Augh. Obviously, if you bothered paying attention to my efforts to engage in the now-traditional “12 moments” project, you know I failed. Mostly I blame my too-busy semester, during which I watched almost no anime. As my professor (who sometimes reads my blogs — hello, if you’re reading this one!) said, it was indeed true that I had to put my anime blogging aside for the semester. I’m going to try not to take four full classes like that again… it’s, uh, a little extreme.
But you’re not here to listen to me whine (or are you? Maybe we’d get more hits if I just whined about things). I’m going on an adventure through an essay by Robert Scholes called “The Roots of Science Fiction.”
So I suppose the format’s changing a bit here. I’m using Scholes as a springboard to bounce my own thoughts from, hoping it provides a trajectory powerful enough to deliver them to you. So:
All fiction — every book even, fiction or not — takes us out of the world we normally inhabit [. . .] even the new representational media that have been spawned in this age cannot begin to match the speculative agility and imaginative freedom of words. The camera can capture only what is found in front of it or made for it, but language is as swift as thought itself and can reach beyond what is, or seems. . . (205; 212)
What’s the difference between a book and a movie, a trilogy and a miniseries? For Scholes, it’s in the nature of the consumption of the media in question. Film must present what’s there, while books can present anything — and, in fact, present what isn’t there even in the novel of social realism. In more traditional media that’s pretty unarguable, I think (you may disagree), but animation changes the picture somewhat. How much?
Animation of any sort presents what wasn’t there. Someone invented it, first as a movie director might, and then as an illustrator does. Animation occupies a hypothetical space between books and movies, I would say. Hence the humor of the very first episode of Haruhi: animation portrays what is really there very often — terrible filmmaking, with nervous actors and crappy camera work. If one doesn’t view animation as more hypothetical than film, then there’s no humor to that juxtaposition.
However, books are more hypothetical still. We consume animation in the same way we consume film: with our eyes and our ears. That is, in two-fifths of the way we consume reality. Books aren’t consumed in the same way. We must see the pages, but seeing them is not enough. Whereas a certain level of film- and animation-making functions outside language and semiotics, books never do.
Let me go into detail with that last statement. Yes, both film and animation have codes, standard signs, and the like. I’m not denying that. The so-called “Dutch angle” means something very particular. But on a certain level we are watching people do things in ways similar to the ways we do them. The semiotic (sign-making) structures may lie so thick on the screen that it’s almost impossible to separate the two levels, but I think we must all admit that there is some core, in a film, of non-signed activity. This is different from significant activity — a low sigh in an empty room can indicate that a character is sad; that is, we’re not told directly that he is sad, we are shown. Is that a sign or an indication? Both? Hard to say.
Books, on the other hand, do almost nothing outside the realm of signs. You must be able to, presumably in this order, speak/understand the language of the book, know how to read, and read the language of the book. The white (negative) spacing of the text affects us in a slightly less semiotic way, but that adds to the mood rather than delivers the narrative/characterization/whatever. If you can’t read, you can’t read a book. But you can watch a film. Many of the filmic conventions won’t make sense to you, but you can watch it and understand the story.
Animation does a little of each. The disconnection wrought by the unreality of the figures, their “drawn” nature, moves us toward the hypothetical realm of the book. Their visual and aural nature, consumed like the prattle of the person next to us in line, moves animation toward the film.
Of course, animation is an umbrella that shelters anime, but how does anime specifically function in this continuity? I am tempted to say it is slightly more hypothetical than western (or, at least, American) animation, but is that true? Or is it really that I am so familiar with the conventions of western animation that fewer of them strike me as hypothetical?
Scholes splits “fabulation” into two major components: dogmatic and speculative. Dante’s Divine Comedy is dogmatic and More’s Utopia is speculative. He ties them, very loosely, to religious and secular thought, indicating that dogmatic fabulation was more prevalent throughout history, while speculative fabulation will necessarily rise with the secularization of society. But as time goes on, the speculative passes into dogmatic (I’m oversimplifying here). Think of the once-avante garde SF that is now not only rear guard but conservative-reactionary. I’m thinking of course of military hard-SF. It was once a mode of fiction out of the norm; it is now the gold standard many use to judge others by.
The time of kings was the time of drama. When ministers ruled and history got its “capital H,” the novel rose. Now that we know ourselves as part of a natural pattern, inextricably tied into the world, “we are free to speculate as never before” (Scholes 208-211).
So we are not put into place, or positioned by the long flow of History. We are part of a pattern, affected by it and affecting it. And SF is born, essentially. When everything is manipulable, a writer can conceive of manipulating it all, even the laws of physics themselves.
