Summary (TLDR Version)

Contrary to the “thesis” of this graphic novel, the human experience of life never progresses from signal to noise, but from signal to signal. The pleasant solace that the unbearable becomes meaningless supports the current political order and seems particularly a luxury of the principal beneficiaries of that order (i.e., the book’s main character, as well as Gaiman and McKean).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] 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). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies 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 do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our 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.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong. Also, here may be typos!

A Reply To: Gaiman and McKean’s (2007)[2] Signal to Noise [Part 2]

This continues (from here) my reply to Gaiman and McKean’s graphic novel.

Coming at the heart of the culture wars (the mid-1990s), when the shift further and further away from anything resembling consensus in culture put more and more of an emphasis on “sentiment” as the only thing deemed real, this book simply puts that out in front: “it’s all noise, whatever signal you read out of it, that’s your fault [or, joke’s on you] or …” It offers merely support for (the intellectually incoherent position of) reader-response criticism, in addition to dovetailing nicely with the hyperindividualism of late-order capitalism. It technically remains immune to criticism because, like deconstruction, no criticism can ever state a fact about it and, anyway, a pseudo-plurality of such criticisms constitutes (the theory goes) a healthy expression of culture.[3]

Curiously (or sadly, or obviously), the part I found most compelling about this book concerned the actual film imagined by the filmmaker. We see only snippets, and I less found the content per se compelling and more the setting or the premise. I find this interesting because also in Mr Punch, the far more interesting aspect of that book for me centred on the original story of Punch that Gaiman built his narrative around.

In other words, in this and that book both, I found the apparent source of Gaiman’s inspiration more compelling than what he actually did with that source. This book made me want to watch the film, not read the book, just as Mr Punch made me want to see a Punch and Judy play. This, then, runs contrary to my hope that when Gaiman didn’t have a pre-established framework to work with (i.e., when writing for a comic universe) his talents would flower more. Instead, it seems I have yet to find a work by him that doesn’t have a “core” text that he then appends “commentary” to.

Because this book smears a layer of “self-consciousness” over itself (or at least seems to), discussions about it will readily veer into dead-ends, with readers making claims about it that centre on their experiences of making it into a coherent narrative rather than focussing on the actual content, i.e., the comparatively lazy writing by Gaiman (and even the relatively desultory art by McKean–saying this, again, within the whole context of his output). Per usual, McKean’s art provides an immense buoyancy to the text that allows Gaiman to waste his time more than typically on his text. This seems an unreasonable claim? The drivel at the end of the book (all nine pages of it) suggests otherwise. The last time I read something so inept by someone acclaimed as talented, Hemingway had slogged through his awful For Whom the Bell Tolls (although Tarantino’s absurd Death Car also comes to mind).

And so we can have a range of reader-response (criticism) that runs either, “More the fool you for reading that as signal when it was obviously noise” (see the “1 April 2000” bit at the end) or, both more likelily and dishearteningly, “No! I found that part really moving. It’s great”. And all the while, this allows the text to seemingly exist as signal and noise simultaneously (in the domain of criticism), as if that comprises a real, much less the only, critical point. In other words, just as the whole notion of “signal to noise” dismantles itself thematically in the text, that this plays out in a similar way at the level of responses to the book doesn’t accrue merit to Gaiman’s writing. By existing, humans never do anything but make meaning; the obligatory, and thus tragic, requirement of that in human existence cannot get avoided except by death or its equivalent. So, to make a “question” of this (at the level of theme or criticism) already involves a false premise, that such a thing can open up to question–again, the converse of sense-making entails (literal) human death.

Whatever unconvincingly portrayed relationship Gaiman supplies for “sense-making in life” for his filmmaker, he again gets Hemingwayesque by his conventionally trotting out a eulogy by a loved one—with or without meaning to declare it an ironic joke (or a prank) at the end. After all, however meaningless one tries to make life, those who love us have a particular and privileged experience of us that argues (strongly) against that meaninglessness. But this loved one also serves for us as proof that we lived meaningful lives–as if having produced a work of art or having had experiences with friends or even our simple day-to-day activities amongst other people for some reason or somehow cannot convincingly make this argument to anyone else. In other words, Gaiman’s resort to a loved one’s eulogy makes for a very maudlin and sentimental appeal, undermined or not.

And since we can do nothing as human beings except find patterns in the (quantum) noise of a mostly empty cosmos, then even to point to that fact already constitutes an identified pattern. And since we can do nothing except find such patterns (so long as we remain alive and not in a disordered mental state), then claiming this as a “falsehood” does nothing. Let life constitute a problem, the alternative offers little by way of a solution.

Or one could say all of this merely involves a reader reading patterns out of the noise—so that nothing means anything and most of all not Gaiman’s book. Why did anyone pay any money for it then (or spend any time on it)? And in precisely this fact we see exposed the presence of a value for this kind of narrative for our current culture–one that, in its cheap nihilism, readily espouses a political quietism in the face of power.

But of course, one needn’t feel held hostage by a rampant cultural relativism (that can’t agree even on what to agree upon about responses to cultural offerings) or by the present articulation of capitalism that atomises the social order even more than it has already so that it normalises political disenfranchisement (and thus neutralisation of human opposition). Most simply, I found Gaiman’s book surprisingly boring and McKean’s short pieces at the front also boring.

In one respect, it tells you nothing to say I found it boring. Boring how? Boring why? In general, I find myself bored by a cultural offering when I cannot discern why it slogs along with whatever it insists on going on about.If a piece either (1) does not sufficiently signal to me in what sense I should pay attention to it, never mind that I actually feel interested to pay attention to it or not, or (2) doesn’t do enough in its surface dynamics to make me indifferent to whether or not I should care to pay attention in the first sense, then I will tend to feel lost an adrift in the work’s presence and that feeling registers s boredom for me. This can happen, of course, sporadically during the duration of a piece as well–a passage in a symphony might become boring because (1) I have failed to connect its relationship to the piece in general, or (2) it may seem like a needlessly wandering interlude, &c. And, of course, while this sense of boredom obviously implicates my own experience of the piece–e.g., I may have missed something crucial and so can only fail to connect the present boring passage to what has gone before–it does not only depend upon my experience. While you an I might disagree passionately about which sections in a piece actually bore us, the fact that we both experienced boredom implicates the piece as well.

But also, the question of “interest” (as the opposite of boredom) has a similar texture here. Or, to put this all another way, a sterile, dogmatic distinction between “work” and “audience” leads only into critical dead-ends. Neither the “work” nor the “viewer” stand independent of “culture” (in the first place) and to understand how a “work” gets received by a “viewer” involves culpability on both sides. Every artist knows this to some extent, and so selects those images likely to get the desired response: put a child onstage and blow its brains out in front of its father, voila, instant sympathy for the father or, just as predictably, disgusted cynicism over such arch manipulation by other viewers. Of course, still other reactions may and will occur, but for the artist who strives for a certain effect (a certain intention), that these two responses cover 95% of likely responses will in all likelihood suffice. And so, to continue this illustration, an artist may supply a bunch of horrified human faces witnessing this murder and one nasty, arch-cynic declaring, “Well, I hate to be a killjoy, but as brain-splatters and murders go, that was really not very aesthetically pleasing.” &c.

Thus, the story Gaiman tells bores me, because dying in and of itself (just like a cancer diagnosis in and of itself) does not yet have any significance. Rather, when confronted with a cancer diagnosis, what do you do—therein lies the significance of the event.

And this particular case, the filmmaker isolated himself, rejected the opportunity for any treatment, and spent his last weeks and months writing a film he would never see produced. Perhaps even more importantly still, he cut himself off from those who loved him–and for that shittiness, gets nine pages of eulogy from his (female) lover at the end, April Fool’s joke or not. His actions send a very loud signal to others in his life, one that hardly seems rationalised merely on the ground that he suffers.

But also, in general texts about artists—about artists engaging in the artistic process—bore people, again because the mere act of struggling to make art has little significance in and of itself. Thus, bio-pics of artists focus more often on their volatile love lives, &c., while self-indulgent novels wallow in dramatising writer’s block, &c. And I would point out again that in these endeavours (gay and straight versions alike), the idealised or thankless support of “loved ones” takes centre-stage. Just like the facilely named great goddess Inanna in this text, nothing but unconditional love will do for the artist, which makes these pieces merely masturbatory fantasies rather than serious art pieces about art. And, in fact, takes a particular sensibility to pull off these kind of pieces successfully, e.g., Barton Fink, About Julia, The Actor’s Nightmare, Bullets over Broadway.

