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Let's You and Him Fight: Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day Four
posted December 15, 2005

imageThe following is a the fourth day in a week-long exchange of e-mail about issues raised in and around the new book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day One (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578068193) by its author Bart Beaty and a colleague of Beaty's in comics academia, Craig Fischer.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the "Euro-Comics For Beginners" column at The Comics Journal and the "Conversational Euro-Comics" column here at The Comics Reporter.

Dr. Craig Fischer teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Festival, and his articles have appeared in The Comics Journal and The International Journal of Comic Art. He is currently working on a book titled Worlds Within Worlds: Storytelling in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

CR is pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.


Day Four

Craig Fischer to Bart Beaty

Dear Bart,

Did we actually apologize to each other in yesterday's exchange? Pathetic. Tom should either kick us out and replace us with Gary Groth vs. Harlan Ellison (maybe Dave Sim vs. Jeff Smith?) or rename the feature "Let's You and Him Snuggle."

Again you wrote a message so packed with information that I'm hard-pressed to respond in a satisfactory way. I was amazed to hear, for example, that the unpublished draft of
Seduction exposed the Siegel-Shuster scandal. I think a reprint of the original Seduction was published last year, but we need the unexpurgated draft in print instead. And you should edit it and write the introduction, though after this week (and the last eleven years), you might be sick of Wertham for a while.

I was glad you brought up
The World of Fanzines too. You're right to say that much of Wertham's fury was directed at the comics industry, but it's worthwhile to note that he hated all forms of marketing to children. One of my favorite Wertham lines is one you quote on page 131 of your book: "Reading is the greatest educational force that mankind has ever devised. Comics, on the other hand, are the greatest anti-educational influence that man's greed has ever concocted. From this point of view comic books are part of a larger problem. We have reduced children to a market."

Now I'm not sure that Jay Hosler or Jim Ottaviani would be comfortable with defining the comics medium as an "anti-educational influence" -- I wouldn't be comfortable with it either -- but Wertham's other point is a good one. American culture
has aggressively turned childhood into a demographic, and I'm certain there were comics publishers (venerable EC itself?) that packed their comics with gore and adult subject matter in order to titillate the kiddies. Kids love stuff they consider adult and illicit; I'm reminded of that classic Doonesbury Sunday page where kids flock to a TV showing Geraldo, even while Geraldo's voice announces stuff like "Parents! Please don't let your children watch today's show." Obviously Wertham saw the 1950s comics publishers as dangerous, Geraldo-like Pied Pipers, and he appreciated the way fanzine publishers were, as you write, "simply trying to express themselves" and build like-minded communities rather "than trying to make a buck." What would Wertham think of the Internet?

Today, I wanted to return to the issue of "bearing witness" that you brought up in your first response. You said that you admire Wertham because of his willingness to speak his beliefs even when they were unpopular and subjected him to ridicule (e.g. his support for the Rosenbergs). And clearly writing
Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture gave you the opportunity to bear witness as well, to rescue Wertham from the dung heap of history and challenge the unfair impressions that comics fans and communication scholars have of the man and his work. But is that the only reason you wrote the book?

It seems to me that you also flirt with arguing for the validity of Wertham's clinical method as a viable alternative to other paradigms for studying mass culture. You don't describe the method in much detail in the book; and I'm not sure that the case studies in books like
The Circle of Guilt (1956) speak for themselves. I would love to see the notes Wertham took as he went through a comic panel-by-panel with one of his patients. (Got some free server space, Tom?) And as you're undoubtedly aware, before adopting his clinical method we'd have to confront some serious issues, such as:

Wertham's own relationship to psychoanalysis. From what you write in your book, it seems like Wertham was acutely unfaithful to orthodox Freudianism. In Dark Legend (1941), for instance, he wrote a critique of Freud's interpretation of Hamlet that, in your words, Bart, "casts doubt on the conception of the Oedipal crisis as an important developmental moment in the lives of individuals" (64). That's a big doubt. You also note that Wertham was not in favor of using psychoanalysis to diagnose societies instead of individuals, while simultaneously castigating Freudian psychoanalysis for its self-imposed insularity from social problems. So what kind of psychoanalysis was he in favor of? My feeling is that the young Wertham was much more interested in Freudian theory (interested enough to suggest his own alternative to Oedipus, the Orestes Complex) but that the postwar Wertham plunged himself more into concrete actions like the Lafargue clinic and, of course, his written-for-the-general public books. What we're left with, then, is a scattershot critique of Freud that I suspect would be an inadequate foundation for a theoretical method.

