Part 4: Chapter 21
When analyzing a more articulated argument or policy, we’re often tempted to use a phrase either to wholeheartedly agree with a position or to dismiss it entirely. But in doing so, a critical examination is often lost in a barrage of name-calling and hyperbole. To try to understand the other side of an argument, consider writing an issue dialogue, starting with the most extreme positions and moving toward more reasonable compromises. One example, for instance, is the debate that surrounds whether universities should continue to raise tuition in order to make up for government cutbacks to education:
Should Universities Raise Tuition?
For: Universities should raise tuition. Why should taxpayers cover the expense? You students want to have a first rate education but you don’t want to pay for it.
Against: Not true. Education is an investment. What some people don’t realize is that when a student eventually receives a better job because of his education, he will pay more in taxes. This increased revenue will more than repay the government for what it spent on his education.
For: That’s assuming that a student will find a better job because of his education; many people, like Bill Gates, have done well without a degree. And even if you can prove that students will make more money, that doesn’t mean that they will remain in the community that invested in their education.
Against: True, but most probably will, and anyway, the university invests a lot of its money in these surrounding communities. As for your second point, for every Bill Gates, there are thousands of college dropouts who are flipping burgers or living on the streets.
For: But why should someone who doesn’t have children or live near a university town have to support an institution that doesn’t give anything back to them? Would you want to have to spend your hard earned money to support a senior center’s golf course?
Against: Studies have shown that when governments do not spend money on education, they have to spend more on prisons so it’s not as though cutting funding for education will benefit those taxpayers you describe. However, I agree that certain families should pay more for their children’s education, as long as they can afford it.
For: And I will concede that governments should continue to provide access to education for those who can’t afford it, but I think even children of poor families have an obligation to give back to the community that supported them when they finish their degrees.
Though this debate could continue for several more pages, you can see that both sides are starting to move toward more reasonable characterizations of their positions. Again, when writing an issue dialogue, it is tempting to ridicule those on the other side with stock phrases to make it easier to dismiss their views (especially when looking at perspectives from different cultures and eras). But the more you can reasonably state the opposing view’s arguments, the more you can reasonably state your own, and, in terms of analysis and argument, everyone should apply the same amount of scrutiny to their own beliefs as they do to those who disagree with them.
Part of this scrutiny may involve raising questions about the author’s period, culture, and biases. In addition, you should consider the strength of the arguments, evaluating how well the author supports the main assertions with sound evidence and reasoning while paying particular attention to whether they rely on any fallacies—errors in reasoning. For instance, does the author make any hasty generalizations? Consider someone who attempts to argue that global warming doesn’t exist on the basis that the weather has been quite cold for the last few days. Obviously the person would make a stronger case for her argument by presenting more encompassing evidence. Another common fallacy is the faulty syllogism (i.e. all cats die; Socrates is dead; therefore Socrates was a cat). Just because two items under considerations have a certain quality in common, does not mean that these items are the same. Perhaps the most common fallacy that students make is “guilt by association.” This may be due to the fact that politicians use it all the time.
For instance, in the 2008 presidential election, many tried to associate Barack Obama with terrorists simply because his middle name (Hussein) was the same as the deposed leader of Iraq. John McCain’s significant personal wealth was seen as evidence that he would be insensitive to the needs of the poor, even though liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were wealthy. Also, be aware of the opposite fallacy—success by association. Go to any tennis shoe commercial on YouTube and you will see famous athletes performing incredible acts, as though the shoes, and not years of practice, are responsible for their success. For a more thorough discussion of fallacies, see Chapter 26.
Not all the details you analyze will suggest a literal action or point of view; many will be of a metaphorical, or symbolic, nature. Though there are many different types of tropes (words or phrases that point toward a figurative meaning)—such as metaphor, simile, and synecdoche, the basic function of each is to allow someone to literally “see what you mean” by comparing an abstract concept to something concrete. One reason the metaphor “love is a rose” is so well known is that the object and the concept match extremely well. A rose, like love, may manifest in many different forms and have several complex layers when examined closely. Roses show the cheerful side of love because they look nice, smell sweet, and inspire warm fuzzy feelings.
