Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stan Lee meets F. A. Hayek

Recently I’ve been reading Sean Howe’s terrific Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.  The broad outlines of the history of the company -- its origins in 1939 as part of Martin Goodman’s pulp magazine empire, its rise to dominance of the field beginning in the 1960s under writer and editor Stan Lee and his co-creation (with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists) of now famous characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men, the company’s declaration of bankruptcy in the 1990s, its rebound and recent incorporation into the Disney empire -- have been recounted before.  But Howe’s book gives us a wealth of fascinating details (fascinating not only from a comic book geek point of view, but from a business point of view) that you won’t easily find elsewhere.

But it’s one of the already well-known aspects of the story that prompts this post.  Overworked as he was supervising the entire Marvel line, Lee often did not write complete scripts for his artists, but would instead give them a general idea for a story and have them flesh out the details of the plot as they saw fit.  After receiving the penciled pages from them, Lee would then write the captions and dialogue.  This came to be known as the “Marvel method,” and with certain artists -- Kirby and Ditko being the paradigm cases -- it was enormously successful.  
Indeed, it would famously lead to controversies over how much Lee actually contributed to the writing, with Kirby and Ditko partisans complaining that he has received too much credit for work that was largely theirs.  Yet it is also well-known that the work Kirby and Ditko each produced on their own often fell short of the standard set by their collaborations with Lee.  In particular, the dialogue and characterization one found in a Kirby or Ditko solo effort could sometimes be painfully inept. 

In an earlier post I had occasion to discuss how Ditko’s devotion to promoting Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy played a role in his departure from Marvel, largely ruined his career, and certainly ruined much of his later work.  (That post was also about Wally Wood -- Wood’s own conflicts with Lee are discussed in Howe’s book too.)  Ditko’s Randian superhero Mr. A featured in stories whose characters were devoid of characterization, mere talking heads whose function was to spout either stilted, logorrheic expressions of Objectivist philosophy or (in the case of the villains) crude caricatures of its opposite.  (You can find samples here and here.)

Where Ditko’s dialogue was boringly didactic, Kirby’s could be ludicrous to the point of unintentional comedy.  You’ll find some samples here, here, and here.  (An instant classic is: “What? What? I say ‘Bull-Chips’ in your cereal, sir!”  But the No-Prize probably goes to: “Don’t rattle your gonads in my ears!  Mama nature doesn’t give a damn!”)

There is a clear sense, then, in which Ditko and Kirby were simply not the writers Lee was.  And yet it would, equally clearly, be wrong to say that they were bad writers, full stop.  For the characters and scenarios they came up with, their pacing and plotting of the stories, and their sense of how to lay out the images on a page so as to guarantee dramatic effect and clarity of storytelling, were absolutely crucial to the success of the comics.  So what gives?

A clue can be found in, of all places, the work of economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek.  Developing Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that” and Michael Polanyi’s notion of “tacit knowledge,” Hayek argued that much of what we know -- especially where cultural, moral, and social knowledge in general is concerned -- is not consciously or explicitly entertained and is indeed impossible to articulate in its entirety.  Rather, it is embodied in customs and habits of action that are learned more by imitation than via “book learning.”  Consider the knowledge one has of how to comfort a hurt child or the bereaved, how to charm a potential suitor, how to convey confidence via one’s mannerisms, what sorts of discussion topics are inappropriate at the dinner table or in church or in front of strangers, or what is appropriate with respect to touch vis-à-vis relatives, friends, acquaintances, strangers, or members of the opposite sex.  Acquiring such knowledge is more like learning how to ride a bike than it is like memorizing a list of facts for a test.  It is the sort of thing one just “picks up” or “has a feel for” -- or not, in the case of the socially inept. 

Hayek addressed the theme repeatedly, perhaps at greatest length in his rich essay “Rules, Perception, and Intelligibility” (reprinted in Hayek’s Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics).  That essay includes a section which contrasts the imitative learning of speech with the way that “gestures, postures, gait, and other movements and… facial expressions” are learned by imitation in such a way that the “observed movement is directly translated into the corresponding action, often without the observing and imitating individual being aware of the elements of which the action consists or… being able to state what he observes and does” (p. 47).  Hayek writes:

Our capacity to imitate someone’s gait, postures, or grimaces certainly does not depend on our capacity to describe these in words…

Imitation is of course only one particularly obvious instance of the many in which we recognize the actions of others as being of a known kind, of a kind, however, which we are able to describe only by stating the ‘meaning’ which these actions have to us and not by pointing out the elements from which we recognize this meaning.  Whenever we conclude that an individual is in a certain mood, or acts deliberately or purposively or effortlessly, seems to expect something or to threaten or comfort another, etc., we generally do not know, and would not be able to explain, how we know this.  Yet we generally act successfully on the basis of such ‘understanding’ of the conduct of others. (p. 48)

Hayek is describing ordinary imitative learning of movements, gestures, etc. of which we are all capable, but there are those who have a special capacity for this sort of learning, such as actors.  And as with the rest of us, the “tacit knowledge” an actor has of how to convey meaning through movements, facial expressions, and the like is by no means necessarily correlated with a capacity to articulate that understanding in words.  Indeed, it is amazing how inarticulate even some of the very best actors can be when they are not rehearsing words written by others in the context of a performance, but instead holding forth on public affairs, giving a speech, or giving an interview.  (Clint Eastwood’s painfully bizarre speech at the Republican National Convention last year provides a vivid recent example.)  Acting and the like provide examples of the kind of knowledge which is embodied, which manifests itself in “know how” rather than in words.

