the moment of the Star has a funny relationship to the star of a theatrical production. The old star and her performance enters into the annals of (theatrical, personal) history—the audience (the watchers) write reviews, the role maybe gets reprised or taken up by someone else, someone decides to write a musical of the play, &c—and meanwhile, a new star in  new play gets chosen. The important part of this metaphor seems the dissolution of the previous character (ego-consciousness?), even if the actor (ego-consciousness?) who played her winds up cast in the next production. Here, we find the tricky bit—the specific relationship of the actor to the character—and perhaps it would illuminate something to imagine the complex interplay that goes on between the development of the actor’s repertoire through portraying different characters but also the social reputation of the actor in light of those portrayals and developments. And difficult as we might find it to keep resolutely distinct the notion of ego-consciousness relative to “character” or “actor,” even to attempt a distinction seems helpful.

In another squelch of unhappy patriarchialism, Nichols refers to:

the woman [as] both active and acted upon.[25] She moves with a trancelike grace. Hers is the godlike absorption of a child creating a new world out of water and mud. Her intense dedication and total participation in this act of creation is not unlike that of the Deity himself (305).

This seems a very confused passage to me. From the picture on the card, I do not see any reason for Nichols to insist the figure—notice that Nichols has transformed her again into simply a “woman”—“is acted upon”. No. She acts, pouring out water from the jugs—nothing overtly imagistic determines her activity except the necessity of the task, whatever it consists of. Moreover, as a static image, it remains in the first place only metaphorical to say the figure “moves with a trancelike grace” but in the second place all the less so given that nothing in the picture suggests trancelikeness. This invocation of “trancelike”—ostensibly dignified by the further attribute of “grace”—links to somnambulistic or unconscious activity, thus reprising the patriarchal notion that women can only act unconsciously—even as patriarchy compliments them on that ability. Moreover, the card’s image gives no reason to describe her activity as resembling “the godlike absorption of a child”—being only god “like” and reiterating the unconsciousness (of a child) even as Nichols immediately draws a resemblance with the “act of creation … of the Deity himself”.

The presence of water and earth here makes the descriptor muddled pitifully appropriate. It seems as if Nichols encounters in this symbolic image of a Creatrix a kind of numinous de-centering that recognizes the woman as a Creatrix but cannot shake sufficiently the patriarchal or sexist presuppositions that otherwise insist on ascribing agency, creation, or creativity only to male figures. Nonetheless, at the end of a subsequent paragraph, Nichols quotes a maxim, “Silence is the inner space we need for growth” (305), and then adds, “This moment of inner growth is not one for extraverted doing; its essence is inner vision” (305).[26]

This may reveal why the card figures the Star in female form, to the extent that introversion—the reflective mode of consciousness—tends elsewhere in the tarot imagery (not necessarily in Nichols’s commentary) to link the feminine and the introverted. In any case, that this moment of inner growth involves what one might call meditation by the atman during the Bardö state, this does indeed not involve the extraverted or radiant mode of consciousness implicated in doing. We may see also how, despite the female-bodied imagery of the card, that nothing must compel us to reify this sort of gendered identification. Moreover, as Nichols observes, the process involved in the card (at whatever scale we imagine it) involves that “we change both the quality of our personal lives and the character of the collective unconscious” (305).

To give a concrete example of how, without resorting to spooky assertions about the collective unconscious, we may simply imagine how the portfolio of characters portrayed by a celebrated actor changes and influences our cultural life, however slightly. Because we all comprise actors as well, so that our own portfolio of performances also change the quality both of our personal lives and the character of the collective unconscious, which we (all) project as social life. One might almost say that culture itself represents our projection of the collective unconscious, but I think this claims too much. Social life gets implicated in the play of culture while the play of social life represents instead what we project out of the collective unconscious into our worlds.[27]

Nichols ends with a dubious paean to pain and suffering, which my comments earlier already provide a frame for rejecting. Instead, I’d sooner dwell on her closing remark. She cites the alchemical maxim, “What the soul imagines … happens only in the mind, but what [the divine] imagines, happens in reality” (311), the critical emphasis here being on imagination. In Ruland’s (1612)[28] Alchemical Lexicon, he defines imagnatio (imagination) as est astrum in homo, coeleste sivc supercoeleste corpus [the star in mankind, the celestial or supercelestial body]; Gibbons (2001)[29] detects this idea in Blake’s phase that makes imagination “the Human eternal body in Every Man” (117), while Willard (201)[30] draws the distinction between the alchemists, who saw imagination as a mental faculty, and the Jungians, who regarded it as a mental process. Hence, as Nichols says, “By connecting [us] with the world-creating imagination of the godhead, [the Star] imbues [our lives] with new meaning and purpose” (311).

I have, perhaps belligerently, insisted on referring to the figure on card 17 as the Star, whereas Nichols seems to distinguish her as a figure—and one that she (Nichols) cannot treat consistently as either active or passive, divine or human, conscious or unconscious. Because this entanglement in Nichols’s text seems rooted in (inherited) sexist discourse, I find it less interesting than if it arose from a genuine (symbolic) tension.

In any case, if we take at face value the alchemists’ insistence “imagination is the star in mankind,” then the discursive sense-making, the very literal creativity, involved in that links to our own authorship of our lives. Jung’s active imagination certainly offers a key tool for this, and if one can practice it honestly enough alone then one wouldn’t need an analyst. But even without it, beyond our cognitive ability as symbolic thinkers—creatures that read more than mere sense out of the world, which itself already provides us a radical inheritance—imagination takes the factualness of our symbolic experience and allows us to turn it into hypotheticals. We might then run with this idea all over the place, but as it specifically involves the Star, this amounts to the enormous potential within our capacity to ask ourselves of our life, “What if?”


[1] As a general context, I do not believe Tarot cards are in any way inherently magical; I’m not someone who becomes psychically disturbed if you touch my deck or someone who claims you’ve ruined the vibe if you do. Personally, doing Tarot readings for people is one place in my life where my intuitive and intellectual sides work in tandem, rather than being at odds with one another—and that sense of co-operation is a pleasure to experience. For others—for the “us” that exists during the duration of the Tarot reading—it is a chance to have a conversation; as an example, I’ve had a radio show where I did Tarot card readings on the air with formerly incarcerated individuals in order to let the world listening hear the reality of incarceration, &c, but the conversation is also for the other person, to examine the forces, the patterns, the trends in her or his life, and to have the opportunity to change them. I continually ask questions when doing Tarot card readings; I don’t pretend to be or act psychic. And having said all that, to the extent that the imagery in the Tarot operates archetypally (as Nichols claims), to the extent that it can inspire images and dislodge psychic impressions in those using and viewing the cards, then I agree that the Jungian approach Nichols brings to the Tarot stands to be helpful, insightful, and useful—hence this commentary on her commentary.

[2] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

[3] Psychological Types (Collected Works 6, [1921], 1971), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9, Part 1, 2nd ed. 1968), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966), Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968), Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works 14, [1955-6], 2nd ed. 1970).

[3a] Jung, C. G. (1976). Symbols of transformation: an analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. (Collected Works Vol. 3, 2d ed., trans. RFC Hull). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[4] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968), Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970), Experimental Researches (Collected Works 2, 1973) lined up next, and need still to find affordable copy of The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works 8, 1970).

[5] I began with the Crowley-Harris (1972) Thoth Tarot, which I used for many years, acquired but didn’t find myself inspired by Dali’s (1955) Universal Tarot, owned, found myself inspired by, but did not use Tavaglione’s (1979) Stairs of Gold Tarot, used Brian William’s (1988) Renaissance Tarot during my professional phase, in part because the trumps readily leant themselves to that kind of setting, Gerhardt & Zeeuwen’s (1996) Terrestrial Tarot, which one reviewer describes as very unsettling yet still possessing a “strange magnetism,” and finally, Sergio Toppi’s (2000) Tarot of the Origins—Toppi being, as it turns out, one of my favorite illustrators of all time (see here and here, for my reviews of two of his books). I recently acquired the Mary-El deck as well.

[6] The title used for this header comes from the title of the chapter in Nichol’s book.

[7] Nichols alludes to the possibility of reincarnation later “In a continuous circular rhythm … we human beings borrow illumination, energy, and talents from the stars to complete our earthly selves, returning these to the heavens (perhaps replenished and enhanced?) when our life on earth is done” (300).

[8] Kateb, G. (1972). Utopia and its enemies. New York: Schocken.

[9] Whether one crafts in infinite detail every detail of one’s life and knows that in advance or if only rough details get sketched in, even as all of the consequences of that sketching remains omnisciently visible as well, doesn’t matter much. Doubtless one would find a vast array of ways one makes such a choice; all that matters here involves that the star of the Star card itself symbolizes the “star” one gets born under—the same sort of “star” that messed up Romeo and Juliet and Tristan an Isolde as star-crossed lovers, and which the word disaster etymologically point to.

[10] Nichols refers to this in a more literally terrestrial sense: “Another popular belief held that, at birth, each human being was given his own personal star representing his transcendental counterpart or guiding star. Such a star was believed to watch over the affairs of its earthly charge, guiding his destiny, and protecting him from harm” (299). In Robertson Davies’s (1985)* What’s Bred In the Bone, he invokes a related idea in the daemon, except that this figure associates specifically with artists, being something of an artist itself, who mucks with the artist’s life in order to turn her into a creature capable of creating a masterpiece. I remember this as a contrast to the idea of protecting from harm Nichols just noted; daemons will definitely put “harms” cross one’s path—sufferings at least—in order to provide a necessary resonance with the work they will create.

*Davies, R. (1985). What’s bred in the bone. 1st American ed. New York: Viking.

[11] Nichols emphasizes this change as well: “From this point in our Tarot series, so we shall see, we enter a new dimension of understanding within which life’s vicissitudes will be viewed under the aspect of eternity” (296).

[12] (as also the stars might as well, given that they seem like lesser lights compared to the 16-pointed double-star).

[13] Nichols goes on to link the two-ness of the tree to how material emerging out of the unconscious often gets doubled in dreams and the like. This seems a more fruitful direction than linking it to the totalitarian desire for control exhibited by YHWH in Eden.

[14] Eliade, M. (1991). Cosmos and history: the myth of the eternal return (trans. Willard R. Trask). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

[15] Moore, T. (1982). The planets within: the astrological psychology of Marsilio Ficino. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.

