of Class: January 30, 2001
Today, we discussed Maus I and II in detail, applying what we learned
about postmodernism to this highly self-referential, self-conscious text. We
thus continued to pursue two questions raised during our last class: In what
ways can one say that Maus is postmodern? Also, in what ways does postmodernity
(and the simulacrum) affect our ability
to represent and remember the Holocaust?
Here are the characteristics of Maus that you pinpointed as particularly
BREAKDOWN OF THE SEPARATION
As Nicole Genovese has suggested in a previous
class, whereas modernism tends to a certain elitism in its questioning of
all mass-market forms, postmodernism tends to break down the distinction between
high and low culture, and will often use modernist strategies (self-reflexivity,
irony, avant-garde critique, experimentation, symbolism, the breakdown of
narrative sequentiality, the questioning of subjectivity) but will incorporate
them into highly popular forms (film, novels, comic books, etc.). E. J. suggested
that Maus therefore qualifies as a postmodern work since Spiegelman
here explores difficult, philosophical, abstract concepts in a popular form
(the comic strip) that, as Beth Connell pointed out, appears,
at first glance, to be highly accessible
and even simple. What keeps the work from becoming kitsch
is its self-consciousness, which leads to a doubleness in its representations.
(Linda Hutcheon illustrates how a postmodern work often points to its own
complicity in existing power structures all the while providing a critique
of those structures, for example Spiegelman's simultaneous acknowledgement
and critique of his work's commercialization on pp. 41-42.) Dale Fresch offered
as example of Spiegelman's self-reflexivity p. 11 of volume II, where we see
Spiegelman wondering how to represent his wife (she's American; however, her
background is French and she has now converted to Judaism; is she a dog, a
mouse, or something else entirely?).
- VISUALITY AND
perfect example of postmodernity's reliance on visuality is Maus' reliance
on spatial presentation of the Holocaust. The amount of text is drastically
reduced in order to make room for the images. Spiegelman will also play with
spatial superposition over linear, narrative exposition, a good example being
the second frame on p. 103 which comes from his work, "Prisoner on Hell
Planet." Consider also the use of spatial symbolism in, for example,
the bottom-left frame of p. 125, where roads are presented as a swastika cross.
- A BREAKDOWN IN
TEMPORALITY: Dale Fresch suggested last
class that postmodernity suffers from a breakdown in narrative linearity and
temporal historicity. In Maus, we see this best represented on p. 41
where dates are given without any understandable narrative or even chronology.
The effect is that, when the bottom frame presents the statement "Alright
Mr. Spiegelman... We're ready to shoot!" we are momentarily disoriented.
Is a filmmaker speaking here or are we hearing a Nazi guard (as the pile of
bodies would suggest)? Jameson compares this postmodern experience to that
of the schizophrenic: "With the breakdown of the signifying chain,...
the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers,
or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time"
- IRONY AND
PARODY: a tendency
to see everything from an ironic perspective, to distance oneself from the
very genres, styles, and stereotypes that one nonetheless invokes. An example
is when Spiegelman makes fun of his use of cats and mice when he writes on
p. 43 that his shrink's place is "overrun with stray dogs and cats."
As he asks, "Can I mention this, or does it louse up my metaphor?"
Another example is Spiegelman's parody of advertising agents on p. 42: "Maus:
you've read the book, now by the vest!" The question that is debated
between Jameson and Hutcheon in this week's readings is: given this ironic
and parodic self-distance in today's culture, are we presented with something
positive (a real critique of the culture one satirizes) or are we seeing a
form of mere capitulation (an irony without bite, without political purpose)?
Which one of these are we being given in Maus? Spiegelman is critiquing
his work's commercialization, yet the work is, nonetheless, a commercial success
as he admits on p. 41. Herein we are also seeing Spiegelman's acknowledgement
that he is caught up within late capitalism (another aspect of the postmodern
- A QUESTIONING
OF OUR OWN
IDENTITY: Do we each have any essential consistency
or are we merely being produced as conventionalized, mass-produced copies,
determined more by the mass market than by internal consistency? Is the use
of the mouse mask an implicit exploration of this issue?
- DIGITALITY: although
we did not bring this up in class, Maus may also exemplify the fact
of postmodernity's digitality, since, when the second volume was originally
released, there was a CD-ROM that accompanied the work. The CD-ROM included
the full text of Maus plus Spiegelman's historical research and the
actual voice of Vladek from Spiegelman's taped interviews with his father.
- THE SIMULACRUM:
E. J. asked whether Spiegelman is exploring this concept by
representing racial and national markers as masks (for example, pp. 41-42)?
Spiegelman thus questions whether one can properly point to the "real"
of race; could it be that racial designations themselves are constructed by
conventions and stereotypes? After all, as Sarah Geddling pointed out, one
reason Spiegelman turns to the mouse mask to represent Jews is because German
propaganda did the same thing (as the epigraph to Maus II illustrates:
"Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse!
Wear the Swastika Cross!"). Again, the question of irony is raised. Spiegelman
is using a stereotype (Jews, like mice, are all victims or worse) but he does
so in order to critique that very representation "from within."
In this way, as Michelle Purdue suggested, Spiegelman is commenting on the
potential that exists in any racial designation to deceive others and even
the self about one's subjectivity or one's responsibility to others. Ann Blakley
added that Spiegelman may even be going further and, through the masks, is
commenting on the impossibility of ever representing reality directly. (As
Spiegelman admits on p. 16: "There's so much I'll never be able to understand
or visualize. I mean, reality is too complex for comics... so much
has to be left out or distorted." Françoise responds by telling
Art, "Just keep it honest," after which Spiegelman further exclaims:
"See what I mean... In real life you'd never have let me talk this long
without interrupting.") One question still persists, however, as Elizabeth
Horn argued: by representing Jews as mice, is Spiegelman allowing a disgraceful
stereotype to continue? Is there something fundamentally wrong, she asked,
with such a maneuver? Does his ironic self-reflexivity truly escape the dangers
inherent in the use of such stereotypes?
Jennifer Troutman finished class by suggesting some of the ways
the Holocaust opens a rift in our consciousness that may then allow postmodernity
to emerge. As she stated, the Holocaust may well be the foundational trauma
of our age and thus opens upthrough the unbelievability of what actually
happenedthe very question of whether anything in reality is ultimately
true or believable. The Holocaust opens up the question of whether we can ever
truly represent reality. Do we deceive ourselves when we believe we have represented
the real? Are we really only ever being duped into belief by conventions, genres,
conventions, stereotypes and ideologies? Are we constantly drawn to the Holocaust
because, as Miriam Bratu Hansen suggests, it is a screen memory that hides something
even more traumatic, what Baudrillard and Jameson diagnose as our lost of connection
to the real?
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