However, they also show the dangers of love by having thorns and being difficult to care for. Like the different people you love, a rose requires just the right amount of attention and care—neither too much nor too little.
The need to extend metaphorical implications is especially apparent when analyzing a poem or a song. For instance, in her song “China,” Tori Amos explores the different metaphorical significance the central term has on a crumbling relationship: a far away location that represents the distance couples often feel between each other, a place with a Great Wall that can refer to the figurative barriers we build to protect ourselves emotionally, and fancy plates that, on closer examination, have cracks (just like those who seem to have the perfect relationship and then suddenly announce that they are breaking up). Tori Amos, “China,” Little Earthquakes (Atlantic Records, 1992). In this case, understanding the metaphorical significance can give the audience an even greater appreciation of the song. When we say that a song (or any piece of art) “strikes a chord,” we mean that it resonates with our thoughts, feelings, and memories, and an understanding of its central metaphors allows us to relate to it in even more ways.
Metaphorical language does not come up only in the arts, but also in other disciplines, especially theology and philosophy. Nearly all religious texts are filled with parables and analogies because they provide us with concrete images to explain spiritual concepts. Perhaps the most famous analogy from antiquity is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which Socrates compares human understanding to people locked in chains and forced to look at the shadows of themselves, cast by the light of candles against a cave wall.
In time, they confuse that reality for the true reality that lies above them. When one brave soul (read Socrates) escapes these confines and leaves the cave to discover the true reality, he returns to the people left behind to tell them of their limited existence. Instead of being grateful, they choose not to believe him and have him put to death because they prefer to accept the reality to which they’ve become accustomed.
While this analogy continues to be told in various forms, it still needs to be examined critically. For instance, you might ask who put them in the cave and why? Is our reality set up as a training ground to move on to more satisfying forms of existence, as proposed in the film The Matrix? Or is it a cruel joke in which we’re allowed only a glimpse of a set reality while wallowing in our own inability to effect change? In addition, many have argued that the analogy relies on a transcendent notion of Truth that cannot be communicated or realized—that Socrates believes that there is a greater place outside of our natural existence only because he has a vivid imagination or a need to prove his own importance. If this is true, then we might do better to improve the existence we actually experience than to stagnate while hoping for a better one.
But while poets, philosophers, and songwriters use metaphorical language to entertain and enlighten, many others use it primarily to manipulate—drawing off of the symbolic value of certain terms. Again, advertisers are masters of this manipulation, helping companies to embed their products with metaphorical significance, beginning with what they choose to call them. Car companies often use the names of swift predatory animals to associate their products with speed, control, and power. And advertisers love to use analogies because they don’t have to be proven. For example, when stating that a product works “like magic,” advertisers benefit from all the associations with a mystical process that offers quick, painless solutions without having to demonstrate its actual effectiveness.
Be particularly on guard for inappropriate analogies when analyzing arguments. For instance, people may attempt to justify violent acts to advance their version of the public good by using the analogy that “you have to break a few eggs to make a cake.” A person is far more valuable than an egg, and the analogy is simply inappropriate. The analogy would be far more appropriate and effective if used to justify how you might need to give up smoking or sleeping late in order to get back into shape.
Analyzing Images, Sounds, Tastes, and Smells
Images, like words, are often imbued with metaphorical significance and thus can be manipulated in a similar manner. For instance, the politician who stands in front of a flag while giving a speech is attempting to feed off of the patriotic implications associated with it. Likewise, fast food companies often use images of clowns and cartoon figures to associate their products with the carefree days of childhood when we didn’t have to worry about gaining weight or having high cholesterol. But images we see in painting, sculpture, photography, and the other arts offer more subtle and variant interpretations and deserve more careful examination.
