Being poor as I am, and most likely always shall be, I tend to keep up to date with things via familial cast-offs. Witness my great genius then, in buying my brother season 1 of The Venture Brothers on DVD for his birthday two years ago – I now have access to seasons 1, 2 and 3, with 4 on pre-order. Perhaps the finest cartoon of recent years and possibly the best written TV show of any genre, especially now that Lost has finally admitted to being one long MacGuffin.
What makes The Venture Brothers so important, in my opinion, is its uncomfortable positioning between parody and pastiche. The “self-conscious” or “realist” take on the superhero/boy adventurer genre refuses to rely solely upon its own fallacy for content. Shrek gains its laughs from placing a relatable character within a fairytale world, thus creating the bathos inherent to parody, whilst The Incredibles pulled the same manoeuvre only with the superhero characters being placed within a relatable world, suggesting the ‘knowingness’ of pastiche. Despite these both being reasonably decent films, The VentureBrothers (and the same goes for the brilliant The Watchmen) can only be seen to play to this self-conscious distancing within a self-contained diegetic world. It’s this consistency that lifts it above the kitchities of 1980s po-mo and into the realms of a true work of art.
It is this element of distinct “worlds” and their interaction that is so central to The Venture Brothers’ narrative. The public and the private spheres are intermingled effortlessly; from Brock Sampson, Hank’s bodyguard-cum-father figure, to Dr.Venture, the “super-scientist” who inherited the position from his father. The world of heroes and their “arches” is acted out like a job, a business commitment. At no point does this reduce the seriousness of the conflict (Brock’s violence as a “walking Swedish murder-machine” is undoubtedly the work of a sadist) yet the characters’ humanity is equally visible without at any point becoming mawkish. One couldn’t imagine the father in Johnny Quest complaining about the electric bill, for example.
The great hero of the show, for me, is somewhat ironically the central arch-nemesis, “The Monarch”. Emotionally dependent upon his “second-in-command” Dr.Girlfriend and neglectful of his Henchmen rather than tyrannical, he is nevertheless the character that most embodies the opted-into world of supervillainy. In Freud’s “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” he writes of the seriousness of children’s play and how writers continue this into their created worlds. In The Monarch we see how this attitude of “serious play” isn’t necessarily limited to fictional worlds but is equally applicable at any level of the “social game”. The Monarch acts out each of his attacks upon Dr.Venture with a hysterical fury channelled through melodramatic staged-ness. The very seriousness of his enthusiasm is what overcomes the fact that he is simply “a guy in a giant butterfly costume”. The Monarch’s commitment to his role is total, yet he himself is only a “supervillian” during the times that he is “arching”. His passion is in complicity with the social game and acts out its potentialities within that sphere, outside that he remains unquestionably human.
This perspective of a psychological “social game” is perhaps best highlighted by crossing the Parallax gap over into economy and referring to Marx’s commodity fetishism. The ultimate proponent of commodity fetishism within the context of arch-villainy is Sgt.Hatred, Dr.Venture’s one-time nemesis who offers “more bang for your arching buck”. Where The Monarch actively engages with the social game (investing huge amounts of energy into it, taking it as seriously as possible), Sgt. Hatred treats his complicity as an inevitability; “Hate to live, don’t live to hate” is his “almost sane” philosophy. This “professional” attitude to arching of course results in the banalities of bureaucracy as without the “passion” Sgt. Hatred is reduced to going through a questionnaire with Dr. Venture and asking him to “state from 1-to-10, how much terror you experience”.
In this way, The Venture Brothers almost allegorises the situation of the individual within capitalist society. As Sgt. Hatred engages himself only superficially he mistakes the surface machinery, the charts and graphs, of the system for its very being – commodity fetishism at its most fatalistic. However, as an active participant in a social game, The Monarch utilises the laws of the system to achieve his own ends (eg/ in his arching of Jonas Venture Jr. in order to manipulate a Guild-law permitting him to return to arching Dr “Rusty” Venture). The bottom-line of course being that both are two sides of the same coin and at no point in The Venture Brothers does anyone ever question why they dress in strange suits and kill each other for a living.
One of the best episodes, “Hate Floats”, demonstrates the effects of this social complicity by staging an invasion of its closed “world”. The world of superheroes and supervillains is organised within the “O.S.I” and the “Guild of Calamitous Intent”, respectively. Each action takes place within the remit of distinct “levels” ranging from Jonas Venture Jr.’s death rays to Sgt. Hatred’s “going full Nerf”, essentially stabilising the arching market. During this episode, however, 21 and 24 employ gangsters as last minute replacements for The Monarch’s crew of Henchmen. As agents outside regulated capital, black-marketeers, the lumpenproletariat, these gangsters immediately pull out their guns and flaunt all the guild regulations in taking Dr. Venture before staging a violent uprising within The Monarch’s cocoon itself. Any revolutionary potential within this action is negated by the gangsters’ individualist attitude, each claiming “I’m no.1”, “No, I’m no.1” respectively. Similarly, once both the OSI and the Guild recognise the situation as one disruptive of their monopoly, they have no problem in uniting in order to defeat the threat to their world. As usual, my lovely non-existent reader, I carry on a little too long. Not wishing to try your purely theoretical patience I can only stop here in order to highly recommend the show if you haven’t, and you won’t have, seen it. I could no doubt analyse it all day, and probably will do. But until next time – GO TEAM VENTURE!
