Saturday, August 11, 2012

Link: The Humanities and common sense

Twenty years ago I (and no small part of my generation) would have reflexively said that a college education was vital for getting a decent job. Not a great job, not a dream job, a decent job.  Sure, you could get a dream job with a college degree, so the thinking went, but if you didn't get a college degree of some kind you were wasting your potential.  Or at least that was the implicit story and cultural value I heard.

So I went to college.  Figuring out what I'd study took some time. All the things I have loved most, I knew, were useless things in terms of normal workaday society.  Now pastors will object that a love of biblical literature and theology with an occasional interest in philosophy isn't useless, it gets at issues of worldview and how we live.  I agree with that but the reality is that if you have a seminary degree and you apply to a job as a production line manager or (more likely?) an administrative assistant will the fact that you even know who Schleiermacher is matter?

I have never once felt called into ministry and did not feel a burning in my bosom to be ordained in a specific denominational context and so I decided swiftly that seminary wasn't for me.  Looking back on that process twenty years on I believe it was one of the best decisions I made.  I didn't make it by myself.  I had some valuable advice from a couple of people.  One of them included the late William Lane.

Something Lane shared with me years ago was a concern that in American biblical scholarship, particularly in the Ivy League scene, too much of the scene was possessed by a guild mentality.  The scholars did their work for each other and to impress each other more than they did their scholarship to be a service to the local, regional, let alone global church.  It wasn't that no scholarly work of note was done, it was that in this sort of academic setting seminarians had this habit of conflating scholastic work on the biblical literature with an actually personal faith.

I still believe in the value of education but I have changed a lot in my thinking about how much of that education has to involve what is often called higher learning.  I want my younger friends to keep a love of learning without having to net themselves tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in debt.

I can more than sympathize with Roger Berkowitz proposal that collegiate education seems to be giving students things they don't necessarily need or want.

During the 1990s, or was it earlier, there began to be scholars of pop culture in a formal sense.  There have been scholars of television shows.  A friend of mine in college was simultaneously excited and annoyed by this back when he and I were college undergrads ourselves.  He was excited on the one hand by the possibility that popular culture was getting some academic attention and that it might warrant that.  He was frustrated, however, by the question of what the point would be of just having a scholar specializing in pop culture because, surely, pop culture can't possibly be valuable on the same level as actually classic works in the humanities.  Both concerns were as true twenty years ago as they are now and we are not quite such young men as we were when we were roommates.

Now it's no secret I have written quite a bit about Batman.  I have spent a good chunk of time discussing the nearly twenty-year old classic cartoon Batman: the animated series.  I've read a few attempts at a scholarly discussion of Batman over the last few decades.  Marxists observations about the inherently hegemonic nature of Thomas Wayne's violent defense of property rights in Kane's story is an example of academic scholarship about Batman that we don't particularly need, even if someone happened to actually be a Marxist.  People declaring that Christopher Nolan advocates fascism is also needless.  The reality is that the classics of literature were generally not produced in times and places where what we believe should be the obligatory representative democratic republic across the world even existed.  The classics of world art can be appreciated in a modern liberal republic but most of us would not have fit in that well in the time and place in which the classics were made.

I suppose I conceivably could have gone on to further formal academic life but I don't regret not managing that anymore.  Ten years ago I would have, probably.  Over the last eight years, though, I began to wonder what I would or could do as a scholar and how it could be served by adding more educational debt to myself.

Let me frame it in terms of Batman.  Academics who decide to discuss how Marxism provides a critique of the assumption of property rights that led to Thomas Wayne's death is moot.  That is using Batman as a pretext to discuss Marxism, not Batman.  If you want to do something scholarly with Batman try taking Batman seriously on his own terms as an artifact of pop culture and attempt to draw out what makes him appealing to Americans despite the assumed "fact" that a Marxist critique of property rights means that Thomas Wayne shouldn't have defended his wife and child against a mugger the way he did in the earliest Batman comics.  Pop culture creators have shifted the nature of that origin story to the point where in Nolan's Batman that Marxist critique of the original story is completely irrelevant because it's not the one emblazoned into the memories of hundreds of millions of people who have watched Batman movies.  Ditto for the Burton film.