In fact, we can look at certain paintings more than a hundred times and continue to discern new patterns of meaning. This is especially true of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” In his song “Vincent,” singer-songwriter Don McLean describes the painting as “swirling clouds in violet haze” that reflect the eyes of an artist who suffered for his sanity because the people around him could not understand or appreciate his vision. Don McClean, “Vincent,” American Pie (United Artists Records, 1971).
Some people see the painting this way, and others see it as a joyous dance of the stars moving in constant circles unencumbered by human misery.
Music can also create feelings of triumph, joy, or despair without the need for any words to convey a direct message. Again, sometimes this invoking of emotion can happen in a way that seems apparent and universal, (such as how the theme song from the film Star Wars evokes feelings of heroism, excitement, and adventure) or in ways that are more subtle and complex. Jerry Farber, Professor of Comparative Literature, explains that the aesthetic appeal of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A Major emerges through the contrast among the various musical themes within it:
Now there are moments when many listeners, I think, are likely to get isolated in the music immediately at hand, losing much of their awareness of the whole structure. Particularly during one section, a so-called ‘Turkish’ episode in a different time signature and a minor key, the listener is likely, once having adjusted to this new and exotic atmosphere, to be swept far away from the courtly minuet. Still, the overall structure is the context in which we hear this episode and is likely, if only by effect of contrast, to help shape our resonant response (Farber, Jerry. A Field Guide to the Aesthetic Experience. New York: Forwards, 1982. 106).
Which of these details you analyze depends on the unique features of the subject’s particular genre. For instance, in analyzing both a poem and a song, you can consider the major metaphors, key terms, and actions. But with a song, you should also consider how it’s sung, which instruments are used, and how the music underscores or contrasts with the lyrics. Likewise, an analysis of both a painting and a film requires attention to the color, composition, and perspective of the scene. But with a film, you should also consider the dialogue, background music, and how each scene relates to the ones that come before and after it. Keep in mind that although different kinds of texts tend to stimulate particular types of responses, sometimes it is fruitful to think about pieces in light of seemingly incongruous perspectives. For instance, you could look at a love song as reflecting cultural attitudes about gender roles or a political speech as encouraging psychological disorders such as paranoia.
When your analysis focuses on personal experiences, decisions, and encounters, you can discuss those details that correspond with the other senses as well. In fact, taste and smell can play a crucial role in our experiences, as they have the strongest connection to memory. However, be sure to consult not only your writing prompt but also your teacher to determine if a first person subjective response is what your teacher is looking for. In Swann’s Way, the first part of his prolific novel In Search of Lost Time, French author Marcel Proust describes how dipping a pastry in tea helped him to recall a period of his life that he might have otherwise permanently forgotten. Though at first he couldn’t recall why the taste had such a powerful effect on him, he eventually remembered that it was something his grandmother gave him as a child when the family visited her in the summer. The taste helped him to recall not only his moments with his grandmother but the details of the house and town itself. As he puts it:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Killmartin (New York: Random House, 1981), 50–51.
Though the personal experiences you write about do not have to be as significant to you as this was for Proust’s narrator, you still want to try and recall the details as best you can. When doing so, take a step back and try to look at yourself as you might a character in a novel. Detaching yourself like this can be hard to do, especially when you have a vested interest in seeing yourself in a certain light. However, you often obtain your best insights when you try, to paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, to see yourself as others see you. The example below illustrates how a student can both present and analyze an experience.
As I swiped my card at the entrance, the gentleman at the front desk greeted me with a friendly, “Hi Randy.” I felt the usual twang of guilt because I can never remember his name and have to respond with a generic and slightly overenthusiastic, “Hey, how’s it going?” Inside, the YMCA has its usual mix of old and young, most of whom are trying to get back into shape as opposed to other gyms where the main motivation for coming is to show off the body you already have.
I take a bitter sip from the rusty drinking fountain and head to the weight room where I see a young man completing his set on the first machine. He is definitely impressed with himself, periodically looking in the mirror with an expression that would make Narcissus ashamed. When he gets off, I wait until he turns around so he can see me move the key down to include more weight than he was just using. The satisfaction I get from this action comes partly from deflating some of his ego and partly from inflating my own. However, my own smugness is short-lived, because as soon as I get up, a much older man with a noticeable beer belly and smelling of Ben Gay sits at the machine and lowers the key much further than where I had it.