The brainlessly assumed significance of a cancer diagnosis makes Gaiman’s text necessarily maudlin, and no surprise, since Gaiman never seems to prefer to swim into emotionally deep water—and doesn’t swim well when he attempts it (again like Hemingway).[4]

The fact that the book’s film-maker already has celebrated films to his credit attempts to lend heft and weight to the film he imagines while committing suicide (i.e., letting the cancer take its course without resistance); but why not make this his first film? Or make him not even a film-maker, but rather a vision that possesses him, even though he has worked as a plumber all of his life? Why not tell that story? Or should we infer that those who get diagnoses of cancer have an easier time of it when they have no fame behind them? Do the non-mighty fall only a little and stub their toe while the mighty … oh how the mighty fall? Here we have an echo of that sickening non-wisdom in Ecclesiastes, where a decaying ruler carries on and on about the utter vanity of life, having had nothing but privilege and a spoilt existence the whole time, only to cap his whole bout of self-pity off with the command to follow the dictates of religion.

Throughout his career, Gaiman seems consistently all plastic-coated pretext, whether delivering “product” for the comics shelves or, apparently, producing pseudo-profound pulp that McKean elevates to at least a visual degree of interest. I don’t doubt that some would call this book a meditation, but I’d wager we would hear that more often from people who have never meditated.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., and McKean, D. (2007). Signal to noise (second ed.), Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, pp. 1–117.

[3] Numerous critics have noted the reactionary character of Deconstruction, which expresses in part simply the hypertrophied individualism of late-order capitalism.

[4] I don’t mean he doesn’t attempt it ever, and I don’t mean that his fans haven’t wallowed in his cliché depictions.

 

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WHEREAS:

  1. [1] A fascist system maintains itself at the expense of its members. [2] And the system of mass incarceration values security and control to the detriment of all else, regardless of cost. [3] The system of mass incarceration is, therefore, a fascist system.
  2. [1] The human social need for safety is met by the necessity of mass incarceration. [2] Yet, the US Supreme court affirmed that mass incarceration does more harm to public safety than crime itself. [3] The system of necessities by which we currently meet our needs do so at our expense.
  3. [1] Our system of human justice meets our social need for safety by valuing the necessity of security and control to the detriment of all else, regardless of cost. [2] This necessity maintains itself the expense of the plants, animals, living systems, and ecologies we take as resources. [3] The system of anthropocentric justice is, therefore, a fascist system.
  4. [1] All systems with one bottom line are fascist systems. [2] To add care, even to a fascist system, transforms it. [3] By “care” I mean: to decide to temporarily enter into the structure of another living system.

THEREFORE:

When we add care to a human system of justice that values, at the expense of its members, a necessity of security and control above all else in order to meet the human social need for safety, then

  1. We would decide to inhabit temporarily the structure of the forest we would destroy, in order to meet our human need for safety with the necessity of shelter and warmth;
  2. We would decide to inhabit temporarily the structure of the animals we would kill to eat, in order to meet the human need for safety with the necessity of food;
  3. We would decide to inhabit temporarily the structure of the human being we would incarcerate, in order to meet the human need for safety with the necessity of confinement.

Out of empathy and our own desire not to be destroyed, we would face in the court of justice the life that we would cut down—for lumber, for food, for peace of mind; the life that we feel we must cut down as a necessity in order to meet a given instance of the human social need for safety.

When we care, then out of an acknowledgment of fairness and recognition for an Other that we desire to cut down—for lumber, for food, for peace of mind—we would at least pause to ask if we might take that life in order to meet, as we see it, a given instance of the human social need for safety.

And this moment of greater justice presupposes the wrong of what we ask, however much our need for human safety seems to demand this necessity. And it presupposes that the Other we address might answer, “No.” And if we do not proceed then, over the objection of this Other–this forest, this creature, this person we think we need to incarcerate–to cut down the life, then our meditations for how otherwise an better to meet our human social need for safety will mark a moment of higher and more far-reaching justice, for all living beings an ecologies.

Summary (TLDR Version)

In a well-managed world, we’d need no heroics.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] 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). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies 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 do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our 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.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: C. Wright’s (2012)[2] Black Lung

I often feel like I should at least give some general summary of what people claim for the books (in this case, the graphic novel) I reply to; so then, this:

Chris Wright’s Black Lung is unquestionably one of the most impressive graphic novel debuts in recent years, a sweeping, magisterially conceived, visually startling tale of violence, amorality, fortitude, and redemption, one part Melville, one part Peckinpah. Blacklung is a story that lives up to the term graphic novel, that could only exist in sequential pictures — densely textured, highly stylized, delicately and boldly rendered drawings that is, taken together, wholly original. In a night of piratical treachery when an arrogant school teacher is accidentally shanghaied aboard the frigate Hand, his fate becomes inextricably fettered to that of a sardonic gangster. Dependent on one another for survival in their strange and dangerous new home, the two form an unlikely alliance as they alternately elude or confront the thieves and cutthroats that bad luck has made their companions and captors. After an act of terrible violence, the teacher is brought before the ship’s captain and instructed to use his literary skills to aid him in writing his memoirs. He is to serve as scribe for a man who, in his remaining years, has made it his mission to commit as many acts of evil as possible in order to ensure that he meet his dead wife in hell. As the captain’s protected confidant, finding his only comfort in the few books afforded him, the teacher bears witness to monstrous brutality, relentless cruelty, strange wisdom, and a journey of redemption through loss of faith. Yes

One reviewer at Amazon noted the resemblance of Black Lung to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a comparison that seems not only apt and obvious, but confirmed also by Wright who cites McCarthy as an inspiration.[3] The biggest difference, of course, being that nothing like redemption happens in McCarthy’s book, while Wright describes himself as a die-hard Romantic, in love with big ideas.[4]

Wright thus finds himself in something of a pickle. If Melville represents an arch-romantic,[5] epic in scope, then McCarthy (at least in Blood Meridian) represents an arch-antiromantic, though equally epic in scope. And this tension, or contradiction, lurks in Wright’s book. Most obviously, the character of Sweaney,[6] who starts off more or less simply a torturer and sadist but seems to wind up portrayed as a sexual sadist, resembles (even physical, I suspect) the Judge from McCarthy’s book. In contrast, the captain of the ship in Wright’s book seems to owe a debt more to Melville.

I’ll stop for a moment. Why does any of this matter? What difference if the book seems partly inspired by Melville or McCarthy? Why bother sorting it out at all? And why centre any of this on Sweaney or the Captain anyway?

The book’s narrative has two basic parts: a depiction of the (criminal) world on land, with all of its (criminal) brutality, and then the narrative on the ship, which de-rationalises the violence by making it seem gratuitous, especially when Sweaney does it. As a result, if the first part seems like a typical depiction of the “underworld,” with all of its various brutal, but economically familiar reasons for (criminal) violence, once we get out to sea, the books starts much more to resemble the kind of world depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, i.e., a world where the most awful violence, beautifully depicted, occurs at the drop of a hat, for no reason. Thus, on the ship, the arrogant school teacher gets three fingers cut off by Sweaney, just for the sake of gratuitous cruelty.

Not insignificantly, this wound—which then requires cutting off the rest of the teacher’s hand to save him—serves as a plot point for Wright; because the teacher knows how to write (pun not intended), the Captain enlists him to write his memoirs. Wright thus “makes sense” of Sweaney’s violence by integrating it into the plot; McCarthy would not have done (and did not do) this in Blood Meridian. Whatever mechanical, mindless horror of the world McCarthy takes pains to present, the notion that something meaningful comes from it gets continuously undermined.

Readers often rail against this: for all of the gorgeous prose McCarthy obviously crafts, the book amounts finally to something less even than sound and fury signifying nothing. To the extent that McCarthy took inspiration from or based his book upon a memoir, he may have felt constrained or inhibited from “adding a moral”. Wright, by contrast, goes considerably out of his way to add a moral, so to speak. Partly, he signals this by literally twisting and interlocking frames as the Captain spools out the (difficult to follow) narrative of his past. Not only the back of the book (its ad-text) but also the Captain himself makes clear that his actions serve the end of love: to commit enough evil to assure his consignment to Hell once he dies, in order to reunite with his wife.

But even if this part of the narrative steps in to try to upstage the McCarthyist nihilism on the ship, this whole motivation and impulse remains challenged by the “merely criminal” depiction in the opening of the book. Should we read the “criminal” thugs as less noble for having merely economic interests in committing evil? Or, unfortunately, do they simply reflect that bourgeois fantasy of the poor: that criminality comes “naturally” and inevitably?

