Monday, 27 April 2020

Warmth as an Invisible Skill

Two Youtube videos I saw recently lead me to consider the paradox of invisible skill;

This one by ComicTropes

about Bernard Krigstein and his much-analysed story 'The Master Race'

And this one

by Leela Norms about two different film versions of the Jane Austin story 'Emma', one from the 90's and one from just before CORONADOOM.


The ComicTropes video says this Master Race comic has been called 'The Citizen Kane' of comics.

And I thought that was true in more ways than one.

I remember that old screenwriter guy, Robert McKee absolutely hated Citizen Kane. Said its symbology and expressionist elements were crushingly obvious, as in blatant and overwrought. The film makes it agonisingly clear that here there is something SYMBOLIC happening and exactly what that SYMBOL means. He thought that was absolutely not what a story on film should be like or about and that the film had been massively over-praised because of this.

Curious thing; formalism, modernism and a slight dislocation, all shift the perceived media a little more into being 'text'. Not just that they use complex methodology; shifts in perspective, unusual forms and processes, to tell their stories, but that the fact that there are multiple kinds of these forms layered into each other, and happening in sequence, means that the story is calling attention to itself *as a constructed thing*. It is making it obvious and clear that it is being clever, and almost showing you how it is being clever.

This seems to work across THE MASTER RACE, Watchmen, Sin City and Citizen Kane.

(The new 'Emma' doesn't quite match that as it doesn't use the same modernist techniques in the same very obvious way - but it does share the fact that it is a bit more emotionally distant and chilly and more obviously constructed than the 90's Emma.)

These works are almost pre-cognated.

(To re-cognate, or 'recognise' is literally to run something through your mind again, but in a different way, or subject to a different process - first you sense, then you recognise).

But the fact that the modernism of these works makes them easy to analysis, easy to discuss, easy to *see how they work* - perhaps gives them more weight in the world of criticism relative to other things than perhaps they deserve.

(I like all of these things btw)

Other stuff that makes them almost guided missiles aimed at the heads and hearts of the critical classes; all 'dark' with heavy sombre emotions, all very 'male'. The Master Race is a Jewish creator writing about the Holocaust and being analysed by another Jewish Creator (Art Spiegleman) who also did a book about the Holocaust.

If its about the Holocaust it has to be art, its certainly not allowed to be anything else.


Warmth, by contrast, is not easy to analyse. Or discuss.

Think about something that made you feel really warm and then think about what you would say about it.

The only things that come to mind for me are connections of real-world memories - things in my life that feeling or moment reminds me of or connects me to. Emotion, as it so often does, acting as a global phenomena inside the mind, connecting many small things across many levels, often in a slightly oblique way.

But these networks of vague memory are, well, vague - soft, delicate, almost formless. Difficult to interrogate. How would you discuss them? and how would you analyse them with others? It would be like discussing a dream you had - you would feel foolish.

One thing I like about Mark Kermode as a film critic is that he will often say if and when he cried during a film he liked - and even say that while he felt the emotion he can't give a precise description of exactly why that part of the story affected him that much - he knows the general reasons, but not the specific engineering of the emotion. And he will do this for relatively 'gauche' or emotional films.

Perhaps because feeling links you with your body and your sense memories, it robs you of analysis, robs you of the human ability to voyage in time within your own mind and to regard yourself. Instead making you intensely *present*.

while modernism and coldness, give you more of those abilities, and provokes them, while robbing you of your body and of the present moment.

Warmth too, is constructed. House on the Prairie is as constructed as 'Watchman' - its just that one is reminding you of it all the time, and providing the means to analyse it within its own substance, while the other _doesn't want you to analyse it_. Warmth doesn't even want you to think about the fact that a story is being told, in fact it aims to seduce you away from exactly such thinking.

It is an invisible skill, as compared to a visible skill.


I actually don't have a strong sense memory of the 90's 'Emma',

what I'm using to fill in that sense are recent re-watchings of the 90's 'Maverick' and 'Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves'.

Both gauche films in many ways - easy to laugh at, Prince of Thieves especially has lots of lumpy bits  that do not sing of art in the modernist or fine art sense.

and yet

both very warm films

Both family films - about families, friendships, social bonds, warmth, humour. Families are challenged and reconstructed in both films and at the end brought together.

And its strange how when you say 'Family Film' you maybe downgrade it in your personal hierarchy of importance and status - there may be no fundamentally logical reason for it.

This isn't a Tumblr post - I'm not about to lead you in revolution against your own personal status and quality hierarchies because they come from a CORRUPT culture. Humans need hierarchies to think in any kind of systematic way, and we adore them in social functioning, preferably lots and lots of mutually interacting and clashing hierarchies please.

If you destroyed all your cultural programming you would probably be a useless mental case, incapable of crating or understanding anything.

However, though we need them, it is better if we also understand that all those hierarchies are provisional - tools rather than absolute laws. If we understand that we need them then we need them less.

I thought at the time that Prince of Thieves was a film with strong bones, and if you were making a film, or anything, and if you HAD to choose; gauche and low-status, but with "strong bones" and the audience came out crying, OR brilliant and cutting edge, acclaimed, but cold and the audience maybe nodded slightly at one point.

What would you choose?

I think in the future, saying "This was gauche but it moved me" is something I will try to do less. Instead say "This was gauche AND it moved me".


  1. I almost don't watch movies but based upon videogames preferences I'd probably chose gauche and low-status but with 'strong bones', as some of my favourite games, such as "Call of Juarez: Gunslinger" are definitely not brilliant and cutting edge acclaimed, but the other way.

