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.

Perseus absconding with Medusa's head, ca. 460 BCE

For the sake of convenience, we’ll restrict ourselves to comparisons with Greek myth because it enjoys more cultural currency in the West than the Norse sagas or the Hindu Itihasa—and because it's the mythology with which I'm most familiar. But we also ought to be cautious of making too broad a generalization regarding who the ancient Greeks were and what they believed.

For our purposes here, we’re interested in ancient Greek culture prior to its adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, and during the centuries in which writing saw some use, but its encroachment on cultural practice and general habits of perception and thought were held in check by residual orality.² We are not so concerned with the milieus of Thucydides and Aristotle, men of letters if ever there were. Though we only know about any bygone oral tradition because it was recorded in writing (typically at a late stage in its useful life) literacy invariably undermines the conditions in which a conception of the world germinated in “the charmed circle and resonating magic” of the oral field—to use McLuhan’s phrasing—attains the full perfection of its wonder and grandeur. To be sure, an oral culture tends powerfully toward tribalism, superstition, and reactionism, but its members live in an integrated and purposeful world the likes of which most anyone reading this can scarcely imagine.

We receive their stories as an incomplete fossil impression of a total way of life—or ways of life, given that discrepant versions of the same myth reflect generational revisions and regional variations. Though we are inclined by habit to approach a body of myth as a confined text, the preliterate speaker and listener understood it to be boundless. The mythology of an oral culture is participatory, practical, and bound in thoroughgoing unity with the day-to-day life of a people. It forms a grand narrative which contextualizes the affairs of the individual and his people within a cosmic framework with a singular universe of discourse.

This composite narrative provides a preliterate society with its very ligature, prescribing codes of conduct and establish the strictures and taboos upon which the stability of any group depends; grounding primordial rituals of harmonization and atonement in localized tradition; substantiating and validating the rites and festivals which bind communities together as such. Narratives of the gods identify the ghosts in the cosmic machinery and prescribe methods of placating and negotiating with them. In ancient Greece, mythological heroes were subjects of local cult-worship in the districts where their bodies were (allegedly) interred; civil leaders might justify their status and assert their authority in a dispute by tracing their genealogies back to figures whose names we'd recognize from Homer or Ovid. Certain tales and tropes we might read as primitive whimsy represent the prescientific transmission of practical methodologies: the stories of the constellations, for instance, were part and parcel of time-sensitive agricultural practices—and incorporated the knowledge of farming, timekeeping, and cosmology within the same grand conceptual scheme as civic life, religion, history, and everything else of significance.

The Athenian of the Archaic period (when writing was in use, but before it displaced the oral tradition in the fourth century BC) made little distinction between history and legend. A man of Attica living in the sixth century BC would have understood that the king of Athens who oversaw the incorporation of the surrounding territories into the main city was the very Theseus who slew the Minotaur in Crete, jilted Ariadne, and was imprisoned for a time in the underworld. We can question the narrative’s fidelity to fact, but the transmission of Theseus’ deeds in this way registered an important geopolitical event, kept alive the memory of the Minoan civilization that matured in advance of Mycenean Greece, linked a celebrated local hero to a popular mystery cult and civic festival, corroborated eschatological belief—and held listeners’ attention, to boot. A given arc in the disorganized, chronologically muddled mythos of the ancient Greeks did not serve one purpose which justified its retention in the oral tradition; it served several. Within the resonance chamber of orality, isolation of functions is quite literally unheard of.

Whatever Batman comics and Marvel movies are to us, it is nothing like what Heracles and Homer were to the ancient Greeks.

Young Justice: Invasion (2011)

Text is technology. Its interiorization fosters abstraction, specialization, and the independence of thought which challenges dogma and prevailing opinion. Literacy effectuated the dissolution of the Greeks' integrated worldview, gradually vitiated polytheistic belief and practice across the Greco-Roman sphere (leading to its usurpation by a new religion grounded on a sacred text), and not only made possible the formulation of Aristotelian philosophy, but facilitated its spread and centuries-long dominance within the intellectual castes of the West and Middle East. In Europe, specialization allowed the physical sciences to reach heights of sophistication and utility that would have been impossible if each discipline had been made to coordinate its advances with the rest—or if natural philosophy had remained wholly in service to exploring and authenticating the foregone conclusion of the Medieval Synthesis.