Torture being difficult to witness, of course that kind of violence—presented statically and scratchily in drawn form—makes for a sort of gruesome torture for the reader as well. But the pyrotechnics of this overshadow a kind of hollowness that informs the climax Wright intends for his book. The language he resorts to at the outset—when showing us the criminal world—seems to borrow distinctly from British English, and very impressively. BY contrast, when Sweaney first sets his sights on the school teacher, the coarseness of his sexual insult seems vulgar in the sense of a mistake on Wright’s part and not just apropos of the character. In Blood Meridian, the notoriously ambiguous ending occurs out of sight in an outhouse, and McCarthy leaves it to the reader to wonder if the Judge not only killed but also raped the Kid (before or after killing him). The ambiguous presence of a sexual element has its own kind of vulgarity as well, but McCarthy at least doesn’t resort to sexual insults, which all of us—even if we hate ”faggots”—recognise as déclassé, tacky, and small-minded.

On the other hand, insofar as it seems forever easier to describe the problem than to describe the solution, the necessary path of least resistance that treks first through the “amorality” (or economic venality) of the criminal underworld and then shifts to the “mindless horror” of normalised cruelty for the sake of cruelty itself leaves Wright with the unenviable task of trying to “sell” the Captain’s (attempted) redemption—or the school teacher’s. Just as a superhero requires a worthy villain (otherwise she seems like neither a hero nor super at all), so that a great deal of a narrative expends itself to show precisely the villainy of the evil, in theory the further down one goes, the higher up the narrative might rise at the end.

Abel Ferrara supplies one extremely successful example of this in his Bad Lieutenant, where the sheer irrationality of his gesture of redemption helps to sell it after an unremitting parade (at times almost—intentionally—comic in the degree of its totality) of bad behaviour. So, the basic shape of what Wright attempts here has the right form, but it doesn’t succeed—at least not so nearly as it might—probably most of all because one might never really decide, “Who gets redeemed?”

The most obviously candidate, the school teacher, experiences nothing like the levels of perpetration committed by the Captain or Sweaney. He—like one of Conrad’s “heroes”—undergoes an ordeal, but this amounts to the standard arc of seemingly senseless suffering in a world of pain with, hopefully, some variety of less learned. If he begins the story as wholly emotionless, detached from and indifferent to the world of violence his students occupy, we never seem much or enough after the ordeal to know how the experience has changed him (for better or worse). Meanwhile, the Captain and Sweaney (even less) make for comparatively less and less convincing objects of “redemption”.

As such, the centremost candidate for “redemption” involves Wright’s text itself, i.e., that after the brutality of the criminal world and the horror of senseless violence, he unmoors the story (and even the frames of his text) to attempt to elevate it with the epic significance of the Captain’s damnation. Maybe it boils down to a question of success—on Wright’s part—even in the failure of the scope of his reach, but the impression lingers that he wants to “sell” a particularly ending, and it just doesn’t seem sufficiently motivated or grounded by the earlier parts of the book.

It seems that at some point, Wright simply turns a corner in the text and starts pushing or insisting on the ending he desires, despite an insufficiency of justification for it. If the school teacher’s “lesson” remains ambiguous, and the Captain’s “moral” involves (without paradox or irony) his desired damnation, perhaps the lack of any “redemption” for Sweaney most strongly undermines the desire of Wright’s book to “redeem itself”—or sell itself as embodying a redemption at the end.

I don’t mean that Sweaney could experience redemption—he seems well beyond the pale—but only that he should, if the book would make its case. Most obviously, Sweaney figures the character most in need of redemption (if we ignore some of the thugs at the start of the book, any of which might also “need” redemption).

No one gives a shit about the individual redemption of someone, not even of a figure like Christ, whose redemption (according to its myth) stands in for everyone. Wright certainly gives us too little to really care that the Captain, as an individual, gets his redemption-as-damnation or not. The Captain figures as a marginal character for the first part of the sea voyage, as a figure afraid of and overshadowed by Sweaney, who might at any moment run amok and kill everything in the world and on the boat. Moreover, visually clever Wright lays out the Captain’s biography on the page, he makes it chock full of brand new exposition we’ve not encountered before. It only has the value of revelation but not necessarily any harvest of emotional resonance—not even irony in light of things we’ve already previously seen or learned of the Captain. This especially makes the focus on him at the end feel so forced.

Again, individual redemption means either something shallow (when we don’t have the emotional experiences of resonances with earlier material, as happens here) or nothing, because it hinges merely anecdotally on one (fictional) person’s story. Rather, the reader cares (more implicitly) about the adventure of redemption as a theme in the book. We might buy this theme as attached to the school teacher, only because we have followed him throughout the book, but even then, not only must we see consequences of that redemption, the “life” of the theme needs showing in those characters most desperately in need of redemption, i.e., Sweaney and the thugs at the beginning. By doing nothing on this score—or not enough—this makes Wright’s text feel forced and artificial and less convincing, at the end, that otherwise.

Visually startling and definitely concerned with big ideas, the hollowness of the “victory” at the end unintentionally undermines Wright’s intention to tell a story of redemption. Aiming at a “visually startling tale of violence, amorality, fortitude, and redemption,” it leaves us finally with only the violence, amorality, and perhaps the school teacher’s and the reader’s fortitude in enduring that violence and amorality. It makes it seem as if, as in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, we have suffered senseless (but beautifully presented) cruelty to little discernible purpose beyond the emotional rush of aesthetic appreciation.

To the extent that this kind of aesthetic rush serves the culture industry’s aim to fill our leisure time with amusements so that we remain distracted not only from the tediousness of capital’s exactions and exploitation of our work but also its draining off of our life’s significance, then both Black Lung and Blood Meridian serve admirably as ironic object lessons.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Wright, C. (2012). Black lung, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, pp. 1–128.

[3] I feel like I ought to say something substantial about the general effectiveness of the visuals in Wright’s book, but besides seeming obvious, I also consider adeptness at providing apt visuals a criterion for a graphic novel too basic to compliment. We expect in written novels a basic facility for writing sentences; not to meet that minimum bar would represent a failure so basic as to deny the category “novel” to a book. Same here: to find artfulness in the visuals of a graphic novel means only that the author has met the most basic criterion of a graphic novel. Happily, Wright’s visuals have style and substance as well—something one cannot say, in fact, for many graphic novels., amazingly enough.

[4] For the sake of aim for accuracy, the quoted summary points, by invoking Melville and Peckinpah, to “romance” and “gory violence” respectively. And if the “romance” part aligns with Wright’s intellectual and artistic predilections, whatever inspiration he takes from McCarthy—at least McCarty’s Blood Meridian—can have nothing of “romance” about it. And, in fact, Wright’s book seems more in the direction of nihilistic or pointless violence—cruelty for the sake of cruelty—than the sort of romance he expresses a desire for in interviews.

[5] One may debate this assertion.

[6] With a name like Sweaney, thoughts of Sweeney Todd come quickly after. Wright may not intend the echo, or maybe he respelled Sweeney’s name to point away from the echo. Of course, whatever homicidal mania Sweeney Todd resorts to, as the demon-barber of Fleet Street, his violence has a far more “sociological” origin, particularly compared to the Judge in Sondheim’s musical, who has a specifically aberrant sexuality. One doesn’t have to sort out explicitly if Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd’s Judge, and McCarthy’s Judge fold together into Wright’s Sweaney—the intersection of sexuality and violence has lots of examples without needing to claim some specific pedigree.

NOTE: this play requires one actor and three members of an ANTI-CHORUS. The ANTI-CHORUS voices all words or noises other than the one line specifically assigned to CARE.

LIGHTS UP

Act 1 – Aspirations (Health-Care)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 1! Aspirations! Health-Care!

ANTI-CHORUS: Oh look, here comes Care.

ANTI-CHORUS: Who?

ANTI-CHORUS: Care. I said Care.

CARE, holding armfuls of stuffed animals (puppets) to the point of being nearly completely obscured, each stuffed animal with the word “CARE” on a card pinned to them. CARE also has the word “CARE” written on a card dangling from an earring, one pinned to the seat of its pants, and another pinned over its heart,

A joyful, riotous noise of “I care” and “I want to care” and “I want a career” and “I want money and status and fame” and “I want to care for others” jostles forth from the crowd as CARE advances.

Two members of the ANTI-CHORUS, one with a hoop, confronts CARE, blocking the way.

ANTI-CHORUS: Hush! Order! We can’t have this chaos.

The noise vanishes. The hoop is presented.

ANTI-CHORUS: Hey, Care. This way! (singing, from Pink Floyd) “We need to give you education.”