    (Good videogame might be able to do both, I think, but I wonder how much of their warmth can be constructed and how much is an unpredictable result of player interacting with their overlapping systems. There are games, I think, that are built specifically for warmth - Undertale or Animal Crossing – where it is obvious, but even in games built more for thinking about them (Deus Ex, and probably something like Metal Gear Solid 2) warmth can exist as well.

  2. I really like this analysis, it connects to some stuff I've had brewing in my brain for a while but haven't really been able to articulate. Thanks a bunch!

  3. Looks like I'm more of a Modernist than I expected. Maybe this maps onto the North and South of The Pilgrim's Regress? []

    'Gauche and low-status' and 'brilliant and cutting edge' are tied to their time. Do I want to be 2020 Cutting Edge or 21st Century Low Status?

    There is the context of historical works that we can't quite work around. So the Icelandic Sagas might be influential or interesting or [other] and every critic may acknowledge this but writing something adhering closely to the style and themes of an Icelandic Saga is unlikely to win you Brownie points from the Critics. Are Icelandic Sagas thus low-status?

    1. "'Gauche and low-status' and 'brilliant and cutting edge' are tied to their time" - yes but so are we. I formed the question with the assumption that the reader would think of the issue in the context of their own time.

      I *think* known historical but not currently in-mode forms get shunted off to somewhere around science fiction - not necessarily low status but not invited to the awards; clever curiosities.

      Obviously, if we get into definitions of what is an isn't low or high or gauche or cutting edge, everything will be insanely relative and you will be able to make complex situational arguments for or against anything.

    2. You're right, certainly - relativity is not a useful road to go down.

      The question of whether the Creator is looking to be of the moment (in themes or similar rather than of critically approved qualities of the moment) or look to something with longer lasting appeal is perhaps more interesting. Of course, presumably no-one will be as 'of the moment' as the newspaper writer or political cartoonist - but beyond that, there is scope for that to be a creative choice. Though I don't know how many think to themselves that what they are creating will certainly echo down the centuries, certainly not in the last few generations.

  4. Modernism was a reaction to Romanticism / Victorianism, which was in turn a reaction to Neoclassicism. They form this enormous THINK / FEEL / THINK triad stretching back across our cultural history. (Go any further back and you get into periods where you think by feeling and vice versa, and the whole dichotomy falls apart.)

    But the difference is that Neoclassicism and Romanticism were each, in their day, the only game in town, because they manifested in elite artistic cultures where most people weren't even literate and you only had to win over the key cliques to win the entire game. Whereas Modernism arises alongside (and in reaction to) the rise of modern mass media, which is all about FEELINGS. Modernism defined itself against the sentimentality of the previous century, but it also defined itself against the lurid pulps and slushy romances of the 1930s.

    (The classic statement of 'dry, hard, classical' modernism vs. mushy mammalian romanticism is TE Hulme's 'Romanticism and Classicism':

    And I do love modernism and its descendants, because at it's best it's amazingly clever and tragic and insightful and Wallace Stevens was a fucking god among men (and insurance executives), but it can also be very self-conscious and chilly and elitist, and as a literary scholar I'm constantly aware that stuff like this is written precisely to appeal to literary scholars like me, to give us material to write academic articles about. Whereas modern scholars tend to be almost embarrassed by writers like Dickens, with their direct and unsubtle appeals to the emotions. ('A CHILD IS DYING! FEEL SOMETHING, YOU FUCKWITS!')

    Similarly, the more chilly and alienated a popular genre is, the easier it is to get critics to take it seriously: witness horror and noir. Whereas romance, which is *all about* warmth, is something critics generally have no idea how to interpret or evaluate. It's not *for* them.

    I'm not sure that there's *no* language for talking about the warmth of media. If you look at the way fan communities talk about media, it's mostly about how that media makes them *feel*: who they love, who they hate, who they ship, etc. (Their ability to do this effectively declines proportionately with their infection by sub-academic discourse: by the time everyone's talking about what is and isn't 'problematic', it's all over.) But I agree that high-status academic and critical discourses tend to struggle with affect, largely as a result of their century-long entanglement with modernist aesthetics.

    I like to embarrass my students by talking about how much it hurts me to read certain poems. They usually look desperately uncomfortable and start talking about symbolism instead.

    1. Thank you Joseph. Two questions;

      Can you tell me more about this period > "Go any further back and you get into periods where you think by feeling and vice versa, and the whole dichotomy falls apart."

      And, where would you go looking for the language of the intelligent analysis, or discussion of, feeling? Where would you start?

    2. I'm thinking here of the medieval and early modern periods, where I just don't feel the same split applies. Intellectual and emotional literacy seem to go together. Take something like this verse from Donne's 'Nocturnal Upon St Lucy's Day', which he wrote after the death of his wife:

      Study me then, you who shall lovers be
      At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
      For I am every dead thing,
      In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
      For his art did express
      A quintessence even from nothingness,
      From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
      He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
      Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

      There's a lot of cleverness here, a lot of show-off erudition, but I don't feel that it detracts from the emotion - rather, it enables that emotion to find a more adequate expression. Thinking through his feelings doesn't alienate him from them: it allows him to feel them more fully.

      I feel the same way about Shakespeare, in whom intensity of feeling and complexity of thought usually go together rather than pulling in opposite directions. Take, pretty much at random, Richard II:

      Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
      When time is broke and no proportion kept!
      So is it in the music of men's lives.
      And here have I the daintiness of ear
      To cheque time broke in a disorder'd string;
      But for the concord of my state and time
      Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
      I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.

      I don't really know what to recommend in terms of analysis of affect. It's a good question, though - I'll have to think about it!

  5. I think the point about romance novels is an excellent one.

    Does "warmth" have a valence that extends beyond making people laugh, feel good, or cry? Presumably it doesn't include scaring them.

    Doug M.