I go through my weight routine with a bit more humility and then wander over to the elliptical for the aerobic portion of my workout. I pull out my iPod and click to Credence Clearwater Revival, the only group with a happy enough sound to take my mind off my aching feet. After enough time, I leave the same way via the guy at the front desk (only now I return his, “Bye Randy,” with a generic and slightly over enthusiastic, “See you later; have a good day”).
Though there was no text to consult this time, students can still interpret the experience by recalling and focusing on the key details. You could discuss why you find it embarrassing to admit any personal weakness, whether it stems from my a memory for trying to recall names or from an inability to lift as much weight as others. You could discuss the key in the weight machine metaphorically, and how the experience warped your mind and encouraged you to see a simple tool as a larger symbol of competition. You could also discuss the effect of music and how it takes the sting out of exercise by allowing you to focus on something other than the painful routine that stretches out before you. Finally, you could discuss how the rusty taste of the drinking fountain water or the smell of Ben Gay and sweat will always remind you of this particular gym.
When looking at a relationship or a decision, the analytical process is essentially the same as when you examine a specific event; you still need to consider, recall, and imagine various moments—just more of them. Whereas a relationship with another person is the sum total of all the time you’ve already spent with that person, making a decision involves imagining what might come about as a result of our choices.
Oftentimes our analysis inspires thoughts that leap around in time as we reconsider past patterns to predict likely future events. For instance, if I were to analyze whether I should adopt a kitten, my mind may race through a string of potentially good and bad memories of having had cats in the past: images of soft, cuddly, purring little creatures that also like to destroy drapes and meow in my ear at five in the morning. Of course, no matter how long and hard we think about something, we can never be sure that the outcome will work out for us in the way we hope and expect. Still, to be satisfied that we at least tried to make an informed, intelligent, and aware decision, we must slow down and reconsider all the relevant moments that we’ve already experienced; this is one of the most important steps in the analysis process.
Are Batman and Superman the Barometer of Our Times? A Review of ‘Superheroes in Crisis’
Ira Erika Franco
The WWII historian Jeffrey K. Johnson studies how the two comic book legends Superman and Batman have adapted successfully to American cultural and social landscapes through time. This is a book review of ‘Superheroes in Crisis’, a monograph that details some decisive moments from their creation in the late 30’s up to the 70’s in which both characters have transformed in order to maintain their relevance as what Johnson calls ‘cultural barometers’.
The idea that superhero comic books are part of a modern American mythology is probably not a surprise to anyone. However, Jeffrey Johnson refocuses this concept in his monograph Superheroes in Crisis (RIT Press, 2014): after going into detail of the myriad of changes Superman and Batman have gone to stay relevant, he suggests we should narrow our assumptions of what constitutes a true comic book myth, given that the character stays true to what the present society demands. ‘American culture is littered with faint remembrances of characters who flourished for a season and then became inconsequential and vanished’ (Johnson 2014: 104). The author mentions The Yellow Kid and Captain Marvel as those characters who were once über famous and popular and now are but receding memories in people’s minds. Avid comic readers can surely think of many other examples of great modern characters who, for some reason, just didn’t make it. Batman and Superman, however, remain ‘two heroes who have survived, and often thrived, for over seventy years because they are important to current Americans and speak to modern social problems and contemporary cultural necessities’ (Johnson 2014: 104).
