Friday, October 10, 2014

Who Frames Roger Rabbit? - Cartoon Characters as Recognized Individuals (Part Five)

Part Four

Early sequential art used the same normative framework as pre-enlightenment societies. Egyptian and pre-Columbian sequential art (comics, if we use McCloud's definition) both import the normative models of the societies that created them. They portray sittlichkeit individuals defined by the “eternal” laws of society, which are the laws of nature. 

These pre-enlightenment forms of art are as much bound by the “eternal, immutable” laws of society as pre-enlightenment individuals. We might even speculate that the artists who created them were incapable of conceiving of an alternate normative framework, much as Antigone is incapable of seeing a true conflict between the law of the polis and the law of the family. To conceive of an alternate normative framework is to put oneself “above the law.”

In any event, what sequential art survives seems to reproduce authoritative social normativity rather than re-imagine it. Even the gods and other non-physical imaginary (from our perspective) beings are either bound by the laws or actively enforce them.
Modern sequential art was also bound by the normative considerations of the time - or as we might say, unbound by them. It is here that we first see creative attempts to re-imagine society in new forms. Unlike the authoritarian normativity of pre-modern sequential art, modern comic artists recognized social roles and norms as human-made.

I would argue that Winsor McCay was able to set Little Nemo in a world distinct from his own precisely because of the Enlightenment. If the social roles and norms of 1910s America are recognized as human creations, it becomes much easier for an artist to invent his own quasi-historical world. However, we do not see a completely alienated normativity. Little Nemo retains the form of a historic, normative world. Time flows from past to present to future, and individuals occupy particular places in space and time.
Azuma Hiroki, whose work I will refer to later, suggests that these modern quasi-historical narratives come into existence precisely because the greater, authoritarian normativity has broken down. Little Nemo takes place in a fictionalized world which mimics earlier social narratives, even though it was created in an alienated, post-enlightenment world because consumers still crave the lost sittlichkeit. Alienated consumers seek refuge in fictional normativity.
But this fictional normativity is still subject to alienation and the very same ironic detachment that plagues all post-Enlightenment individuals. Though the world of Little Nemo may provide temporary relief for a post-Enlightenment consumer, accepting its normative constraints as binding, accepting its quasi-historical world as true, would be unthinkable. It is no more relevant to alienated “reality” than the world of the Pharaohs. To take it a step further, the world of Nemo is no more real to the alienated consumer than his own society. Both are mere subjective products of human creativity, not a part of objective scientific reality.
We see a further weakening of traditional authoritarian normativity in the world of Mickey Mouse. Whereas in Little Nemo there is a single quasi-historical normative framework, Mickey Mouse cartoons exchange quasi-historical normativity for social recognitive normativity. Mickey Mouse can exist in any time and any place, so long as his physical design and social relations remain intact. 

Conflicting attempts to place Mickey in a quasi-historical framework such as the Mickey Mouse comic strip or Epic Mickey only serve to highlight the relative unimportance of quasi-historical normativity. Quasi-historical narratives of Mickey can be swapped out at will or exist in parallel with each other without a feeling of conflict on the part of the consumer.
In other words, the world of Mickey is given meaning not by a social narrative or by objective physical existence, but by social recognition. Consumers recognize Mickey as an individual because he exists in a fictional network of mutual recognition. By recognizing the validity of these fictional social relations, consumers create a space for Mickey Mouse in their own recognitive networks. What matters is not the physical reality (or lack thereof) of a being called Mickey Mouse, but the social recognitive reality that Mickey Mouse is recognized by consumers as a particular individual with particular traits.

This is precisely how norms of all kinds are recognized in Hegel's Third Stage. Mickey Mouse can be said to have a normative existence precisely because human individuals act as if he does. By consuming media, by recognizing Mickey Mouse in both Steamboat Willie and The Sorcerer's Apprentice as the same individual, we bind ourselves to a normative structure which accepts as normative the fictional mutual recognition of cartoon characters.
Mickey Mouse no more of an objective physical existence as a real being than concepts such as Justice or Good. At the same time, he also has as much potential to be communally recognized as any other concept which joins in the Bacchanalian revel of the truth. Although the concept of Mickey Mouse may change, become worn out, and eventually fall out of the revel, this in no way impinges upon his current socially normative existence.
This is a form of normative recognition which could not take place under the conditions of pre-Enlightenment sittlichkeit or Modern alienation. Pre-Enlightenment sittlichkeit would not allow for alternative societal models. Modern alienation would be unable to recognize a non-physical normative existence as binding. In recognizing Mickey Mouse, we have implicitly bound ourselves to the idea that human-made normative structures are valid.
At risk of taking this argument too far, we might also say that the existence of a globally recognized concept such as Mickey Mouse which exists solely by virtue of communal recognition is a real-world example of the validity of Hegel's third stage of history. After all, the moral valet can easily criticize Justice as a mere abstraction which individuals only adhere to for particular, selfish reasons it is difficult to deny the existence of a concept such as Mickey Mouse. 

The existence of a concept like Mickey Mouse, which can only be explained by communal normative behavior and has an undeniable impact on the socio-economic behavior of such a wide range of individual humans, is a surprisingly effective counterargument against pure alienation.

(Continued in Part Six)

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