A Generalist’s Work, Day 2

Tom De Haven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth was one of my accidental discoveries this semester, arising out of trying to help a student in my counterfactual history class with her really interesting project.

I have a long-standing engagement with comics and sequential art both as a consumer and in terms of some of my underlying scholarly interest in fan cultures, subcultures, and divergent national histories of genre and form. De Haven’s book isn’t as formal or far-reaching an analysis as work like David Hadju’s cultural history of the moral panic over comic books in the U.S. during the 1950s or Gerard Jones’ look at the beginnings of the superhero comic as a form. De Haven’s short commentary on the history of Superman as cultural property and idea rests heavily on such work, as well as work about comics history by comics creators such as Jim Steranko’s authoritative account. (Which, by the way, some publisher should consider reprinting.)

I enjoyed his weaving together of the now-familiar, once-obscure story of the travails of Superman’s creators, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, with the evolving meaning of the character to his publics through his successive iterations in different media, which have ranged from a kind of devil-may-care social crusader early on to the weird mix of surrealist plotting and boys-club misogyny of the Mort Weisinger era and onward to the continuity-laden, densely fannish treatment Superman gets in many current comic books. De Haven ends up arguing that there is a sort of essential core to the character, most importantly that he does good because he enjoys it, almost because it’s his hobby. (He points out that the idea that Superman was raised right in the American heartland by two salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners was added relatively late to the character’s mythology.)

In any event, even if you had no interest in Superman or comic books, De Haven’s book is a good model for a looser style of extended essay by an academic cultural critic. It’s not an exhaustive work of original research, and doesn’t need to be. It’s a commentary that requires the author to have an erudite understanding of the texts involved (Superman comics, the television show, the movies, advertisements) as well as the wider social and historical contexts but doesn’t feel obligated to compel its readers to share that erudition in order to understand the basic thrust of his interpretation of Superman. De Haven does a nice job of integrating his personal experience of Superman the character and cultural property into his analysis, and maintaining a relaxed, curious, open attitude towards his subject. In many ways, I wish this is what cultural studies scholarship looked like more often.

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2 Responses to A Generalist’s Work, Day 2

  1. G. Weaire says:

    Let me just emphasize that I’m not saying the following because I’m hostile to the project. I’m just curious about how you would respond to this sort of question. (I.e., I’m not trying to take sides against your discursive struggle for hegemony. You might win, and then I would be quick to welcome my new overlord.)

    From the “outside”, I’m struck by the fact that both of your first two books strike me (from the outside) as pretty fair disciplinary game for a historian, especially a cultural historian. So, two questions.

    1) Are you really taking flak for incorporating relevant perspectives drawn from outside your exact specialism into your specialism? Because, if so, that honestly strikes me (from the outside) as ridiculous and unfair. Doing that is not (from my perspective, viewing this from the outside) being a generalist, so much as a specialist who doesn’t think that insight begins and ends with their specialism. Or perhaps a generalist in the sense of “generalist” as it’s used in job ads – some one who can teach across the curriculum within a discipline.

    2) You aren’t – on this blog – someone who claims to be doing the ultimate anything. But how would you distinguish your position from the claim that history is the “ultimate humanistic discipline.” I note that Wood has just echoed Southgate’s phrasing, so I think it’s fair to call this a (not the) traditional self-conception of history as a discipline at this point?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    1. Yeah, sometimes I am. Though people who are being that territorial seem a bit more sheepish about it, and don’t tend to confront me directly about it. I wrote about this a bit earlier this year, about how I’d become aware only in the last year that there are people who’ve complained quietly for years that some of my classes incorporate work outside of my specialization in history or from “proximate” disciplines like anthropology. The more directly visible territoriality has to do with a bigger reach across disciplinary boundaries.

    2. I guess first I’d distinguish it by saying that one of my most acute interests is in the limitations of history as a discipline as well as in its uses. I do think that history is (rather like biology) one of those disciplines that has extruded into the toolkit of many other disciplines (and again rather like biology, is pretty open to incorporating the work of other disciplines into itself). This does not describe all disciplines: some are much more anxious about their own authority or boundaries. I’m pretty clear about when I’m reading outside of history as a discipline, and about when that requires me to be pretty careful to not just break down what I’m reading into grist for my own disciplinary mill.

    Anyway, give me time: I’m trying to capture the natural cadences of my work, so this is about what was already on my pile or that I’ve recently worked through. I’ll certainly get to things which are much further away from historical study at some point. But I think this would be my point about generalism’s own “specificity”: generalism is a conscious process of discovery, of setting your nets wide, but it’s always going to begin from an existing base of knowledge, interest and interconnections. There’s no question that my own generalism is usually informed by a historian’s sensibility and training.

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