The Illustrated Man vs. Super-Graeber

In the comics industry, special issues that promise one hero “versus” another are usually long on gimmick and short on action. Keeping with that tradition my blog post promises an epic confrontation when in reality I’m not really engaging Graeber’s thought provoking essay “Super Position” in a substantial way. I’m going to use the author’s Freudian critique of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises as catalyst to reflect on the anthropological study of popular culture.

As an aside I will say this about Graeber’s essay: he uses Roman numerals to demarcate thematic chunks of the essay, which allows him to write without transitions. Whenever I see this technique it always makes me think of Walter Benjamin, that patron saint of the Marxist critique of pop culture. To invoke Benjamin in an essay on Batman is like saying, “I’m very serious about playing around here.” Or, at least that’s what I’m thinking when I write essays with Roman numerals.

Graeber’s subject is Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman movies, which are themselves based on Frank Miller’s legendary characterization of the hero in “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986), widely considered one of the greatest comic book stories of all time (and rightfully so). Miller’s book closed the door on the Silver Age version of the character and redefined the Gotham City universe as gritty and violent. Among the movie going public Miller is also known as the original author of Sin City and 300, while to the comics crowd he’s associated with legendary runs at Daredevil and Wolverine.

Miller himself is a reactionary ass and his slander of the Occupy movement as composed of “louts, thieves, and rapists” was only the latest salvo in a stream of proto-fascist dribble. So when Graeber pins down the The Dark Knight Rises as “anti-Occupy propaganda” he is pretty much on the money. A more patient man than I could probably connect the dots between the Reagan-era conservatism of “Returns” with Rises. Neoliberalism and the apocalypse, maybe. Revenge, definitely.

What are superhero movies all about? And why are they so popular right now? These are the questions that prompted me to think about how anthropology could actually forward such a project. How ought we compose a research agenda focused on mass media and popular culture? Personally, I find myself consistently disappointed in most everything academics have written about pop culture. I’d like to think that anthropology could do better. What Graeber is doing here is using history and critical theory to write a polemic in order to make a political point. That’s fine, but it’s only one way that anthropology might go about designing research about comic book super heroes.

What could potentially make an anthropology of pop culture difficult is method. How, exactly, do you use ethnography to study it? There are a few entry points that could be alternatives to/ supplements for a theory-based cultural critique and they revolve around production and consumption.

Some ideas–

Production. Objective: study the “backstage” process from creative talents to publishing and distribution. To be sure there is a difference in scale between the indies and the major labels but it all starts with a creative person or team having an idea. Role-model: “Latinos, Inc.” by Davila – the author conducts an ethnography of New York advertizing agencies focusing on how they imagine, study, interact with, and represent Hispanic markets through highly orchestrated advertising campaigns.

Consumption. Objective: learn what pop culture means to the people who love it. We call the cultural practice of consuming a comic book “reading” and it is basically a private experience. You sit still, hold the book in your hands, and interpret what you see. Using your imagination you are transported into a fictional world. However, the majority of readers share their love for the genre with others. In this way you experience pleasure twice: once in private by reading and once in public by being a fan. Role-model: “Reading the Romance” by Radway – the author uses ethnography to investigate why romance novels are so popular among women and what is really happening when people read by studying a book club and the bookstore the club members frequent.

Consumption as production. Objective: investigate the performance of fandom through the creative re-appropriation of established characters. Internet culture has made more visible the tendency of fans to use beloved characters and themes as templates for their own creations and self-expressions including cosplay, fanfic, animated GIFs, remix and mash-up just to scratch the surface. Is increased visibility making this form of fandom increasingly popular? Role-model: “Textual Poachers” by Jenkins – author uses theory from De Certeau to talk about how sci-fi and fantasy fans engage in self-expression by embezzling bits and pieces from their favorite universes and re-presenting them in various forms.

Ethnography as pop culture. Objective: use whatever genre of pop you are interested in as the mode of communication with your readership. Anthropology in particular seems to struggle in communicating its findings to the wider public. Appropriating popular genres could be one model for reimagining ethnography is especially well suited for the study of pop culture. Role model: “Shane, the Lone Ethnographer” by Galman – the author uses the comic book format in place of conventional text to communicate introductory ethnographic topics to readers.

There are two vulnerabilities to the academic study of popular culture that are (possibly?) unique to this particular topic. One – few academics can hope to match the total genre mastery of superfans and thus leave themselves open to critique for “not getting it” on a very basic level. Two – pop culture is by definition ephemeral and dominated by fads, likewise the academic critique of pop culture does not age well; whatever hot topic you write about today will quickly fall out of fashion.

