On Graeber’s Batman

There are lots of important happenings going on out in the world right now that I haven’t commented on yet. I’ve spent a lot of the past two weeks reading essays and articles in magazines and newspapers from Britain and the U.S. The Kindle has given me the opportunity to gorge myself on British thought and opinion.

For the past year, I’ve been especially interested in reading essays, as I figure that’s essentially what I usually end up writing — when I end up writing something coherent and decent, that is. The local library, I remember writing about months ago, didn’t have many books of essays (The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen was quite enough, thank you). The Kindle (and Project Gutenberg) has let me sample some of the best in 18th and 19th century American, British and French thought and writing. I could have likely done this at Austin’s public library, of course, but this way I didn’t have to drive half an hour

Though I didn’t know it at the time, what I was really searching for was cultural criticism. I was searching for a more specific name to what it is I do and want to continue doing, would like to do professionally but will do privately. Something that explained my avocation more than writing “essays.”

During my reading, I read many pieces of literary criticism (among other subjects, forms and styles), as it has long been used to explore the world beyond the pages of the book. I’ve always found — and, through my reading discovered, still find — postmodern literary criticism to be rather, well, bullshit. The essays are amusing, but I find treating almost all (and any) stories as needing to be “unpacked” (academic jargon) in order to truly understand them to be danger-ridden. And unpacking and truly understanding them tends to come, in such critics’ products, by viewing them through the ideological lense of feminist, waste, environmental, comparative, multicultural or some other “theory.” Like economists, the ends achieved are exactly what they said they’d be in the beginning. (That is, it ain’t no damn science, yo!)

Even David Graeber, an anthropologist who I greatly respect for his work on behavioral economics, does it. In his critical essay, “Super Position,” after discussing superheroes, comic books, capitalism and the film The Dark Knight Rises, he takes his subjects a little too far in interpretation, if you ask me.

I’m not saying comic books can’t have underlying meaning — a deeper message, even if contrived, being communicated by the author — but to take it as far as he does makes it . . . far-fetched, to say the least. Nor do I believe pop culture never communicates broader societal values. Of course it does. But when you make rhetorical moves like the one below, you know something is definitely wrong with one’s argument:

If the classic comic book is ostensibly political (about madmen trying to take over the world), really psychological and personal (about overcoming the dangers of rebellious adolescence), but ultimately political after all, then the new superhero movies are precisely the reverse. They are ostensibly psychological and personal, really political, but ultimately psychological and personal.

Why? There’s no explanation for this “if, then” statement except this: it’s his opinion. Why the latter is the opposite of the former is still a mystery to me. By doing this, one is prevented from applying the same standard in analysis or interpretation. Indeed, wouldn’t it be more helpful to consider them both based on the same aspects in the same order? Apples to apples? Maybe not. But it’s worth considering.

Ultimately, Graeber didn’t like the movie (surprise!) and found a very longwinded excuse for not liking it. Why he needed to make the excuse, I don’t know. The other question would be why he decided to make his argument in such a poor way. To make it more attractive to readers?

None of this is to say I didn’t get any value out of reading the essay. There are thoughts and sentences worth pondering in it. This is true in most things, though, which is why I try to read widely — and deeply into the things I find most interesting.

For example, I quote the below at length because I found it to be very interesting and shed a new light on superhero narratives:

These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own, at least not in their role as heroes: as Clark Kent, Superman may be constantly trying, and failing, to get into Lois Lane’s pants, but as Superman, he is purely reactive.  In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.

Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas. Clearly, we are supposed to first, without consciously realizing it, identify with the villains. After all, they’re having all the fun. Then of course we feel guilty for it, re-identify with the hero, and have even more fun watching the superego clubbing the errant Id back into submission.

There’s plenty of interpretation and unpacking right there. To go any further would, I think, jump the shark, as we slightly saw in the first example (and many others when you read the essay). Don’t believe me? To wit, after saying that comic books are fundamentally conservative, he writes,

Ultimately, the division between Left- and Right-wing sensibilities turns on one’s attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous, and ultimately evil.

* * *

Now, I’m no conservative, but even I find that to be a little over the top.

I find that there’s plenty of meaning in the world without having to make it up and place it where it isn’t.

Critics should be wary of assuming all works communicate (whether they are meant to or not) the ideal and previously ineffable. In fact, as I said as the beginning of this essay, there are plenty of things happening in our world that come loaded with meaning already. Let’s get to teasing those out.

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