[16] Bolen, J. S. (1984). Goddesses in everywoman: a new psychology of women. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[17] Bolen, J. S. (1989). Gods in everyman: a new psychology of men’s lives and loves. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[18] See Donovan, J. (1989). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory. 2nd ed. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky

[19] One might also note the sudden symbolic displacement that makes “the star” into the figure more typically placed at the center of (astrological) consciousness, the sun. and while, scientifically speaking, the sun represent the nearest star, imaginatively the sun, moon, planets, and stars all stand s radically distinguished celestial object but also, speaking in terms of the tarot, the Sun gets represented (along with the Moon) in the next two cards, so it becomes redundant or gratuitous to make the Star the Sun.

[20] In point of fact, the Tower shows two figures imprisoned in the tower.

[21] See Tompkins, JMS (1961). The popular novel in England, 1770-1800. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, as well as Ellis, KF (1989). The contested castle: Gothic novels and the subversion of domestic ideology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

[22] This points, incidentally, at the utility of cybernetics all over again.

[23] Cirillo, L, and Wapner, S (1985). Value presuppositions in theories of human development. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

[24] Who might, nonetheless, have some relationship with the actor who played the character in the previous drama. After all, authors sometimes play in their own works.

[25] As part of the symbolic “wobble” that occurs throughout this chapter about this figure, Nichols later insists “she is not passive. As we have observed, she takes action” (309). Recall the sentence, “she is, by nature, unconscious” (306).

[26] Nichols relapses soon after however, repeating that the woman represents a creature of the deep, that “she is, by nature, unconscious” (306). The ideological insistence on this becomes galling. One can hardly imagine something similar getting said of the man who mixes chalk and mint (to make toothpaste) that he can do so because he “is, by nature” as inert as chalk and as vegetative as mint. Moreover, “soon she herself will sink back again into the water which is her element, leaving the hero bereft of her ministrations—totally alone in the silent world of elemental being to confront the monstrous deeps as best he may” (306). To the extent that the figure on the Star, with its Aquarian associations all the more so, links to a figure like John the Baptist, it becomes almost incomprehensible how Nichol can so totally eviscerate the woman’s agency here. John the Baptist stood as no watery thrall but had such a mystical understanding of water that he could, without identifying with it, use it toward a ritual/spiritual end. From this (denied) link, we may infer that the figure of the Star, therefore, represents (1) a means to an end* but also that (2) she portends a new step yet to come, the herald of the savior, not the savior herself. This certainly seems appropriate as the first card in a series of four, which in its Christianized imagery ends with a last judgment and thus the (destructive) appearance of the savior.

*At one point, Nichols specifically denies this: the figure on the card “seems absorbed in her tsk, not as a means to an end, but as something useful and interesting in itself” (310). I don’t mean to harp on this, but this lens an air of stupidity to the figure, as if she does not (or cannot) imagine some further purposefulness to her activity. This description makes her sound short-sighted when in fact the figure in the Bardö state has the longest possible vision imaginable.

[27] “Jung’s method of active imagination and dream amplification is by no means ‘free association.’ … The Jungian method of amplification follow a circular course. Keeping the original image central, it moves around its periphery, amplifying its meaning by analogy and contrast, using associations which proceed from it and remain connected directly to it, like the spokes of a wheel. In Jung’s method, the secondary images revolve around the central one as the planets pictured in the Star revolve round their central sun” (307).

[28] Available in one translation here.

[29] Gibbons, BJ (2001). Spirituality and the occult : from the Renaissance to the modern age. London: Routledge.

[30] Willard, T. (2012). The star in man: CG Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz on the alchemical philosophy of Gerard Dorn. In A. Classen (ed.) Gutes Leben und guter Tod von Spätantike bis zur Gegenwart: Ein philosophisch-ethischer Diskurs über die Jahrhunderte hinweg, Theophrastus Paracelsus Studien, 4, pp. 425–61. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.


Give up on the politics of respectability and organize to present (y)our grotesque (social) body to the the dominating classes in culture.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Bauer and McKinstry’s (1991)[1] Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic

This book presents 13 essays on, as the title suggests, feminism and the early Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and one of his central concepts, the dialogic. Due to the range of the essays, I do not propose to reply to each one, usually because of an overly narrow focus on specific writers, whether the analysis captivated me as in Yelin’s (1991)[2] case or as not in Hitchcock’s (1991),[3] Daly’s (1991),[4] or Berman’s (1991)[5] cases, but also in one case where an overly polemic focus narrows the article’s reach too much, as in Schwab (1991),[6] who seeks, and not without more than a whiff of non-disinterestedness, to defend the French feminist critic Luce Irigaray from her detractors.

This comprises the first of two replies to Bauer and McKinstry’s book, with this one particularly devoted to Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque and grotesque bodies.

By far, Bakhtin’s most frequently invoked concept (perhaps especially amongst feminists) involves the notion of carnivalesque and the grotesque or grotesque bodies, especially as described found in his (1965)[7] Rabelais and His World:

In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin likens the carnivalesque in literature to the type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). It is not to be construed that the liberation from all authority and sacred symbols is an ideology to be believed and held as a creed. Carnival extracts all individuals from noncarnival life, noncarnival states, because there are no hierarchical positions during carnival there cannot be ideologies for the mind of individuals to manifest.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnivalistic sense of the world: 1. Familiar and free interaction between people: carnival often brought the unlikely of people together and encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity. 2. Eccentric behaviour: unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted in carnival, and one’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences. 3. Carnivalistic misalliances: familiar and free format of carnival allows everything that may normally be separated to reunite- Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc. 4. Sacrilegious: Bakhtin believed that carnival allowed for Sacrilegious events to occur without the need for punishment. Bakhtin believed that these kinds of categories are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances (from here).[8]

Bakhtin’s notion of carnival is connected with that of the grotesque. In the carnival, usual social hierarchies and proprieties are upended; emphasis is placed on the body in its open dimension, in its connection to the life of the community. This emphasis on the material dimension which links humans, rather than on the differences and separations between them, allows for the consciousness of the historical dimension of human life: for every death, there is a birth, a renewal of the human spirit. This process allows for progress. ¶ In the grotesque body, emphasis is placed on the open, the penetrative, and the “lower stratum.” The open (the mouth, the anus, the vagina, etc.) and the penetrative (the nose, the penis, etc.) allow exchange between the body and the world (mostly through sex, eating, and drinking), but also to produce degrading material (curses, urine, feces, etc.). The lower stratum (belly, womb, etc.) is the place where renewal happens, where new life is forged, thus connecting degradation to renewal. The grotesque body is one of excess, rebellious to authority and austerity. ¶  Due to its inscription in time and its emphasis on bodily changes (through eating, evacuation, and sex), the grotesque has been interpreted by some critics as a dimension of the body that permits to perceive the historicity of man: it is in this reading used as a measuring device (from here)

I offer these summaries in part due to the facileness of attempting to paraphrase Bakhtin’s book-length studies but also to point out the breadth of the concepts, which often get very abbreviated in critical or analytical use. While the emphasis on the body (grotesque or not) certainly lends itself to that part of feminist thought concerned with (the often literal) writing on the (female) body, the application of Bakhtin’s concept should amount to more than an allusion an should also keep in mind Eagleton’s (1989)[9] point:

Those liberal humanists who have now enlisted the joyous, carnivalesque Bakhtin to their cause need perhaps to explain rather more rigorously than they do why the experience represented by carnival is, historically speaking, so utterly untypical. Unless the carnivalesque body is confronted by that bitter, negative, travestying style of carnivalesque thought which is the philosophy of Schopenhauer, it is difficult to see how it signifies any substantial advance on a commonplace sentimental populism, of a kind attractive to academics (183).

Sipple’s (1991)[10] “‘Witness to the Suffering of Women’: Poverty and Sexual Transgression in Meridel Le Sueur’s Women on the Breadlines” in Bauer and McKinstry’s text represents a sort of case in point. On the one hand, Sipple’s historical analysis very cogently examines the social treatment of women who, unlike women prior to the Great Depression in the United States who self-identified as hobos, were demonized in the wake of the Great Depression as ‘unattached women’. In effect, these women who involuntarily found themselves outside of the cultural norms for women tended to more slowly become radicalized or proletarianized because they tended to cling to ideas of women more or less in line with bourgeois ideology, either because that conformed with their previous background or because they took it up as a conceit.

Without naming it as such, Sipple’s analysis, which arose out of le Sueur’s own authorial observations during the Great Depression, interrogates the politics of rectitude, a.k.a., the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation, which operates from the premise that if one conforms to the dominant forms of culture, then one will reap its reward. Sipple through le Sueur show, rather, how women thrived more effectively, even in some of the most straitened situations, the less they clung to certain narrowly classist demands of women. For example, for some women who refused to forego the pleasure of sex, those who resisted as long as possible the threat of sterilization tended to fare better psychically, in an ultimate sense, than those who gave over control of their body in a sexual sense to medical practitioners. Similarly, le Sueur tracks certain women who, out of what we might call vanity or more charitably shame, refused to avail themselves of certain social services, like soup kitchens, and actually starved to death. Sipple contextualizes this by also noting that soup lines were frequently male-only spaces that women only approached at their peril.

Of all of the articles in the collection, this one perhaps most memorably drove the point home to me about what becomes at stake in socio-political changes. Le Sueur, as an avowedly Marxist writer, has few illusions about the value of clinging (desperately) to a bourgeois ideology for the sake of one’s dignity: many women starved to death under that banner. The article makes clear not only how important solidarity remains amongst those beleaguered by a system (and the “social services” within it designed to “help”) in terms of surviving those systems, but also that specifically a DIY ethos must prevail amongst such folks. In terms of generosity about food, this value of solidarity appears everywhere round the globe as a living example, but this reticulates itself much further in the notion of community entrepreneurship. I would say without exaggeration if I had any lingering traces of faith that one should expend energy “petitioning” the powers-that-be for a rust of bread, Sipple’s article unambiguously places any such activity as secondary if not tertiary to building strengths and networks of needs-meeting between people beleaguered by the prevailing social order.

Absolutely a worthwhile article, but one that arrives at its analysis with almost nothing of importance from Bakhtin, except perhaps a shared Marxist base and the author’s loose employment of  Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque. Specifically, Sipple cites as examples of the grotesque the non-conformist women in le Sueur’s stories—like the one mentioned in relation to Boxcar Bertha’s (1988)[11] autobiography who did not count it beneath herself to use her body to connive males into providing her a meal. We may remember that the grotesque, for Bakhtin, represents the (typically jovially) earthy and non-idealized. A classist analysis would snidely dismiss this woman’s dancing as vulgarly lower class, but neither Sipple nor Bakhtin mean anything of the sort. Le Sueur observes, precisely, that women who cannot shake such middle class pretensions often starved to death. But this gives no clear ground why Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque comes into play here.