I would submit that the knowledge a good artist has is like this, and that this accounts for the otherwise odd dichotomy between the mastery comic book artists like Ditko and Kirby had of the various aspects of visual storytelling, and their ineptness as wordsmiths.  Kirby’s ability to make you feel the impact of a punch thrown by Captain America, and Ditko’s to make you feel the bizarre contortions into which he would put Spider-Man’s body, are like the actor’s ability to generate the desired emotions in the audience.  In both cases it is knowledge that comes out in movements -- in the actor’s face and posture, in the motion of the artist’s arm, wrist, and fingers.  Knowing how something will play on the page is like knowing how it will play on the stage -- the artist, like the actor, shows it rather than says it. 

Writing a narrative or dialogue is, by definition, not like that, or not entirely anyway.  Of course, a good writer has a “feel” for dialogue, a “sense” of what ways of phrasing something will work, and so forth.  But what he settles upon is always some way of articulating and describing a thought, a sensibility, a feeling, an action -- exactly the sort of thing Hayek says “know how” does not involve.

The talents are different in kind.  Lee had the one, Ditko and Kirby the other.  It took both kinds to build the company whose story Howe so skillfully articulates.  (With almost no illustrations at all -- in a book about comics! -- but you can find those on the book’s companion website.)


  1. Wagner, for whom no one this side of Nietzsche seriously criticizes musically, is said by some to have been a less than stellar librettist. On the other hand, he demonstrated a very acute sense of irony, for instance Loge's admonishment to the water pixies, telling them to stop complaining, but rather bask in the glory of the gods.

  2. Awesome post, Professor Feser. Epistemology, Hayek, and Marvel comics--it does not get much better.

    I have often had some ambiguous notion of the knowing how and knowing that dichotomy. This post really made it clear.

  3. Kirby's not a uniformly weak writer of dialogue though. Much of the writing for the gods in New Gods is good, including probably all the dialogue involving the gods of Apokolips. [slight spoiler]Metron's clandestine visit to Apokolips[end spoiler] genuinely crackles, for example. The irony is that by contrast the actual humans in New Gods - all fairly normal people from Kirby's contemporary home town - are cardboard and lack believability or charm. I'm not sure how this affects Hayek's distinction. It's certainly the case that Kirby's gods speak in a heightened, non-naturalistic manner: it could rarely be mistaken for real speech. (Or at least the speech of real people - the speech of real Olympians, maybe...) But (like the speech of the characters in a good blank-verse play) it expresses their personality and their emotions, and (more or less) feels like real speech in their heightened reality.

    A problem in setting up a distinction between acting and dialogue writing is that apparently a small-but-meaningful proportion of well-known film dialogue was partly improvised by the actors, or performed from a script which was partly based on improvisations the actors made in rehearsal. In some cases, like Christopher Guest ad-libbing in Spinal Tap, you could say that one person is wearing two hats, writer and actor, at once. But probably not most of the time - most well-regarded improvised dialogue was probably not improvised by an actor who is also a professional writer.

  4. But remember, the music of Wagner is better than it sounds.

  5. Hmm. Hayek's theory reminds me a bit of his cousin's theory of language as use. I mean his cousin Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wonder if they ever discussed the subject.

  6. Dear Dr Feser,

    This might not be the best place to post this but I should be very interested in your opinion of Joseph Magee, Phd's (of arguments against the First Way of St Thomas Aquinas:

    In particular he seems to argue that modern science has disproved the need for motion in an object to be actualised by something external to it.

  7. "Ditko’s Randian superhero Mr. A featured in stories whose characters were devoid of characterization, mere talking heads whose function was to spout either stilted, logorrheic expressions of Objectivist philosophy or (in the case of the villains) crude caricatures of its opposite."

    So in other words, Mr. A could have been the protagonist of either _The Fountainhead_ or _Atlas Shrugged_.

  8. David, I don't think it matters whether the cause comes from "within" or "outside" the material object. As long as it is something actual (within or outside) that is causing a potency to transition to act, I don't think there is a problem.

    Feser's metal detector might be relevant here as well.

  9. Also, in his example about the Big Bang, he might be thinking in temporal terms, when the First Way is actually meant to be analyzed in ontological terms. I think Feser has addressed the point about simultaneous causation in an older blog post, though I can't remember what it was titled.

  10. "I should be very interested in your opinion of Joseph [Magee's] arguments against the First Way of St Thomas Aquinas . . . In particular he seems to argue that modern science has disproved the need for motion in an object to be actualised by something external to it."

    See the first article here.

  11. David, I once asked the formidably intelligent and yet irenic James Chastek of Just Thomism to comment on Magee's criticism. His reply began, "AAAAARGH!"

    It continued from there in Chastek's normal tone, but he did not view Magee's criticism as having any weight at all.

  12. "Guys, no threadjacking please."

    Fair enough. Sorry I contributed in (what I hope was) a minor way.

  13. Maybe the real problem wasn't just one of knowledge but of intention. If your intention is to argue for objectivism instead of making a good story or compelling characters, then crappy characters are just the result of misplaced priorities.

  14. Sorry Dr. Feser,

    I confess the intelligence and erudition of you and the commenters on this blog became too much of a temptation when faced with what seemed an insuperable difficulty to the First Way.

    Apologies again.

  15. lol David.

    Dr Feser is rather busy right now, so he might have not even noticed your comment, and the usual thomists might be fighting somewhere else on the WEB! XD

    Nowwwwwww.... look slowly at the comments, PatrickH said that James Chastek had spoken about her, so here we go, all we need is the link to his blog.

    Here we go, now since I suck just as much as Paps in philosophy, I wish I could get the post for you, but I don't know the nasty details of the first way so all I can give you is this link ... again!

  16. ops called the dude a dudette XD.

  17. wait... you never meant as a criticism?

    so it wasn't sarcasm???

    shit, my bad!