Lecture report

My lecture at the Jewish Historical Museum last night went very well, with 70-80 people crowding into the modest basement auditorium, where the heat was unrelenting, and where I tried my best to pack as much information and insight as I could into a remarkably brief 30 minutes. Judging by the interesting discussions with listeners in the lobby afterwards, my half-improvised talk came across as reasonably coherent. I had started off by summarizing Joseph Campbell’s idea of the classical monomyth, then contrasting that with Lawrence and Jewett’s conception of the American superhero monomyth, and then applying this structure to familiar superheroes like Superman and Batman. During this quick historical overview, I also brought in Althusser and tried to connect his definition of State Apparatuses both to the superheroes’ diegetic worlds, and to their functioning as part of western popular culture.

Finally, I managed to move on to the actual topic I was there to discuss: the changes in superhero narratives since 9/11. My first example was Superman Returns, from which I showed the clips in which Kal-El watches the news and sees images that appear related to military conflict in the Middle-East. The next clip was the scene where he takes Lois up above Metropolis/Manhattan and says that he hears the world cry out for a savior every night. I used these monomythic elements to point out that in this particular superhero narrative, little seems to have been added to the traditional formula besides a stronger nostalgic yearning for a more innocent time (represented in the film also by the re-use of familiar elements from the Christopher Reeve films).

I then moved to V for Vendetta as an example of a superhero tale in which the hero’s ideology may be different, but where the world’s reliance on a superheroic redeemer who uses purifying violence to save a helpless community remains strangely unchanged. I also used some screen shots to illustrate how the film used specific imagery to conjure up associations with post-9/11 American policies and news images. My short tour of different kinds of superheroes finally ended with a side-by-side comparison of Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, two superheroic icons of post-9/11 pop culture who share their initials and their original affiliation with America’s Repressive State Apparatus, but little else: where the world must rely on Jack Bauer’s innate ability to make the right decisions (to Hell with due process!) in the patriarchal government’s name, Jason Bourne’s journey ends with the discovery that not only were his father figures irredeemably corrupt from the start, but that he had sided with them out of choice rather than out of coercion. I’m looking forward now to doing more work on this peculiar ‘JB connection’ once I finish my upcoming paper on film and comic representations of the 9/11 attacks for the conference in September.

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