The grotesque body most typically constitutes a spectacle, and in a context of carnival, the body displays itself (or gets displayed) safely, i.e., generally without any threat of reprisal. It participates, usually in a  celebratory way, in its own grotesque spectacle. For the women represented in le Sueur’s texts and analyzed by Sipple, many of the women experience involuntary spectacularization and even amongst the more radicalized women who embrace their spectacular circumstance, it comes with almost no broader social safety (as in carnival) and may amount simply to sheer bluff or assertion: a brae, human assertion, “I don’t have to submit to your demands about my femaleness”—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

At root, I find a straightforward identification of cultural nonconformism and the grotesque body problematic—and I say this acknowledging I may have unfairly read such an equation out of Sipple’s article. For one thing, Bakhtin’s notion of carnival has its critics, who see the widespread social form it represents as simply one gesture or feint on the part of Power to continue its Power—a “sop” thrown to the masses to enlist their continuing loyalty to the State during non-carnival times. Against this critique, I would offer two points: (1) that by some estimates the amount of time devoted to carnival and carnivalesque social forms in the past exceeds the length of time allotted to us now for our ostensible free time (such as weekends); (2) the belligerent recurrence of festivals, often despite vociferous and ongoing protests by church and secular authorities alike, suggests that Power grew up around Festival, rather than vice versa, so that we might more properly understand the matter (from a historical perspective at least) that the non-carnival time represented to “the masses” their own (free or excited) gesture to Power; again, a social contact that has since gotten torn to shreds by bourgeois impositions around industrialization.  But whoever “got the better deal” in social arrangements pre-dating the rise of industrialization, we may see—for instance in the Chambri culture of Papua New Guinea[12] or any several of the cultures in aboriginal Australia[13]—that non-conformism does in fact pose a perennial cultural problem.

I have to declare what I mean by nonconformism: I mean a desire by an individual to live in a manner deemed so inconsistent with prevailing social values that their interdicted behavior gets suppressed or the individual gets murdered, exiled, or scapegoated. I might hypothesize then, in contrast, that the individual who manages to live in a manner typically interdicted without violence, exile, or scapegoating might represent something like a grotesque body. In this way, a child molester in prison might not get murdered, run off, or scapegoated (as typical) because he has access to tattoo ink, or a sundown town might not murder, run off, or scapegoat one particular African-American as an exception, or a community might make a similar exception for a homosexual, as Alan Moore depicts in his (1989)[14] V For Vendetta.

In North America, more than 130 tribes recognize the cultural form of two-spiritedness as a mode of human sexuality not represented by male or female behavioral codes.[15] But while the Lakota wíŋkte, the Navajo nádleehé, or the Mohave hwame might seem to us non-conformist, it seems equally problematic to designate these forms as cases of grotesque bodies as well, especially given the lofty characteristics (of healer, &c) often attributed to such figures. Amongst with Aravani or worshippers of Irāvāṇ in India, who do often find themselves subject to violence despite very ancient traditions and fully public festivals, a designation of this cultural form as a grotesque body or a non-conformist seems more descriptively apt. Culturally, the aravani generate more spectacle (in a negative sense as far as their safety goes) not entirely unlike the situation for a drag queen or flamboyant homosexual in the United States (and in many elsewheres). Given that Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque body links to  (sympathetically) class-based analysis that exposes how the middle class desires to demonize the poor, the marginalization that shapes the lives of many aravani would seem (again) to justly link the designation grotesque body to their spectacle.

If so, this at least rationalizes Sipple’s use of the grotesque body to describe the women in le Sueur’s texts, whether those women enthusiastically come to reject the middle class values that might have formerly dominated their thinking or continue to struggle in the spider web of those values even as they get deemed a spectacle by the society gazing at them. But this still sidesteps Bakhtin’s meaning when he uses the term. In Zamyatin’s (1922)[16] short story “The North,” when an old women gets described as round as a pot-bellied stove or a samovar and just as warmly accepting all comers into her bed—including lonely husbands and young men who need training in love-making—we  have an authentic image of a grotesque body, because while the woman might represent some counter-image to a (snootily) chaste virgin, her membership in the community has no doubt cast on it; she represents a fixture of where she lives and not a hidden one. In the same way, any interdicted forms of behavior that appear during carnival become at least for the duration of carnival not interdicted—the fool-king farts, the fool-priests fuck publicly in mud puddles, and one must stretch the imagination to imagine who and from how many the noises coming from the haystack originate, &c. If le Sueur’s most radicalized women have some degree of autonomy in their visibility and spectacle, they do so by sheer assertion and in the teeth of the onlooking society that would still reject them.

I say all of this not simply to split hairs over Sipple’s and Bakhtin’s use of the term grotesque body.  Social progress toward fair treatment in the public domain for minorities has proceeded to the extent that what once got viewed as nonconformism (in the sense I described above) shifted to something like the spectacle of a grotesque body (as Sipple uses the term), if not yet to the kind of full social acknowledgment of that body (in Bakhtin’s sense of the word), and finally a category of normalization where even the grotesqueness of the body vanishes (as in the Lakota sense of the wíŋkte, the Navajo sense of the nádleehé, &c).

Just as critics suspect the Power of the state behind carnival, one might examine cultural representations of homosexuals as grotesque bodies (in Bakhtin’s sense), particularly in the literally festive, overtly campy forms usually accompanied by wit n laughter. Such laudatory imagery has an effect of fixing the grotesque boy in place, so that as long as he (the dominant image of this remains “he”) does not revert to the older stereotype (as child molester) and does not get uppity and aspire beyond his station (to full cultural membership, most recently in the form of the demand for recognition of marriage rights), then no reprisals tend to come about. Using this kind of analysis on Sipple’s texts, we might say that so long as the recipient of certain kinds of social services continue to remain needful of those services, without reverting to earlier stereotypes (i.e., the good-time girl with no regard for the consequences of her actions) or becoming uppity and aspiring to higher than her station allows (playing gold-digger to some well-to-do male or simply attempting to get up out of the gutter once and for all), then, again, the Power will permit her grotesque body to remain on (static) display.

Most of the images of women Sipple considers seem more in the first two categories: as vulnerably exposed nonconformists or grotesque bodies (in the non-Bakhtinian sense) equally vulnerable to various hostile social forces, like social service workers, or men in breadlines. Sipple’s insight, as also le Sueur’s, involves (in part) the recognition and development of solidarity between such women, i.e., the development of a sense of community wherein their nonconformist behaviors and bodies would lay the groundwork to become grotesque bodies (in Bakhtin’s sense), because Bakhtin’s sense of the word requires the shared culturality of community to exist in the first place. More precisely, out of this shared communality and thus the collective social force of the women together, their grotesque bodies  in the wider social milieu of culture generally would begin to function as grotesque bodies in Bakhtin’s sense. The spectacle of these women in their non-idealized materiality would parody and disabuse the conceits of middle class pretending, &c.

However, not to overstate things, this restorative confrontation of values requires mutual acknowledgment to play out as Bakhtin desires it to. As soon as middle class women (or men) once again take on airs and start demonizing “the poor” through the lens of their own (absurd) idealization, then the grotesque bodies (in Bakhtin’s sense) revert (i.e., they start getting viewed again as) grotesque or nonconformist bodies: the soulful “earth mama” turns into a selfish “welfare queen”; the voluptuary becomes a slut. But this does not negate Bakhtin’s sense of the term, since Sipple and le Sueur specifically diagnose what a group needs to avoid this kind of dismissal: social solidarity (or community: a united front presented to the judging, hegemonic gaze). In the history of the LGBT movement, the vociferous defense of BDSM asserted by a portion of the lesbian community illustrates well how a group can countermand an edict of nonconformism and assert the justness of its presence in the social and public sphere.

Thus far, I have worried on the problematic side of Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque body to the extent that it (and the notion of carnival with it) may serve to “fix” certain varieties of less-honored forms of culturality at static points in culture: thus, homosexuals (or other minorities) might obtain some degree of social recognition or prestige, but they will still hit some variety of glass ceiling and go no further, no matter who “white” they become. Meanwhile, carnival also allows those “high up” to “slum” from time to time, their privilege allowing them access to (parodied, or culturally insensitive) versions of what the lower classes must live daily—thus, at Chicago Blackhawk games, non-Native people can “whoop like Indians” &c.[17]

But first of all, let me say I don’t feel at all convinced that the priests and viziers and scribes and bishops who “slummed” during festival necessarily did so under any tremendous duress. Whether we like to admit it or not, leaving the weighty task of day-to-day leadership to others represents no small reward in the social contract, so long as we find ourselves still in a social structure where the reciprocal obligations (of high and low) still get honored. At the risk of oversimplifying, I will say that we can find evidence this sort of mutual reciprocity more or less prevailed at times during some forms of feudalism; it seems almost wholly absent from our current capitalist social organization. In fact, just as capitalism portends to sever mutual obligations between individuals (by the introduction of full debt payment with money), the mutual obligations between lord and serf seems similarly to have eroded with the advance of capitalism. I take this fact as the distinguishing distinction, in fact, between “feudalism” (in quotation marks) and the various iterations of capitalism we have seen historically.

I mean by this that the “relief valve” of carnival under “feudalism” did not serve merely as a way to reproduce the advantage for those in Power, as a cynical analysis of it would insist. So long as “the masses” had sufficient social force to confront “the lords” as a grotesque body (in Bakhtin’s sense), then the political transaction of festival would function precisely in terms of that mutual recognition, just as the body of unattached women, massed in sufficient numbers, or the body of homosexuals in the United States, massed in sufficient numbers, could “rise” to the level of an embraced, recognized, or acknowledged grotesque body. And, just as sufficient willful blindness on the part of the “up-n-ups” could permit them to start viewing unattached women not as a Bakhtinian grotesque body (as a group) but as merely a mass of grotesque bodies (as individuals), then similarly as the “lords” became able to view “the masses” as “individuals,” then those others too lost their status as Bakhtin’s grotesque body and became simply grotesque bodies (if not nonconformists in need of exile, scapegoating, or extermination). &c. I suggest, again, that this erosive or corroding force co-occurs with the rise of industrialization.[18]

The perils of getting “fixed” as a grotesque body notwithstanding, we should not overlook the social or public emphasis in the term as Bakhtin uses it. In what I’ve written so far, the visible distinction between a (grotesque) body of people confronting another (non-grotesque) body, in class terms, and the grotesque bodies of (individual) people confronting an individual image of Power makes a world of difference. Precisely because we live in such an atomized and fragmented (individualistic) culture, this makes all the more cogent le Sueur’s unambiguous declaration for solidarity, because only a grotesque body (of people)—rather than a body of (grotesque) people—will likely prevail against the face of Power. This does not mean force must meet force—Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance points to one means, the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins point to another, and successful appeals to the vanity of those in Power also have worked in the past, as have emotional appeals. I only mean to emphasize that the petition cannot come from an individual body; it must originate in a social body (even if, like Gandhi at the very beginning) that social body consists of one person. Or, as Susan Parenti has pointed out, the one Polish worker who, when the union leaders declared they’d lost the strike, refused and said “no, no, no, no, no,” and dragged people back to her, refusing to accept that the strike had ended. And by that action, she caused people not to give up and, further down the road, Solidarność prevailed after all.

