Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Been re-reading the brilliant Preacher comic, and enjoying it the second time around every bit as much as the first a few years ago.

What kills me about the story is how rooted it is in classic tropes of masculinity, cowboy morality, righteous indignation, vegeance, and even chivalry, but manages to understand and re-present these tropes entirely on its own terms. The human ideal, the guiding light, the emotional support, is John Wayne, not the man himself but an amalgam of his movie characters. The Duke is an archetype, reshaped, but only slightly, to instruct loyalty, determination, and, dern it, doing the right thing and not quitting.

There's a fairly unambiguous morality of killing those who deserve to be killed, from louts who start bar fights for the wrong reasons (our heroes start plenty of their own fights, but just to blow off steam, without homicidal intent) to those who take pleasure in killing others.

One of the three central characters, Cassidy, is a vampire who (unlike in the Buffyverse) isn't an animal who lives solely for the kill but only feeds on people who've got it coming to them. The rest of the time, he orders rare steak.

The Preacher himself, Jesse Custer, kills first a serial killer then a poor relation who tormented him from childhood and shot to death both his father and the love of his life right before his eyes.

When we meet the third central character, Tulip O'Hare, she's about to put a hit on some guy who probably deserves it, but she fouls it up. Later, she kills another of Jesse's tormenters who manhandled her and called her a cooze.

More fascinating, I think, is how the book sticks to an ideal of chivalry -- something we all know finds its roots at the antipode of feminism, somewhere in the latitude of Christianity, and not too far down the street from misogyny.

The book is certainly not Christian. (I for one always have the vague sensation that God -- should He exist or care -- will smite me at any moment for reading something so deliberately and exuberantly blasphemous.) I wouldn't say the book is feminist by a long shot. Misogynist? Well, Tulip sure does get beaten up and shot at a lot. Read into that what you will; but note her companions take colossal beatings as well, and are both killed and reanimated, like her, to boot.

Jesse Custer has little time for deconstructing his masculinity and chivalrous impulses. It's not that he's unaware of or squeamish about where such deconstruction might take him. He's read Greer and Dworkin, he says. He just feels a stronger, if anti-intellectual, pull toward old-fashioned gallantry.

As he says to Tulip just before mounting a dangerous rescue:

"I dunno if it's genetic or if it's to do with what we get taught, or if it's just 'cause it's expected of us -- But it's what we do, okay? 'Cause to help a girl when she's in trouble, or stop her gettin' into trouble, is just the right goddamned thing to do. An' I know you're as smart as me, an' as capable, an' my equal at just about everything -- I know you're empowered, or whatevr the hell you call it -- But I swear, I even think of a single hair on your head gettin' harmed an' all that bullshit goes right out the fuckin' window..." ("Until the End of the World" [Vol. 2], p. 251).

For all the ingenious work Buffy did blurring it's own absolute divide between good and evil, I think we have here a more sophisticated if (could it be?) less realistic moral universe. Jesse Custer is the spit of Nietzsche's ubermensch -- a man who sets out with his own set of morals into a world of amorality and conscious unmorality. His morality may be informed by the teachings or expectations of others, but, at least if we take his word, it is undeniably his own. Moralities must have an origin and a refuge; usually that is God or a concept of God. Jesse wants to rely on something that antedates or escapes God.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The man with the PowerPoint doohickey

In at least two areas am I negligent: blogging and watching "An Inconvenient Truth." Tonight I have made small penance on both counts [though probably on the latter only to return to this electronic confession box another few months hence to again repent by aloofness.]

I won't go on about the film at this point, since it's all be been said by now. I'll simply note a few details that struck my fancy.

Item one: The woman in the audience who positively swoons as Al concludes one of his rhetorical masterstrokes [she's hard to miss, that is if you can take your eyes of our hero].

Item two: The very obvious overdubbing (at least to a headphone wearer's ears) used to smooth out, abbreviate, and bridge the presentation.

Item three: The relish with which PowerPoint, or whatever its Macintosh analogue, is used throughout. There is of course the delightful showmanship of the scissors lift and the projection screen extension to demonstrate how carbon emissions are expected to go "off the scale" in the coming decades. But beyond that there is an irresistable romanticism suffusing the software as the camera follows our hero offstage and admiringly alights and lingers on his careworn, motionless face as he rearranges slides with decisive, incisive clicks of the mouspad.

Mr. Gore's rhetorical flourish is indeed magnificent; and that is why we forgive his reliving of the 2000 election and his shoehorning of biography into climate crisis epic. Each of the experts cited directly is introduced as Mr. Gore's "friend," a title that endears the expert to the viewer because the rhetor is already endeared to the viewer.

Mr. Gore is shown several times being borne in a greenhouse gas-spewing auto or wandering airports either after deplaning or waiting to board a pollution-enhancing jet; and for this he has been duly criticized. But the rest of us forgive him this trespass as well ... for as he reminds us he's given his slide presentation at least 1,000; and if any of among his other audiences are anything like us, inspired like us, it surely will have been carbon well emitted.


Those loaded suits

The hostage crisis that for two weeks threatened to pitch us (earlier than expected) along with Great Britain into war with Iran wrapped up with a surprise happy ending and a completely out-of-the-blue "news of the weird" subject heading.

A third of the Axis of Evil on April 7 returned to the West's embraces 14 British sailors and marines captured after supposedly violating Iranian seaspace March 23 -- all wearing really crummy suits. [The 15th sailor, a woman, received a striped shirt, also crummy, and headscarf.]

At face value, it was a very dignified and dignifying gesture; to surrender the hostages in style, however poor the style may have been, was almost magnanimous on Iran's part.

But one might surmise on the contrary that the makeover was a subtle jab at the West. Cathy Horyn in the Times' Week in Review section April 8 summarizes: "Without their uniforms, the 14 men and one woman were neither military personnel nor, at least not obviously, potical prisoners."

How curious that after such a protracted pissing match over ill-defined national borders and who was where when that President Ahmadinejad should seek to depoliticize these 15 bodies. [Hence, perhaps, the very militaristic press conference that convened once the soldiers were home safe and sound, with only a few speaking and only those by way of a pre-approved statement, with no questions from the press permitted.]

What else might Iran have done (short of executing the hostages or holding them forever)? Suppose the soldiers had had their uniforms returned to them drycleaned and pressed. In this context Iran could easily be said to have acquiesced before stalwart Tony Blair. And to release the soldiers soiled and in tattered pajamas would have been one insult inviting another.

It could be this was all just a deft maneouver on Iran's part to make Britain's dogged insistance that its people never crossed the watery boundary look silly. It could be simply that the Iranians are poor suitmakers and tailors. It could be that these soldiers (particularly that eerily childlike one to the left of Leading Seaman Faye Turney in the image above) just aren't suit people.

I'm compelled to file this one under semiotic terrorism because the meaning of the suits is so thoroughly undigestable, i.e., its interpretations are too diverse for there to be one that "goes down easy." Unresolveable, the suits are therefore much less forgettable than practically any other dress would have been. They are at once a doff of the cap and a thumb bestride the nose. In their exquisite self-contradiction, the suits serve primarily to confound the reader, especially the British reader, in whose craw they must stick. [Whether this was the intent of the soldier's Iranian handlers, it hardly need be said, is not a question for the semiotician.]