Probably the capitalist system of social organization could not have emerged without the proliferation of print technology in the West—but it's as useless to speculate about what would have happened if Gutenberg had perished in the crib as it is difficult to imagine how circumstances in fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Europe could have altogether precluded the invention of movable type. But at any rate, the Renaissance-era printer's studio contains the germ of capitalist production: a privately-owned venture consisting of the mechanical mass-manufacture of identical goods, not in order to satisfy any preexisting social need, but carried out for the economic benefit of the man who owns the means of their production.

A literate culture becomes a nation of individuals with jobs rather than roles. From this naturally follows the central dogma of a labor market in which the worker and capitalist legally confront each other as equal quantities. Long liberated from the tribal bonds of community, and increasingly from all sacred and social obligation, the "private citizen" of the bourgeoisie epoch was free to pursue his “rational self-interest,” with only abstract economic feedback guiding him through decisions that remade landscapes and reconfigured social life by fiat.

The printing press itself was predicated on a quiet revolution in the medium of written matter: the production and use of inexpensive paper as opposed to parchment. The materials were cheap and abundant; with print technology, the time required for serial reproduction of texts became a fraction of what it took to copy manuscripts by hand. As the audience for literature expanded beyond the members of the aristocracy and clergy, society become profligate in the production and consumption of what we’re lately calling “content.” Having nearly exhausted their store of classical manuscripts to translate and mass produce, Renaissance-era print shops resorted to tracts and polemics as new revenue sources. The nineteenth-century British publisher’s cash cow was fiction; penny dreadfuls and dime novels indicate early efforts at market segmentation by a maturing culture industry. The American pulp magazines of the early twentieth century—named for the low-quality paper they were printed on, teeming with stories about spacemen, hard-boiled detectives, swashbucklers, mysterious men of action, and victimized women—had no pretensions of possessing any more persistent cultural value than a circus performance. Neither, for that matter, did the early comic books that imitated them in every respect but their format.

Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

The superhero, bleeding from the pages of comic books into electronic media and the mainstream consciousness, does not signify the post-industrial Western incarnation of the archetypical god-man of primitive myth so much as an abstraction of him. If the Avengers are in some way the Argonauts remanifested in a different cultural setting, then they are Argonauts severed from their in situ world-narrative that bound history, religion, civics, locality, craft, and practical wisdom into an intelligible whole. Only the mesmerism of the media event remains. To be sure, superhero spectacle delivers entertainment far more effectively than ancient tales of kings and demigods, whether sung by a bard or transcribed by a chronicler. That is its singular function, isolated, amplified, and perfected.

We ought to dwell on this for a moment. I can't overemphasize how much I enjoy superhero comics and cartoons. On Wednesday mornings, one of the first things I do is read the weekly X-book releases. When my folks were into the TV show Gotham, they often came to me with questions about such-and-such character's role in the comics, and my answers usually went on for longer than they cared to listen. I'm that guy who reminds vocal Marvel Cinematic Universe fans that the DC Animated Universe practically wrote the blueprint Marvel followed in brining its individual properties to the silver screen and then unifying them in ensemble casts. I love this shit. 

Nothing else in world art or literature compares to comic books—facile comparisons to hero-stories of oral tradition notwithstanding.³ The superhero comic was a sui generis product of the twentieth century; it pulled itself up by its own bootstraps and devised its own standards of excellence. It's really astonishing that a genre originated by self-taught artists who based their styles on newspaper cartoons and writers whose ears for dialogue and ideas of plot structure came from listening to radio dramas could eventually reach and conscript such talents as Chris Claremont, Jim Lee, Grant Morrison, Chris Bachalo, and too many others to mention, who brought genuine virtuosity to the superhero comic—while preserving its character as an amalgamation of soap opera and wrestling bout conveyed through sequential grids of illustration speckled with narrative caption, word bubbles, and coded emanata. Superhero media is fantastically entertaining in a way that can't be explained until you've taken a deep dive into them, lost yourself in the abstruse lore, and savored their inimitable cocktail of shlock and artistry, the magnificent and the ridiculous, farce and pathos. They are a triumph of the human imagination—and the issue (so to speak) of the harmonious and fecund marriage between the creative arts and capitalism.