To contextualize what follows, however, I must say (1) although the phrase “grotesque body” tends to have a pejorative ring in English, Bakhtin’s sense of it stands as non-negative, and perhaps (arguably) sometimes idealizing in its own way; but also (2) he especially uses it in terms of class, at root, as a kind of corrective “from below” for bourgeois pretense. In what follows, this class element appears only slightly if at all, though it returns at the very end. I ignore it in the following because, in attempting to suss out the relationship between nonconformism and the sense that Sipple uses for the grotesque body, it helps to leave out an explicit class analysis—at least as far as trying to distinguish the terms goes.


While the problem of getting “fixed” as a grotesque (social) body remains a problem, the grotesque soil body also shows its necessity in that without uch a face, then Power has nothing to chasten it, qualify it. No doubt, Power remains eager to turn a blind eye to the presence of demand of any grotesque body. When refusing to look, and in a manner similar to the kind of paranoid thinking Said (1978)[19] ascribes to orientalism, this permits Power to treat people (and peoples) as non-recognizable, as marginalized, or (in times of stress) as people or peoples deserving extermination, banishment, or scapegoating. In the absence of a Bakhtinian grotesque body, Power imagines vulnerable (in Sipple’s sense) grotesque bodies, if not (dangerous) nonconformists who want to destroy our way of life, &.

So we may see, if in a distant way, that the critique of carnival as undesirably reproductive of a status quo functions undesirably as one argument that serves to reproduce the current status quo, because it deludes us that the status of a grotesque body (socially speaking) itself portends an ultimate social stagnation. Aside from the fact that if we managed to engineer a utopia that this would require some means to reproduce that social organization as a status quo, then merely because a mechanism reproduces the status quo does not make it yet undesirable. If the social structure of “feudalism” (I persist in using scare quotes) served at least more legitimately than the current social arrangement (in the United States) to meet the needs of most people, then carnival becomes a desirable mechanism in as much as it reproduces a (more) desirable social organization.

But besides this possibly overattenuated argument, in the absence of an actual grotesque (social) body, then Power imagines one and proceeds to set policy and treat people in light of that (by definition, delusional) fantasy.  But the grotesque (social) body also presents an image contrary to the politics of respectability; it adds a check, if not a refutation of, the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation; it generates a social space where a non-vulnerable non-conformism may dwell and play; and it goes, if Jung’s (1921)[20] notion of individuation has it right—to the very heart of social health itself:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[21] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

The criticism of the grotesque body as fixed and thus, like carnival itself, providing part of the static structure of a culture sidesteps an important aspect that Bakhtin points to. Or—since one hardly needs defend Bakhtin’s ideas only or forever in the exact form he presented them—we may locate an insight in them that may not dwell inherently in them or even runs, in some sense, contrary to his intentions. To suggest that anyone could statically “fix” the grotesque body points to the kind of gesture of oppression that the grotesque body serves to debunk and undo.

Bakhtin invokes a distinction between centripetal (or culture-building/reinforcing) forces in language and centrifugal (or culture-eroding/renovating) forces in language. The oversimplification of this distinction notwithstanding, I note it to point to Bakhtin’s sense of dynamic interaction and change within culture. That which “fixes” anything does so on anti-human grounds—while culture must reproduce itself, once it starts insisting on reproducing only certain fixed forms, we find ourselves well on the way to totalitarianism. The grotesque and non-grotesque bodies must dialogue or we dwell in an oppression, &c.[22]

Whether Bakhtin erroneously reifies “the folk” as a grotesque (social) body or whether we only misread him that way, we may still avoid the error regardless. In any case, we may see how the desire to fix a given form of grotesque body (social and otherwise) has problematic consequences: the social services delivery systems require a certain kind of addict, a certain kind of homeless person, a certain kind of poor individual or group, or else it withholds assistance. This, of course, resembles exactly any sort of institutional demand for certain forms of being: if you wish to get a replacement river’ license, you must provide some form of proof of your current address, without which you will not receive a new license. We can describe both circumstances (e.g., the social services case and the driver’s license case) as demands for a certain degree of assimilation—and at least outward appearance of conformity, whatever one privately believes in one’s heart, &c.

The primary difference in the examples involves how the petitioner gets viewed: those requesting a license remain full human beings, up to the moment they fail to present the proper (needed) document and then get branded as inadequate, as a grotesque body (“what freak doesn’t have mail proving where they live?”), while those requesting (or finding themselves beleaguered, as le Sueur documents) by social services get viewed as grotesque bodies first, ones that must conform to the institution’s idea of bodily grotesqueness, in order to receive the service that transforms them, in theory, into a full human being.

This all, as a last point in this blog, points to how assimilation fits into Bakhtin’s scheme (if at all). If, as the above shows,  straightforward identification of non-conformism with bodily grotesqueness opens a can of worms, we should expect the same or a similar can to open when we look in the direction opposite from social non-conformism at social assimilation.  I have suggested that non-conformism represents a perennial difficulty in culture and define it as behavior so (viewed as) interdicted that its practice remains unfeasible for those who desire it, such that the cultural response devolves to murder, exile, or scapegoating. The “milder” form of negative social response that permits certain behaviors to continue—whether entirely out of sight (e.g., the octoroon mistress of Southern plantation owners, or the anonymous subculture where married heterosexual men seek out oral intercourse from homosexual men online) or in certain permitted social forms (e.g., drug usage of marijuana but not heroin, the cross-dressing of high school males during Spirit Week, transvestitism in comedy, or nauseating cultural appropriation on Halloween)—involves the sense of the grotesque body Sipple invokes; it is a grotesque body (especially an individual’s) that society does not embrace (as in Bakhtin’s sense), and if it touches it at all, it does so through intermediaries and specialists (like social workers), who tend at best to have only pity for the grotesque body, if not contempt, frustration, and exasperation. The deliberate ghettoization of Sephardi Jews in Israel as a labor buffer between Israel’s dominating culture and the Palestinian people it seeks to destroy represent another case of such an intermediary, but history has no shortage of “fixers” who handle Power’s dirty work.

I do not want to understate the problem of non-conformism; even the most enlightened and tolerant culture would, in principle, have varieties of interdicted behavior it could not bear to persist in the social body. But to worry out the farthest details of this seems less necessary (at the moment) than getting  grip on certain more basic interdictions against soil behavior—specifically (to pick one example) sexuality, or even more specifically: homosexuality. The various exterminations and persecutions (past, present, and ongoing) point up the social issue of non-conformism, and expose the history of homosexuality as grotesque body (in Sipple’s sense). By contrast, the Lakota wíŋkte, the Navajo nádleehé, or the Mohave hwame, and other similar figures, point to assimilated social forms—they no longer represent nonconformisms (indeed, if they ever did), but become a part of the cultural matrix against which one might push non-conformingly.

Imagine a dubious history: at some distant point in the past, a male-bodied person of the Lakota people (or the Navajo or the Mohave) expressed a desire to, or simply behaved, in a culturally female-bodied way.[23] In this particular example, I doubt that murder, exile, or scapegoating resulted, and perhaps not even that sort of non-embracing sense of grotesque bodies (in Sipple’s sense). But even if that occurred as initial reactions to such figures, the present fact of the wíŋkte, nádleehé, hwame, and others in other cultures, suggests that eventually these cultural individuals obtained at least the status of an acknowledged grotesque body (in Bakhtin’s sense). Of course, this evolving sense of cultural reaction and adjustment to an appearance of non-conformism itself needn’t have to have occurred—a cultural alternative may have appeared and found itself immediately embraced. Amongst the aboriginal peoples observed by Spencer and Gillen (1904), they noted how innovations to established rituals had a very slow, incremental process of change very much controlled and overseen by the fully vetted male (elder) members of a tribal group. In the cases observed, the proposed changes usually involved only very small changes; in general, the elders kept a very strict and conservative hold on the content of those rituals that reproduced society, in part because their very knowledge of specific rituals provided their social prestige in the first place. Similarly, amongst the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea, knowledge of secret names constitutes a major basis of claims to power (by men, most often), so anything that threatens to modify the effect of that cultural content would get resisted as a diminishment of their power and social prestige.

I say this only to suggest that the speed of cultural change, at least, may tend to the slower than the faster side. As far as homosexuality specifically in the neighborhood (Australia) as the example cited above:

Indigenous homosexuality has always been an uncomfortable topic to discuss, for Aborigines and their supporters. The reasons are complex but we know that it was practised traditionally, both as a sexual release for teenage boys and young men who couldn’t find female sexual partners, and in initiation ceremonies (from here)

This informational tidbit comes from a much longer article documenting the extent of post-Contact sexual violence in aboriginal communities. I cite it not to ascribe blame, but to contextualize any attempt to understand if someone like the Lakota wíŋkte dwelt amongst the original Australian people. From here, a survey of the essentially scant information gives no evidence of fully adult individuals who occupied some third zone apart from the usual male and female designations, even as various formal and informal sexual relations were documented.[24] Potts (from here) insists:

Other groups believed certain people possessed both male and female spirits in one body. The [sic] were referred to as “Two-One” people – similar to the concept of “Two Spirit” people in North American Indigenous culture. Because of this, they were allowed to engage in relationships where others would not have been (¶2).

We can compare the vagueness of this with the Tiwi Islands, where 4% of the islands’ population consist of sistergirls, the local “general term for transgender and transsexual men” (see here, ¶1). Significantly:

Sistergirls reject early anthropological studies of Tiwi society, which omitted their identity from the texts. Transgenderism has been a part of Tiwi custom since time out of mind, but in the old days the Sistergirls were called “Yimpininni”, and were honoured, rather than subjected to the rape, violence and marginalisation that came with western colonialism. These horrors continue to plague them, and are only increasing with each year that passes (¶4).

Again, whether an “activist phase” occurs in the emergence of a non-conformist social body, whether new cultural forms get taken up immediately or slowly or in some other way, then in the same way that non-conformism (as I described it above) results in murder, exile, or scapegoating (by definition) then conformism results (just as automatically, by definition) in celebration and integration. In one kind of totalizing view of a culture, then, we might note its diversity, which will include (a hierarchy of) celebrated cultural forms and other less-celebrated but not wholly-interdicted forms. In another view of culture, we might see less of a hierarchy, where the prestige of, say, a Lakota wíŋkte or a Tiwi Island sistergirl has no reference to some sense of an “alternative” form of (social body) sexual identity.