CARE crawls on hands and knees through the hoop toward an ANTI-CHORUS member dangling a diploma with a carrot on it.

A couple of stuffed animals fall to the floor by the wayside. The fallen, jostled by members of the ANTI-CHORUS, still pathetically cry out, “I care” and “I want a career”.

Act 2 – Standardization (Education)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 2. Standardization! Education!

CARE stands again. The ANTI-CHORUS member with the diploma holds it high up.

ANTI-CHORUS: (singing, from Frozen) “So you want to be a doctor?”

CARE nods.

ANTI-CHORUS: Well, if you want a care-ear, then listen.

CARE turns the dangling ear-care sign toward The ANTI-CHORUS member, who pulls a knife from the sheath of the diploma–ideally a wakazashi blade, but we’ll take what we can get, right?–and holds it out to CARE.

ANTI-CHORUS: Make the grade. Make the cut.

ANTI-CHORUS: Isn’t that the kind of knife samurai use to disembowel themselves?

ANTI-CHORUS: Hush, you. Just hush.

To accept the blade, CARE must drop all of the stuffed animals; if only for the first time, we see the “CARE” card over its heart.

Again, riotous noise, this time less joyful, of “ayurvedic medicine” and “four hour intake interviews” and “house calls” and “Cuba’s medical school” and “care at the core of education” [and false statements from the education group] jostles forth from the stuffed animals as CARE takes the knife, and turns its back to the audience, showing the “CARE” sign on its rump.

CARE seems to hold the knife to its bowel, then stabs, doubling over in agony. The knife clatters to the ground–an ANTI-CHORUS member sweeps it up; the “CARE” card from over its heart flutters to the ground.

As CARE straightens up again, one ANTI-CHORUS member slips the knife back into the sheath of the diploma/carrot, another slaps a big sticker with “CRIPPLING DEBT” over the spot where the “CARE” heart had been. [slap on more stickers and slogans here too, if you can.]

The hoop is presented, higher this time. The ANTI-CHORUS hums “Pomp and Circumstances” badly. CARE sweeps up three of the stuffed animals in one arm, takes the diploma/carrot with the knife in it in the other, and crawls through the hoop.

A phone rings.

ANTI-CHORUS: (singing, Pink Floyd) “never had the nerve to make the final cut”

Act 3 – Performance. (Art)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 3. Performance! Distribution! The ART of medicine.

ANTI-CHORUS: (singing, from Frozen) “So you want to be a doctor?” (not singing) Better learn to act like one.

The ANTI-CHORUS shoves CARE into a doctor’s white coat; CARE has to drop the stuffed animals to do this, and puts the diploma/carrot in a pocket.

Less riotous noise this time, still less joyful. [use Mark Fletcher’s false statements for interns, and art design group false statements].

The ANTI-CHORUS shoves a stuffed animal in CARE’S hand. CARE attempts to do an examination, but The ANTI-CHORUS keeps interrupting and turning CARE around and around, until its sick with dizziness.

ANTI-CHORUS: Do your thing, Super-hero.

ANTI-CHORUS: Show us your care.

ANTI-CHORUS: Make it an Oscar, Tony.

ANTI-CHORUS: Or a Tony, Oscar.

ANTI-CHORUS: Short and sweet though. 7.5 minutes.

ANTI-CHORUS: Make our hearts bleed.

ANTI-CHORUS: (terrified, stopping the other) No! That’d be malpractice. (to CARE) Just make us weep!

ANTI-CHORUS: And cover your ass while you do.

The ANTI-CHORUS squirts glycerine tears over CARE’S face and their own. Another snatches off the CARE card from CARE’S rump.

ANTI-CHORUS: What pathos! Such sincerity!

ANTI-CHORUS: Good game.

Doubled over, panting, dizzy, confused, CARE stands with its back to the audience. The ANTI-CHORUS slaps stickers on CARE’S ass: “Grade A certified” [a bumper sticker here would be cool too]

The ANTI-CHORUS lines up, arms locked, as CARE straightens up, staggering back and forth, dizzy.

ANTI-CHORUS: (waving a key) You can bypass the funding, preparations, actual performance, and packaging, but if you want to get your care to the people, you still have to get through us. We’re the gateway. (tauntingly) Red rover, red rover, send CARE right over.

Staggering, CARE lunges into the ANTI-CHORUS’ locked arm, only to be repelled. One, two, three times CARE tries, and the third time, the ANTI-CHORUS deliberately unlocks their arms.

CARE stumbles and falls into the space behind them, accidentally throwing aside the one stuffed animal it had still held in its hand.

Act 4. Incarceration. (Justice)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 4! Incarceration. Justice! Security and control!

ANTI-CHORUS: Just. Us.

The ANTI-CHORUS solicitously help CARE get to its feet, while removing the white coat and the CARE earring.

ANTI-CHORUS: That’s the beauty of health-care education. You can always find work wherever you want. Like here. In prison. (to CARE) Didn’t see the hoop in that last act, did you?

ANTI-CHORUS: That’s the beauty of it, yeah?

ANTI-CHORUS: Don’t even know where to look.

Without the care-ear, CARE is deaf, still confused by the spinning. Solicitously, The ANTI-CHORUS help CARE back into the white coat, but reversed, a straitjacket. They tie CARE’S hands behind its back, put on a cape, and gently set it on the ground, along with the carrot, diploma, and unsheathed knife. CARE struggles but can’t do anything.

ANTI-CHORUS: Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.

ANTI-CHORUS: Normalization!

ANTI-CHORUS: First rule of medicine: do no harm, right?

ANTI-CHORUS: (referring to CARE, laughing like a familiar of torture chambers) Can’t do any harm like that now, eh?

CARE looks forlorn, confused, disoriented.

CARE: How’d I get here? This wasn’t–how’d this happen?

Shocked to hear CARE’S voice, the ANTI-CHORUS slaps duct tape over CARE’S mouth. On the duct tape are the words, “We Care.” CARE’S eyes go wide with horror, struggling.

ANTI-CHORUS: Lets go get a drink.

The ANTI-CHORUS exits, abandoning CARE, who struggles, voicelessly protesting.

BLACKOUT

SOMEONE gathers up all of the discarded stuffed animals, looking at the word “CARE” on each as if reading each one’s card:

SOMEONE: “What if care were honoured at the core of all systems?” [false statement for education] [false statement for art] [false statement for justice] [false statement for health-care].

Summary (TLDR Version)

When interpretation runs afoul of imagery or actuality.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] 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). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies 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 do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our 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.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Jim Woodring’s (2011)[2] Congress of the Animals [Part 3]

This continues my replies to Woodring’s book from a while back (see here and here). There, I suggested that the crib-notes (on the dust jacket of the book) that interpret the imagery Woodring supplies int eh book might not tell us the “correct” interpretation as reliably as seems. This looks specifically at this disjunction between what images “say” and “authoritative commentary” commentary about them.

Visual Art as Moral

Part of me wants to dig into all of the imagery in Woodring’s book; part of me frets that I’ve not described it in enough detail (in previous posts) so that unfamiliar readers can make use of what I’d say; part of me keeps hearing those who would say, “Jesus Christ, going on and on and on about a Frank cartoon.”[3]

I can answer the last point most easily: the crib-notes of the book itself already suggest one should read Woodring’s book as intending much more than a cartoon. So if you only read Congress of the Animals for the weird images and the emotional rush of this or that it fosters, then you have likely failed Woodring’s intention. Enjoy your life.

Meanwhile, because a picture says a thousand words, trying to control the meaning of those thousand words becomes a major challenge for artists. Vaughn-James obviously did not trust his images to say what he wanted and added a great deal of (often unfortunate) text. Woodring resorts to crib-notes—a wilier and less intrusive method but perhaps not always adequate.

Linking together the crib-notes and back text linked to imagery, as I did in the previous section, a large interpretative weight seems to swing in the usual earth/sex/down = bad and sky/love/up = good kind of discourse, symbolism, and imagery. The agency that makes one feel at home in the earth hinders the progress forward/upward to that soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders (and romantic cohabitation); the vagina, “something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess” must first undergo transformation or else, at best, it amounts to “a brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. Taken simply in these terms, this reiterates that banal trope: sex = bad, love = good, and perhaps that explains how such a promisingly weird book could come to such a banal and conventional end; because underneath all of the visual pyrotechnics, little else beyond the most banal of old hats lurks, mouldy.

Sad.

