Friday, August 13, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 2: "true believers."

That is the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false.
     —Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer

Perhaps you’ve heard in conversation or read something like this on the internet: The ancient Greeks listened to stories about Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus; we read Batman comics and watch Avengers movies. Superheroes are the modern versions of Olympians and demigods; they’re our mythology.

Prima facie, the parallels are obvious. The heroes of mythology and the mainstays of comic books are typically paragons of excellence: in the prime of life, muscular, athletic, possessed of virtuous dispositions and sound judgment, capable of speaking with eloquence and acting with cunning, seldom if ever physically unattractive, and most often depicted and renowned for feats of strength and ability in battle. Heracles, fathered by a god, strong enough the shoulder the vault of heaven; Superman, the son of aliens, strong enough to push the moon out of its orbit. Perseus and Batman, the resourceful adventurers, identifiable at a glance by their totemic paraphernalia: the Aegis and the winged sandals, the utility belt and Batarangs. In Captain America and Iron Man we see apparitions of Ajax and Odysseus: famed comrades at arms destined for fatal acrimony. Agamemnon inevitably returns home from Troy to be murdered by Clytemnestra, and is always avenged by Orestes; the details and attendant happenings differ with the chronicler, but the essential dynamics and structure of the drama are immutable. In our popular stories, Flash will never be free from a malicious speedster wearing yellow, Luthor's vendetta against Superman won't be extinguished for good until DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. go completely underwater, and if Amanda Waller is ever ousted from her position in the government, it's only a matter of time before she's reinstated and given permission to oversee a new Task Force X program.¹ You can read any Batman storyline centering the Joker published since 1940 and understand it as a variation on a theme, one particular version of a story told over and over and over again by different people in different ways. The conflict between the Caped Crusader/Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime/Harlequin of Hate has become archetypical in pop culture's collective imagination. It's the stuff of myth.

But that doesn't necessary mean superhero stories are myths. Joseph Campbell probably wouldn't consider the DC and Marvel Universes as such. The rippling muscles, the supernatural powers and impossible feats of strength, the amplified personalities, the delineation of the characters' lives into episodes and sagas—on paper, these common attributes of stories involving Heracles or Theseus or Green Lantern or Wolverine may seem sufficient to make a case for the congruence of ancient stories to modern modern media. But this assessment disregards the critical difference in practice.

Something resembling Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra occurs when the modern reader or viewer encounters the figures and narratives of Greek mythology in children’s books, translations from Greek and Latin manuscripts, Wikipedia articles, or in television or film. The stories confront us as mere content, whether as constituents of an inert literature or as tropes and memes in the hypertrophic body of electronic media. Conditioned by print and electronic media, we are disposed to interpret the world-stories of the ancients through habits of understanding totally alien to the cultures that developed and propagated them. When we try to make more than superficial analogies between superhero properties and millennia-old mythologies, it's as if we're measuring the poetry of Li Bai against the poetry of Wordsworth—vis-à-vis an English translation of Li Bai.