Back in Graeber’s secret lair, he’s moving into a critique of super hero movies. But first he opts to look at comic books themselves and this is where things start to get Freudian. Citing Eco, the author notes that comics share with dreams an obsession with repetition.

The plot is almost always some approximation of the following: a bad guy, maybe a crime boss, more often a powerful supervillain, embarks on a project of world conquest, destruction, theft, extortion, or revenge. The hero is alerted to the danger and figures out what’s happening. After trials and dilemmas, at the last possible minute the hero foils the villain’s plans. The world is returned to normal until the next episode when exactly the same thing happens once again.

Here we might observe that, as per my methodological discussion above, anthropology is better suited to studying people than plots. Maybe it’s my closeted structuralism, but in anthropological studies of narrative forms the plot is, sometimes, beside the point. What narratives mean to the people who use them and traffic in their symbolism is a far more interesting set of questions.

Graeber does go on to make a keen observation that I have not heard in comics circles before: whereas villains are constantly engaged in some creative project or another, the hero only ever reacts and seldom engages in such projects of their own. This really speaks to me on an intuitive level and I think it might pan out to be true if we inventoried a representative sample of universes. Just consider Ozymandias from “The Watchman” (1987), a hero who becomes a villain once he takes on a world changing project!

While I’m sympathetic to Graeber’s leftist political project, his essay also highlights the difficulties of using theory to navigate the realms of pop culture. While the author moves to suture consuming comic books and consuming movies it’s still apples and oranges to me. Status in comic book fandom, like jazz or baseball fandom, is measured out by the accumulation of esoteric factoids and errata (perhaps demonstrating that level of mastery is part of the appeal). But even I can tell you this:

Batman on the page and Batman on the big screen are fundamentally not the same person.

This conflation of book and movie is driven home by the art, presumably chosen by the design staff at The New Inquiry, to accompany the essay. The addition of vintage comic book covers makes the essay more appealing visually and some of them are supremely evocative of the author’s subject, as with the first one which features Lex Luther dreaming of Superman. But comic book superheroes reside in complex universes, the knowledge of which fans covet and use to authenticate their prestige. There are canons, alternate universes, spin-offs, and endless debate about which is the proper heading for any given story. Let’s not even get started on the “What if…” series.

The result is often a self-contradictory mess. Just check out this brief synopsis of Bane, the villain from The Dark Knight Rises. When a movie director goes to translate this mess to the screen the result is like that diagram in Latour’s “We Have Never Been Modern”: in the realm of the real there is a tangle of meaning, but modernity only ever allows us to represent it to ourselves as order. The result is we think we have created progress when in reality we have not, this is why Nolan’s was an impossible task.

So all the Freud and the lesson on how law is based on violence leads to this: the superhero needs the villain just as the cop needs the criminal. Without villains we’d have no need for heroes. Superheroes themselves aren’t fascists, Graeber writes, “They are just ordinary, decent, super-powerful people who inhabit a world in which fascism is the only political possibility.”

This is not the ordinary way of looking at superheroes. Just as easily one could have used Freud to read the dream of comic books as wish fulfillment. The reader (likely a boy) holds an ambiguous social status: privileged because he is male, disempowered because he is not an adult. The superhero then offers a child’s fantasy of what the adult world is like. To the boy his parents are both hero and villain. Their knowledge is plainly superior to his and their power over his world seemingly limitless.

It’s also a supremely dissatisfying conclusion to a Batman fan because it gets the genre “wrong” much as Nolan gets the character of Bane “wrong” – at least according to the high standards set by SMOF. And while the politics of “Rises” and Nolan’s Batman are hot today, in a few years nobody will care about them. I mean, have you read Lawrence Grossberg’s essays on rock music? No. The kids don’t listen to rock anymore anyways.

So kudos to Graeber for attempting a critical reading of Batman in light of Occupy. But its not clobberin’ time quite yet. If anthropology wants to do something with pop culture other than interpret it with critical theory, then how the hell are we going to do it? And can we do in a way that sucks less than Cultural Studies?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

14 thoughts on “The Illustrated Man vs. Super-Graeber

  1. One aspect of pop culture that I think anthropology can investigate is Pitchfork Media’s coverage of rap, and “hipster rap” more broadly.
    Anthropology might have something interesting to say about Pitchfork’s controversial interview of Chicago kid rapper Chief Keef at a gun range. Also, there is a disconnect between producers and consumers in this emerging genre. I drove a black, Houston based rapper to the airport after his show at a Midwest liberal arts college, and he said he had never before spent time with people who consume his music, mostly white college students who read reviews of his work on Pitchfork’s website.

    the famous opening lines of their review of 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying are also possibly something anthropology has something to say about:

    “Whether the motivations stem from a Derrideian desire to transform our monsters into pets, a post-feminist need to latch onto a lost sense of dominant masculinity, the streets’ unquenchable thirst for heroes, or simply a quest for a compelling urban narrative, hip-hop’s obsession with the gangsta has dominated the genre for more than a decade.”

