Holy signification, Batman! (2)


Part 2: Just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

(Or: Tripping the light show fantastic)


“Smoothness of interaction depends upon the continuous presentation of signs in specific situations, for the appropriateness of the response depends not only on the principal sign but also on the subordinate signs to be observed in that situation.  (…)  (S)ince remembering (appropriate responses) is unreliable, since it is the consequence of the brain’s capacity to produce random responses if left to itself, learned behavior can be maintained and made reliable only by constant reiteration of instructions for behavior.
” To this principle I shall give the name ‘cultural redundancy.'”
– Morse Peckham, Explanation and Power, Continuum, New York, 1979; p. 169.

Cultural Redundancy is the theory that stable relations within any cultural group depend largely on the repeated reinforcement of social norms by the visual and verbal signs deployable within that cultural group.

Peckham discusses this theory in terms of our traffic signs and how we read these in terms of repeated behavior of other drivers and pedestrians.  But it is much easier to see this in a closed cultural example: the Catholic church – and I mean here the church you may find in your local community.   It towers above you, covered with medieval iconography, reminding you to be awed by its majesty and history.  You walk through the doors – there’s the font, remember to splash yourself with ‘holy ‘ water.  Then into the main hall, filled with people on their knees with bended head, facing the crucifix hung above the alter….

All cultural experiences come with similar reinforcement by the signs therein deployed, because it is just in the nature of culture itself that it is composed of such signs; their production and deployment,  their regularities and irregularities, their continued maintenance – or their transgressions, failures, and displacements.

Batman the Movie is a film about cultural redundancy; and as I’ve noted, its principle comic strategy if that of immediate redundancy, which underscores the film’s thematic interests.

The film is about cultural redundancy, because its concern appears to be about the issue, why the cultural formations of the United States of the time might manifest a desire for the generation of a fictional character such as Batman.

Batman is something of a cultural parasite, anyway.  Created (by Bob Kane) in the late 1930s, out of elements borrowed from pulp magazine heroes The Shadow and Doc Savage, he appeared shortly after the appearance of Superman (from the same publisher).   Of course he is lacking Superman’s super powers – perhaps so as to appeal to those with an inferiority complex: convinced they would never fly, but, gee, wouldn’t it be fun to be a ‘caped crusader?’   In that respect he actually complements the Superman phenomenon, rather than compete with it for attention.  He fits the niche of the ‘non-super super hero’ in the comic universe of that time.

Batman continuously borrows and refers to popular collective eccentricities and fads of his day.  science and its technology having caught the imagination of the general public by the 1920s, this  became the source of innumerable fictional inventions, and Batman has been in on this trend since his inception:  His laboratory produces marvels of science and technology.  He is especially good at building faster means of transportation and convenient media of communication – beloved hopes for post-WWII affluent Americans.

In the 1950s, at a time when EC Comics was the target of Congressional investigations for the portrayals, in their magazines, of violence and ‘indecently’ dressed female figures, to allay the fears of the parents of his youthful readers, Batman made every effort to avoid physical contact with other human beings (men and women).   Violence was reduced to the occasional punch – and Batman could usually fell a foe with a single blow.

Despite its nearly puritanical morality, the comic book was not without a sense of humor.  Episodes subtly spoofed popular singers, fashion design, Madison Avenue sales campaigns.  (One story has Batman’s archenemy the Joker become a legitimate businessman; unfortunately his business fails, and he has to resort to robbing banks to pay off his investors.)  But what never got spoofed were churches; unelected officers of government; medical doctors; and any married woman over the age of thirty (Mom and her apple pie).  In short, any person, position, or institution Americans thought to be unquestionably trustworthy were treated with utter respect.

That leaves Batman open to a number of criticisms – he feeds off his culture but repays this by reinforcing the status quo.  Of course such criticism can be made of many fictional heroes; all fictional heroes are generated by our fondest hopes (or our least frightening fears, darker fears tending to breed monsters).  But Batman was certainly among the most ripe for such critique, in the 1960s, when such critique became popular.  Some such critical satire as Batman the Movie was inevitable (and in fact several appeared in other media, including more than one spoof in Mad Magazine).  Not because Batman had changed any, and lost touch with the culture that had given him birth.  But the culture itself was changing rapidly, effectively losing touch with the cultural norms that Batman  had been – quite literally – sworn to uphold.

There are a number of phenomena occurring in the 1960s we could discuss, to reveal the schizophrenic nature of American culture at the time.  Most obvious would be America’s military engagement in Vietnam – the colonial engagement that could not – in principle – secure a colony; the proxy war with communism that could only gain support from unquestioning, self-proclaimed ‘patriots;’ the political embarrassment of both major parties that would lead to one president deciding not to run for re-election, and the election of another president who would be forced into resignation for corruption.