In the United States, for instance, the proportionately small numbers of women n people of color as CEOs of corporations, even though people of color and women now participate in greater numbers in US corporations, points to the first kin of view of culture. It seems easy enough to speak of this kind of assimilation of people of color and women into corporate “culture” as grotesque bodies in a sense somewhere between Sipple’s and Bakhtin’s; women and people of color receive a sort of grudging acknowledgment, less hostile or pitying the social service worker’s attitude toward the ragged poor but nowhere beholden to grant full recognition of the Other as Bakhtin advocates. One sees clearly how women and people of culture might band together in Solidarność to present their grotesque social body to the CEO (n dhis pwoer structure generally).

This corporate example drags in a problematic aspect I might have better left out. In general—as also with positions of political leadership, as Margaret Thatcher showed—atypical bodies (women, people of color) tend to asend to these positions by taking on the characteristcs of the typical (white male) bodies in power. The Tiwi Island yimpininni and the like proceed exactly in the opposite way, by creating a new social space where their social body (both as an individual and as a represented of the extended group they have membership in) exists, persists, and thrives.

But once it becomes part of the non-grotesque social body—whether by a dubious and non-total assimilation or by a genuine accommodation by culture to a previously non-recognized mode of social being—this also shifts what constitutes nonconformism in the culture. Doubtless in part due to predominantly male-only research, the often transvestite figure of the shaman represents an accommodated social figure for males but the extent to which societies acknowledged similarly non-conformist females remains unclear. I do not mean by this to ask whether (1) what we call forms of lesbian behavior ever occurred (obviously it did), or (2) if what we call more or less permanent lesbian relationships were acknowledged by cultures (obviously at times they have), but rather where or in what cultures a figure something like the shaman, the yimpininni, &c, ever achieved fully accommodated (not assimilated) status. As one example, among some Balkan people of Albania, women known as burrneshas (or sworn virgins) live strictly as men.

In the burrneshas, we see particularly where a new nonconformism might appear, because the social contract demands the burrneshas promise to remain virgins for life. this, at least, constitutes the necessary social fiction, however reality actually plays out for each individual. But the would-be burrnesha who also seeks to express sexuality openly would fall into an interdicted category. In any case, we can again enjoy the “tension” of almost by reflex viewing the burrnesha or yimpininni as an example of a grotesque body (in Bakhtin’s positive sense, signaled in part by the fact that we must have specialized words to distinguish this social body of people) even though the Balkan culture (and, apparently, to  lesser extent the Tiwi Island culture) do not designate them as grotesque bodies (presumably).

To all of this, we might return the notion of class I have bracketed out through most of this discussion. In trying to make comparisons between aboriginal cultures, present-day Europeanized Balkan cultures, corporate culture, and our own messy heap, to anachronistically apply “class” across such a vast historical span could only obscure things completely. However, if we understand it in not merely economic terms, but as sectors of membership to which one might belong or not, then the statuses of burrnesha, yimpininni, hwame, and so forth, represent culturally accommodated classes just as surely as the bourgeois well-wishing social workers occupy a class distinct from their “poor” clients and just as surely as Arandan men who select a boy-bride from the wrong moiety would find themselves in interdicted hot water as well.

We might propose descriptions for the four (categorical) classes of social body in the foregoing in terms of the interdicted, the transacted, the embattled, and the applauded.[25]

The interdicted (or nonconformist in my sense) comprise those social bodies that culture cannot suffer to live, that it must exile, murder, scapegoat, or (at the very best) refuse to touch and ignore as much as possible. The largest social body of this type involves, of course, the criminal world—and indeed vast portions of the practice of Power stand essentially on this body to get its dirty work done, but it almost always requires invisibility. As soon as this world comes to light, all of the other classes more or less in concert must vociferously deny it, &c.

The transacted (or grotesque bodies in Sipple’s sense) comprise those social bodies that culture feels it must manage, hence it consists often of “managing” (the poor” or having to engage in various kinds of (social-human) transaction with grotesque bodies (in Sipple’s sense). I suspect all mercantile transactions may fall in this category. Also, importantly, the management of prison populations occurs here and not as part of the interdicted (criminal) world. In particular, this class of social body involve the curious tension that the managerial forces cannot honestly desire to do away with their client-population, except that one individual might die because another one will come along shortly. In so-called primary cultures, the closest thing to something like this class (of social bodies) likely encompasses non-adults; in later expanding cultures, slaves. The relation of slavery and transactions between men and women and children comes into play as well.

The embattled (or grotesque bodies in Bakhtin’s sense) comprise that social body that engage, whether with hostility or with great good humor, in a tug-of-war with the applauding class over the definition of what constitutes acknowledged modes of being in the given culture in the first place. By embattled, I do not mean to suggest only open warfare; again, the conduct of the conflict occurs, ideally, in a dialogic way, and this ideal will come about when (if not only when) the social body that confronts the applauding body does so from a sufficient position of strength (not necessarily mere numbers) that the applauding body cannot ignore it. I imagine that inter-cultural contact very often laid the groundwork for this sort of encounter, as opposed to the sort of violence practiced in war that lays a foundation for transacted classes of social bodies.

The applauded (or non-grotesque body in my sense) comprise the dominating social body. It has nothing going for it inherently except that it controls the terms of the discourse (except as it tussles with the embattled class) and thus congratulates itself for its own grandeur, wisdom, and necessity.  As Jung noted,

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life (¶761).

When the applauded class imagines its social norm as absolute, then that norm ceases to serve its purpose. And since the collective norm of any culture does not reduce to the norm only of a group (even the dominating group) within that culture, then a real conflict with the actual collective norm will arise when that individual group’s way gets raised to a norm itself—an approach Jung declares “pathological and inimical to life” and which Said (1978) described in orientalism as psychologically paranoid.

This then shows once more the necessity of Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque body, apart from (reasonable) worries that it serves merely to reproduce the (undesirable) status quo. Without an embattled class to challenge the applauded class, then not only does the dominant class’s norm become contrary to social health, it also will tend more and more to treat all classes of people as interdicted or transacted. The discourse that insists on calling the recent attack in Tiananmen square an act of terrorism as also the British authorities’s absurd but frightening effort to baldly equate journalism with terrorism represent cases in point, but so does the general extension of the meddlocracy into the lives of nouveau pauvre (thanks to the deliberate and willful act of financial terrorism of 2008) simultaneously with the demands to gut the so-called welfare state.[26]


[1] Bauer, D. M., & McKinstry, S. J. (1991). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. i–vi, 1–259.

[2] Yelin, L (1991). Problems of Gordimer’s poetics: dialogue in Burger’s Daughter. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 219–38. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[3] Hitchcock, P. (1991). Radical writing. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 95–122. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[4] Daly, BO (1991). The central nervous system of America: the writer as in/in the crowd of Joyce carol Oates’s Wonderland. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 155–81. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[5] Berman, J. (1991). A quote of many colors: women and masquerade in Donald Barthelme’s postmodern parody novels. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 123–34. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[6] Schwab, GM (1991). Irigarayan dialogism: play an power play. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 57–72. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[7] Bakhtin, MM (1984). Rabelais and his world (trans. Hélène Iswolsky). Bloomington: Indiana University Press

[8] In addition, the feast also figures prominently:

The feast is always essentially related to time, either to the recurrence of an event in the natural (cosmic) cycle, or to biological or historical timeliness. Moreover, through all the stages of historic development feasts were linked to moments of crisis, of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man. Moments of death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world. These moments, expressed in concrete form, created the peculiar character of the feasts (Rabelais and His World, 9).

In medieval and Renaissance culture, two kinds of feast prevailed: the official and the unofficial (or Carnival). The former “sanctioned the existing order of things and reinforced it” (9); it consecrated the present “hierarchy, the existing religious, political, and moral values, norms, and prohibitions” (9) by the way of the past. Carnival, by contrast, opposed itself to all of this in a point by point inversion (parody) of everything official: in place of official seriousness, Carnival brought festive laughter; instead of the strictly maintained hierarchy of feudal culture, Carnival reflected absolute equality; instead of official prohibitions on sexuality, speech, etiquette and association, Carnival lifted all bans; in place of official glorification of the past, Carnival festively annihilated it. The suspension of hierarchy had especially profound effects, as it allowed contact between people otherwise completely separated by social designation:

[S]uch free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the life of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind (ibid, 10).

[9] Eagleton, T. (1989). Bakhtin, Schopenhauer, Kundera. In K Hirschkop and DG Shepherd, DG (eds.). Bakhtin and cultural theory, pp. 178–88. New York: Manchester University Press.

[10] Sipple, S. (1991) ‘Witness to the Suffering of Women’: Poverty and Sexual Transgression in Meridel Le Sueur’s Women on the Breadlines. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 135–55. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[11] Thompson, B, and Reitman, BI (1988). Boxcar Bertha: an autobiography. New York: Amok Press.

[12] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press.

[13] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here.

[14] Moore, A., Lloyd, D., Whitaker, S., & Dodds, S. (1989). V for vendetta. New York: DC Comics.

[15] C.f., Roscoe, W. (1991). The Zuni man-woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

[16] Zami͡atin, YI (1968). The dragon: fifteen stories (trans. M. Ginsburg). New York: Vintage Books.

[17] Yes, of course, carnival allows the “poor” to ape at Power as well.

[18] And doubtless other factors as well.

[19] Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[20] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[21] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[22] To hopefully not further muddy the water, just as the form of the content of the mechanism of cultural reproduction does not change even as the content of the forms reproduced must, so does the social structure of the opposition between the grotesques (social) and non-grotesque (social) bodies remain constant even as the content (as well as the members) of that form must vary, more or less continuously. Or, to express this another way, one may think cybernetically in terms of homeostatic living systems, where the notions of form and content lose their (philosophically) conundrumating quality and morph into those key variables necessary to keep the living entity alive (analogous with form) and the sorts of fluctuating changes the organism undergoes to absorb the variety of perturbations (inputs) that it experiences in changes of state (analogous to content).

[23] By suggesting this, I do not propose that Occidental gender-binary notions must have prevailed at the time.

[24] Absence of evidence of course doesn’t constitute evidence of absence.

[25] Obviously, other terms might suffice as well.

[26] A development that resembles a wider application of Reagan’s gutting of funding for public housing and its redirection into funding for housing directed at the not-poor classes.


Why does Veitch ascribe the sins of DC Comics to Disney?