In a way what I do when I write about Batman: the animated series is to just take a scholarly approach to a now classic cartoon a lot of kids grew up watching.  I'm just old enough now that the show that premiered the year I got into college was a show that my younger friends grew up watching as children and this show shaped their understanding of Batman.  The show did this, mind you, for a generation of kids who never read any of the comics and even for people in my generation who STILL don't read comics.  See, that is a powerful level of influence that can't be measured.

What we can do is to take that influence seriously and find a way to discuss the stories as, if not classics in anything beyond a strictly television meaning of the term, a kind of "literature".

But the last thing we probably need are official scholars doing that.  If we just get more American scholars talking about what kind of politics Batman has to represent during an election year then we might as well be doing the same thing about Shakespeare.  Neither the Bard nor Batman directly influence the real world concerns of people looking for jobs and getting into dating relationships or raising children.  When the Nolan brothers explain up front that they drew inspiration for their last Batman film on Dickens then it makes sense to "read" The Dark Knight Rises in light of that and not in terms of Nolan having to be "fascist" just as it retroactively shows us that reading The Dark Knight as a defense of Bush's war on terror is equally imposing a political agenda on to the work of a British film maker.  I've already mentioned the narcissism inherent in American political readings of Batman films made by a British director before.

That can not only be said to be a problem with American reviews but of the American collegiate system which, over the last twenty years, has given us the kinds of American film reviewers who keep doing these kinds of stupid things.  Obviously I think there is an alternative path for discussing Batman in film and on television and I could present my own writing as an alternative to what I see academic/critical handling of a pop icon like Batman has been.  I have undertaken to interpret Batman within the framework of Christian ethics, thought, and tradition.

I would propose that while critics and scholars wax tedious about Batman's political implications or how the sign signifies valence of reading we could be more direct and point out that what makes Batman special in America pop mythology is that it is possible for there to be equally legitimate readings of Batman's ethos as having either a Christian or secular foundation.  Bruce Wayne's journey can be seen as informed by the filial honor endorsed by the Decalogue or by the observation that once a life is lost it cannot be regained and Bruce Wayne is informed by a desire to stop the innocent from being killed by those who sacrifice others on the altar of their own agendas.  Denny O'Neil used to say that Ra's al Ghul was right about the environment and Batman was wrong but Batman was still right that sacrificing billions of lives for the sake of purifying the global ecosphere is still wrong.  Ergo Batman remains the good guy while Ra's al Ghul is the bad guy.

Which is to present the thumpingly obvious point that a Christian and a secularist can both agree Ra's al Ghul is wrong.  Now I've seen people try to make a case that Batman espouses a philosophy of self-reliance and picking yourself up by your bootstraps.  This is probably more the fault of Denny O'Neil than anyone else because in many iterations of Batman Bruce Wayne relies on an unseen army of allies, friends, and mentors.  Let's remember that as of twenty years ago O'Neil's vision of Batman in the 1970s and 1980s took a backseat to the animated series, to Batman in Justice League, and to Nolan's Batman who surrounds himself with mentors who share his father Thomas Wayne's values.  The modern-day Nolan version of Bruce Wayne was never truly a loner, Batman was the result not merely of Bruce Wayne's anger and altruism but the cumulative development of a value system within a family legacy and its circle of friends and partners.  And, obviously, given the final shot of The Dark Knight Rises the ethos and legacy of Bruce Wayne as a member of the Wayne family informs the possibility of someone else becoming Batman.

I've read a few of the reviews of Nolan's latest Batman film and while it "is" a popcorn film and a blockbuster if we choose to read it and experience it in just that way and not as part of a completed trilogy with a variety of ideas then we've let a popcorn film be a popcorn film.  And maybe in most cases that's as it should be.  But at a different level, the one in which we theoretically discuss the value of education and the humanities, what have we said about education?  That education permits us to watch a Batman film and decide that we either like it or don't and then move on?