The ubiquity of "macro" psychoanalysis. "Fromm typically wrong" leaves Wertham the odd man out again. Everybody -- not just Fromm -- uses psychoanalysis to talk about more than just individual psyches. In the field that I'm most familiar with, film studies, the 1970s and 1980s were dominated by political modernism, a theoretical paradigm that used psychoanalysis (of both Freudian and Lacanian varieties), Marxism, and radical aesthetics to dissect Hollywood ideology. (In a typically waggish moment, critic David Bordwell called political modernism SLAB theory, after Saussure, Lacan, Althusser and Barthes.) SLAB was all over the place during the days of high theory. If we brought back Wertham's clinical method, would it be possible (or desirable) to scale back our application of psychoanalysis in cultural theory?

Challenges to psychoanalysis. In 1985, when I was an undergraduate, my psychology professor said to me, "In 1900, dreams didn't mean a thing, but then Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams. Since then, so many people have punched holes in Freud's theories that by the year 2000, our dreams will be meaningless again." An overstatement, maybe, but the critiques of Freud are legion. Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing and others denounce Freud for pathologizing people outside restrictive social norms. (A sharp introduction to the ideas of Szasz and Laing is Chester Brown's "My Mother was a Schizophrenic.") Jeffrey Masson alleges that Freud suppressed childhood sexual abuse in his patients to make the results jibe better with his theories, and he also argues that the analyst / analysand relationship in inherently unbalanced and unhealthy. And advancements in cognitive science give us a version of the human brain radically different from Freud's. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker consigns psychoanalysis to a limbo reserved for outdated Victoriania:
"Contemporary social commentary rests on archaic conceptions of the mind. Victims burst under the pressure, boys are conditioned to do this, women are brainwashed to value that, girls are taught to be such-and-such. Where do these explanations come from? From the nineteenth-century hydraulic model of Freud, the drooling dogs and key-pressing vermin of behaviorism, the mind-control plots of bad cold-war movies, the wide-eyed, obedient children of Father Knows Best." (57-58).

Later in the book, Pinker goes medieval on the asses of both the id-ego-superego formation and the Oedipal Complex. Yet another lynchpin of Freudian psychoanalysis was attacked by Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, who argued that dreams were a mental core dump, a "cerebral housecleaning" that allowed the awake to process information better. In other words, dreams really
have become meaningless, and if I could meet Wertham in Heaven (along with Jack Kirby, Bertolt Brecht, Joan of Arc and Moe Howard), I'd ask him to respond to some of these critiques.

Since Wertham is no longer with us, it's up to you, Bart, to convince me that Wertham's clinical method remains relevant and accurate -- unless, in fact, this wasn't your aim in the book at all. In which case, to quote Emily Litella, "Never mind."


P.S. I'm not planning to see
Meet the Fockers, so feel free to spoil the baby gag for me.


Bart Beaty to Craig Fischer

Hi Craig,

I know, I know -- we should be landing haymakers by this time, but I'm not sure this entry will lead to more fighting per se. Hopefully some clarification though.

I can appreciate the assumption that I might be championing Wertham's clinical method, and I do, but only to a very limited degree. In terms of my initial impetus for the book, way back in the day I anticipated writing something fairly close to what Amy Kiste-Nyberg accomplished with Seal of Approval. Her book scooped mine and there was no need to duplicate that effort, so I tightened my focus. I initially anticipated writing a critique of Wertham and undertaking a case study of what Stanley Cohen called "moral panics". Then, in the process of reading everything that Wertham wrote, my ideas about him changed, and the project changed with it. So what I set out to write bears little resemblance to what I actually ended up writing. That surprised me.

With regard to the clinical method specifically, I remain skeptical. Here's what I like about it. The study of mass communication became a formal discipline of scholarly inquiry following the Second World War. In the U.S. it had origins in persuasion and propaganda research and elsewhere, but it quickly became defined by two dominant strands: experimental studies in labs (what Pinker calls the "key-pressing vermin of behaviorism") and survey methods where people fill out punchcards. I am skeptical of both of these approaches, as was Wertham (vociferously so). In attacking these dominant methods, Wertham proposed a counter-method, which he termed "social psychiatry". It never achieved much traction. I think that this is a shame, because in his method I see something that is much more critically and politically engaged than the more empirical methods, who always sought to project a scientific disinterestedness. I find Wertham's foregrounding of politics in his research energizing.

