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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/20/2004
Vol. 2, #141

Culture and Superheroes

For some time now, I have been trying to find a satisfactory explanation of the sudden appearance of the superhero within our culture towards the end of the thirties. First Superman, then Captain Marvel, Batman, Wonder Woman and on and on. There have been superheroes in human culture before, but never such an outburst and so focused and intense within so short a period of time as we experienced with the arrival of Superman and his ilk. It was a literal cultural revolution, a Big Bang, if you like, and it happened where all cultural revolutions occur, at the base. It was a mass phenomenon.

It strikes me that several other things were happening at the same time that may have been at the root of it. Economically, there had been a world-wide depression whose effects in Europe had already emerged in the form of new types of dictatorial regimes, Hitler, Stalin, emerging as a kind of mass response to threats that were not only economical but, hitting far more deeply, were conceptual, that is, they were marked by a genuine revolution in our most basic cultural concepts. These European dictators were themselves presented and accepted as supermen, while in the US, various upstart movements tried and failed to produce their own dictators, so that the nation turned to, and instead accepted a new type of culture hero, precisely Superman, which helped save us, in the deeps of the depression, from following the European pattern. Consider that Europe's bloody dictators were originally seen as heroes and saviors before the horrors that followed their ascension finally emerged.

Were America and her allies just lucky or was there an innate cultural barrier that gave us pop superheroes instead of dictators? Frankly, at this moment, watching the antics of the Bush tribe, I'm not really prepared to say. The Bushes come late on the scene and are more archaic than real, though certainly just as threatening, potentially.

But returning to the conditions that produced the superheroes in the mid-thirties, I cannot avoid noting that there had already occurred, deep in our cultural roots, both in Europe and the US, a profound shift in our vision of reality, especially in our science and our notions of time.

The world that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century was still seen, philosophically and scientifically, in Newtonian terms. In those terms, time was not an essential factor. The mechanics of the universe obeyed certain established laws and it made no difference whether one was looking backwards or ahead, it was theoretically possible to predict the future as well as the past just by dumping a little additional information into the pot.

Then came the quantum revolution. And then too, the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, whose dreaded meaning looked toward nothing more nor less than the ultimate heat-death of the universe. Suddenly, life became just a little more meaningless, more significantly without purpose. Work had already shifted from agriculture which involved a close bond with the natural world to city life and the job, which involved a close bond with nothing at all. One worked merely to survive, outside of natural connections or supernatural significances. I've written here before on the emptiness of "the job" which anyone interested can look up in the records of past columns. But in support of my thesis that the superhero arrived at a time of deep economic and cultural crisis, I would like now to point out that the decline of the superhero in today's world seems to follow a major shift in the cultural landscape. It has come about, I suggest, because the notion of entropy, the one-way running down of the universe, from order into disorder, has been very much called into question by what I choose to call the Prigoginian Revolution, and the two way arrow of time, reversibility and renewal.

This is a big subject and I don't intend to cover it all in this week's column. But I'll discuss the work of Nobel laureate, Ilya Prigogine next week in terms of its bearing on the present state of the superhero. So stay tuned.

-- Alvin

<< 09/13/2004 | 09/20/2004 | 09/27/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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