All the forms of adventure fiction, from western, to detective, to spy, to costume — have come into being in response to the movement of ‘serious’ fiction away from plot and the pleasures of fictional sublimation. Because many human beings experience a psychological need for narration — whether cultural or biological in origin — the literary system must include works which answer to that need. But when the dominant canonical form fails to satisfy such a basic drive, the system becomes unbalanced. The result is that readers resort secretly and guiltily to lesser forms for that narrative fix they cannot do without. [. . .] Thus the vacuum left by the movement of ‘serious’ fiction away from storytelling has been filled by ‘popular’ forms with few pretensions to any virtues beyond those of narrative excitement. But the very emptiness of these forms, as they are usually managed, has left another gap, for forms which supply readers’ needs for narration without starving their needs for intellection. The ‘letdown’ experienced after finishing many detective stories or adventure tales comes from a sense of time wasted — time in which we have deliberately suspended not merely our sense of disbelief but also far too many of our normal cognitive processes. [. . .] We require a fiction that satisfies our cognitive and sublimative needs together, just as we want food that tastes good and provides some nourishment. We need suspense with intellectual consequences, in which questions are raised as well as solved, and in which our minds are expanded even while focused on the complications of a fictional plot” (212-13)
That’s a long quotation, but read all of it. I’ll wait.
What Scholes is describing is what many people view as a bifurcation or (at worst) a disruption between the methods of our literatures (whether they be film, book, or anime). That is, something entertains us. We are gripped by the action and emotional drama of, say, Shinji. Robots and monsters swarm around Neo-Tokyo, and we thrill to the action. At the same time, the “intellection” is whetted by the moral and ethical concerns, as well as the conceptual space. What does it mean for the Eva unit to be able to function on its own? Does that make Shinji part of a machine? Or has he been piloting something that isn’t really a machine? Is it right to treat it as such? What about the scenes where it appears to try to break through the restraints and kill the technicians? Does it view them as torturers?
There are loads more, of course. For all that I feel NGEvangelion should handle itself with more finesse, it introduces tons of interesting questions and themes. So it’s doing both things that Scholes describes, having moved in to fill the gap produced by the shift of the traditional literature away from decent plot and the shift of popular literature away from decent “intellection.” So far so good.
Except that many in the audience experience these two methods entirely separately. Eva’s not the greatest example (it being the standard-bearer for the “anime is srs bsns” crowd for years), but think it over. How many other shows can you think of, where both sides of Scholes’s equation are present, but the audience avoids the intellection because it ruins the fun of the sublimative (that is, the plot and emotional stuff)?
According to Scholes, both are really necessary. I happen to agree with him, but that’s just me. Again, springboard: how are two experienced separately, as though, like time in Hamlet, they are out-of-joint?
I won’t quote chapter and verse here, but Michael Chabon, in an essay, pointed to culture itself. We’re told that entertaining stuff doesn’t make us think. Then, because we all believe that, media producers produce along that dividing line, and we get only awesome-stuffs that have no thought or mind-bending stuff with no entertainment value. You’ve seen the typical art-house flick with no redeemable entertainment value at all, admit it. Garden State, for me, despite all its pop-culture cache, what with Zach Braff making it and all, was that for me. You probably have your own.
Eventually you get people over-reacting when the two finally come together, claiming that one’s peanut butter shouldn’t be in the other’s chocolate. And if you’re a fan of Reese’s, you know that, really, it’s awesome. If you’re also a fan of Robot Chicken, you know it’s worth killing over.
But as Scholes points out, too much of one without the other strangles the audience — or, to carry his metaphor over, it gluts us. Everyone will gladly agree that too much thinking is bad — it gets in the way of the story. But, oddly, few people are willing to admit that too little thinking is just as bad. It leaves us wanting more, even while the “calories” pile up. Proper entertainment must contain an admixture of the two, or why bother? Mazinger Z seems like the ultimate entertainment-only property, but in its new iteration at least (I have yet to read the manga) it hinges its awesome robot fights on questions of morality, ethics, lineage, and obligation that really bear careful examination (I’ve tried to do so on this blog, in fact, over here and also here).
To view Scholes’s “sublimation” and “intellection” as drastically separate — even to the extent he views them — seems to me fundamentally damaging. It implies several things: that one can’t enjoy intellection, but requires it every so often, like a dose of castor oil or such like. It also implies what many academics (especially MFA types) espouse regularly, that the “sublimation” is secondary, and to some degrees unimportant. I would like to think we know better. But to believe one essentially implies the other.
Joining them, on the other hand, sets us free. If intellection is a form of entertainment — and what else is it, really? — then we can enjoy it. And we can deal with the challenging parts of sublimation that often get put aside; hence, I would say, comes the interest much of us share here in revising Formalism. We’re attempting to get a grasp on the “intellection” of “sublimation.” How does plot do interesting things? At the same time, we revel in a sublimative way in the joys of intellection, having nerdgasms when shows decide to let themselves be smart (see my last decent attempt at a 12 Days post, concerning the unlabored but willing intelligence of Bakemonogatari).
Scholes, Robert. “The Roots of Science Fiction.” Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria, ed. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2005. 205-217.