However, perhaps wisely, Lorenzo Semple keeps his Batman critique largely apolitical (i.e., the subject of politics is allowed consideration only in a broad yet obtuse, and harmless, fashion).  Exercising our intellects in the presence of such a 2-dimensional character as batman would insult him; and Semple’s asking less of an audience if raising matters of real importance, would insult us.

Nonetheless, it is rather odd to find a film made in the 1960s, in which the hottest political issue seems to be whether there should be a United Nations (or a “United World Organization” as it is represented euphemistically in the film), considering that institution had been established twenty years before.  But many Americans tending to be a little out of touch with the world, this issue was indeed still being debated when Batman the Movie was produced.

But since the film largely sets politics aside, so shall we.  Instead, we will consider one cultural phenomena that may have contributed to the aesthetics of the film, although never actually referred to in any way within it.

The recreational use of drugs has become so ingrained among so many sub-groups of American culture, it now seems a dusty half-remembered dream to envisage the impact on the culture of the 1960s by the sudden popularity of drugs known for their hallucinogenic (or as known in the ’60s, ‘psychedelic’) effects.  There was, initially, a kind of innocence to it, dove-tailing into the celebration of youth that climaxed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969  (ending the year afterward at Altamont).

On the West coast of the United States (where Batman the Movie was made), the drug of choice was undoubtedly LSD (‘acid’).  There are several reasons for this, I think.  First, it had only recently been criminalized, the year or two before Batman the Movie was made, so there was hope that this status would not last.  Second, it was entirely synthetic; it was not derived from organic sources, and was not designed to mimic those drugs that were – the perfect recreational drug for a society still perfecting polyester.   It was also easy to make.  After it became illegal, there developed a joke about how every freshman chemistry student could make it in his or her basement lab.  Which of course meant that it was also cheap.

Culture helped create the drug.  It was designed as a psychotropic for psychiatric use, in an era when doctors were promising housewives that the way to cure the anxiety over their family’s response to the dinners they cooked could be found in the right amount of Valium.  (The U.S. Army also experimented with it as a possible ‘mind control’ drug.)  And culture promoted its use.  Not officially, of course, but through the arts and entertainments.  Not directly, but through representation of various experiences said to be derived from its use.  And no other drug was as well suited to enhancing the deadening audio-visual overload of the then still developing medium of television.  That the popularity of the drug occured at the moment when television began broadcasting in color may be no coincidence; LSD increases perception of colors, and so more garish colors were demanded of television shows – and fashion designers, artists, advertisers – even comic books.  It also engendered increasingly non-linear thought, without, apparently, disrupting thought’s systematicity – Bill Gates is known to have dropped quite a few sugar cubes in his youth, and still managed to come up with Windows.

Having been raised in the culture of America during the 1960s, there is no doubt in my mind that use of LSD in that culture was a principal influence on the making of Batman the Movie.  But there is to be found in the movie no mention of the drug, its use, its cultural influence – none whatsoever.

There’s a profound problem here.  That which is easiest not to signify, and most difficult to signify, is not the private interior of the unique individual, as Romantic language theorists have argued for two centuries.  Rather, it is the experience most common among all the participants of a given culture when that culture is most viable – when it is the culture of the moment.  It is the concrete truth of the culture in its particularity.  It is the culture lived.  It is our first perception and our first intuition, it is that most deeply inculcated by  our elders and our peers.  It permeates every cultural artifact and signification that we consume, enjoy, grow to love – or fear, learn to live with, sense.  We identify with it, and as accretion of cultural forms , we wear it with our clothes and style our hair accordingly.  It identifies us.

When a person from another country sees one of my country, it is this referred to in the remark, ‘that person is American.’  And I don’t mean such ‘tourist’ cliches as ‘bermuda shorts.’

In the film The Limey, there’s a remark made by the character played by Peter Fonda, an aging music producer, reflecting on his experience in San Francisco in the mid-’60s, that it was like visiting a different world, only one knew the language and the customs without knowing why.  That is the culture lived.

For now, let me just say, that it just ‘makes sense’ to me that Batman the Movie would have been made in the same era when LSD was popular among the young, cheap, and easily available.  That’s all we need for this discussion; but it certainly leaves open the door to further inquiry.

[Note:  A fairly good objective depiction of the ‘acid’ culture of the 1960s, in California, is Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test.  The best single subjective depiction of the drug mentality of the ’60s and early ’70s is Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.]


Holy cultural confusion! Can Batman the Movie save itself from the psychedelic contingencies of the ’60s? or will it be found to be just another bum trip?  Be sure to check in on the next episode – same Bat-time, same Bat-Channel!


(Note: dance from TV episode, not movie; or perhaps recorded at one of Ken Kesey’s ‘Happenings.’…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s