Adventures in Criticism: Taking Root

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).

Work Cited:

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.

Leave a comment


  1. I actually see a lot more of the inverse (too little thinking, or “intellection”, is bad), but yeah, I think Scholes is onto something here. I’ve certainly had quite a bit of trouble trying to work out the differences between the “sublimation” and the “intellection” and the screaming matches that usually occur between the people who adhere more to a flavor of one side than a flavor of the other. And I certainly do agree: you need a balance, best within the work itself but I also think it fine to skew further towards one axis if one is in the proper mood. Or at least be able to make up one’s own intellection (fandom?!?).

    I do think Mazinger Z hits up on issues of morality in its original incarnation as manga and even in the 70s TV series; as far as I know the Imagawa remake is a straight-up retelling of the original manga (plus bits from Violence Jack because Imagawa) and the 70s had a lot of series that delved into the nature of morality and such. I can say that because I just finished Space Battleship Yamato finally!

    • Cuchlann

       /  26 December 2009

      Oh nice. I’ve wanted to watch Yamato for years. Maybe after I finish LoGH. O_o

      Yeah, the shouting matches, which I’ve probably been guilty of myself, aren’t really very productive. I think a really, genuinely good piece of entertainment will have at least something of each in it, though certainly participatory culture is a great way to beef up one side or the other after the fact.

      I also think Scholes’ terms help a lot here, because they don’t have a knee-jerk emotional content so far as I know. Sublimative refers, I believe (in the selection he doesn’t directly define them) to the emotional and psychological responses we have when we connect with the plot and characters of a piece, in that they strike chords with something internal to us. The intellection is a little more obvious, I suppose, but it has to do with things like theme and pattern, the appreciation of stuff.

      The lines really blur all the time. Something shot, animated, or narrated beautifully seems more like “intellection” but I usually have deep emotional responses to such things — hence my love for a writer such as Dunsany and a director such as Shinbo.

  2. Both you and Scholes bring up some really interesting points here, and I would have to agree that I enjoy my books, films, anime, and other media with a healthy helping of both “sublimation” and “intellection.” In fact, I often make a distinction (that many disagree with) between “art” and “entertainment,” but perhaps I would do better to frame my distinction within terminology similar to Scholes’. Thus, pure “art,” by my definition, would be a work that exclusively provides us with intellection, while pure “entertainment” would be one that exclusively provides us with sublimation.

    So taking that definition into account, the works that I find the most stimulating – and which Scholes specifically focuses on – can be described as a sort of “artertainment” (if you will forgive the ugly combination of terms).

    Also, I’m glad to see that you touched on the pitfall of separating smarts and fun, which seems to be the biggest problem with Scholes’ argument. I often enjoy (as do many others) the intellection of films simply for the joy of understanding hidden meanings and recognizing subtleties of writing and direction.

    • Cuchlann

       /  26 December 2009

      Yeah. Scholes insists the best stuff has both “sublimation” and “intellection,” and doesn’t ever directly suggest the latter isn’t “fun.” But I think some of his language implies such, though I could be wrong. Certainly it’s a problem all over, so, yeah.

      I think we all generally appreciate something more if it features both “smarts” and “fun.” But I think our secondary discourses tend to ignore one or the other. There are weird systems, too. For instance, most people within formal academia assume someone writing an article on X enjoys X, so the article typically doesn’t feature anything about the “fun” aspect. If you’re not used to that assumption academic writing can seem dry and pointless — why do they bother, one might ask.

      On the other hand, fans often put to one side the “smarts” side, either because they don’t want to bother, or more likely, it’s the place where opinions can differ more wildly. There’s really either entertained or not entertained, within the “sublimation” side (typically; as I said, we sometimes try to examine how that side of things works as well). On the “intellection” side there could be as many “readings” as there are people, and it sounds more like you’re trying to get into an argument if you go on talking about what you saw there. Which isn’t necessarily true, but I wonder if that’s why, as fans, we often leave the “smarts” to the side.

  3. *Deep breath*

    Let’s say I accept all of these ideas, which I’m inclined to do. I was already looking for examples to work this on until I god stumped by Kaiji. What’s interesting in this case is how the elements of ‘fun’ and ‘smarts’ aren’t where one would usually look in a show, or at least it would appear that neither is present until one reflects on the experience of the show.