Usually, when one critiques worshippers of the gut, this amounts to railing against vulgar materialism, that kind whereby someone lives only by appetite, never seeing any of the higher things in life. By accident or not (and whether Woodring still intends a criticism, if different), he undermines this typical critique by making the vision of the “gut” have cosmic breadth. If the “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace” amounts to or intends to point to the “fireworks” of orgasm—or, to put the point more decorously, sexual love—then it seems a misstep of metaphors on Woodring’s part to allow a sense of “peyote ritual” into his thematics.

I mean, if we (or Woodring) insists on reading the encounter with the gut-worshippers in a sexual sense—I haven’t included all of the readily available details one might further point to—that reading would still have to contend with the specifically transmutating “head” trip involved. This does not boil down to a “little” head trip, even when the gut-worshippers pull out part of Frank’s intestine and examine the head of it. Phallus as intestine suggesting sex = shit makes a simple enough equation, but even here Frank himself gets found wanting. If Frank (and Woodring) equate sex and shit (just to stick to that locution), it seems the gut-worshippers do not. And whatever they have wrong, still from the base of the statue that has a gut-worshipper’s face, Frank finds his crappy “transcendent love”.

When it comes to sex and love, patriarchy often loses its mind and its way. The saint/whore dichotomy of women (“too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”) makes the whole thing too often in a fatuous desire to elevate the desire to fuck into something no longer even bodily and thus holy: “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

From the waist up, the gut-worshippers all seem men; what genitals they possess challenge categorisation. As such, I suspect they have a more interesting story to tell than the one Woodring did. Or that, as a temporary anthropologist amongst them (in his imagination), Woodring may have misread their traditions in light of his own saint/whore, mind/body duality. I suspect I’d find more stories about them, not filtered through that lens, telling

One reading of Oedipus in his confrontation with the sphinx and her riddle says his hubris rests in believing he got the answer right. In other words, had he remained blocked by the sphinx, he would have escaped his destruction. Frank, too, “answered the riddle” and received the tragedy of a happy ending resting on a deluded notion of love, as it were. Had he gone over into the heady depths instead or shown more fortitude (of spirit) with the gut-worshippers, he might have avoided that tragedy as well.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Obviously, better that one should go on wondering what this book intends than Gaiman’s vacuous Signal to Noise.

LIGHTS UP

AT RISE: the ANTI-DOULA sits at a table with the DOULA, who stirs a pot of food. The CHORUS circles around throughout.

CHORUS: (like a cell phone) breep-breep-breep!

The ANTI-DOULA looks at his cell phone in disgust, then gets up to leave.

From here on out, gestures by the CHORUS are exaggeratedly pantomimed (silent).

DOULA: You’re going?

ANTI-DOULA: Mom needs me to take CARE of her.

CHORUS: (surrounding the ANTI-DOULA in a hug) Awwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Now?

ANTI-DOULA: I don’t CARE to discuss this right now.

CHORUS: (arms extended, in a “keep it away from”/”none of my business” me gesture) Nawwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Should I wait dinner for us then?

ANTI-DOULA: I don’t CARE what you–

CHORUS: (arms up, like being arrested, in the “vast shrug of apathy” gesture) Bawwwwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Hey! Just cuz you’re pissed, don’t take it out–

ANTI-DOULA: (crossing back to the DOULA) No, you’re right. I’m sorry.

They kiss, pause, then both look at the audience.

CHORUS: (tongues hanging out, exaggeratedly grossed out, but fascinated at the same time) Gawwwwwwwwwwwww!

ANTI-DOULA (CON’T)

Do you suppose they CARE that we’re–

DOULA: You mean about–

ANTI-DOULA: Or about my mother’s chronic scleroderma?

CHORUS: (making a false showing of obligatory sentiment) Mawwwwwwwwwwwwww!

DOULA: That’s redundant. Scleroderma’s always chronic.

ANTI-DOULA: Who cares?

CHORUS: (arms up, like being arrested, in the “vast shrug of apathy” gesture) Bawwwwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Sorry. I just meant–

The DOULA and ANTI-DOULA look back to one another, just a quick kiss this time.

DOULA (CON’T)

(sighing) Take CARE.

CHORUS: (mocking the sentimentality of the statement) Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!

ANTI-DOULA: (grumbling, leaving) More like “GIVE care”.

CHORUS: (made jolly by the pun or wit) Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!

DOULA: (calling after, like a “yoo-hoo”) Decide to temporarily enter into her structure.

CHORUS: (at a total loss) Whaaaaaaaa?

ANTI-DOULA: What?

DOULA: Decide to temporarily enter into her structure.

ANTI-DOULA: What?

DOULA: That’s what care is: to decide to temporarily enter into the structure of another living system.

ANTI-DOULA: (still puzzled, exiting) You don’t say.

DOULA: Drive carefully.

The DOULA looks to the CHORUS for a reaction, but they’re still helplessly confused. They shrug.

LIGHTS DOWN

Summary (TLDR Version)

Misreading this book incorrectly shows us the tragedy involved in that most banal happy ending.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] 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). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies 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 do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our 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.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Jim Woodring’s (2011)[2] Congress of the Animals [Part 2]

This continues my reply to Woodring’s book from a while back (see here). There, I suggested that the crib-notes (on the dust jacket of the book) that interpret the imagery Woodring supplies int eh book might not tell us the “correct” interpretation as reliably as seems. This specifically looks at a sequence in the book, and the description the crib-notes give of it, to tease out the disjunction between image and “authoritative commentary”.

The Gutworshippers

Meanwhile, with the foregoing to help frame delving further into Woodring’s book, let us turn to Frank’s encounter with the gut-worshippers.

The crib-notes say, “Clutched, [Frank] flees and is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building. He determines that he must go there.” A series of blocks then occurs to prevent Frank from reaching the building, the first of which involves gut-worshippers. The crib-notes tell us, “No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his.” Again, while this verbal description of the sequence, one of the longer one (11–12 pages, or more than 30 frames), gets at the gist of what happens, that these creatures “worship” the gut does not come across.

To (attempt to describe) the actual visual sequence, Frank climbs through a sphere-filled opening in a sphere and discovers inside the realm of the blind gut-worshippers. A half-bust of a statue with its intestines spilling out makes him over his eyes, but as he laughs at yet another statue, he starts violently when the gut-worshippers approach him. These figures lack faces, having only misshapen holes—reminiscent of the bread-slice-face shape of obstinate dubiousness personified.[3] Inside the voids of their faces and heads, the gut-worshippers have a ball-like organ that can rise and fall, reminiscent of a tongue. The sight makes Frank queasy and ill at ease. One gut-worshipper then gets Frank’s attention, but when the creature pulls open his entire belly and torso to display his guts, Frank faints. Propping Frank up, yet another shows him a hallucinogenic device that partially transforms Frank into something like a gut-worshipper—which includes one shape reminiscent of the “sparkling female comforter” in the centre of the page—and then, with a wide (drugged) grin on his face, the gut-worshippers pull part of his intestine from his belly and examine it, a particular gland-like part of it. However, they find Frank’s gut hopelessly wanting and abandon him. He pokes his intestine back in, once he recovers, and then goes on to his next adventure.

Calling these figures gut-worshippers offers another of those significant additions to the text. While a reader almost certainly grasps that the hallucinogenic device presented to Frank causes his trip into a cosmic intestinal realm, the element of “worship” makes the hallucinogenic device more akin to peyote. Regardless, it seems clear enough that Frank does not make the grade in the eyes (or lack of them) of the gut-worshippers—they reject him with various expressions of disgust or disappointment—but the specifically religious or ritual aspect of this seems less likely to get picked up.

In the next sequence, Frank has to bisect an intestinal creature, which the crib-notes call a “dragon,” in order to gain access to the next interior zone. There he meets a helpful guide, who seems decidedly not intestinal (more like sticks with a disc on top, rather than snaky and tube-and-eyes), so one may read a sort of “transcendence” or “going beyond the gut” in what follows. In other words, one must overcome the gut to move forward in the quest.

This kind of theme has plenty of precedents—one must overcome the grossly material in order to achieve the sublimely non-material, &c—but I want to stick with digging into the tension between the crib-notes and the visual events depicted. The phrase “gut-worshipper” (which one would almost certainly not arrive at in the visual depiction) has two different rings to it. In a negative sense, a gut-worshipper embodies someone who sees nothing higher than mere materiality, a belly-thinker only. In a less negative sense—and particularly because this gut-worship comes with a hallucinogen-induced cosmic vision—the visual depiction suggests something more like an authentic “religion” of the gut.

