Craig Owens’s Discourse of Others – in comics?

After lumping Craig Owens and Hal Foster together in a blogpost on postmodernism and then writing an entire post on Foster alone, it seems only fair to return to Owens, too. Apart from “The Allegorical Impulse”, one of Owens’s texts stands out as particularly influential: “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism”, published in the collected volume The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Foster in 1983. In this essay, a connection between postmodernism and feminism is made on the basis of their critique of (visual) representation. Postmodernism questions the authority on which the modernist consensus of what can be represented and in which form has been reached: “postmodernists […] expose the tyranny of the signifier“.

Feminism, on the other hand, criticises visual perception altogether as patriarchal. This identification stands on somewhat shaky ground, at least as far as it is presented by Owens: not only is vision linked to the Freudian “discovery of castration”, i.e. the “sight of phallic absence in the mother”, but also to objectification and domination, which in a patriarchal society have become male privileges. (Interestingly, Owens doesn’t mention Laura Mulvey and her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as far as I can see.)

Considering these points, is postmodernist and/or feminist visual art conceivable at all? Yes, says Owens, and points out some examples of postmodernist/feminist artistic strategies:

  • refusal of mastery (e.g. Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems)
  • denial of visual pleasure (e.g. Louise Lawler’s “movie without picture”)
  • reflecting back at the (male) viewer his own desire (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills)
  • demonstrating that masculine and feminine are not stable identities (e.g. Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze hits the side of my face)

However, Owens also points out the possibility of adopting contrary contemporary artistic practices that attempt to “recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture”. In other words, it’s up to the artist whether or not to use the previously mentioned postmodernist/feminist strategies.

30 years later, where do comics stand? Let’s look at The Multiversity #1 once more. Which strategies do Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis employ?

panel from The Multiversity #1 from Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

Mastery is not refused, but downright celebrated in this comic book. Ivan Reis’s art (not to forget Joe Prado’s inking and Nei Ruffino’s colouring) isn’t just “good” in the sense that he depicts characters in an anatomically correct way – he goes out of his way to show them in a vast variety of poses and perspectives. It truly takes a master draughtsman to produce this kind of artwork. Likewise, Grant Morrison’s writing – plot, dialogue, breakdown (cf. Morrison’s script in The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – Director’s Cut) – is impeccable.

panel detail from The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

There’s plenty of visual pleasure here, if by visual pleasure we mean “good girl art”. Particularly the appearances of Earth-8 Ladybug, Earth-11 Aquawoman, and Earth-23 Wonder Woman have no other purpose. (An exception to this rule is Harbinger, the artificial intelligence with a female holographic appearance, whose body is not shown here.) Thus the male viewer’s desire is never reflected.

panel from The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

Masculine and feminine identities are firmly in place: as I have said in my previous Multiversity blogpost, this is a story in which men act and women don’t have much to say (except for Harbinger, the femininity of which is a matter of debate). The plot is driven by the triumvirate of Nix Uotan, Thunderer and Earth-23 Superman. The brief appearance of a gay superhero couple does little to change this overall tone.

If we look at The Multiversity #1 from this perspective, it appears to be a far cry from a postmodernist and/or feminist comic.

 

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