Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Measure of All Structures (Introduction)

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is many things. It is, most obviously, an anime series of the magical girl genre by Studio Shaft, but beyond that it is a critique of and homage to that genre; it is an attempt at self-redemption by a writer lost in the dark; it is a Buddhist retelling of Faust. It is a study in contrasts, at once a feminist examination of questions of consent, privilege, and gender roles, and a sexist objectification of the underage female form. It is about sacrifice and selfishness, despair and hope, love and death, decay and life, and how all of these seeming opposites are really one and the same.

Most of all, though, it is about people, who make choices (frequently bad ones), and suffer, and strive, and succeed, and fail. It is about characters who love each other and hate each other and don't care about each other, sometimes all at once.

In the next few months I will be talking a lot about grand themes, philosophies, and symbols, so here at the beginning I wanted to establish a reminder: This is a story about people, because all stories are about people.

Why Madoka?

Madoka is a tremendously layered story. In a mere twelve 22-minute episodes and one feature film (there were three released, but the first two were just compilations of the TV series), it packs in an enormous amount of story, with rich characters, complex themes, and moments of profound sadness, apprehension, anger, and joy. Analyzing it is tremendously rewarding, as it reveals more layers every time it is examined. In particular, as very much a postmodern work itself, it greatly rewards analysis with a postmodern bent.

Po-wha huh?

Postmodernism is a rather complex term to define, but I shall essay that task once again, to at least explain what I mean when I talk about it. Philosophically, as the name implies, postmodernism is a step beyond modernism.

In a nutshell, the core realization of modernism is that symbols are fundamentally arbitrary. That is, there is no relationship between the signifier (the thing that does the symbolizing) and the signified (the thing that is symbolized), except in the mind of the person looking at it. So, for example, a red octagon means "stop" not because there is some logical connection between redness, octagonality, and stopping, but because somebody somewhere decided that red octagons should mean stop, and convinced others to go along with it. This is termed the social construction of symbols; things created through social construction are called social constructs.

Since all art (and even language) is a series of symbols, it follows that the meaning of any given work is in some sense arbitrary. Traditionally, art got around this by using agreed-upon, socially constructed symbols such as words or representational images (that is, using the image of an apple to stand in for an apple). These act as guiderails of a sort, allowing the person experiencing the art to start with a few familiar symbols, and then build from there. Modern art, by contrast, often dispenses with some or all of these guiderails, aggressively challenging the very idea that art does or should have non-arbitrary meaning, for example by presenting stream-of-consciousness text without normal sentence structure, or painting abstract colors and shapes rather than representations of familiar objects.

Postmodernism, by contrast, rejects the idea that socially constructed meaning is the same thing as no meaning. Put another way, modernism says "The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, so nothing means anything"; postmodernism says "The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, so we're free to decide what everything means."

Where modern art removes the guiderails, postmodern art tends to function by drawing attention to the guiderails. This is done primarily via a process of decontextualization and recontextualization, that is, removing familiar signifiers from their usual contexts and placing them in other contexts, for example by mixing elements from multiple genres, creating pastiches of familiar works, or breaking the fourth wall. The resulting sense of disorientation or wrongness is most commonly then exploited either for humorous or horrific effect, or to provoke thought. (It can, of course, also be funny, frightening, and thought-provoking all at once.)

Madoka makes heavy use of these and other techniques as part of telling its story, for example (as we'll discuss more next week) by having the witches take the form of alien, invasive art styles that overwrite the familiar anime style of the show.

The Plan

Right now, the plan is cover one episode a week, every Wednesday, with the occasional Wednesday off to write about something else. I expect the articles to be of similar length to, or slightly longer than, the typical My Little Po-Mo article, so about 1200-1500 words per episode. In general I expect this project to be a bit less gonzo than My Little Po-Mo--at this time I'm not planning for any of the articles to play games with the essay format, for example.

So, welcome to The Very Soil. I hope you enjoy the ride. Next week: Episode 1.


  1. Minor quibble: Stop signs are red octagons, not hexagons.

    1. I dunno, maybe we could've pretended that your original mistake was supposed to be subtle commentary in and of itself. Since that paragraph was about the theory that the links between symbols and meanings are arbitrary and then you named the wrong symbol to associate with a meaning, while still being obvious in what you meant to say.


      Or you can just fix it.


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