    The application of continental philosophy to what Graeber terms “ordinary humans” was subject to heated debate in “Anthropology’s Suicide” on this blog in May. The disconnect between production and consumption, mediated through the internet, also seems like something for anthro/soc. Is “hipster rap” today’s equivalent of the primitivism of European artists 100 years ago? Is it simply voyeuristic? Is it even problematic? These are matters I think anthro is decently equipped to approach without critical theory.

  2. Matt,

    I totally lack the comic book chops to enter into a serious debate about Batman. So I speak instead to the research program you outline. Just want to point out that there already exists a small library of related research in the anthropology of Japan. Thus, just a few of many examples,

    Anne Allison

    * Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994)
    * Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (1995)
    * Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (2006)

    Laura Miller
    Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics(University of California Press, 2006)

    Co-editor of two books: Bad Girls of Japan (Palgrave, 2005) andManners and Mischief: Gender, Power, and Etiquette in Japan (University of California Press, 2011)

    Jennifer Robertson, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (1998)

    Christine Yano

    2002 Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song. Cambridge: Harvard East Asia Center. Harvard University Press.

    Brian Moeran, A Japanese Advertising Agency (1996) is still, I believe, the only full bore ethnographic study of an advertising agency anywhere in the world, based on extended participant observation.

    My own small contributions include

    “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors” in John Sherry, ed. Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook (1995), and

    “Creating Advertising in Japan: A Sketch in Search of a Principle.” (In Brian Moeran and Lise Skov, eds., Asian Advertising and Media. . London: Curzon Press; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001)

    There is lots more to be found waiting for anyone who looks for it.

  3. @David – Thanks for sharing. I suspect I’ll get around to reading the director’s cut once I’ve dug myself out of the grading hole I’m in now.

    @John – My ideas about how one does an ethnography of pop culture were shaped by a graduate seminar lead by Anne Allison. Portions of the term paper I wrote for her class had a second life as a SM blog post.

    @Maniaku – This citation could come in handy when my gender studies class compares Ranma 1/2 to Ouran High School Host Club.

  4. @Jake – I seldom read Pitchfork, if I’m there at all its to listen to samples of free music, but I think I have an inkling of what you are calling “hipster rap”. Of course white audiences have been buying the majority of rap albums for like twenty years now, so the disconnect between producer and consumer probably extends beyond any single subgenre. I think your characterization of the 50 Cent review and Chief Keef interview as neo primitivism is spot on. We could also have called it a mimesis of mimesis, the gangsta pose that white kids love to copy is no less a carefully crafted performance.

  5. Just consider Ozymandias from “The Watchman” (1987), a hero who becomes a villain once he takes on a world changing project!

    *Watchmen. It’s arguable whether Ozymandias is ever actually a villain in the story. His murderous world-changing project more-or-less succeeds, the Cold War ends, peace reigns, environmentally-friendly technology is everywhere. Adrian Veidt isn’t a hero or a villain, and it seems odd to apply any of the ordinary rules of the superhero comic book to Watchmen, which was written explicitly to take them on.

  6. What Graeber seems to be suggesting in “Super Position” is that the reader may find alluring Ozymandias’ ability to create new worlds with new rules despite the fact they hinge upon heinous violent acts. Yet we know he is the villain by virtue of the fact that the heroes are in pursuit of him.

    What I’m saying is that although we might forward cultural critiques of fictional worlds we can’t conduct ethnography within them. However we can study the people engaged in producing and consuming them — including such debates as the one we are engaged in now on the ambiguity of Alan Moore’s characters.

  7. David’s analysis seems to mirror a lot of what Alan Moore has been saying (more obliquely) about the superhero genre for some time. But it is quite interesting to think about how/why there has been this resurgence of the genre, now in cinematic form, which is basically re-staging some of the major comics from the 1980s and early 1990s, even as the comic industry itself is rather moribund. I suspect it does have something to do with the ‘crisis’ of neoliberalism, and the longstanding relationship between neoliberalism and certain reactionary/romantic fantasies of violence and autonomy, as well as a more opportunistic re-commodification of existing ‘IP’.

    @Al West – Perhaps, but like many good deconstructive and/or satirical works, Watchmen is also an excellent example of the very thing it is critiquing. V For Vendetta too, to a lesser extent. (This doesn’t really hold for the films, though).

    On the more general topic of the anthropology of pop culture, I think one of the things that anthropology can offer is greater attention to the forms of social organisation within which it is produced and consumed. Though it is not accurate to say that cultural studies has ignored such things–there is a burgeoning field of ‘fan culture’ studies etc–there is certainly a tendency towards somewhat decontextualised readings, or readings which contextualise only in terms of the more general political/cultural environment rather than the specific social context of production and use.

    The anthropologist Matthew Wolf-Meyer has written some interesting things about the ideology of superhero comics and the subculture of American comic fans, but I’d say his work is as much cultural studies as it is anthropology.

  8. No movies were made of them, but a comic book serie I find hugely interesting is Marvelman/Miracleman (named changed, same serie) when taken up by Moore. After the super powered miracle family (supermen) and friends defeat one of their own, they decide to create an utopia. They do so without resorting to villainous acts (other than like…dispose of money, armies, polluting industries, etc.). Yet it doesn’t work. The enterprise itself is what makes the hero a “villain”.

    From wiki :
    “Moore’s last issue, number 16 (“Olympus”) ends with an unsettling depiction of Miracleman’s apotheosis, as he and his superhuman allies bring the entire planet under their totalitarian control. Miracleman and his companions, explicitly compared to gods, now rule the planet as they see fit, though they are ineffectively opposed by groups such as an alliance of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. The “age of miracles” is ostensibly benevolent, but in scenes such as the final conversation between Miracleman and Liz, Moore suggests that Miracleman has lost his humanity and that his utopia is ultimately harmful to humankind.”

  9. Thanks for the plug — I’m not sure how many people read that old comic book stuff of mine, but there’s more to come… In the meantime, Jason Dittmer has been doing some interesting stuff on comics, superheroes & nationalism (he has a book coming out called -Captain America & the Nationalist Superhero-), and lots of people unfortunately overlook Jeff Brown’s -Black Superheroes- book. It’s totally worth the read.

  10. I completely missed this one thanks to Sandy, but I want to offer some kind of a defense of Graeber here. I realize Matt’s not really on the attack, but there is at least the suggestion that what Graeber’s doing in Super-Position isn’t anthropology because it’s doesn’t fit into his offered loose taxonomy of anthropological approaches, and I don’t think I can really agree with that. It’s true that it’s not ethnography (yeah yeah, Marshall Sahlins’ anthro sine qua non, etc), but I think it’s a mistake to equate that with “oh, it’s just cultural studies then.”

    To make a slightly tendentious point: why is it that the anthropological approaches on offer in this commentary are all described in the language of political economy: ie production, consumption, consumption-production?

    I think there are, in any case, any number of potential anthro approaches to pop culture. To offer one example, I wrote a(n undergrad) paper on Iron Man, Transformers, and Call of Duty a year ago, and the approach I took was modeled off of (copied from, really) Melani McAlister’s Epic Encounters. As far as I know, she never did any ethnographic work for the book, and it’s structured as a kind of political history of media narratives and images, and it’s true that its theoretical horizon is rather limited. At the same time, I don’t think it’s in any danger of aging poorly precisely because of how it engages with historicizing its subject matter. For that matter, putting aside whether or not I was successful, I don’t think my essay is either, despite the potentially more ephemeral subject matter. No one may care about Call of Duty or Transformers in ten years (I mean, I kind of hope no one does), but an argument about the historical moment in which those narratives emerged can remain relevant indefinitely.

    And, ok, one might argue that that’s history, not anthropology, though I think it’s significant that it’s a kind of history that only anthropologists write. This is, in a way, how I think about Graeber’s article: explicitly, he’s name dropping Freud and Lacan and not Levi-Strauss (or whoever), but the theoretical background and analytic style didn’t really feel that different to me from his piece on the divine kingship of the Shilluk—a piece based on ethnographies, yes, but old ones, and largely concerned with cosmologies and mythic narratives and their relevance to organizing political violence in societies: ie, pretty much the same stuff.

  11. Steven makes a great point. The best anthropology IS history, in my opinion. While the chronology of pop culture is quite dull the social history of pop culture can be very illuminating, Joy Kasson’s book Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History comes to mind.

    I don’t know *why* I focused on political economy in the post. Maybe I was teaching cultural materialism at the time? Thanks for the close reading.

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