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Rick Veitch’s (2005)[1] The Maximortal

One may make a case that illustrations literally drive graphic novels; that even the text itself becomes more of a visual representation than a literary/linguistic symbol. One easily discerns this when Dave McKean supplies the art, as his work almost always elevates a text to a numinous degree—whether in the case of an only middling quality text such as by Grant Morrison[2] or in the case of a very deft but somehow still hollow text by Neil Gaiman[3]—but, as McKean’s own muddled (2010)[4] Cages shows, sometimes whatever story (of a thousand words) comes with each illustration does not necessarily add up to a coherent thing. It seems inevitable that a visual storyteller, especially the more richly the illustrations get made, may have a less sure “control” over the consequences of the meaning of her (or his) illustrations. This results in a sometimes very fruitful ambiguity, of course, but it also means this ambiguity inheres even when an author attempts to clearly delineate a story.  In his succinct criticism of the extension of structuralism out of linguistics and into other domains of human culture, Petit (1975)[5] more than once notes that the basic flaw in such an attempt involves the lack of analogy between the conventional and formal certainty of grammatical structures compared to the usually not conventional and almost non-existent formal certainty of culture forms. In other words, no matter how strangely someone might construct a sentence, the formal features of language and grammar allow readers to determine either (1) a meaning for a sentence or that (2) the sentence means “nothing” (constitutes gibberish). Of course, different people will form different senses of meaning, but the mechanism by which they will arrive at meaning or gibberish remains more or less the same and operates against the utterly conventionalized field of grammar. Nothing like this holds for other cultural forms, so that no ground or basis prevails for determining meaning or gibberish. For a graphic novel that uses no text, more or less as Ott tends to[6] (even though we still find words at times in his texts) or as Gorey’s (1963)[7] West Wing does, poses this problem. Even as we might unambiguously decipher a meaning for any single given frame—since we do in fact have some degree of conventionality about how visual representation works as well as some degree of so-called visual literacy—when we then attempt connect one frame to the next will not, in general, come with or provide the sort of interpretive or formal mechanism available to us as when we connect one word to another (or one phrase to another) in a sentence; instead, we bring our own interpretive thing to  bear on the visual sequence of frames.  The freedom this implies, while fruitful on the one hand, also runs (or will tend to run) against the desires on the part of an author to assert some specific meaning in a story, even if (or perhaps especially when) they overtly maintain a sense of irony or ambiguity about the sequence of images (c.f., Jim Woodring’s work).[8] Comic books, of course, have deployed and taught its readership a strongly linear way of reading visual images—modes of reading that that very often rely explicitly on a verbal text itself to make the desired connections from frame to frame. In these cases, this effectively subordinates or makes the visuality of the comic or graphic form take a back seat to the meaning generated by the words, even though the visuals still actually comprise the most significant portion (I think) of a graphic novel—or so I propose here. As such, outside of the domain of comics per se, many of which have a vast array of conventionalized characters, gestures, use of color, script, &c, we encounter a graphic novels itself, we will find (perhaps especially in authors who stand as illustrators first) them frequently playing precisely with this ambiguity. Having said this, it may also not remain completely unfair to say that illustrators develop less of that kind of facility for (linguistic) “meaning-building” that prose writers must, of necessity, develop acutely in order to effectively write stories. Another way to contrast this involves the difference Jung distinguished between a symbol and a sign. Nichols (1980)[9] summarizes this:

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

In particular, the presence of seeming opposites renders the symbol immune to rational analysis, e.g., the Christian image of the Cross, with its simply crossed lines, denotes simultaneously death and life in a rationally irresolvable contradiction. We might, of course, reason away this contradiction in some way, but Jung explicitly stressed that this meant the transformation of a symbol, along with the loss of its numinous power as a symbol, into a sign. Jung’s emphasis on polarities of opposites within a symbol may represent simply a special case; it may suffice simply to note that the presence of inherently multiple interpretations of visual material makes the visual image more ambiguous than whatever tortured deconstruction we might offer of a verbal phrase of sentence. An image of a superhero, for instance, for all that the author intends it to stand for the good may still have an unavoidably threatening aspect, since nothing prevents that goodness from turning into an evil will to power, as Alan Moore explores often in his ultra-powered figures. If this suggests that visual material will tend more toward the symbolic and verbal material will tend more toward the semiotic (the sign), I would add (from Jung) that one discovers more than makes symbols and would add (from my own readings and experience) that at times verbal material may, contrary to a writer’s desires, uncover something more symbolic than signifying in a text (especially in certain types of poetry). In the graphic novel with text, any clarity the above offers becomes almost undisentangleably muddled because sign (the text), symbol (the image), designated symbols (visual imagery meant to support the text) and symbolic text (verbal material meant to explain the images) all crash together over and over on multiple pages and across one frame to another. I raise all of this because Veitch seems (historically) to have served as an illustrator first, albeit one who worked under the pen of that most adroit (verbal) author Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. To suggest that one finds illustrators and writers implies the rare beast of the writer-illustrator or illustrator-writer, and I will not attempt to identify here cases in point or not. I will hazard only that one would find more advantage in specializing in one or the other, an truly mastering the ethos (of writing or illustrating), rather opting for a jack-of-both trades. And Veitch’s book—as also McKean’s on a similar ground—provides a case in point, particularly in the way it opens and closes on the same thematic material, which definitely has an archetypal (symbolic) sense to it. Either I did not follow the text or my attention failed enough to not dig out whatever clues I might have found, but the figure at the beginning who seems to change sexes and to reproduce with himself/herself remains monumental but vague at the same time. From Veitch’s afterword, he expresses an interest in the notion that given sufficient belief in an idea—in this case the Nietzschean Superman—might actually manifest in culture. On the literal plane, this means the emergence of Superman himself, as a desired and desirable figure in the collective human imagination. And Veitch compares the culturally disembodied superman (no capital letter) as an ideal in Fascist states (like Germany and Italy) to the goofy, literally cartoon-colored version in the pages of comics in the United States, and that the latter “defeated” the former. Whatever problem one wants to have with this dubious historicity—I don’t care to engage or take up that objection—I don’t think he entirely ignores the fact that US Sueprmanism at the time rested in part on an ambient eugenics (a eugenics ultimately adopted by German National Socialism itself, with thanks to the US inventors of it) or that the exaggerated cartooniness of it actually fits with the kind of exaggerated cartooniness  that Tacey (2001)[10] critiques extensively in the US psyche, pointing at the poetry of the early Whitman as an apt case. Along with this project of depicting the social life of an idea, Veitch also mashes together a pseudo-history of the development of the Superman figure in US comics. And this represents, actually, the most serious problem I find myself having with the book. To illustrate the point in just one way, Veitch depicts the ruthless exploitation of Superman’s creators by a thuglike (and gelded) comics publisher. Historically, this comics publisher (with his testicles intact, I believe) Jack Leibowitz ultimately founded  along with others what became DC Comics and thus laid the groundwork for the present-day Time-Warner empire. But Veitch shifts this figure to a (fictional) Sidney Wallace—whose anagram of his first name (cleverly) makes Disney, but in case you missed that, Sidney Wallace’s signature appears in the text in the unmistakable form of Walt Disney’s. At the time of Veitch’s novel, Disney stood second to Time-Warner in the media world; that has since changed. But it still seems a significant and glaring piece of historical revision to place all of the shysterism, exploitiveness, and cruel “business” practices committed by the “fathers” of DC comics on the (not at all innocent itself) Disney Corporation.  This strikes me as deeply fishy and disingenuous, and I really don’t understand why Veitch wants to lie about DC Comics by defaming Disney. In this era of oligarchically consolidated media giants—where something like 95% of our media gets generated by only six media gigacorporations—to try to unsully the DC brand by shifting blame for the sorts of unethical behavior that led, in part, to the virtual (some say deliberate) collapse of the comics market, ultimately makes Veitch’s piece seem like some sort of propaganda piece, dressed up with a bunch of philosophical balderdash about the manifestation of believed-in ideas. That Walt Disney fucked a couple of naïve Jewish kids from Cleveland, OH out of a property that then became the launching point for the whole superhero industry in comics involves a falsification of history, whatever else Disney (as a person or a corporation) has done; rather, Harry Donenfeld and his accountant Jack Liebowitz stand as the primary victimizers. And if DC had anything to do with the censorship brought down by the Comics Code, as Veitch’s book implies (with, again, the blame seemingly shifted to Disney), then we might revisit all over again that consummate hackwork by Fredric Wertham as well, since his (1954)[11] Seduction of the Innocent, grotesquely still in print, played such a crucial role in the Code’s creation. Tilley’s (2012)[12] “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics” documents his overstatements, falsifications, and creation of evidence in arguing against certain kinds of imagery in comics. “Wertham intentionally mis-projected both the sample size and substance of his research, making it out to be more objective and less anecdotal than it truly was” (from here). Heer (2008)[13] notes:

Hajdu[14] is right to point out that Wertham’s ideas of proof were extremely primitive, more forensic than scientific. (Wertham had often testified in court cases, which skewed his sense of evidence.) Wertham thought he could prove his point by stringing together many anecdotes collected from his clinical research, making his claims virtually unverifiable (2)

Tilley further notes that Wertham “generally did not adhere to standards worthy of scientific research, instead using questionable evidence as rhetorical ammunition for his argument that comics were a cultural failure” (403).[15] He presents flawed conclusion based on sampling errors and altered, combined, or excerpted statements from his subjects to create false or misleading impressions. Whatever grounds Veitch infers for DC’s involvement in the Code, they certainly benefited from it inasmuch as it basically destroyed the comics market except for the type of squeaky-clean heroes DC featured. Why Veitch allows this point to get shifted to Disney, and by extension Marvel Comics, remains fundamentally unclear.


[1] Veitch, R. (2005). The maximortal (King Hell Heroica vol. 1). West Townshend, VT: King Hell Press, pp. 1–176.