A noted World War II historian, Johnson points out that the characters have endured the trials of time mainly because of their abilities to bend so as not to break. Even if most of us modern readers assume fixed traits for both The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel, Johnson carefully demonstrates there’s no such thing: Superman couldn’t even fly in his earliest adventures, and through the period of the TV series in the mid-sixties, Batman, the so-called Dark Knight, was a goofy, campy character with not a bit of darkness in his soul. Through Johnson’s account it is evident, though, that Batman and his creators have done a better job than Superman’s in adjusting to radical changes in American society (such as the US’s disillusionment after JFK’s assassination or the introduction of TV and its immediate popularity). This might also be the reason for Batman’s smoother translation to modern cinema: since the release of the first movie —Batman (Burton, 1989)— has always kept the public interest with strong sales figures, —The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) being the most popular to date, having made 533 million dollars in revenue for its creators in the US alone —. Not even the bad Batman movies have flopped in opening weekends: people always want to see The Dark Knight’s new metamorphosis, as if they wanted to understand what they’ve turned into.
In the four chapters of the book, Johnson provides the reader with the rare pleasure of being told old stories, gems actually: instead of just sociological analysis and high ideas, Johnson provides the actual plot of the comic issue he chooses in order to support his commentary. We might remember that Superman was created during the Great Depression (1938), and it’s fairly easy to assume that the caped hero was to provide a temporary escape for impoverished and desperate Americans, but unless we have an infinite (and expensive) golden age collection, it would probably never occur to us that during his first few years, Superman was actually a savior of the oppressed, almost in a Marxist fashion. One example is Action Comics #3, where Superman disguises himself as a coal miner to trap the mine owner and his socialite friends underground in order to show them the importance of safety regulations and working men. In Action Comics #8, Superman befriends a gang of delinquents and decides to burn down the slums they live in, just to prove that the government is partly responsible for their delinquency. In the end, Superman becomes a true hero: he forces the government to build new apartments providing these hooligans the dignity they deserve. Throughout the book, Johnson provides such examples in effective ways to prove the Historic turmoil to which our heroes reacted.
One compelling topic that defines both characters concerns their enemies. At first, being created as depression-era social avengers, they fight the common criminal: shoplifters, wife-beaters and even politicians. ‘These often colorful foes provided action and adventure while also creating a binary narrative of good and evil’ (Johnson 2014, XIV). But this narrative changes greatly throughout time, constituting probably the most important transformation in the stories of these two heroes: the evolution of their foes. At some point, the duality of pure good and evil stops being good enough. It stops explaining what is wrong with the world. At the end of the sixties, for example, Superman’s petty villains become so unimportant that, for a while, his love interest Lois Lane impersonates a new kind of foe. In a way, Lois updates better than Superman as she wakes up to her newfound power, akin to the zeitgeist of her era. In Lois Lane #85 (she even gets her own title for a little while) the one-time docile girlfriend decides she no longer wants to marry Superman and refuses his once longed-for offer. In a kind of confused, first approach feminism, she is seen doing things such as lifting heavy stuff like men. ‘Superman represents the older generations and is pressing to protect the status quo, while Lois is a change-minded baby boomer’ (Johnson 2014: 43).
Batman’s enemies are, without a doubt, the most exciting ones. First of all, he gets one in the real world: he is accused of promoting homosexuality by the psychologist Frederic Werthan, in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), for which Americans changed the regulation code of the comic book industry. Later, in the early sixties, the character is handed to writer and editor Julius Schwartz and the stories become enriched with a focus on Batman’s detective skills. The Riddler, Mr. Freeze and the Joker all demand The Caped Crusader’s brainpower to discover complex noir plots, creating a three-dimensional world within the comic’s pages: ‘Perhaps most interesting is Detective Comics#332 (October 1964) in which Batman fights Joker for the first time under the new creative regime. In this story the Clown Prince of Crime creates a potent dust that causes anyone it comes in contact with to laugh uncontrollably. After encountering the drug, Batman researches possible cures and learns that a simple antihistamine will stop the uncontainable laughter. The Caped Crusader soon thwarts the villain’s evil plans and protects society from the psychopathic clown. This version of Batman is portrayed as being clearly more intelligent and cunning than his arch-nemesis, but The Joker is also more nefarious and crafty than he had been in recent appearances’. (Johnson 2014, 36). It is only natural to think that Batman’s foes evolve in complexity over time, the greatest example being a villain like Ra’s al Ghul, who, defying normal stereotyping, commits awful crimes believing it is best for the planet.