When I read Edelstein's review of The Dark Knight where he pointed out that the whole scene with Batman and the Scarecrow was pointless it was an attention-getting moment.  The scene wasn't pointless for people who actually paid attention to the first film.  That Scarecrow had disappeared and no one had caught him was one of the most conspicuous loose ends from Batman Begins.  We're told specifically that Scarecrow and the inmates of Arkham were beyond immediate hope of capture.  Batman tells Gordon that they will get caught and in the first hour of The Dark Knight we see that Batman finally makes good on his promise to Gordon.  Now if people just don't like superhero movies, okay, that's fair enough.

But what seems to happen with some reviewers is they don't realize that today's entertainment assumes a level of sustained attention and attention to detail in narrative and character development that is either shared or not.  For instance, I could read critics talking endlessly about the symbolism of scenes in Mad Men or The Sopranos or other shows on HBO.  The critics talk about this stuff and its meaning and import.  Okay, but for those of us who don't even have basic cable how does this add up?  To put it another way, people who can devote that level of attention to identifying recycled or reversed footage in episodes of shows on HBO who, if applicable, don't get the plot points and plot twists in the latest Batman film because they weren't paying attention to the previous one "can" pay attention.  They just didn't.  Again, if you don't like the genre that makes sense.

At the other extreme are the upset comics fans who think it's lame John Blake knew Bruce Wayne was Batman.  How did Bane know Bruce Wayne was Batman?  It's just thrown out there.  Bane was told by someone in the LEague of Shadows who already knew the truth.  The League of Shadows was led by Ra's al Ghul.  Did we ever get an explanation in Batman Begins for how Ra's al Ghul knew that Bruce Wayne was Batman?  Nope, and people were conspicuously not complaining about that because that was in the comics.

The two pitfalls in any attempt to have a scholarly (real or otherwise) discussion of pop culture is that the two extremes end up being the same, nerdy digressions into the minutiae of presentation that don't explore the core of the story or characters and which reflect pre-committments about material. That can be okay.  If a gay writer declares that only the Adam West Batman was any good to him and that because of its camp and that all the other Batmen are rubbish then he's said what he wanted to say.  He's arguably not really a Batman fan at a broader level but that's the thing about Batman, there are dozens of versions and each version is capable of meaning something to different groups over time.

In scholarly circles what happens is that it's possible to set aside a debate about whether "if" a writer has said something important and discuss what that is and how we can interact with it. I've met more than a few people who loathe the writing of Hemmingway or Austen or Dostoevsky or Kafka or Shakespeare but the point is that from a scholarly standpoint it's possible to discuss what those authors were getting at without having to be won over to their work.

In pop culture, clearly, this sensitivity is often of no value to critics.  A reviewer may feel beholden to know and understand a Hemmingway or Twain or Eliot and not like them but for pop culture the jock and nerd paradigm sticks around.

I could try for a more cohesive way to end this but I'm going to end on a deliberately irascible note.  I suggest that critics and scholars might benefit from taking kids' entertainment and popcorn movies more seriously but this needs to be done by attempting to see what these things present.  Marxist readings on a Batman origin story that is seventy years old isn't as salient as considering the core of the  character's appeal.  A scholarly engagement with Batman or Star Trek as pop mythologies is going to be more relevant to the lives of non-scholars then putting together, I dunno, some treatise on the writings of William Vollmann.  Batman and Captain Kirk can tell us quite a bit about the values and ideals of Americans.  That this could move a scholar through the perilous waters of Adam West and William Shatner does not mean the waters cannot be navigated.  I suppose the original series Star Trek might be a useful stopping point.  It is possible to take the ideas we stand for seriously without taking anything else seriously and perhaps the question of the relevance of scholarship in the humanities touches on this.

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