[2] Morrison, G., & McKean, D. (2004). Arkham Asylum: a serious house on serious earth. 15th anniversary ed. New York, NY: DC Comics.
[3] Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (1995). The tragical comedy or comical tragedy of Mr. Punch: a romance. 1st paperback ed. New York, N.Y.: Vertigo/DC Comics
[4] McKean, D. (2010). Cages. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books
[5] Pettit, P. (1975). The concept of structuralism: a critical analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[6] See especially Ott, T (2006). Cinema panopticum. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books.
[7] Gorey, E. (2009). The west wing. 1st Bloomsbury USA ed. New York: Bloomsbury.
[8] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.
[9] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.
[10] Tacey, D (2001). Jung and the new age. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.
[11] Wertham, F. (1954). Seduction of the innocent: the influence of comic books on today’s youth. New York: Rinehart & Company.
[12] Tilley, C. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsifications that helped condemn comics. Information & Culture: A Journal of History. 47(4): 383–413.
[13] Heer, J. (2008, 4 April). The caped crusader: Frederic [sic] Wertham and the campaign against comic books. Slate [online] access 2 November 2013 from here.
[14] Hajdu, D. (2009). The ten-cent plague: the great comic-book scare and how it changed America. 1st Picador ed. New York: Picador.
[15] Wikipedia summarizes Tilley’s observations:

Wertham used New York City adolescents from troubled backgrounds with previous evidence of behavior disorders as his primary sample population. For instance, he used children at the Lafargue Clinic to argue that comics disturbed young people, but according to a staff member’s calculation seventy percent of children under the age of sixteen at the clinic had diagnoses of behavior problems [Tilley, p. 392]. He also used children with more severe psychiatric disorders which required hospitalization at Bellevue Hospital Center, Kings County Hospital Center, or Queens General Hospital. Conclusions drawn from flawed sample populations cannot be extrapolated to society at large, leading to sampling error. Statements from Wertham’s subjects were sometimes altered, combined, or excerpted so as to be misleading. Relevant personal experience was sometimes left unmentioned. For instance, in arguing that the Batman comics condoned homosexuality because of the relationship between Batman and his sidekick Robin, there is evidence that Wertham misrepresented the testimony of young men. He combined two subjects’ statements into one and the two subjects had been in a homosexual relationship for years prior. He failed to inform readers that a subject had been recently sodomized. Despite subjects specifically noting a preference for or the superior relevance of other comics, he chose to give greater weight to the readership of Batman [Tilley, p. 393–5]. Wertham also presented as first-hand stories which he could have only heard through colleagues. His descriptions of comic content were frequently misleading, either by exaggeration or elision. He mentions a “headless man” in Captain Marvel while the comic only shows Captain Marvel’s face splashed with an invisibility potion [Tilley, p. 396], not a decapitated figure. He exaggerated a thirteen-year-old girl’s report of stealing in a comic from “sometimes” to “often” [Tilley, p. 397]. He compared the Blue Beetle to a Kafkaesque nightmare, failing to mention that the Blue Beetle is a man and not, in fact, an insect.


If one has no other choice, then better immoral than hypocritical.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Nick Abadzis & H. Sycamore’s (2007)[1] Laika

This graphic novel by Nick Abadzis an colored by Hilary Sycamore covers the events leading up to the first orbital flight in space of a terrestrial higher organism—the dog, Laika—around the earth.[2] As part of the Soviet space program, this event was one of the many firsts achieved by the Russians, which included:

the first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), first satellite (Sputnik-1), first animal in space (the dog Laika on Sputnik 2), first human in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1), first woman in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6), first spacewalk (cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on Voskhod 2), first Moon impact (Luna 2), first image of the far side of the moon (Luna 3) and unmanned lunar soft landing (Luna 9), first space rover, first space station, and first interplanetary probe (from here).

The story of Laika has built-in pathos because, thanks to international politics, the Soviet engineers were not given time to develop a means for orbital recovery and so from the beginning of the mission they understood that Laika would not return from her trip. When news of this reached the Occidental world, much supercilious outcry went up—I say supercilious, because quite obviously no one shed any tears about the technical incompetence that resulted in the death of previous US experimental animals or the vest number of animals getting tortured and mutilated in experiments in the US and Britain at the time (to say nothing of since).

Abadzis does a good job of avoiding overt bathos most of the time, which seems impressive given that the story involves a trusting, naïve, even sweet animal who gets “willfully” sent to space to die.  The author has stated he intended to avoid anthropomorphizing Laika (and the space dogs generally),[3] but it seems more accurate to say rather that he does not play this up as extensively as one could or likely would: for example, we only occasionally see Laika’s dreams (of flying) and have very brief bubbles indicating her “thoughts”.[4] The conceit hinges on Abadzis (attempting to make) these anthropomorphisms seem to originate in the human people looking at Laika rather than the dog herself. With the (female) dog handler, Yelena Dubrovsky, Abadzis almost always consistently manages to make clear that her point of view provides the angle for the dog’s text in the book, though not always persuasively. While this doubtless helps to keep any excessive bathos in check, the book still often reads as if or has echoes of giving Laika’s point of view.

For me, the most touching moment comes when one of the chief managers of the project takes Laika home to spend an evening running around and playing with his children before she gets sealed irrevocably into her space capsule. The dramatic irony works especially well—Abadzis doesn’t linger over the scene in any case—and it suggest how we might give condemned (human) inmates a similar chance to run and play, to have a memorable experience of freedom and pleasure and happiness, before sending them into the long dark tunnel of death (space) as well.  Or, if such a proposal seems hopelessly utopian (if not practically impossible), the fact that we see such a condemned (canine) inmate treated humanely prior to carrying out her death sentence points to how inhumanly we treat our condemned (human) inmates.

Partly the scene works because Laika spends (and has spent) so much of her time in very small places. Abadzis includes an opening interlude (a flashback actually), which shows how Laika loses her more or less cozy existence as a pet to living on the streets as a stray, but one who nonetheless lives outside of  a cage. Abadzis has stated he (inevitably) had to make up these details simply on narrative grounds and for narrative purposes, since no historical records exist for Laika’s earlier life, but I think his emphasis (in the interview) on the “beloved pet” angle resonates less, finally, than the contrast of her relative freedom at that time compared to the extensive confinement she later lives. After all, whatever affection Laika experienced from the little girl who previously owned her, the program’s female dog handler Yelena Dubrovsky certainly doesn’t scant Laika any affection.

Abadzis ends the main text of his book with a now widely known quotation from one of the key project participants, Oleg Gazenko: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog” (from here). I have to wonder why Abadzis (or anyone, besides Gazenko—more on that below) would emphasize this point, but two clarifications first. The article just cited and written in 2002, which does not actually include Gazenko’s fuller quotation included by Abadzis (discussed more below),[5] opens:

HOUSTON, Tex. (USA) —  Forty-five years and five hours ago, the first Earthling broke through the atmosphere and into space.  It wasn’t a man, a woman or even a monkey; it was stray dog.

That much is public knowledge, but a secret that has been kept for 45 years was just released last week at the World Space Congress in Houston.  “Laika”, the first astronaut of the planet Earth, died of fright just after take-off.

Exactness in historical matters, when possible, matter.

As a first point, then, and depending on what one means by “earthling”, then Laika does not represent the first terrestrial creature to “break through the atmosphere into space”, as the United States’ fruit flies, the dead monkey, and the dead mouse mentioned above indicate.[6] But I too had heard the story that Laika died almost immediately or during the ascent. By contrast, Abadzis’ text (based on the actual historical record) makes it clear that Laika not only reached space, i.e., went past the 100km point in the Earth’s atmosphere, but also made it into orbit and died during her fourth orbit around the Earth. Thus, she did not die of fright “just after take-off” unless by just after take-off you mean four or five hours later.

Not that we have to expect rigorous journalistic factualness from a paper devoted to dogs in the news like The Scoop, nonetheless this sort of factual error bears an obvious trace of Cold War mentality. I remember an article that came out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union about a (suddenly ex-Soviet) cosmonaut in the space station Mir, who found himself effectively stranded there by the disappearance of the government that sent him up.[7] The very short article had an almost scoffing tone, as if to say the Soviets continued their demonstration of an inability to do things correctly: couldn’t run a government, couldn’t even get their guy down from space. But, of course, the curious dilemma for the article involved admitting, in the first place, that the Soviets even had a space station. Surely this came as news itself to any number of readers.

In the face of the US’s wounded vanity that we were always playing catch-up with the Soviets in the so-called space race, mocking the Soviets for problems that arise in the course of having accomplished the building and manning of a space station itself resembles the sort of outcry that beleaguered Soviet scientists for not figuring out in only one month how to safely bring back a living organism from a successfully operational orbital vehicle.[8] And in the spirit of that querulousness, emphasis gets placed on a falsely claimed failure, that Laika died immediately upon launch, rather than on the facts of the case, that she survived for several hours in actual orbit.[9]

If one has any sympathy for Laika—as we anthropomorphize away—then it becomes bizarre to say her accomplishment (the accomplishment of the spaceflight involving her) constitutes a failure or to disseminate a version of the story that falsifies what actually happened. As the spirit of propaganda, this exposes any seeming sympathy for the dog as little else than the same kind of political exploitation we saw in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, where grieving (white) parents got paraded around for the sake of trying to push another gun control effort.[10]

And so this brings us back to Gazenko’s statement, which often gets repeated to serve a number of purposes in our Occidental discourse. For one, the lingering Cold War traces make it serve as a confession of Soviet incompetence and cruelty, as if (1) our space program hadn’t already incompetently destroyed living creatures, and (2) the Soviets hadn’t already sent up an retrieved dogs from space.[11] When the statement does not get invoked as part of an unconvincing piece of vanity, its general tenor may also serve to speak to the pointlessness of space travel generally (not just in its Soviet, Russian, Iranian, Chinese, or US versions, but in any).

Just as it seems dishearteningly ignorant to laugh at the Soviet space program for failing to get its cosmonaut out of Mir (after the government collapsed), if we would understand Gazenko’s statement as “proof” that we should laugh at the Soviet space program (or space programs in general) with regard to Laika then this seems equally (if not deliberately) wrong-headed. Gazenko’s point, his primary criticism, involves that not enough good science could have been obtained under the conditions of Laika’s mission. Just as the US moon landings have been (at times justly) criticized on  similar ground as more of a stunt than any actual necessary step in a properly conceived space program,[12] Gazenko (as a scientist and a human being) objects (rightly) to the (politically motivated) stunt of Laika’s mission.

We needn’t necessarily ask at this point whether the losses of human life incurred in the effort to put human beings on the surface of the moon provided good enough science or not compared to Laika’s death. One can quibble over the scientific value of human sample collection (the Apollo program) compared to robotic collection, which the Soviets had pursued and deployed with successes and failures from 1959 to 1976 and which included moon orbiters, sample collectors, and surface rovers. In fact, at one moment while US astronauts stood on the surface of the moon one of the Soviet’s lunar retrieval projects actually crashed into its surface—a strange moment of both countries being on the moon simultaneously.

Of course, scientist everywhere might gripe about “politically motivated” projects, as if the projects they do work on don’t have political motivation behind them (especially where Department of Defense contracts get involved). But Gazenko’s quotation opens an additional can of worms. In the version of the quotation cited by The Scoop, we see only the emphasis on the bad idea of this mission; Abadzis includes the sentence immediately before this, “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak” (201), which specifically invokes an ethical concern in working with animals in the first place.

