Come Out and Pray
(Soundtrack: Ramones Leave Home)
I’m pretty excited! On Friday, I received my teaching assignment for the Fall:
130 Writing: American Radical Thought
Involves drafting, revising, and editing compositions derived from readings on American radical thought to develop skills in narration, persuasion, analysis, and documentation. Instructors can organize course readings around any combination of topics: conquest and revolution, natural rights, socialism, technology and its problems, radicalism of the 1960s, and capitalism and expansionism. The course will examine the assumptions and positions of radical thinkers and organizations as well as assess their impact and influence on social change and policy.
Plan “A” is to build the course around a discussion of the abolitionist movement. Plan “B” (which would be plan “A” if I was certain of being allowed to do it) is to base the whole thing on Animal Man #1-26.
Naturally, I did a lot of thinking about “American radicalism” over the weekend. Is there anything distinctive about it? Well, yes and no. It’s really just “bourgeois radicalism” (which can be found in any Calvinist-based culture), only purer, because undiluted by the traditionalist Medieval hangups that people like Jim Kalb want to retcon into the origin story.
In Europe, radicalism has tended to run on a rhetoric of “class consciousness”–although, of course, even there, most advocates of the “Proletariat as Revolutionary Class” were not workers themselves… In America, this rhetoric has been conspicuously absent from successful campaigns against oppression. While John Brown, the IWW, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X made their feeble attempts to “fight the power”, their more enlightened comrades busied themselves with the task of yanking the mittelamerikan heartstrings… Sustainable progress is never forced upon society by an oppressed minority, it is conceded by an embarrassed majority, through the agency of a miraculous rejection of class interest. In the nineteenth-century they called this “Come-Outerism”. More recently, it has gone under the alias of “liberal guilt”–and it was a wonderful thing, before Reaganites labeled it “malaise” and declared it bad for morale… Of course it’s bad for morale! The “city on a hill” is no vacation spot, it’s a panopticon–proximity to God brings a more intense scrutiny upon inevitable abuses, not a divine “attaboy!”
Does this have anything to do with superheroes? Is it a coincidence that the purest bourgeois culture in the world produced this unique genre? Of course not! The superheroes that I’m most interested in (those in the Ditko-Gruenwald-Morrison tradition–with Superman as a precursor) explicitly reject the idea that their powers ought to be used to satisfy any of their personal needs (including the Batman/Wolverine/Punisher-style need for vengeance/personal aggrandizement…) I should add, as a corollary to that statement, that this is why the ol’ secret identity chestnut is so crucial to the genre. When Peter Parker puts on his costume, he’s saying: “okay, this has nothing to do with me and what I want anymore–this has to do with my power to help others” It’s like a middle-class person agreeing to pay taxes in order to help ensure that everyone has access to medical care. It’s not “charity”, it’s a duty–and, just to insure against any confusion on that point, it’s best that the benefactor remain anonymous… In this way, superheroes obey Dickens’ (“Bourgeois radical” extraodinaire) famous directive: “It is required of every man that the Spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and [webswing] far and wide…”
Of course, this doesn’t apply to characters (like Batman) whose secret identities are merely hiding places and offer no resistance to the hero’s restless spirit. We called this “failing the Rorschach test”, and I would agree that their stories yield easily to the “fascist critique”. Is it any wonder that this type of character enjoyed an overwhelming surge in popularity during the eighties–when the “liberal guilt” model of democratic citizenship went into eclipse? Again–this is why Morrison and Gruenwald are so much more important than Miller and Moore: the latter pair inadvertently helped drive a Reaganite stake into the heart of profoundly liberal genre, while the authors of Captain America and Animal Man gave us superheroes as fragmented subjects instead of willful monoliths!
Tomorrow, I’ll start looking at some of the problems with “come-outerism”, beginning with Stanley Elkins’ celebrated theories about the limitations of bourgeois activism!
Good Afternoon Friends!