My gut tells me—pun intended—that the writer of the crib-notes means “gut-worshipper” in a negative sense, and if I had to defend that assertion, I would point precisely to the fact that Frank has to kill (overcome) a gut-dragon in order to get into the next, less gut-filled, region to continue his quest. In that sequence, a series of cartoonish creatures (none of them particularly intestinal) pull on ropes going down into a hole in order to drag up something from the depths, and though they succeed, then all (except Frank) wind up getting pulled into that hole; hence the crib-notes summarise this, “No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.” Importantly, Woodring draws the thing they pull up from the depths as a strange staring-mouthed and multi-eyed head thing with a solar crown on top, i.e., a multi-faced head. It remains an open question whether those who get pulled into the “heady” depths (pun alert!) have themselves transformed into or will become a part of this head, but it remains clear that the cartoons have foolishly called up something they cannot handle (or enthusiastically don’t want to) and get pulled to their “destruction”. Meanwhile, any sharp distinction here between “depths” (gut) and “head” seems to break down.

So, in terms of reaching the image of himself, Frank proves no good to the gut-worshippers themselves and fails as one of those “who desire to be pulled into the heady depths”. These two sequences taken together contrast (undesirable) “gut” and either (more desirable) “head” or simply the transcendence of both, since Frank must go beyond both of these blocks, these “no”s: “No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his. No, say the dragons, tied to each other and fighting like hot wet wildcats. No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.”

I propose that the crib-notes then impose an overly conventional body/spirit dichotomy in what Woodring depicts; i.e., the crib-notes pose the gut-worshippers and those who would be pulled into the heady depths (and the dragon of course) as obstacles Frank must overcome in order to move forward (and achieve the very banal outcome of a Congress of Animals—pun intended). Nonetheless, the visuals of the sequence at best only ambiguously support this. Meanwhile, the crib-notes also contradict themselves. After his brush with the sparkling female comforter blocked by obstinate dubiousness personified, Frank “is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building.” However, on the back of the book, a text describes that building as “a reminder that architecture which resembles one is always meant for another.” Probably not insignificantly, this building has a face like a gut-worshipper but nonetheless does have the door Frank knocks on to obtain the banal love-interest.

I don’t feel a need to sort out the imagery into some tidy narrative; hopefully, the tensions and contradictions add, rather than subtract, from the book. Prior to the gut-worshippers, a face on a stalk, that could well serve for a removed gut-worshipper face, prevents (blocks) Frank from reaching the sparkling female comforter, described on the back of the book as “a glimpse of something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”. During his cosmic trip with the gut-worshippers, something similarly shaped resides at the (literal) centre of his trip as he at least partially transforms, face-wise, into a gut-worshipper. He then flies with his intestines hanging out and twice encounters variations of the face-on-stalk figure, before he enters the cosmic realm itself and experience that “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. And, finally, with those who would plunge into the heady depths, the multi-faced figure on a thick stalk that appears, Woodring (or the back of the book) describes as that “agency which makes one feel at home in the earth.” At the very end, once together with his love-interest, an object appears in the sky that resembles somewhat the sparkling female comforter, here described as “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] More exactly, on the back of obstinate dubiousness’ disembodied face, Woodring includes plus-sign-like shapes. It seems as if he includes similar signs at the back of the gut-worshipper’s empty hole-faces.

A COURTROOM, with a DOCTOR (prosecutor), JUDGE (hospital administrator), BAILIFF (orderly), and CRIMINAL (patient).

AT RISE: the DOCTOR gestures in a hostile way toward the PATIENT, in the middle of a tirade.

DOCTOR: Is this not a 35 year old obese woman presenting with the symptoms not only of elevated hormone levels and increased enzymatic liver complexes but also considerable metastatic tissue–

MIDWIFE: (jumping up) Objection! The doctor is–

JUDGE: Sustained. (to the DOCTOR) Ask the question differently, Prosecutor.

DOCTOR: (to the PATIENT) Do you deny that you acquired cancer?

PATIENT: …

DOCTOR: Well?

MIDWIFE: Objection! The patient is clearly not well.

JUDGE: Overruled. The question was rhetorical, Midwife. (to the DOCTOR) Continue.

DOCTOR: (to the PATIENT) Well? Have you or have you not acquired cancer?

PATIENT: …

DOCTOR: (triumphantly) Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this Court will note that the patient is plainly–

MIDWIFE: Objection! He’s–

DOCTOR: (smugly, to the JUDGE) I have no more questions, your honour. (to the MIDWIFE) Your witness.

Kindly, the MIDWIFE gets close to the PATIENT.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT, kindly) What do you think of this process?

DOCTOR: Objection. Calls for speculation.

MIDWIFE: Your honour, this line of questioning is necessary to establish the patient’s state of mind at the time when–

JUDGE: I’ll allow it. But proceed carefully, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: My esteemed colleague, Doctor Manhattan here, has accused you of obtaining a life-threatening disease by unlawful means. We are here to examine your guilt in that–

DOCTOR: Objection! Is the defence questioning the patient or grandstanding?

JUDGE: Do you have a question in there somewhere, Midwife?

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) What do you think of this process?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: Well?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: (to the JUDGE) Permission to treat the witness as hostile.

DOCTOR: Objection. It’s his witness.

JUDGE: I don’t need you to tell me how to interpret the law, Doctor. (to the MIDWIFE) Proceed as you wish, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT, who remains silent after each question) Isn’t it true that many people live in the area where you acquired cancer? … And that many, most in fact, did not become afflicted as you have? … (palpates the PATIENT)

DOCTOR: Objection. He’s manipulating the witness.

MIDWIFE: Palpating, your honour, palpating. A perfectly normal legal procedure.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) Overruled.

DOCTOR: But he’s untrained, unqualified, I mean.

JUDGE: (sharply) I’m allowing it. (to the MIDWIFE) But get on with it, Midwife. This Court generously suffers your presence. Don’t waste our time.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) How can you claim to be innocent before this court, when you became sick but others didn’t? … Whose fault is that? … Well? … Who bears the guilt for that? … You’re a sick person. And my esteemed colleague over there makes a living off people like you.

DOCTOR: Objection! Slander.

MIDWIFE: The best defence against slander is the truth.

JUDGE: That’s true. (to the DOCTOR) Overruled.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) It’s criminal that you impose on society this way. What do you have to say for yourself?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: (sarcastically) Oh, so it’s society that made you sick, eh?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: We should put the doctor on trial? (indicating the JUDGE) And the hospitals and administrators? You had no say in this disaster whatsoever?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I apologize in advance for courtroom dramatics, but if I might ask the patient to stand.

JUDGE: Where are you going with this?

MIDWIFE: It bears on the case, your honour.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) You have no objections? (the DOCTOR shakes his head) My hands are tied then. I have no choice then but to allow it. (to the PATIENT) The orderly will order the patient stand.

The PATIENT does. She’s obviously pregnant.

MIDWIFE: I ask the Court to note. It’s not cancer. She’s pregnant.

DOCTOR: (jumping up) What the blazes? This is–

JUDGE: Order! Order! I prescribe order!

MIDWIFE: There’s been a misdiagnosis.

DOCTOR: This should have come out in discovery.

MIDWIFE: More like, before then.

JUDGE: You’ve been having us on this whole time, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: And I apologise, your honour. But my office has an only limited capacity to act in these matters. All the same, we move for summary dismissal of all charges. This woman is no criminal.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) Cross?

DOCTOR: Yes, very.

JUDGE: Cross-examine. Do you wish to?

DOCTOR: Rather, I’d like the court to note that my diagnosis—

MIDWIFE: Objection!

JUDGE: Sustained. (banging his gavel) This case is dismissed.

BLACK OUT.

Summary (TLDR Version)

In a well-managed world, we’d need no heroics.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] 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). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies 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 do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our 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.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Al Davison’s (2003)[2] The Spiral Cage

This graphic autobiography tells the story of a now-Buddhist, martial artist who overcame (along with the support of his family and more than a dozen operations) spina bifida.

Three things particularly stand out for me[3] in this book (the bullying, the forefronting of Davison’s lived condition, and the episode with Mary), but I should say something first about the drawing style. I think Davison may have compiled this book from various journals and bits and pieces while, at times, also providing connective tissue to make the narrative hang together. As a work from many moments, and thus many moods, it covers a wide range of styles: sometimes photorealistic, sometimes more cartoony, &c. But most of the time, Davison stuffs the page with frames. It gives an often wearing, slow pace to the book, which seems appropriate in an autobiography where the protagonist child had to pull himself slowly across the floor on a pillow. Also, as someone often overlooked as “a cripple,” each moment of offered speaking can become so cramped with desire to speak that too much comes out—or, more precisely, more than the listener anticipated or feels willing, able, or prepared to deal with. I don’t think Davison intended this but it does a lovely job of supporting the at times dramatized parts of the autobiography where Davison’s isolation (or the unwillingness of others to take him seriously as a human being) come to the fore.