The perfection which superhero comics, cartoons, and films achieved as vehicles for entertainment was won through sequestration. This is a key difference between Greek myth and Marvel Comics. The tellers and listeners of traditional stories in an oral culture understood that matters of fact were being communicated: true histories, real gods, definite practical principles, and actual explanations for natural phenomena. The Marvel Universe may exceed the extant corpus of Greco-Roman mythology in its scale and sheer volume of print matter, but we who read the comics and watch the television shows and films understand that its truths, except for the occasional moral admonition, pertain only to the fictional world of the "texts." Each proprietary "universe" in our media landscape enters into our consciousness as a separate tone in an array of simultaneous narratives, both fictional and factual, too expansive and discordant to ever be synchronized.

The individual who has consumed entertainment media all his life has brought into his knowledge scores (if not hundreds) of heroic narratives, each based in a distinct imaginary world with its own fabricated history, culture, and characters. Some of these may intensely resemble our own world (think of 24, Breaking Bad, or Die Hard), but we nevertheless recognize them as simulacra. They are disjoined from each other; we understand they do not report current or historical events, and that they relate to real-world affairs mostly by way of metaphor—which a subsidiary industry of middlebrow critics tirelessly elaborates. Although critical examinations of the themes and underlying “messages” of popular media can elucidate the ways in which their narratives reflect conditions in the society that produced them, they tell us nothing about our world which we did not already know. Unlike the overarching belief system of which any collection of mythological episodes is an extension, culture industry artifacts can tease enlightenment—but never deliver it. Disney will never in our lifetime sell us an Eleusinian Mysteries experience, nor can entertainment properties unify or organize people except as brittle “communities” of consumer groups.

Final Crisis #2 (August 2008)

We commit a fallacy of reification in saying that a distinct mythology belonged to any pre- or proto-literate culture: it was rather a constituent of a practice in which its people participated. Superhero franchises, on the other hand, are privately owned consumer labels whose primary purpose is to perpetually manufacture demand for new products stamped with their imprints and images; their owners owe nothing to their paying customers but inoffensive, gratifying entertainment and branded knickknacks. But just as the industrial revolution’s consequences extended much further than the degradation of the worker and the flooding of markets with cheap goods, the entrenched culture industry’s role has crept into one of social emulsification.

We maintain the fertility of our topsoil-depleted farmland with petrochemical fertilizers and mineral injections; we likewise preserve the coherence of a society tending toward anomie and disintegration through ambient exposure to synthetic mythologies. The kaleidoscopic tunnel of entertainment media opens hundreds of windows to hundreds of narratives—coexisting with and embedded within a culture of general estrangement—in which we experience simulations of worlds in which events transpire according to legible teleologies, actions have significance, the guilty are shamed, and even if the good do not earn happy endings, the destinations at which they arrive will at least be meaningful. Routine doses of vicarious purposefulness, of identification with exaggerated personalities performing effective action in a sympathetic world rendered with all the verisimilitude money can buy and talent can execute, are apparently sufficient to keep the alienated and politically impotent single worker moving from his bed to the workplace on a reliable basis, to give him a language in which he can harmlessly relate to others like him, and most importantly, to keep him participating in the consumer economy while deterring him from seeking belonging and purpose in the radical fringes. A person content with working so that he might be entertained is in little danger of joining a fundamentalist sect, going off the grid with a right-wing militia, or becoming an indefatigable labor organizer during his off-time. An artificial mythological manifold, just like its organic oral predecessor, justifies a status quo and encourages acquiescence to it.