But. In the end, however, I'm not actually a proponent of the clinical method. I don't use it in my own work, I don't endorse it, and, had it become an important model, I might have wound up a strong critic of it. Generally speaking, I am no fan of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Often this is for many of the same reasons that Wertham was skeptical, including the power relations inherent in the analyst/analysand relationship. I suspect that Wertham's clinical method would have placed a lot of power in the hands of analysts, which is not something that I can really endorse. Ultimately, I think I prefer Wertham's method to the dominant models of his day (which are still extremely strong models today, by the way), but would never endorse them myself. The rise of British Cultural Studies traditions in the 1970s provided new ways of thinking through the political questions that I liked in Wertham without the psychiatric baggage. I see my own work as existing in a post-Cultural Studies tradition, so, methodologically, Wertham offers me very little.

One of the things that I find interesting, however, is the way that scholarly disciplines develop over time, and what sorts of knowledge they embrace or minimize. I think that the erasure of Wertham from the history of communications as a discipline tells us a lot about the conservative nature of the field in which I earn my living, and coming to terms with this history was a strong impetus for the book.

To address some of your specific questions:

Wertham's critique of Freud. I had trouble at times balancing this material. At different times Wertham claimed to be more Freudian than the orthodox Freudians, and at others he seems like a typical apostate. It seems to me that over time Wertham really lost his faith, in part I think from working with conservative psychiatrists. He had a lot of battles in his professional life, some public and some not. Almost all of these ultimately come down to two guys saying "My take on Freud is the correct one". His debate in The Nation with Gregory Zilboorg is a classic example of this. To someone outside of the actual practice of psychiatry, this stuff can be ridiculously difficult to parse. Moreover, it requires the reader to really have an interest in determining what the true legacy of Freud is, which is something that I am neither qualified to do, nor particularly interested in. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Wertham does differ quite substantially from Freud, and I particularly think that he saw his contribution as maintaining the progressive politics of Freud, fifty years after the fact. As Wertham says, what was progressive in 19th-century Vienna was regressive in 20th-century New York, and Freudianism needed to keep up. The orthodox Freudians, of course, do not agree.

On the question of macro-psychoanalysis, I agree that it just hit all over the place. I, too, have a degree in Film Studies, and I too, have read more than my fair share of Lacan (I've decorated my son's crib with mirrors as a tribute and psychological experiment). As I've said, my work owes a lot to the British Cultural Studies tendencies, so during grad school I was at war with the psychoanalysts (we had many). Wertham would've hated Lacan and Althusser, despite their political leanings, for reasons I've already enumerated related to Fromm.

Regarding challenges to psychoanalysis, in some ways Wertham situated himself in this tradition, particularly insofar as he challenged the conservative bias of so many important (at the time) psychiatric writers. Would he be sympathetic to cognitivism? Not likely, but it is important to note that part of Wertham's disagreement with the Freudians undoubtedly was a result of his training in anatomy. His first book, The Brain as an Organ, is a textbook about the physical nature of the brain, and Wertham was a lot more sympathetic to the idea that some mental illnesses were physical than were many of his contemporaries. For my own part, I'm not anymore swayed by cognitivism than I am by psychoanalysis, though Pinker is a good alarmist writer in the Wertham tradition.

As for the Clinical Method, that's an absence in my book that you're right to note. I never really got a sense that I completely understood it. Partly I think that this is a function of the fact that Wertham, like so many researchers, had a hard time explaining precisely what it is that he did. He just did it, and in just doing it, it seemed self-evident to him. He termed it "Social Psychiatry", but in writing a lot of it seems vague, and maybe it was clearer when it was practiced. Here is the text of a note from Wertham's papers titled "Social Psychiatry":

- Starts with a clear slate, without social premises.
- Social factors to be studied by sociology and not psychologically; for example, it is wrong if you start studying Negroes psychologically; you must start sociologically
- A large part of social psychiatry is a negative thing, disregarding the backlog of social premises
- Ordinary psychiatry gives a scientific foundation for prevalent prejudices; social psychiatry is against unsocial psychiatry, or is the opposite of unsocial psychiatry
- Unsocial psychiatry gives people inferiority feelings and guilt feelings, like blaming everything on the individual (a psychoanalyst is like a a man standing on a pedestal and the people come from underneath)
- What is the sociology of reactive and situational depressions? It has never been worked out.