One thing that really stands out in this book (set in England): bully “cripples” (including physical assault) really seems a thing over there. Of course, Davison has selected episodes from his life to depict—though clearly, if simply to go outside carried a threat of violence (even death), that will obviously figure heavily in one’s experience of life. The scenes, however, have a curious quality, in that they do not operate conventionally as sympathy generators. In his younger years, the images of bullying may call forth in a reader a conventional “oh, that’s awful,” but later on, Davison’s use of self-defence turns the tide on his would-be attackers, and the scenes function more as (rather macho) “don’t fuck with me” gestures.

At the end of the book, Davison includes a little piece about his capacity for (and perhaps prowess at) sex. Within the book itself, Davison confronts a citizen by showing himself more able physically than the citizen. These gestures, if not the book at large (at least in part), all amount to warnings or challenges to “don’t think I can’t”. One can understand an impulse behind that—having heard too often from the world, “you can’t”—and it also presupposes that prejudice in the reader. In other words, I don’t recall anyone in the book who approaches the “disability” from an “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what this condition does and does not enable or disable” as opposed to “I will assume without evidence that you cannot”. One of the more ghastly frames, for instance, includes a very self-satisfied English woman, speaking to Davison’s mother (who lost 60 pounds carrying him around at one point, because he could not walk), declaring it would have been kinder to not let him live. By contrast, Davison’s now life-partner specifically declares that she finds his “misshapen” body and surgical scars attractive. If others find “his condition” revolting, she finds it attractive—really, the same kind of emphasis, but with a positive spin. It would seem Davison himself occupies a similar headspace.

I hardly mean this as a surprise or a criticism—he did, after all, not only live with this reality in the world around him (full of judging people), but also in the loving (almost saintly) atmosphere of his family, where “his condition” obviously had an enormous presence. What I like about this resembles that critique of “colour-blindness” that currently infects the dominating discourse, i.e., that (political) desire to strip people of all specificity (ethnicity, gender, sexuality) and to insist on treating them simply as a “human being”. Besides that Michelle Alexander in her (2010)[4] The New Jim Crow offers several excellent reasons why this proves permanently problematic, the rarely addressed question “what does human being mean” defaults (in the United States) specifically to “white” and “male”. Unless we give up every conceit to know, in advance, what a human being “is,” so that we never know what we speak of until actually standing face-to-face with another human being, then the desire to ignore the concrete specificity of each human being simply paves the way to a covert patriarchal racism. So, in Davison’s book, even if the emphasis on “his condition” at times seems to generate something too much like a superhero narrative, i.e., a narrative that grounds his success on (literally) heroic effort on his part , the sheer forefronting of his concrete and specific experience as a human being stands out as valuable.

So, if the bullying and emphasis on Davison’s exceptionalism[5] stand out as two features, a most haunting sequence (for me) occurs in a very short (three page) episode. Davison as a boy sits next to a (slightly older) girl who seems to have severe cerebral palsy. She speaks, but Davison (the adult artist) presents the sounds as garbled. The boy informs the nurses (out of the frame) that the girl may need to go to the bathroom, describing her as “shmelly”. Out of the frame, the girl gets taken away, and we hear only the nurse’s alarmed report about “haemorrhaging” and the need to call a doctor. In the next, one-page frame, the boy sits somewhere, while an out-of-sight adult asks if he understands that the girl will not ever return, that she died.

Unfortunately, Davison gives us essentially no details about this girl’s life. All he permits us to know of her: cerebral palsy has her twisted up, she can barely communicate (or perhaps not at all), and then she dies. Whatever impulse a reader might feel to avoid “mere pity,” the reader would then have to supply every other detail herself. Did this girl have the same kind of loving and supportive family life that Davison did?[6] Or did her family deem her an unbearable nuisance and burden? We never see her parents—a nurse and an alluded to doctor make for the adults associated with her. Did she know any others?

I would like to think Davison in no way tries to make a moral comparison here—that he (whether through force of will or family support or both) managed to overcome the challenge thrown across his path by life, while this girl failed to. But even if he does not intend this, within the context of the book, I see two basic narrative functions it fulfils. For one, it throws into sharp relief the “stakes” in his own life. We don’t know why the girl starts haemorrhaging—it just seems something that happens—but it may come about (given the hospital setting) due to a surgery performed on her. Thus, as a “symbol” she illustrates the grave risks that Davison faced with multiple surgeries—risks that he survived but the girl did not.

However—and again because Davison does not seem to provide any more detail but not only drops this episode without warning into the book but also allows it to pass out of the book without having an further narrative autobiographical consequences[7]—it does not seem to resonate principally in this way (as a commentary upon the British medical system or the risks of multiple surgeries faced by Davison as a boy). But if we do read the episode as this, one thing remains: he survived, and she did not (and/or the British medical system killed her, but not him).

Even if we belligerently read this as sheer luck—and I don’t think Davison’s text encourages such a reading—it still veers toward an uncomfortable piece of exceptionalism. As I corrected extensively (from example, here) from Canetti’s (1960)[8] diffuse rambling in Crowds and Power, those who survive disasters at times come to view themselves as elect in some way: just as Abraham, Noah, Josephus, and the Puritans[9] in the wake of the syphilis epidemic in northern Europe came to. Davison does not seem to suggest the pathological elements of this survivorship, but his heavy emphasis here on overcoming and triumph (on the part of his sister as well) at the very least echoes and resonates with that discourse. At root: he survived, the girl did not.

You could rather easily convince me that Davison does not intend to contrast the girl’s “fate” with his own—in other words, that he principally desires simply to record a traumatic episode from his childhood—but it seems unreasonable or naïve to expect readers not to notice a contrast or (even less reasonably) not to infer anything from that contrast. Not that she deserves to die—or that we should fire up all of those repugnant eugenic arguments, at least two of which Davison repeats in his book—and not even (at least not exactly) that the emphasis on effort and will on his part implies that she didn’t try hard enough (or lacked the will to try hard enough).[10]

Rather, at root, the text gives little more than (or perhaps not even the minimum) to avoid coming away with a sense of the enormous unfairness that “fated” the girl to her situation in the first place. Having shown us multiple times already how cruelly people respond to “cripples” in his book—to a “cripple” like himself who presents to the world as more or less ambulatory (if strangely so), whose face at least has stereotypical markers of “cuteness,” and whose manner of speaking (during the episodes showing him as a child) also have conventional markers of “cuteness” (i.e., Davison writes him as using words like “pwease” and “shmelly”). By contrast, Davison does not show the girl as ambulatory at all (she may have almost no freedom of motion), her appearance has the distortions of cerebral palsy that do not align with conventional appearances of cuteness, and her speech gets transcribed as unintelligible.

And she dies, presumably painfully of a haemorrhage either somehow resulting from her condition or due to some less than perfectly accomplished medical procedure. The horror of her circumstance does not need to centre on pity about cerebral palsy, even if that makes for the path of least resistance. The vulnerability of her circumstance seems exponentially worse. Whereas little Alan can express his needs, the girl must rely on another child to speak for her within a context of adult negligence. Where little Alan can at least try to defend himself against or evade any attackers, the girl seems utterly defenceless, if no one will stick up for her. And no one—unlike the adult Alan who finds a woman who finds his specific body not just appealing but sexually attractive—expresses anything resembling affection for the girl due to her cuteness—not even the reading, I would wager.

Davison puts us in the unenviable position of having little more than abject pity for her circumstance, however welcome or inappropriate that might be. And that she exists only to die (in the narrative), unloved, unable to express her wants or needs, and as seemingly little more than a risk liability for the medical professionals who handle her mounts a titanic inner howl of protest against a world or fate or nature that allows her existential human condition to come down to this.

At this point, one could rail against a “god” that would do such a thing, and thus all of the accompanying and incoherent apologetics to “rationalise” such creative malfeasance. The girl’s fate here makes more sense and a better argument for the absence of any such cruel deity—ignoring, again, all of the sadistic and repulsive apologetics[11] one might offer. But, happily—or perhaps happily makes a poor choice of words—reality (or nature or the world) challenges us with the more aggravating[12] but hopeful prospect of its “culpability”.