But the difference between these grooming strategies, once again, is that between a kind of active participation that weaves a person into a community sharing the endeavor of living a designated role in a coherent universe, and a passive kind that consists of buying and consuming diffuse entertainments as an activity insulated from the rest of one’s life in society and existence in the universe—both of which, for us, are fraught with ambiguity and exasperation. The mythology communicated (not contained) in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod reconciles humanity to its subordination to higher powers and its suffering of earthly injustice by drawing a community of speakers and listeners into a comprehensive cosmic meganarrative in which actions have significance and nature discloses messages. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Witcher, and their ilk merely exploit the abstracted tropes of demigod heroes, epic conflict, and poetic justice to sell reconciliation to the alienation and powerlessness fostered by the same organizational structures that make the entertainment-industrial complex possible to begin with.

If superhero stories constitute a bona fide mythology, it is the first in history whose “believers” have no illusions about its fictitiousness, and the first to be socially useful by virtue of its irrelevance.

1. Of course, a status quo in comic books can permanently change: Harley Quinn was introduced to the world as the Joker's most devoted ally, and lately in the comics she's been so generally helpful that it's getting to where we might as well drop the prefix when we call her an "antihero." The mythology of an oral culture evolves too—characters are added to and substracted from episodes, the fates of ancillary characters change, one god subsumes the role of another, etc.—but the transformation occurs over generations rather than decades. 

2. One J.A. Davison wrote a fascinating essay about Athens' centuries-long period of "proto-literacy" during the shift from orality to literacy. Some excerpts:
The view that I am putting forward, then, may be summed up as follows: the coming of the alphabet to Greece led within a generation to a considerable outburst of activity among those literary men who had grasped the value of the new technique as a means of preserving literary works independently of the not always available (or, if available, not always reliable) human memory; and thenceforth it became standard practice for an author to have at least one copy made of his works, to ensure that later performances might have the benefit of an authentic text. Such authentic texts might be preserved by a guild of singers who had a special respect for the author (this is, I believe, the most probable explanation of the Homeridae), or by dedication at a shrine (as in the case of the very ancient copy of the Works and Days seen by Pausanias on Mt. Helicon; it was engraved on lead plates, and was therefore presumably the equivalent of what we should call "a library edition," comparable perhaps with the chained books of late mediaeval and Renaissance libraries). But it must be emphasized that even alphabetic writing is a laborious process, and that writing materials cannot have been cheap in the seventh century (even in the fifth a new papyrus roll cost 2 dr.), so that even if there had been a public for written literature (as distinct from audiences for more or less formal recitations), it is unlikely that a text of the Iliad, or even of the Epodes of Archilochus, could have been produced for public sale. The author himself, or his authorized representative(s), would have a copy; and how absolute property in such a copy was felt to be can be seen from the story, already known to Pindar, of how Homer dowered his daughter with the Cypria, or from the stories about Homer's relations with Creophylus. Such stories suggest that the author was confident that there was no other copy of the poem in existence, and that the exclusive right of recitation thus conferred might prove a fairly valuable endowment.....

That Trollope's distinction between "the adequate use of a book" and "the absolute faculty of reading" expresses a fundamental truth, no one who reads these pages will doubt. Many people who can "read written hand" (a far more advanced stage in the art of reading than to be able to read "printing letters") will not read even print if they can possibly help it; and even vital notices may well go unread because they do not look interesting. There was, I imagine, more public reading matter in fifth-century Athens relatively to the population than there has been in any society since the fall of Athenian democracy; but I wonder how many people read the Periclean inscriptions which modern epigraphists would "give their ears" to be able to copy. But however little of these inscriptions or anything else the average Athenian read, if he cared about literature or music at all, he took them in through the ears, and in concentrated doses such as would stagger even the most persistent seeker after culture at the Edinburgh festival to-day.

If you are able, I would also recommend glancing at Eric A. Havelock's "The Preliteracy of the Greeks."

3. Hmm. I'm adding "how Shi Nai'an's Outlaws of the Marsh is a distant predecessor to Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men" to the very bottom of my things-to-write queue.