In this constant reshaping of the characters, one thing remains constant from the beginning: the foes are more metaphorical than the heroes for the darkest fears of American society in the way they reflect the heroes’ moral codes. In the first chapter, for example, that covers the early years (from 1938 to 1959), most evildoers evoke the desperate need of common people to keep America’s status quo. Superman fights against gamblers taking control over football games and ‘declares war on reckless drivers’. Superman deals with them using the moral code of an entire society: he enjoys humiliating, beating and sometimes even killing them. ‘These first superheroes were violent champions for a hardened people who demanded they act in such a way. The original versions of Superman and Batman did not conform to the rules against killing, maiming, battling authority figures and law enforcement’ (Johnson 2014: XVII). Johnson thinks these initial times can be seen, especially in Superman, as a kind of an adolescence because of his disregard for any point of view except his own. More a bully than a hero, Superman reflects the state of millions of Americans, adult men out of work ‘who had descended into hopelessness and Superman served as a bright spot in this bleak depressing age’ (Johnson 2014: 2).
Just three years later, with the entry of the US to World War II, the nature of both criminals and heroes changed radically: both Batman and Superman had to support governmental and military mandates, slowly becoming in the years to come guardians of the conventional values that were established with the prosperity and the sense of social unity that came after the victory over the Axis armies. What happened to our heroes in the sixties reflected a harsh division in the American people: while Superman becomes almost infected with paranoia and self-righteousness that characterized the conservatives in the post war era —having nightmares of being exposed to red kryptonite, splitting into evil Superman and good Clark Kent, turning into a space monster, among other adventures—, Batman goes through some nice years of detectivesque narrative, preparing for the blossoming of sexual liberation and anti-war movements that would become popular among youngsters a few years later. ‘The Dark Knight was now focusing more on his detective skills and was no longer fighting aliens or magical beings as he had in previous years…Batman was attempting to recreate himself from an evolving society, but it was unclear if a return to his detective roots combined with pop art influences was what readers demanded’ (Johnson 2014: 35).
One last thing is to note of this book: the detailed attention Johnson pays to the creative minds that shaped these heroes. Bob Kane may have designed Batman to be a ‘hardcore vigilante’, but it was Julius Schwartz in 1964 who invented some of his most engaging traits as a resourceful hard-boiled detective with no other tools to fight crime but his mind. Writers and artists like Frank Robbins, Bob Brown and Dick Giordano are mentioned as inventive, but Johnson points out a very short but fertile period in the seventies that would prepare the dark and gothic traits of Batman we have come to love, under the hands of writer Denny O’Neal and artist Neal Adams. In this period Batman first gets his many layers as a character, his neurosis and most subtle psychological features that Frank Miller would use in his ground-breaking The Dark Knight Returns (1986), later revamped for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight’s Trilogy.
Above all, the great journey this book offers is discovering how our beloved heroes appear to be two ends of the same rope, because, paradoxically, even when they change, they stay the same: Superman representing (mostly) the moral standards of the conservative side of American society, and Batman exploring (mostly) the darker, subterranean side, both equally sustaining and fundamental to the American social fabric.
- Batman (1989). Burton, Tim Warner Bros.
- Johnson, JK (2014). Superheroes in Crisis: Adjusting to Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s. RIT Press. 122
- The Dark Knight (). Trilogy is a film series directed by Christopher Nolan. It consists In: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Warner Bros Pictures.
- Werthan, Frederic . (1954). Seduction of the Innocent In: New York Reinhart & Co.. 400
Ira Erika Franco is is a teacher in Communication for the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is a film director, a travel writer, and a film and theater critic. Her work appears in Chilango and Muy Interesante. This review is reprinted from The Comics Grid.
Are Batman and Superman the Barometer of Our Times? A Review of ‘Superheroes in Crisis’ by Ira Erika Franco is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International License.