For a couple weeks or so, this blog is going to take an odd turn. It is going to inquire into the nature of cartoons, that is, artificial images as entertainments, especially those produced on film and television.
I’ve already posted on such a topic: https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/alternative-evolution-and-its-ethical-consequences/. Now I want to continue and enlarge that exploration into what it is we can learn from cartoons. One question to raise, for instance, is whether the alternative worlds such cartoons present for us are really alternatives to the one in which we live? Or are they necessarily parodies of it? As cultural artifacts what can they tell us about ourselves – our hopes and disappointments, our fears, our virtues, our vices? Or, if parodies, do they simply reveal the human animal as a being hopelessly ridiculous, engaged in absurd past-times pretending to be meaningful?
There are a number of reasons I feel compelled to this turn. First, I have an essay on Batman the Movie, the theatrical release deriving from the old Adam West television show, that I’ve been meaning to post for a while now, although it’s rather long. But comic books having become acknowledged mainstream adult entertainments in our culture, no longer the cheap pulpy pass-times I remember from my youth, comic book films have come to dominate our movie industry, to the point where there is little else discussed concerning film, at least on the internet. It might be worth a glance back at an era when Hollywood and the surrounding culture thought so little of comic books that many felt at ease parodying them. Hopefully, in the process, we will learn not to take them so seriously. A masked man in tights is necessarily just a little ridiculous, even when he is flying through explosions to save the world. The Joker may still have the last laugh….
Another impetus here is that I have been finding DVDs of various television cartoons at what are known as ‘dollar stores’ – stores that sell every item for a buck. Availability breeds interest, to some extent. That’s how I first discovered Sitting Ducks, the show I wrote in the post linked to, above, and although I’ve found considerable dross in the pile of dollar discs I’ve been wading through on my off days, I have also found some interesting phenomena I think worth commenting on.
One especially should be noted, although none too deeply here. I’m generally not a big fan of manga or its animated expression, anime. But one of the discs I’ve viewed is of the 2003 remake of the Astro Boy Japanese television show, considered one of the earliest of modern anime productions (from 1963). I was fascinated by the discovery that the show raised a lot of the issues that I’ve recently been reading about on various sites on the web – AI, and the possibility of conscious robots; whether conscious robots and humans can properly live together; the ethics of negotiating living with another species, especially a species effectively ‘created’ by the other; the nature of consciousness, and whether it can evolve; the possibility of ‘free will’ in a consciousness pre-programmed. There are other issues the show raises, but I won’t go further into them here. I will note that all of these issues are introduced almost casually into the narratives – that is, they are assumed, thematically, without attention drawn to them until the action of the plot requires it. This casual assumption of such difficult issues is far more effective than the melodramatic way topics of this nature are raised in Sci-Fi more familiar in the West, e.g., with Data in Star Trek the Next Generation. I confess I’ve grown considerably impressed with the work of the show’s original creator, Osamu Tezuka. So much so, that I feel I must explore it further and draw out some of these issues for closer examination.
Finally, one reason to take this turn is that I want to get back to discussing semiotics – the study of signification. I sort of let that go recently, becoming absorbed in the in/combatibilism discussion, and other philosophical and cultural interests. But I’ve long believed my best thinking concerns signs and how they signify. Comic books, cartoons, animated features and television, are actually ripe material for such study. This is exactly because they are not ‘real life,’ nor even ‘live action’ representations of real life. They are openly and wholly imaginative constructs of alternatives to reality. That means they can tell us a great deal about the people who make these constructs, and about the audiences that read them, watch them, attend to them in theaters.
Of course such studies have the problem of being historically contingent. What I have to say about Batman the Movie is really about the American culture of the mid-1960s. If I wanted to say something about the Batman character as we perceive him today, I would of course have to deal with the Christopher Nolan films instead, and that would concern what those films tell us about America in the first decade of t he present century. And that discussion would become just a matter of history, as soon as Zack Snyder’s Batman Vs. Superman film gets released.
So why bother with the study of signification at all, if it only gets one access to cultural values of the past? Because that’s only in the writing of it. The value of thinking through signification is in its present use as an aid to critical thinking. You listen to a politician’s speech, and you recognize the real significance of the rhetoric deployed. You feel an emotion welling up when you hear a piece of music in a movie theater, and you recognize that the music combined with the images are there specifically to bring forth that emotional response. You confront an angry co-worker, but if you listen closely to what is said, you recognize that the co-worker has been having problems at home. So you are armed against the persuasion of the politician, the manipulation by the film’s producers, the temptation to respond to anger with anger, thus escalating the tensions of the moment.
When later you write about such experiences, they’re all in the past-tense – they’re all just history. But when they were happening, you had a mediating interpretation that allowed you alternative responses. While the progenitor of modern semiotics, Charles S. Peirce, intended semiotics to be a study preparatory to the study of logic, in fact it can be a useful tool for maneuvering through a world filled with signs, each calling for response, each pulling or pushing us in directions sometimes satisfying, more often not.
I suppose one might suggest that an over-awareness, a suspicion, of signs, indicates an overly cautious nature. But we evolved as animals in a frequently dangerous environment. The social environment we have constructed for ourselves, can be sometimes just as dangerous. Reading signs, interpreting signs, responding to them appropriately to enhance our survival, is our primary means of navigating our environment. It may be the only means we have.
Nothing that is, is without significance. What is without sign has no significance. That can only be the nothing which is not.