  1. In film circles the various narratives that the Marvel movies run with have become increasingly exhausting - starting out with the "new mythology" touted around the time of the first Avengers and now, 20 movies in, that they are delivering important, first-time "representation." The last one's noble in a sense, obviously, but kind of ridiculous, especially when it's used in tandem with Captain Marvel's Air Force propagandizing. We're left with really portentous language to justify the whole endeavor.

    Like you mention, mythology doesn't have a copyright, is not owned and executed by a small board of directors, etc. And in comics (probably not as much, but close to the games industry), individual creators are so often shafted by the corporate side.

    Did you happen to check out Abraham Riesman's Stan Lee book from earlier this year? For a pop biography, it's a pretty fascinating and clear-eyed look at his life and the larger myths he conjured around himself, as well as his relentless willingness to exploit the work of the people around him. It's also a more deliberately Jewish look into that history (a heritage Stan Lee mostly disowned), which I hadn't seen before.

    1. I hadn't even heard of the Stan Lee book until now. I might add it to my (exponentially growing) backlog.

      On "portentous language"—it's interesting, I think, that some people's problem with the application of highfalutin cultural analysis to superhero movies is that it makes entertainment into something it isn't, that it's a way for grown adults to rationalize their consumption of live-action cartoons by making them seem grand and significant. I can appreciate where that's coming from, though: SOMETHING has to be grand and significant in the world, and we're no longer really sure exactly what.

  2. I read this a while ago, and I've been thinking about it off and on since, in terms of what is and isn't mythology. I'll start with the final claims of that possible internet conversation from the start of your post:

    "Superheroes are the modern versions of Olympians and demigods; they’re our mythology."

    This comparison, like you say, does seem to create obvious parallels, but the conclusion that these similarities mean that superheroes are our mythology is flawed from the outset. I think a more accurate version of the comparison would be in reverse: "Olympians and demigods are the ancient versions of superheroes." The Olympians and superheroes have enough parallels that they can be compared, but the ancient mythological heroes, as you mention in your post, possess important cultural cachet (religious and historical) that modern superheroes lack. Calling modern superheroes the ancient equivalent of mythological heroes implies that these modern heroes have a similar importance in our culture which modern heroes simply do not possess (not yet, at least).

    However, I think the statement that superheroes are "our mythology" is problematic because it misses the point that the Olympians were not mythology to the Greeks, either; these stories were their history and religion. To us, superheroes are not our mythology; instead, the ancient gods and heroes (be they Greek, Roman, Norse, Arthurian, or whatever) constitute our mythology, precisely because we now consider them to be false gods or fictitious historical figures. You could say they have been demoted to mythology, although they still possess an important cultural heritage (and probably some believers).

    Because mythology derives from history and important cultural beliefs, I believe a modern mythological equivalent to ancient heroes would be something more akin to the Founding Fathers of the United States. The American Revolution is not something that people generally view as a mythological event now, because we're not that far removed from it; it's still clearly classified as history. As a Canadian, though, it seems to me that Americans deify George Washington, in particular, and the other founding figures to a lesser extent (they've even obtained the capitalized term "Founding Fathers"). The story of the American Revolution has been told and retold countless times in film, literature, and on stage (just look at the adulation and attention received by Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which I quite enjoyed, by the way). And, like much of history, the truth of what happened is slowly being distorted and lost as we become further removed from the events. We currently live about 3,000 years after the Trojan War, the key event that formed the basis for Homer's Iliad. How will history view the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers 3,000 years from now? I could imagine both being transformed into mythological status, although it's also possible that the growth of literacy and new technology will enable our descendants to more accurately preserve current history.

    So, I see a historical deification of America's Founding Fathers, and I think it's safe to say that the American Revolution has important cultural significance to many Americans, to the point that it forms part of their identities (just look at the reaction to the suggestion that guns should be banned in the U.S.). I wouldn't call the American Revolution mythology yet, but I'd argue it's more likely to enter the realm of genuine mythology than superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are. It just doesn't seem that way, due to our historical closeness. Yet, I think many in antiquity would find it insane if you travelled back in time and told them that their history is just a bunch of myths that no one in the future believes in.

    1. Crap. I typed out a long response and my browser ate it. I'll try again when I'm less aggravated.