Abadzis’s book actually emphasizes this continuously; a smart move since it helps to avoid bathos (mere anthropomorphizing of Laika) and keeps the human reaction to the situation in the foreground; i.e., the emphasis falls on the people of the story who understand the consequences of their actions more than the book dwelling on the consequences for Laika herself. Thus, we see the players as they find themselves caught in a situation they feel they cannot change, and if they generally silence any protests, nonetheless these protests form an integral part of the story.[13] More precisely, almost no one engages in any easy justifications in the face of the moral problem the mission presents. Almost nobody says, “Actually, this isn’t a terrible thing; we can justify it on these shallow or disingenuous arguments.” Only one character cruelly rubs Dubrovsky’s nose in the realities of Laika’s situation and no significant character—as I remember it—attempts to justify the mission by saying, “Laika is just a dog,” as if that excuses what will happen to her. At one point, two random men exchange:

FIRST: I wonder what she’s dreaming about up there.

SECOND: Dogs don’t dream.

FIRST: Of course they do. You ever seen one asleep? They dream about chasing rabbits. They twitch about, just like they’re running.

SECOND: Rubbish. Dogs don’t dream. They’re just dogs (174).

Abadzis plays this for pathos, allowing Laika’s biggest supporter (Dubrovsky) to overhear these words and to feel haunted by the exchange, but even “they’re just dogs” gets refuted here with evidence (that they dream).

By pointing to the ethical aspect of Gazenko’s criticism, which the 2002 article does not, I do not mean to invoke only some merely vast abstraction about the use of animals in research; Gazenko specifically says, “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog”—not that “we can never learn anything by putting animals potentially in harm’s way.” This belies a sense of ethics—or more simply, a humanity—typically absent from experimental scientists, who tell themselves whatever they have to to go on poisoning, infecting, mutilating, and killing mammals (and other sentient creatures), even when we do not learn enough from the vast majority of experiments done to justify the death or suffering of thousands of creatures.

This developed ethical sense evident in Gazenko’s statement reminds me of the fact that on at least two specific occasions Russian military commanders received unambiguous go signals, indicating they should launch retaliatory nuclear strikes. By all rights and military protocol, they should have obeyed refused to do so. We may contrast this with the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the justificatory bullshit still continuing to this very day that one hears for those atrocities. By contrast, Gazenko does not allow himself any “Laika is just a dog” excuse, just as the humanity of the Russian commanders refused the signal received from a non-human system designed (in principle) to keep Russia safe. Gazenko does not permit himself easy consolations—whatever all of the factors in play that led to the circumstance of sending up the loyal and pathetic figure of one of humanity’s best companions over the millennia, he still acknowledges the specific mistake of it in that specific instance.

And so the lesson we might learn from this involves not that our “enemies” represent “idiots” and us the “wise,” (oh those silly Russians, always fucking up), but how we might better keep abidingly significant ethical components always in the foreground. Of course, we can pay some nice fellating lip service to the idea—that we should conduct scientific research in a humane way—and we will (most of us) nod our heads in agreement while meanwhile immediately offering up no shortage of inane justifications for the vast numbers of animals put to death every day for useless experiments that tell us nothing of scientifically significant value (never mind all of the critters we eat). The point does not (finally) boil down to “Laika’s life was thrown away”—that would be the ecoterrorist’s or the “Love it or leave it” US ideologue’s point of view, whether because all (commercially driven) animal abuse (for “science” or “dinner” alike) must stop this very instance or because US exceptionalism allows us to condemn in others what we do more extensively ourselves.

We can argue till the end of time what deserves the name necessity, but whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in how we respond to them as human beings becomes the far more significant human aspect. One could say that the scientist taking Laika home served as a kind of penance; perhaps he really had no heart (it seems otherwise), but watching the little dog running around on the carpet of his apartment, knowing how easily he might just drive out into the taiga and let her go, or hide her in the basement, could not have brought him too much joy. He didn’t low himself any easy consolation and, in a way, punished himself by giving Laika what small freedom he felt he could. He didn’t tell himself, “She’s just a dog.”

And if we would say that he should have let her go, if we would question his claim to care in light of the fact that he did not free her, then we might just as well say the pilot of the Enola Gay might have turned off course or that any executioner in any death row in a US prison might have refrained from pushing the lethal injection machine’s on button. Perhaps one would say these situations have no equivalence—indeed, to fail to destroy one’s whole career by not releasing a single dog bears little resemblance to the situation of refusing to annihilate hundreds of thousands of people in a nuclear attack or refusing to bring to bear the State’s whole weight against a single individual who, in all likelihood, got molded into the very criminal the State calls him or her by the State itself. It seems not at all insignificant to me that the Russian still sees a need for ethical honesty in the case of Laika, whereas his US counterpart with regard to human victims decides ethical honesty can go out the window.[14]

This seems to me the principal value and moral of Gazenko’s statement, even though it may function in Abadzis’ book as a summary claim of “wasted life”—that the Soviet mission stands as worse than a merely a failure but also an ethical monstrosity. Instead, I see in Gazenko’s admission—because, except that Laika’s memory haunted him, nothing compelled him to make it—a piece of hopefulness, in the sense that when people do terrible things, he shows that people can acknowledge it, rather than trying to offer some tortured bullshit to justify it. I do not think Abadzis at all intends for me to read the confession in this way.

Behind Gazenko’s confession, which operates so to speak (and at least in part) on behalf of Laika’s memory, I hear the same sort of thing as comes out in a Truth Commission, a witnessing to the actualities of an event that prevailed during a secret time. Nothing in Abadzis’ text gives me reason to think he found himself motivated to produce this text for this reason,[15] but his considerable interest in historical accuracy (rather than reproducing again the usual propaganda, as The Scoop article above does) at least results in something resembling a Truth Commission kind of gesture. Even so, I’d still prefer if the “last word” of the text proper were something other than a phrase that so easily drops into the well-worn grooves of (Occidental) Cold War discourse.[16]


[1] Abadzis, N., & Sycamore, H. (2007). Laika. New York: First Second, pp. 1–205.

[2] In 1947, the US had sent fruit flies into space—i.e., above a 100 km in the atmosphere; the formal definition of where space begins—as well as a Rhesus monkey in 1949 that died when its return parachute failed, and again in 1950 a mouse that died when its parachute failed as well. It was in 1951, then, that the Soviets sent up two dogs into space and successfully retrieved them. Laika’s accomplishment specifically involves getting into Earth’ orbit, albeit only for a few hours before she died.

[3] Spurgeon, T. (2007, 1 September). A short interview with Nick Abadzis. The Comics Reporter [online], accessed 31 October 2013 from here.

[4] Though admittedly far more plaintive questionings by Laika just in advance of being sent up, thus “milking” the pathos. The question hinges whether Abadzis has actually built up enough narrative mass to warrant that kind of heart-string tugging or if he indulges in easy pathos. I’d say we see a bit of both; he could have trimmed some back.

[5] Which runs: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

[6] After all, why shouldn’t fruit flies count as “earthlings?”. But one might also object to the article’s writing that the 100km mark does not indicate the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere but rather the point beyond which normal aeronautical physics no longer apply due to the thinness of the atmosphere and thus the edge of (the beginning, at least) space. Any exact boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and empty space must (except by fiat or consensus) remain contested, but at all events it currently lies well beyond the 100km mark.

[7] One may read a version of this story from here. The implied foolishness of the Soviets comes across in the first paragraph of this article, which conflates “Russian” and “Soviet” as synonymous: :MOSCOW — Cosmonaut 3rd Class Sergei Krikalev, stuck in a space station as an orbiting hostage to budget problems on the ground in Russia, returned on Wednesday to a bewilderingly different country than he left 10 months ago” (¶1). In attempting to describe the bizarreness of the situation, the article states in the sixth paragraph, “Even his home town changed its name while he was in space-from Leningrad to St. Petersburg” (¶6). This disingenuous details takes no cognizance of the fact that no one in the Soviet Union ever seriously lost sight of St. Petersburg’s historical name. It is not until paragraph 12 that the space station Mir had operated from 1986, but even this acknowledgment gets followed by an announcement that Mir has turned obsolete: “Designed to house up to 12 cosmonauts, the huge Mir station has been manned almost continuously since 1986 and was the focal point of the Soviet space program. ¶ Some experts say the station is nearing the end of its usefulness and must be either modernized or destroyed” (¶12–3). One might well wonder what experts, this sort of anonymous source too familiar from and endemic to gossip articles in the National Enquirer or Weekly World News, but even so one can still sense the almost bit-chafing unwillingness to acknowledge the technical feat of the Mir in the first place.

[8] We recall that not only had the US failed to place any vehicles in orbit around the Earth, except for fruit flies, what creatures they’d launched past the 100km mark (into space) had died on impact when the vehicle parachutes failed to deploy.

[9] I will not tally up a comparison of creatures blown up on US launch pads or killed when parachutes failed to deploy; off-hand, it seems that the US program has killed more animals than the Russians. As far as human fatalities go, the Soviet had a fatal parachute failure in 1967, and three deaths at their Salyut 1 space station in 1971. US fatalities, 14 in all, occurred in 1986 and 2003, both events late in the history of space flight. Training fatalities include two Soviet (in 1961 and 1968) and one Russian (1993), and 8 US fatalities from 1964 to 1968. Numerically, more astronauts have gone up from the United States, and “Soyuz accidents have claimed the lives of four cosmonauts. No deaths have occurred on Soyuz missions since 1971, and none with the current design of the Soyuz” (from here).

[10] And for every article like the one note above on Sandy Hook, one can find equally shameless counterexploitation by disingenuous fuckers decrying such exploitation for their own political ends (e.g., here)

[11] While it remains indisputably true that our failures in our space program do not justify Soviet failures, the mistakes of the Soviet program also do not justify ours either.

[12] It has also been called the greatest engineering feat in human history, but people will say anything: “The Apollo missions were born from hurt pride: the Soviet Union was winning hands down in the race to the Moon. The United States finally took up the gauntlet, and issued a challenge that many thought impossible: to land the first man on the Moon’s surface” (from here).

[13] In one case, a character’s objections burst into the foreground of the story. Everyone in the situation then has to “manage” the ripples an consequences of this.

[14] I acknowledge that no shortage of people find it easier to sympathize with animals than humans. It seems easier to find ways to pretend that humans “deserved it” (as opposed to animals), which explains why critics almost inevitably point to child-victims, because we find it much harder to believe that a child deserved Hiroshima, &c.

[15] It seems pretty speculative to wonder if his Greek parent had experienced any of the violence of the regime of the colonels and, even if so, that that could have suggested a sort of “truth commission” angle in his text. I’d like to imagine so, but …

[16] The book does features something of an Afterword but it, precisely, lies “outside” of the text as one encounters it. It also does not challenge in any way Gazenko’s quoted remark.