Last week came an announcement for an upcoming presentation in the Graphic Narrative Project at Stanford: “Superman in Slumberland: Playful Plasmatics in the Comics” by Prof. Scott Bukatman (Art & Art History). From the abstract:

… While originally a child’s fantasy figure in the nascent medium of the comic book, as that medium has matured, so has Superman. He is no Nemo. But I want to make a nuanced case for seeing Superman as of a piece with Little Nemo, recognizing their similarity as agents guiding us through playful realms of plasmatic promise.

The adjective plasmatic — one of the two adjectives derived from the noun plasma, the other being plasmic — and the related plural noun plasmatics were new to me in a literary context; blood plasma and plasma the state of matter, yes, but literary plasma?

More quotes. From the publisher’s description of Bukatman’s 2012 book The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit:

In The Poetics of Slumberland, Scott Bukatman celebrates play, plasmatic possibility, and the life of images in cartoons, comics, and cinema. Bukatman begins with Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland to explore how and why the emerging media of comics and cartoons brilliantly captured a playful, rebellious energy characterized by hyperbolic emotion, physicality, and imagination. The book broadens to consider similar “animated” behaviors in seemingly disparate media–films about Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh; the musical My Fair Lady and the story of Frankenstein; the slapstick comedies of Jerry Lewis; and contemporary comic superheroes–drawing them all together as the purveyors of embodied utopias of disorder.

From the book (pp. 182-3):

But I want to make a more nuanced case for seeing Superman as of a piece with Little Nemo, recognizing their similarity as agents guiding us through playful realms of plasmatic promise – it’s a case that depends on ignoring swathes of the continuity mentioned above but, still, a case worth making. (pp. 182-3)

Then, the abstract for Bukatman’s “Why I Hate Superhero Movies”, Cinema Journal 50.3.118-22 (Spring 2011), which has a crucial clue:

The book I’m currently completing, The Poetics of Slumberland, celebrates the plasmatic possibility that Sergei Eisenstein identified, in an uncompleted study, as endemic to the early cartoons of Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse and his barnyard brethren represented a freedom from “once and forever allotted form,” an anarchic release well deserved by those citizens laboring in the factories of industrial capitalism. The Poetics of Slumberland centers on such tales of playful disobedience in otherworldly realms, as encountered in early comics, animation, and beyond, and it further considers how such popular media can often constitute fields of playful disobedience. Disobedience is staged not only by fictive characters acting out in fantastic spaces: media such as comics and animation can themselves be considered disobedient in relation to other media such as the chronophotographic sequence and the live-action film, respectively. The book moves well beyond comics and animation, but the last chapter returns to comics, exploring the fundamental playfulness of the comic book superhero.

The clue lies in “celebrates the plasmatic possibility that Sergei Eisenstein identified, in an uncompleted study, as endemic to the early cartoons of Walt Disney”. Only a clue, but now we can entertain the idea that plasmatic possibility isn’t Bukatman’s phrasing, but Eisenstein’s. And so it is, as Bukatman tells me in e-mail; we’re dealing with a term of Eisenstein’s, accessible through Leyda’s Eisenstein on Disney:

Eisenstein on Disney (1986) is a book by film critic Jay Leyda that collects and reprints the various literature that Sergei Eisenstein produced about Disney. Eisenstein composed the majority of the text in 1941 after his introduction to the Hollywood culture industry. It was published much later than most of Leyda’s other seminal works on Eisenstein and it presents a unique side of this highly theoretical Soviet film director who is an outsider to American pop culture. (link)

More specifcally, in this series of quotes:

Eisenstein’s essay on Walt Disney was part of his unfinished book Method, a study of the relationship between archaic thought and art practice. Disney becomes the central subject of analysis, because in his work the synesthetic affects of sound and color, and the perfect visual rhythm unite with animism, totemism and the plasmatic qualities of form. (link)

Eisenstein on Disney: For Eisenstein, the apos [no, I don’t know this term] is ‘Paradise Regained. Created only by a drawing’. There he discovers the theme of his own drawing: the coming into being of the human form from plasma. Mickey Mouse has this plasmation par excellence! (link)

Eisenstein and Cartoon Sound: There was also a phallic fascination, a morphing between flaccid and erect and back again, easily observed in the cartoon cannon and rifle barrels relaxing after each firing; itself well within Eisenstein’s own field of fixations, as evidenced by his cock drawings. Eisenstein’s essay on Disney has this very elasticity as the main concern, finding precedent in Lewis Carroll, the German caricaturist Walter Trier, etchings by Toyohiro, Bokusen and Hokusai, etc. He calls it “plasmaticness” and considers Mickey in possession of “…this plasmation par excellence”. (link)

But Disney’s techniques went further than this, as can be seen in the following,’Disney moved further away from plasmatic flexibility of many of the early Silly Symphonies and coerced the animated form into a neo-realist practice.’ (Paul Wells, 1998:23) (link)

The metaphors here come from the plasma of plasma physics — ionized gas, the “fourth state of matter”:

Like gas, plasma does not have a definite shape or a definite volume unless enclosed in a container; unlike gas, under the influence of a magnetic field, it may form structures such as filaments, beams and double layers. Some common plasmas are found in stars and neon signs [and plasma tv displays].

For the purpose of the literary metaphor, the central features of plasma are its formlessness, primordial nature, elasticity, and flow.

Before I was led to Eisenstein, I entertained the possibility that plasmatic was Bukatman’s term, maybe connected to the Plasmatics (well, there’s an art school connection):

The Plasmatics were an American heavy metal and punk band formed by Yale University art school graduate Rod Swenson with Wendy O. Williams. The band was a controversial group known for wild live shows that broke countless taboos. In addition to chainsawing guitars, blowing up speaker cabinets and sledgehammering television sets, Williams and the Plasmatics blew up automobiles live on stage.

… In 1977, Rod Swenson, who received his MFA in 1969 from Yale where he specialized in conceptual, performance, and neo-dadaist art, held the view that the measure of true or high art is how confrontational it is. He began a series of counter-culture projects which, by the mid-70s, found him in the heart of Times Square producing experimental counter-culture theater as well as video and shows with the likes of the then-little-known bands The Dead Boys, The Ramones, Patti Smith, and others. (link)

I haven’t discovered how the Plasmatics got their name.

Bonus: While searching through plasmatic-related materal, I pulled up a few more arty items, possible fodder for students of naming and branding:

“Plasmatic”, a song on Zeromancer’s Eurotrash album

You have landed on the home page of Plasmatic Arts, a fictitious company run by Peter Broadwell to encourage the merging of art and high technology. (link)

About Plasmatic Concepts: The firm is headed by multimedia designer David Hartwell and architect Sarah Lorenzen. Their work emphasizes the use of creative communication devices: films, animations, interactive apps to engage the public on issues related to the built environment. (link)


2 Responses to “plasmatic”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    The Plasmatics name must have been inspired by blood plasma. Blood was part of their stage show, says this piece: “the band filled mannequins with fake blood and chainsawed them in half, soaking the audience in crimson cruor.”

  2. aleatorclassicus Says:

    The metaphorical use of the noun in a literary context goes back a long way: πλάσμα has the sense of ‘fiction’ in Classical Greek, where it can also be used of a ‘well-formed’ literary style; the adjective plasmatikos exists in the literary sense, but is pretty rare.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: