Dissertation Answers: Why Superman?

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Part of what I have to be able to do in order to “defend” my dissertation prospectus is to answer questions, to my committee, regarding my choice of topic, provide a justification for the theories and theorists I am aiming to use in my dissertation itself, and help make the case for my actual argument. So, where do I start…

 

1.Why Superman?

 

Why not? He is the modern manifestation of America, of modern myth. He is one particular interpretation for what America can be for the rest of the world, and in this world’s current state of the world and United States today, it seems to be something even more relevant than ever. Of course, there is more to this answer. This is just a start.

 

2.Why use the theorist you are using?

 

Currently I am working with the following (primarily):

 

1. The Rhetorical Model – Chaim Perelman and Laurie Olbrechts-Tyteca (primary)

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2. Identification and Cooperation – Kenneth Burke (persuasion and rhetoric)

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3. Self-fashioning – Stephen Greenblatt

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4. Dialogism and Reaccentuation – Mikhail Bahktin

 

The rhetorical role model is persuasive because it is self-fashioned to a form we (as a society) can identify with – both as an ideal (Superman) and as an everyman (Clark Kent) – and this identification allows the persuasion of the model to take hold and promote, inspired emulation, cooperation as found as part of Burke’s definition of rhetoric.

 

“self-fashioning” — “Identification” — “rhetorical role model” — “cooperation”

 

The dialogic and reaccentuation element develops via aspects that Superman and how he is connected to American culture and American culture is turn influenced/shapes Superman the character – it helps determine parts of the self-fashioning and choices that make Superman identifiable. Part of what of the achievement that also aids Superman in his identification comes from the ability also of the character to tap into reaccentuated, appropriated, identifiable elements of myth and heroism that are embodied in Superman.

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3.What is my major argument?

 

I think I may have just found what I really REALLY want to be as part of my opening introduction to my dissertation. In the opening segment of the October 19, 2013 episode of the NPR program “This American Life,” John Hodgman discussed a choice in superpowers. The debate surrounds a choice between the powers of flight versus that of invisibility. In the closing of segment, Hodgman summed up the discussion with a question by acknowledging he himself has trouble choosing and that it boils down to a question of choice: “who do you want to be? The person you hope to be or the person you fear you actually are?

 

This, for me, was a seriously compelling moment.

 

Superman flies. Superman goes without a mask; he acts with nobility and openness – exposed. This would not be everyone’s choice, but Superman does this because he is a hero – a superhero.

 

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Superman is the modern embodiment of the person who we all hope or want to be. That is what makes him, like all superheroes, different from you and me. This ideal of who we want to be, of inspiration and emulation that helps conform Superman so perfectly to Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca’s notion of a rhetorical model as laid out in their work The New Rhetoric.

 

In Ch. 3 of The New Rhetoric, titled “The Relations Establishing the Structure of Reality” and part of the first section noted as “Establishment Through the Particular Case,” Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca define what a model (by their definition) is for them. They define it as, that “In the realm of conduct, particular behavior may serve, not only to establish or illustrate a general rule, but also to incite to an action inspired by it” (362). This is definition of the model is something or someone that establishes a rule or code of conduct that then generates some kind of imitation inspired by it.

 

Say, for example, one applies Superman just to this initial example of the “model,” one can point out that on one level Superman is the template for all modern comic book superheroes. His creation, abilities, and conduct serve as the original template for all subsequent superheroes that followed, from Batman to Captain America, Spiderman to the Justice League. On another level, Superman, within in his own universe within the comic books established a model for how other heroes wanted to behave, he wrote the rules, and he served as the guarantee for the maintaining of those rules as well.

 

One could argue that Superman, as a “model,” would fall within the area where “imitative behavior” acts as part of a “rule of justice” (363). This rule is itself based on the fact that Superman acts as the guarantee of the model, of the conduct of a superhero through his prestige. It is through his recognizable standing that Superman is also able to portray and project the status of a model. His “prestige confers added value on [his] acts” and allows those acts themselves to become models for other superhero creators and superheroes creators to emulate (363). Take for instance, and Michael Chabon notes this in his novel (Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay) that recounts fictional comic book creators operating around the same time as Superman’s creation, that Superman himself spawned many a copycat and still does. Superheroes such as Captain Marvel (Fawcett Comics), Hyperion and Sentry (Marvel Comics), and more recently Mark Millar’s Superior (Marvel Comics) and Utopian (Image Comics) are just a few of the many Superman analogues that have appeared over the past 75-years. Each of these analogues is, of themselves, homage to Superman and the power of the idea of that model. Superman’s nature as a superhero in his own comic presents inspired actions that model for other heroes the kind of behavior that, in fact, defines what a superhero is suppose to do and act like.

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Superman is an illustration. For, it is the “model shows what behavior to follow, and serves as a guarantee for an adopted behavior” and for this service, they are burdened with “an obligation which more often than not will determine his behavior” (364). One can see that the superhero, like Superman, is confined within a box. This box, to be the model, requires not only inspired action worthy of emulation, but can be seen as “imprisoning” the superhero in a position of extreme responsibility. It is a bit like Spiderman and Stan Lee’s wonderful line: “with great power comes great responsibility” magnified exponentially. It is fortunate then that Superman has chosen this mantel and is in fact able to project those qualities worthy of a model, but somewhere, on some meta-personal level, one might find it really hard to truly envy a life more inundated that any modern celebrity.

 

Ultimately, and perhaps thankfully, Superman is fictional. However, just because he is fictional does not render the power of him as a model inert. In fact, like any other fictional character, Superman’s popularity has transcended many mediums and has served, interpreted, as a kind modern mythical figure – paradigm – of human potential. He is the thing, to return to John Hodgman’s segment from “This American Life”: the person we hope to be.

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Its a Birth…Its a Plane…Its a Question of Secret Identity

So, after a meeting of the a group of my fellow Doctoral Candidates and Dissertation workers – our shared major professor has playfully dubbed us the Justice League of Rhetoric (love it) – I was returning home and Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to the new Man of Steel movie came up in my iPod.

 

While I listened, I began to ponder some questions that had been posed to me.

 

First, before I jump into the questions, as a matter of focus, and this will come out in more clarity as I finalize Dissertation Prospectus 4.0, I have decided that focusing on the Superman in the comic book medium and how that medium, more so than television and movies, can adapt and shift with the cultural zeitgeist. I believe this will let me stay closer to my comfort zone and help focus my own research into something that can avoid taking a tangent into something sprawling and crazy.

 

Since I am focusing on Superman as a rhetorical model, it occurred to me, and was brought to my attention by the League, that there emerges a blemish to the “model” when you think about Superman and his secret identity from the point of view that this could be viewed, though it is done to protect those he loves, as lying or deceit. It is a tricky question and swings one into discussions of ethical morality (deontological vs. utilitarian) notions of doing the right thing or doing what has the better consequences. I get this, but what fascinated me more though was the reality that perhaps we often look at this TOO much from the point of view of adults.

 

What about a child’s point of view on Superman’s secret identity?

 

What if instead of focusing on Superman’s need for lying and concealment of his secret identity is less an adult utilitarian choice, and perhaps channeling Mark Miller’s allegorical/analogical representation in Superior, we see the choice of Superman as wish fulfillment. What if we look at it from the child point of view and the notion that a lot of children, but especially those who have suffered loss or pain or heartache for whatever reason often “wish” for an escape, to be someone else, who can make that loss or pain or heartache go away. Superman is that “wish.” He is that something beyond that kids can look to and think, if he can do it, so can I. He is something worth aspiring to imitate, perhaps not in superpowers and abilities (because that is where Fredrick Wertham would chide me as putting nonsense in a child’s head or tempting them to do things that are dangerous), behavior, character, and decision making – doing what is right and good. It is a desire in a child to be extraordinary. Superman can and does show a “model” for how one can, even as a “mere mortal” operate by a code that helps promote a better world.

 

In addition to that thought, listening to the soundtrack also provoked ideas about Superman and his “relevance” in our world.

 

My thought here is that Superman represents what we, as humanity, could be (potentially) and does it even when we ignore him or forget about him. He continues to endure, even when we don’t think we need him. That is perhaps what really makes him “super.”

 

Superman embodies the very best of American idealism, and even more importantly, he represents the very best of humanity too.

 

Ultimately, Superman embodies also the child-like belief that everything, anything, is possible. Nothing is impossible. He shows each new generation that there is a chance to be better than the one before, to start over or even more to build something better than what was before.

Stage 1: Prospectus, Section 3

Now we start getting into the work…

This is the part in the dissertation prospectus where we begin to attempt to point out how we plan to go about conducting our research.

Real quickly, something to note, for the official Dissertation Prospectus document there are limits. A limit of 10 pages really kind of forces one to try and be concise, and as you will see in section 5 – Working Bibliography, sometimes cut things down to the bare bare bones.

But, moving right along, here is the original stab at a Research Methodology:

Statement of Research Methodology 1.0 (OLD)

Umberto Eco defines symbols as “something representing something else by virtue of an analogical correspondence [a logical picture of elements in question]” (Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language 130). The conception of symbolism offers up a need for distinction between what makes something a “sign” and what makes something a “symbol.” Superheroes may act then as signs of something more symbolic – Superman : Truth, Justice, and the American Way. For Carl Jung, symbols and signs interlinked and operated in reversible roles. For Jung, “living symbols become signs when read as referring to something known…A sign [in turn] becomes…a symbol when it is read as pointing to an unknown” (Portable Jung XXVIII). One could point to Superman as a sign in the form of a man, but with powers beyond ours and abilities that are aspirations and “unknown” or symbolic. The human fascination with the unknown drives the internal expression of signs as symbols in order to understand that beyond human understanding. It is “the study of [symbols that] enables us to reach a better understanding of man – of man ‘as he is’, before he has come to terms with the conditions of History” (Eliade 12). Once again, the very fundamentals of humanity rest in symbols and any quest to uncover such “fundamentals of humanity” requires that one study and understand symbols – to study Superman is to understand his function, perhaps, to inspire humanity.

This exploration of the understanding of symbols and their impact is the first layer in the approach to examining the superhero as a type of archetypal/rhetorical construct of expression. Studying the aims and positions found both in the use of symbols with the study of Semiotics and Psychoanalysis will formulate the beginning of coming to understand the impact that the superhero as rhetorical enthymeme is able to carry through with the audience or potential audiences it may encounter. In addition to understanding this element, another key identifier to communicate in laying out the superhero impact on a potential audience will incorporate Hans Blumenberg’s conceptions of “reappropriation” and understanding the ways that human culture tends to act in ways that constantly reappropriates and both borrows and builds upon past ideas. This ties in with both Jungian conceptions of archetypes and the collective unconscious, as well relates to ideas that Grant Morrison, in his work Supergods, and elsewhere professes about as part of what superheroes are capable of expressing. Blumenberg notes specifically that “secularization” as he use the term “signifies [the] designation for a long-term process by which a disappearance of religious ties, attitudes of transcendence, expectations of an afterlife, ritual performances, and firmly established turns of speech are driven onward in both private and daily public life” (3). Focusing primarily on the idea, as Blumenberg later asserts, that this is a mode of historical interpretation, it is interesting to note just how far back the idea of heroes, from the Greek meaning “demi-god,” have captivated human culture. How has this “ritual performance” migrated and evolved and repositioned itself within our society today? This will be part of what will be explored, attempting to understand the history and relevance of images, and their symbolic power, in our culture as a ground work for both understanding the superhero as enthymeme but also an understanding of audience response to such images.

Kenneth Burke, in his work A Rhetoric of Motives, noted that “the role of rhetoric…is rooted in essential function of language…a function that is…the use of language as symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). What better place to begin by examining the uses and capabilities of comic book superheroes to carry out that expression. The approach here will be to apply rhetoric, primarily through the lens of Burke and Chaim Perelman (along with L. Olbrechts-Tyteca with The New Rhetoric) to examine the ways that individuals and groups can come to identify with superheroes, how these superheroes embody rhetorical potential – as demonstration, amplification, illustration, and via presence. Understanding the potential of the superhero as enthymeme as a tool for communication, a function of language, and what Ann Barry, a perceptional theorist, noted as a potential “visual turn” that “it is images, not words, that communicate most deeply” (Visual Intelligence 75). In an increasingly visual age, with movies and advertisement growing – even literature itself is being reformatted into graphic novel form – it is important to realize the power of symbolic images as superheroes and the power they can have to teach, delight, and persuade.

To demonstrate the superhero as enthymeme, to see the styles (as Cicero and others have noted) I will turn Grant Morrison’s Supergods as a launching platform, as well as engage specifically chosen forms of comic book superhero narratives – including Mark Miller’s Superman: Red Sun and Superior, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Morrison’s All-Star Superman and Flex Mentallo, Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers, Frank Miller’s Batman Year One and Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels…plus more – to unpack the ideas, concepts, and rhetorical potential found within. The primary aim throughout will be to understand the superhero as first a symbolic construct that has relevance and impact upon human action, to explore the rhetorical potential of such “relevance and impact” via the understanding of the superhero as rhetorical enthymeme, and then to reinforce all of it by analyzing specific examples and drawing out the encoded messages and ideas held with.


Interesting note, when looking at the new methodology, with the exception of some new points and streamlining, and some cutting down, not a whole lot has changed…just tightened and focused (hopefully).

 

Statement of Research Methodology 1.5 (NEW)

To begin a close examination of the rhetorical impact of symbols upon human interaction and communication first requires an understanding, a definition and approach to symbols and how they function within the realm of human interaction and communication. Umberto Eco defines symbols as “something representing something else by virtue of an analogical correspondence [a logical picture of elements in question]” (Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language 130). The conception of symbolism offers up a need for distinction between what makes something a “sign” and what makes something a “symbol.” Superheroes may act then as signs of something more symbolic – Superman : Truth, Justice, and the American Way. For Carl Jung, symbols and signs interlinked and operated in reversible roles. For Jung, “living symbols become signs when read as referring to something known…A sign [in turn] becomes…a symbol when it is read as pointing to an unknown” (Portable Jung XXVIII). One could point to Superman as a sign in the form of a man, but with powers beyond ours and abilities that are aspirations and “unknown” or symbolic. The human fascination with the unknown drives the internal expression of signs as symbols in order to understand that beyond human understanding. It is “the study of [symbols that] enables us to reach a better understanding of man – of man ‘as he is’, before he has come to terms with the conditions of History” (Eliade 12). Once again, the very fundamentals of humanity rest in symbols and any quest to uncover such “fundamentals of humanity” requires that one study and understand symbols – to study Superman is to understand his function, perhaps, to inspire humanity.

Kenneth Burke, in his work A Rhetoric of Motives, noted that “the role of rhetoric…is rooted in essential function of language…a function that is…the use of language as symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). What better place to begin by examining the uses and capabilities of comic book superheroes to carry out that expression. The approach here will be to apply rhetoric, primarily through the lens of Burke and Chaim Perelman (along with L. Olbrechts-Tyteca with The New Rhetoric) to examine the ways that individuals and groups can come to identify with superheroes, how these superheroes embody rhetorical potential – as demonstration, amplification, illustration, and via presence. Understanding the potential of the superhero as enthymeme as a tool for communication, a function of language, and what Ann Barry, a perceptional theorist, noted as a potential “visual turn” that “it is images, not words, that communicate most deeply” (Visual Intelligence 75). In an increasingly visual age, with movies and advertisement growing – even literature itself is being reformatted into graphic novel form – it is important to realize the power of symbolic images as superheroes and the power they can have to teach, delight, and persuade.

To examine the role of the superhero as meaning communicating symbol, I will attempt to rhetorically analyze, visually, the functions of iconic superheroes. I will turn Grant Morrison’s Supergods as a launching platform for this visual rhetorical analysis, as well as engage specifically chosen forms of comic book superhero narratives – including Mark Miller’s Superman: Red Sun and Superior, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Morrison’s All-Star Superman and Flex Mentallo, Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers, Frank Miller’s Batman Year One and Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels – to unpack the ideas, concepts, and rhetorical potential found within.

 

The purpose here is to attempt to provide an idea, a road map of your intentions to how you plan to try and go about completing this massive undertaking while trying to focus up a bit to avoid spiraling into an abyss from which you may never escape.

 

No kidding…some people never escape, at least not without ejecting and losing the craft. I do not have any intentions of doing that myself.