Posted by: Doc Comics | August 16, 2010

The Philosophical Rhetoric of Superheroes

As mythic allegories for the best and worst of humanity, superheroes offer “anticipatory imagination” for present problems and future potentialities.

The question I get most (aside from “Which comics do you have students read?”) is: “Why superheroes?”  Sure, thanks to the moral panic that triggered The Comics Code, comic books are widely perceived to be kid stuff funny books but this in no way diminishes their ideological power.  At their best (and even worst), superheroes offer profound meditations on virtuous power, ethical dilemmas, contemporary anxieties, political hubris, and utopian possibility amidst cynical despair (and, in the case of Civil War, the real world implications are provocative).  Indeed, these are the philosophical functions of creative imagination and, thus, superheroes can function as Socratic invitations for popular audiences to contemplate enduring existential issues.  The mythic rhetoric of these superhero fantasies can therefore spark reflective deliberation and dialogue over perspectives, presumptions, values, policies, and potential consequences of our ideological commitments.   In fact, this class begins with how themes of race, class, and gender or sexuality are entangled within the politics of representation (whether intended or unconscious) that implicates all popular culture.  The more I examine the mythic rhetoric of superheroes, the more I am amazed at how many contemporary issues and theoretical conundrums occupying scholarly inquiry are also being addressed or “worked through” at the level of the popular imaginary.  Indeed, while the eyes of John or Joan Q. Public might glaze over when debating the intricacies and ethical implications of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hobbes, Locke, Constitutional Republicanism, or the ‘unitary executive’ premise of Bush Doctrine, most folks become very engaged when you put these same ideas in masks and capes to have them slug it out!  Despite the recurring oversimplifications of critics dealing in sterotypical generalizations, superheroes reflect and inspire because they are projections of both the worst and best in human impulses. These modern myths don’t simply invite us to interrogate their meanings, they demand it.

Although the superhero course is taking a haitus while other courses get covered in the next academic year, it shall return in Fall 2011! If you are a former student, or just an interested lurker, please take a few minutes to drop a comment about what insights you walked away with from the course and offer your own perspective on what we can learn from our superheroes!

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