See what I mean? It's specifically vague, and thus really difficult for me to qualify after the fact. And while I'd love to post some scans of his notes, I'm not enough of a free speech absolutist to post someone else's medical records on the internet, even anonymously. And besides, I didn't make copies of any of that material since I knew I would never use it in the book anyway (at 25 cents per page for photocopying, you start to get judicious after about the 4000th page). So, I'm afraid I can't really give you a much clearer answer about what his method entailed, particularly since, to my untrained eye, the notes seemed like what you expect to find in any psychiatrist's files. I wish he had written something more definitive on this subject, that's for sure.

Finally, I want to address some of the issues raised by Charles Hatfield's letter (the return of the repressed!), and tie them into your own comments about The World of Fanzines. Charles castigates us (correctly, I might add) for ignoring the transgressive ideologies found in works like EC and Crumb, and points to Martin Barker's work on the subject (work that I like very much). I agree with Charles when he argues that Wertham did not recognize a positive value in transgression. That's totally true, and it is a blind spot in Wertham's understanding of the form, and one of the places where I depart from his conclusions. Charles challenges us to historicize Wertham's work, which is perhaps the primary thrust of my book. I think when we do that, however, we find that Wertham is very much in the mainstream of thinking about transgression and youth, as there were few scholars writing in the immediate postwar years who saw transgression as a good thing for children. Subsequent to the rise of British Cultural Studies, avenues for understanding work in this way opened up, but I have difficulty condemning Wertham for not seeing what everyone else was missing at the same time as well. (For instance, one of the areas where I depart most acutely from Wertham is in his writing on homosexuality, which was something that he thought was a disease. Of course, it wasn't until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of diseases. Wertham was wrong on that front, but he was the same degree of wrong as the vast majority of his colleagues. I think something similar can be said regarding the aesthetics of transgression). I agree with you, Craig, that it seems that some publishers deliberately sought to titillate kids with lurid or adult material. I tend to go back and forth on the question of whether or not this was a good thing or a bad one. I will admit, when I first saw Crumb's work (at about age 12) it made me think that I should stop reading all comics altogether.

Regarding Charles' two specific questions. First, I'm not sure that I (or anyone) can offer proof that Wertham's positions came from his patients. In fact, I probably overstated that point, as his postitions are much more an intersection of his own ideological predispositions and the evidence supplied by his patients. After all, he filtered the information provided by his patients and decided what to use. As for the objectivity, I'm not sure what standard of proof I could offer. These were private, personal notes never intended for publication or circulation. It's possible that Wertham would invent the statements of his patients, but why, and to what end? Who would he be lying to other than himself? If he just wanted to make stuff up, he could have done that in print, but who would do it in personal notes? All I can really say is that I trust his notes because in my experience doctors are trained to take really accurate notes, but I can't make an offer of proof beyond my own faith and the fact that the material exists in the archive.

On the question of linear dyslexia I'm generally sympathetic to your point-of-view, Charles, although I do think that Wertham makes some valid points. I know for a fact that people read comics in different ways, because I know that as a comic reader myself, I often skip enormous chunks of material (much of the typeset material in Cerebus, for example, I simply gloss over). I have little doubt that everyone who reads comics reads them differently (take in the whole page first/don't take in the whole page first; read the captions then the dialogue/read the dialogue then the captions; read the text then look at the art/look at the art then read the text; etc. etc.), and Wertham's discussions with his patients bore this out. This seems commonsensical to me. Where you and I seem to depart from Wertham, though, is the notion that this constitutes a "poor" form of reading. Different does not necessarily correspond to poor, and that's the distinction that I would make.

Holy cow, I just noticed how long this is. I can't imagine anyone is still reading, so I'll stop for the day. Back to you, Craig.


P.S. -- Regarding a new edition of Seduction of the Innocent, inquiries were made a few years ago but the rights were already assigned. James Reibman has put out a new edition of Seduction through Main Road Books: Main Roads Books, Inc. PO Box 632, Laurel, New York. FAX 631-298-5631; phone 631-298-4247. The book's ISBN number is 0-8488-1657-9. I haven't seen a copy of the new edition, but for readers looking to get a copy for non-eBay prices, there you go.

P.P.S. In Meet the Fockers, the DeNiro character is a hyper-conservative former CIA agent who comes into conflict with ultra-liberals Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. DeNiro insists that the crying baby not be held so that he will learn to calm himself, while the Hoffman/Streisand insist on hugging everyone at all times. In the end, Barbra teaches Robert to get his groove on and he learns that hugs are a good thing. The end.


Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 5