The qualities of Davison’s life—a combination of luck, unending familial support, personal willpower and, to some extent, a condition less severe or more manageable than the girl’s—shows that the elements exist, if only the social will particularly, to find a way to engender a high quality of life for all human beings. It seems unfortunate that Davison (or life) requires such vast portions of luck, familial effort, and individual perseverance to arrive at such a quality of life; clearly, the girl had not enough of this social support in her life.

I have a hard time reading this book as about anything but her, in the final analysis. Davison talks about the spiral cage of DNA as imprisoning him (or trying to), and yet this girl, twisted around herself, seems a more visible and literal image of someone caught in a spiral cage. Somewhere in a couple of Brecht plays, some grunts remark, “There’d be no need for heroics if things were well-managed.” In a properly arranged social world, no one would have to resort to Davison’s heroics to achieve a satisfying human life; rather, the world would have the support required so that even this girl would go to her grave with a satiated, wistful sigh, “Ah, life.”[13]

 


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Davison, A. (2003). The spiral cage, Active Images, Astral Gypsy Press, pp. 1–144.

[3] If I disregard the plumping Alan Moore gives the book in the introduction, and the rather relentlessly (I mean, unconvincingly) grinning way that Davison draws Maggie, his now-life partner.

[4] Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

[5] I don’t want to take anything away from his own accomplishments, and it also becomes very easy to centre all agency on him, even though he includes his family (especially his mother and sister) as extremely supportive elements, most of all during his earliest childhood. But also, a small army of doctors performed corrective surgery—even if Davison seems to focus more explicitly on medical practitioners who insisted (to his mother) that he had a hopeless case. Quite obviously, vast and crushing loneliness played a huge role in his life at many points, especially when grown, along with the sheer fact that his body would not for a long time express his will as he desired. I doubt, in any case, that he would glare in your eye and say I did it, as if he alone had overcome everything the world and his body could throw across his path. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much effort to read (or misread) the book that way.

[6] At some point in the book, Davison reveals his sister Susan has cerebral palsy and has won (literally) scores of athletic awards. Again, this reprises the implied family life—that all children “are” children regardless of “condition”—and that with that kind of support (or, less convincingly, by sheer force of will) one may not just survive, but triumph. Again, Davison gives us little specific background here, so without doing the extra work of a reader to fill in all of the gaps, certain “default” readings of this narrative will likely emerge. And, again, I don’t mean this as a criticism but rather for the hideous starkness of comparison it sets up for the girl with cerebral palsy who haemorrhaged to death.

[7] Assuming, of course, that I’ve not just failed to read the book correctly.

[8] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press

[9] See Osborne, L. (1993). The poisoned embrace: a brief history of sexual pessimism. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books

[10] This also doesn’t mean people wouldn’t, can’t, or haven’t made such claims.

[11] Judeo-Christian apologetics.

[12] Aggravating because if “god” deals the girl this hand, we may console ourselves with the monstrousness of his dereliction and thus dismiss the issue once and for all, however unhappily. Without “god” as a whipping-deity, we must “blame” nature or the world or ourselves, but without providing any satisfactory answer. The aggravation serves as the sign that we might change things, somehow, someday. Blaming “god” washes our hands of the matter and lies that we should not think to challenge the girl’s “fate” at all.

[13] Quoting Maude from Harold and Maude.

SONG LYRICS:

People I know usually
use the word system casually
to describe something pre-existing
as a mess
without resisting it
or the fitness
of its itness.

What is a system?
What are we really looking for?
And how do we undo the true
and all the systems
that have gone before?

Art treats an audience; medicine treats a patient. Justice disciplines criminals; education disciplines students. Art and medicine treat its subjects as involuntarily afflicted—both whole-heartedly hope to be treated. Justice and education treat its subjects as obdurately ignorant—both at most only half-heartedly want what’s offered or forced.

IN THE CURRENT SYSTEMS’ SPEAKS (intended consequences) [PROPOSED LANGUAGE]:
Art & medicine treat; education & justice discipline.
Art & education elevate; medicine & justice restore.
Art & justice temper; medicine & education empower.

IN THE CURRENT SYSTEMS’ SHADOWS (unintended consequences) [PROPOSED LANGUAGE]:
Art & medicine trick; justice & education degrade.
Art & education indoctrinate; medicine & justice collude.
Art & justice disinform; medicine & education intoxicate.

WHAT WOULD BE THE:
The art of medicine, education, & justice          The audience of medicine, education, & justice
The medicine of art, education, & justice          The patient of art, education, & justice.
The education of art, medicine, & justice          The student of art, medicine, & justice.
The justice of art, education, & medicine          The criminal of art, education, & medicine

WASTE

A system requires inputs (resources) and generates outputs both desired (products) and undesired (waste). A system that maximises desired outputs to the detriment of all else necessarily generates maximum indifference to its waste, if not a maximum of waste itself. In the domain of industrial production and human resource consumption, for example, in the last fifty years we have destroyed 50% of the biodiversity on the planet, dramatically increased the consequences and growing threats of global climate change, and decimated or degraded innumerable ecologies (including our own) all over the world. In the pursuit of product and lifestyle, we have maximized or at least greatly increased pollution.

At times, a euphemism in economic circles for this waste is surplus, an excess. And such surplus sometimes serves as a new input to a new system. In Japan, for instance, they’ve made meat from recycled human faeces.

  • In the system of mass incarceration, for instance, a surplus of human beings generated by the previous systems of slavery, Jim Crow, gentrification, deindustrialization, and globalization gets used as material for warehousing; like nuclear waste, systems profit by simply containing this human surplus.
  • In the system of the culture industry, literal garbage and discarded objects from the previous systems of culture get used as material for new works; like recycling, systems profit from this cultural re-use but critics say it wastes more energy and effort than it saves.
  • In the system of compulsory education, although a mind is a terrible thing to waste, the technically infinite human potential of the next generation of human beings brought about by the previous systems of social reproduction gets lost in the transmission of that education; like the distribution of power in an electrical grid from the source to its consumer, only a fraction of the energy expended on education (as little as 20 per cent) occurs in schools.
  • In the system of corporatized health care delivery, [medical waste, human waste, wasted time]

TIME

With respect to time, education and justice treat it as lavishly abundant, and supply long sentences to be endured by criminals and students alike.[1] Art and medicine, by contrast, especially in their industrialized forms, treat time as a very limited resource—so limited, in fact, that any strict routine, however desired, cannot be articulated or maintained. Thus, the old days of the house call as well as the hyper-social and protracted time of art (in the museum stroll, in a night at the opera, in the extended interaction of a Baroque dance suite) stands in stark contrast. The time of art and medicine once were abundantly lavish as well, so that their reduction seems significant, and the imperative of their restoration, therefore, obvious.

With respect to space, all four systems are highly disciplined. Beginning with the confinement of Dionysus’ riotous rituals to within a building in Athens, the theatre (or museum), the school, the hospital (or the clinic), and the prison have long-since established their own specialised zones. While the scope of each space seems always lavish overall, the interior discipline of the space has since maximised capacity: closely cramped theatre seats, double occupancy prison cells and hospital rooms, tiny clinic rooms, overcrowded schoolrooms.[2] Once again, the original outdoorsiness of these spaces, an especially how they permitted a porousness of interaction with those around a participant, makes all the more obvious the sharp isolation of the theatre seat, the prison cell, the clinic room. We learn this isolation—this detachment from others—in the school room, require the privacy of it in the clinic, demand it from others (as silence) in theatres, and may discern its (neurotic) emphasis on security and safety from the value implied by the cell within prisons. More than money, which merely enables our isolation from others, school indoctrinates us to positively crave that atomisation. In general, though, a greater volume of space seems formally dedicated to prisons and schools than to theatres or hospitals, but this might well be a misperception.[3]

Endnotes

[1] This lavish expanse of time does not mean that time itself is not disciplined. In both schools and prisons, time breaks own into very routinized sequences.

[2] Apropos of overcrowding, the US Supreme Court declared overcrowding in prison fundamentally contrary to human dignity.

[3] There are approximately 5,723 hospitals (9.2 million beds; 36.1 million admissions; $829.6 billion in revenue), 5,928 movie theaters (9.9 million seats; 1,340.0 million admissions; $10.9 billion in revenue), 4,575 prison facilities (*), and 132,183 schools (**; $607 billion in revenue). *When it comes to prison “seats” counting becomes difficult. The total number of inmates = ~2.2 million, but their housing consists of one-man cells (usually with the occupancy illegally doubled, sometimes tripled) or bunk-beds set up in in gyms. So whatever the number of humans, prison administrations have provided at best only half as many “seats” as needed. **Similarly for students, where the number of seats provided does not necessarily meet the approximately 54.8 million students.