    I argued that the show was eminently unrelatable [->] and yet morally (ergo intellectually compelling). But Baka-Raptor responded with something compelling himself:

    It’s ok (and often preferable) to watch anime detached. Kaiji is a story about a guy who isn’t you, your mom, or the guy next door. It’s a story about people with problems being forced into crazy situations and doing crazy things. “That was awesome!” is a much more relevant reaction than “I totally relate to him!” If there’s anyone we should feel connections with, it’s the rich guys watching Kaiji’s struggles for their own amusement.


    When he says it’s awesome, I take it to mean that one is in an entertained state of awe in the midst of viewing, despite his following statement that contributes more to the ‘smart’ way of appreciation.

    This is supported on the one hand, by how you’ll see the show doesn’t have attractive character designs; and that it’s characters are either outright evil, or are the dregs of society. The whole experience is like watching maggots finishing off a carcass while being preyed on by rodents from above, and ants from below (and cannibal maggots too!).

    However, the confluence of the bifurcated ideas occur to me (now) in that the structure of Kaiji relies rather heavily on the cliffhanger. That is an emotional hook within the scope of fun and entertainment if there is one. “What I’m witnessing here is horrible, but I can’t not see how it resolves… and I can’t wait to see it!” The narrative throws you in a captive state to its manipulations more than most shows I think, and this must be well within the realm of an entertaining experience I believe.

    • Cuchlann

       /  26 December 2009

      True — we all often identify “sublimation” with the characters, but a gripping plot can do the same sort of thing. We need to know what happens, so on. From what I understand, that’s the appeal of Dan Brown novels — they’re not about interesting characters and the mysteries are often either incredibly simple or actually impossible if you don’t have the super-secret made-up knowledge of the protagonist, but the plots move frantically.

      A. E. van Vogt (a famous SF writer) used to claim that something interesting had to happen ever 500 words in his work, which is roughly every 1.5 pages.

      So you’re definitely right, the two things have *typical* outlets, but they don’t always reveal themselves in those places. Though I can say that I certainly have trouble, personally, if I can’t sympathize/empathize/identify with someone, somewhere. The Damnation of Theron Ware has fascinating ideas, really awesome ones, but I was miserable partway through it, and from then on, because all the characters are terrible people.

      • I’ve forgotten where I’ve read it how contemporary anime has shifted from story-based hooks, to character-based hooks. It somehow reminds me of the idea of the ‘database’ as a means of satisfying the consumer’s entertainment needs and/or preferences. Now I won’t say that most contemporary shows are bereft of compelling stories or tight plotting, but I often come across people who may not have a high opinion of a show overall, “but watch it for X character(s).”

        I distinctly remember Canaan from this year’s summer season; a show which I had dropped due to what I deemed to be terrible story and storytelling, but got browbeat by a few of its outspoken fans who kept raving about Alphard, the unconventionally very attractive chief villain.

        I actually finished the show, and my opinion of it didn’t change. It does suck. But I do like Alphard.

        In contrast you have Bakemonogatari, who did a version of ‘case of the week’ in terms of story structure, but IMO did so many other things with it — almost a red herring to a part coming of age tale and part love story. But even still, this is less important to most of its ‘fans’ who flock to it primarily through the almost by-numbers entries it made to the character database, save for Senjougahara who appears to be rather exceptional.

        In Bakemonogatari I did enjoy a lot of ‘reading’ into its text. It’s very, very fun; and is quite difficult to match as an episodic blogging subject in the manner I executed it.

      • I actually just ordered Hiroki Azuma’s book on the database theory; he gives the simplified version of it here.

        Also, after reading The Voyage of the Space Beagle and Slan I can say that A.E. Van Vogt actually managed to live up to his stated dictum. Sometimes nigh on arbitrarily.

  4. “Sublimation” and “intellection” seem to be a classification method of certain attributes within or about a work. The main issue I have here is the gray area between these terms. Quite often, there is no absolute classification, and while I see their usefulness in allowing one to reflect with a given position, I feel an “intellection” point for one, may be a “sublimation” point for another; subjective in some cases.

    I’ll have to place this in the ponder queue, but I do think using these constructively may [new] open points of argument for some central works (mainly via the subjective nature of this classification).


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