Just returned from a rather wonderful weekend at the Hay-on-Wye literature festival… or I would have done if I hadn’t realised that there was the “HowTheLightGetsIn” philosophy and music festival on at the other end of town. Despite Elinor and I both technically subscribing to the status of literary scholars, the call of reasoned debate trumped the megalomaniacal brain-farts of the likes of Martin Amis and philosophy, as ever, won over.
The most striking debate that I attended was that of Zygmunt Bauman talking about Utopias, Dystopias and society. The striking element was my sudden inability to grasp the word “society”. Used in every sentence, Bauman obviously knew very well what it was, as did the rest of the audience, yet I grew increasingly confused. It wasn’t, as was suggested to me, that some unconscious Thatcherism had revealed itself in a bout of free market solipsism – no, it was the very transcendental quality of the word and the resulting metaphysical warmness that it made me feel as a result. Like Bion’s Group Experiences, it suggests an unspoken, unified coherence of minds in such a way as to alleviate any possibility of existential anxiety; a charming prospect.
That the talk took place in the context of (U/Dys)topias was no doubt a helpful indicator of this transcendental quality of the “social”. Taking 1984 as an example – the “social” threat lingers in the dystopian ambivalence. The state apparatus itself (similarly with the book’s political ideologies) is indistinct, only to be pictured in the mythic figures of Big Brother and Goldstein. These figures are “social” where the state itself, be it legislature or particular representatives, can only be seen as what they are within that society. Society is like Room 101; we already know what is in it, and it is not Winston’s rats. The appearance of the rats (not particularly scary in itself) is purely an indicator of the potential of Room 101, just as any definable entity can only be a potential of society and not society itself.
The notion of the social and Utopia overlap in this capacity. William Morris’ late-Victorian anarchist utopia, News From Nowhere, is essentially a description of this transcendental field of society. Its great success in achieving this comes through a mix of two-dimensional characters and a total lack of any concrete politics or history within its established world. Utopian cohesion is “natural” unlike the individual or the state that, as definable entities, can never truly exist within the ambiguous melange that is “society”.
“Society”, like “Utopia”, appears to be an attempt to cross what can only be considered a truly “Parallax gap” as described in Zizek’s The Parallax View. Individual personality and politics, as is evinced in the hyperreality of “personality politics”, can never truly be attached together (perhaps Kant’s distinction of private and public reason is the case here?). Society is a useful bridge between these two that encapsulates both whilst placing itself “elsewhere” via a kind of theoretical Derridean “differance”. I would not consider myself to be society, nor would I consider David Cameron, a parking ticket, a 20 pence piece or a bacon sandwich to be society – yet they are all “part of” society. Zizek’s description of society as only existing in the “background”(Perverts Guide to Cinema) is not so much true as to say that society exists only in vignettes. We can never truly “see” society but by making a situation indistinct enough we can start to “feel” it.
Perhaps the ultimate description of a “society” can be seen in the second level (and title sequence) of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in which you are driven around the city, helplessly looking out upon countless scenes “symptomatic” of violent revolution. The marching soldiers, the massacred civilians, all are uniform and without individuality, signifying similar events without even truly signifying themselves. Even the moment when, driving down an alley, a man pops up from a rubbish bin, sees you, screams and disappears back into it to hide, seems faceless. He is the comedy of the human stuck within political engines as their most inhuman. A symbol of the social - not Barry or Jeff or Akhmed…
Perhaps this indicates something intrinsically reactionary, or at the least paralysing, within descriptions of “society”. Its general effect is that of reductionism without use; by stripping entities of forces in order to locate them in a transcendental social they lose autonomy within the social field. This is perhaps what Latour and the Actor-Network-Theorists are dealing with at the moment; there is a society outside of the individual and the state but it exists as a network of influences and not as a residue of trends and generalisms. That which takes place within the social can therefore never be passive, it must always be active – even if, like Pacifism, it is active towards passivity. For if society is to be thought of as a “between” and not as an “elsewhere” then only that which exerts influence can exist within its existential jurisdiction.
Perhaps the ultimate A-N-T Utopia, then, is Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. The world of “Watermelon Sugar” is one of balance similar to Morris’ “Nowhere” yet each of the individuals within the anarchistic community differ in beliefs and personalities, even to the extent that some choose to live in a junkyard and drink themselves to death. No resident of Watermelon Sugar exists in order to represent wider trends. Even the lingering, evil genii Other of the “tigers” get their chance to explain why they killed the young protagonists parents (hunger, family needs, his parents long, full lives upto that point) and, as such, can be seen as Actors in a Network and not as a “social threat”. Morris’ “objectors” to “Nowhere” are passed off as fools that would soon die out – Brautigan’s “tigers” are active characters simultaneously to being a menace. Of the two situations, we can only truly understand (and thus think of ways to change) the situation of the tigers, whereas the “society” of objectors must be left to die out of their own accord, much as we’ve expected racists and fascists to do for the past however-long-it-is…