Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The times they are a-changin'

Speaking of the importance of narrative, this intrigues me.

The newest "Fantastic Four" movie is due out soon.  Reed Richards has been transformed (it started in the comic books, apparently; movies are notoriously conservative, no matter what you've heard) from a wise elder to a precocious youngster.  In the comics Richards was always a bit of an outlier:  the graying at the temples scientific genius who was a steady anchor for the younger siblings of Sue and Johnny Storm, the calm and reflective opposite of the pugnacious and willing-to-punch Ben Grimm, a/k/a The Thing.

Many of Marvel's superheroes were adults:  Tony Stark, Thor (a/k/a Dr. Donald Blake), Captain America, etc.  Some were teenagers:  Peter Parker/Spiderman, Johnny Storm/The Human Torch.  It was a mixed bag, but it was anchored by adults.  Reed was the eldest of the adults, the guy with the graying temples and some accumulated wisdom; but mostly accumulated knowledge.

That's really the only way you get knowledge:  to accumulate it.  You can recover it, a la Plato; you can accumulate it, a la Locke; but nobody is just born with it.

Prodigies seem to be, but prodigies are always limited to highly systemized subjects:  music and math, for example.  Not too many prodigies writing great novels at the age of 5, or turning a scientific field on its head.  That requires knowledge no one can be born with.  Obviously people can be born with an ability to follow a system, like music or mathematics, more rapidly and easily than the rest of us.  But still, there's an exposure; a child old enough to sit at a keyboard and play (physical development) is also a child who has been exposed to music enough to have caught on (never doubt the learning capacity of children; they come out of the womb paying attention, of this I am convinced).

So a scientific prodigy is someone with a strong ability to engage a field of science; but not born knowing all that science knows now.

In the trailers for the "Fantastic Four" movie, Reed Richards is described as knowing "the answers to question we don't even know to ask yet."  Why?  Because he's young, and he's "disruptive."  No, that isn't part of the ad campaign; it's an assumed part of the premise.  The '60's cry of "never trust anyone over 30!" has become the working assumption of our age.  If Reed were the old man of the comic books, he'd be locked into old man thinking, and thus incapable of doing the disruptive, innovative work necessary to fuel a breakthrough that creates, well, four superheroes.

Reed, of course, was always on the cutting edge of science.  The Fantastic Four originally gained their powers by flying through "cosmic rays" in a space ship of Richards' design.  Now they need a new excuse; but what's most interesting is, they need a much younger Reed to get that excuse.

The latest trailer plays the Jobs/Wozniak card, to no surprise.  Reed as a child with friend Ben Grim is in Reed's garage, trying to build a device that will transport living things to other dimensions.  Despite the spitzensparken und blinkenlights in his garage (it's a movie, after all), he fails.  But the clear implication is:  he was born to do this, and just give him time and enough technology, and he will do it.

And, of course, he does.

Which draws a straight line to the heart of this origin story, making it oddly simplistic (Reed was always a genius in many scientific fields, not just obsessed with one goal; but anyway.....), but instructive.  Genius is now wholly born, not at all made; and it just needs a big enough garage to achieve fulfillment.  Never mind that it seems Richards' efforts create Ultron (in the form of Dr. Doom), and so the abilities of the Fantastic Four are needed to defeat what Reed Richards has unleashed (at least I think that's the way it's going to go), if you're gonna be disruptive you gotta break a few eggs, amirite?  Maybe even destroy the world in order to recreate a better one?  Hey, creative destruction, right?  That's disruptive!

The narrative shifts to meet our new assumptions.  The old story of the Fantastic Four's origins is too old:  "cosmic rays," pffft!  We need a new explanation, and we need new wineskins for this new wine.  Maybe knowledge was once something accumulated and useful (in the comics Richards did plenty to expose the world to dangers, that's not really new), but tempered with wisdom (we can build an atomic bomb, but we're wise enough to never use it.  Well, once; okay, twice; but not after that!).  Johnny was the hothead who ran to trouble rather than tried to figure out a strategy; Ben was the guy who relied on brute strength in all situations.  Both were useful, but without the reflective Reed to organize them, they seldom succeeded alone.  And now it's young people who "think outside the box" and aren't limited by "knowledge" or "experience," and who invent from whole cloth in their garages (not what Wozniak and Jobs did, by the way; not by a long shot).  And they only need old people for their money and their government connections, because the really good stuff only comes from using technology, and blinkenlights und spitzensparken don't come cheap.

But once we've used 'em for that, we leave 'em behind on the dustheap of history!

I'm catching a whiff of this just now, in the determination to see the internet and smart phones as harbingers of a break with a sordid past.  Racism, rape, poverty, war, economic turbulence:  all problems foisted on Millenials by lazy and selfish and greedy Boomers.  The only solution (as Boomers themselves thought, for a few minutes sometime in the '60's) is to make a clean break with the generation before, the one still old enough to be running things, or to be role models.*  After all, now we have smart phones!

I saw a PBS show just last night that discussed the pervasive nature of the internet and the smart phone, but then took the whole "revolution" back to Gutenberg's innovation of type cast from lead, rather than carved from wood.  He reduced printing time to one week for a book, where before it had taken nearly a year.  Now THAT'S revolutionary! That small change led to near universal literacy.  The internet and video seem to be leading us in the opposite direction.

I still think Andrew Carnegie had more impact on American intellectual life than the internet, which has only made cranks and crazies and yahoos more accessible to all.  As Bart Ehrman observed:

I am finding, now that I am becoming active on the Internet, that engaging in discussion here can mean entering into a black hole: there is no way out once you hit the event horizon. Many critics of my work have boundless energy and, seemingly, endless time. I myself have lots of energy, but not lots of time. I have had my say now, in an attempt to show my scholarly competence. I do not plan on pursuing the matter time and time again in this medium. My main energies – and my limited time – need to be devoted to the two ultimate goals of my career: to advance scholarship among scholars and to explain scholarship to popular audiences. That requires me to write books, and that takes massive amounts of time. That is where I will be putting the bulk of my energies, not to writing lengthy responses defending myself against unfounded charges of incompetence.
Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a vexation, the Preacher observed.  But the internet has dissolved books in the acid of NOW, and abjures study in favor of strongly held (and held to) opinions.  The "Information Age" is more and more shaping up as the "Mis-Information Age."

And our vanguard seems to be in danger of becoming children who can't possibly know anything; which is where Reed Richards begins to look a lot like Donald Trump.

*as if on cue....


  1. Sounds like some Hegelian Dialectic working its magic...

    But my larger question is: why the hell are they rebooting the F4 already?

  2. 'cause the first two tries really sucked?

  3. What we really need is a 3rd shitty attempt. That's what Hegel always said: SYNTHESIS!

    1. Third time's the charm.


  4. The Unlightenment, not to be confused with the No-So Lightenment As They Liked To Think.

  5. The Unlightenment, not to be confused with the No-So Lightenment As They Liked To Think.

  6. I'm still waiting for the big Hollywood treatment for my old comic book favorite, Richie Rich. That boy had super-powers Americans can understand!

  7. They did RR with Macaulay Culkin back in the 90s. It's due for a reboot! Wonder if they could get that Joffrey fellow from Game of Thrones to play lead...or is he too old?

  8. "They did RR with Macaulay Culkin back in the 90s."

    Oops. I'm sleepin' through life.....

  9. I just don't understand how you could have missed that one. It was big. BIG, I tell ya!