Category Archives: narrative

Is Batman Batman?: Continuity of Identity for Fictional Characters, Part 1

Something I’ve thought about for years is the “continuity of identity” for fictional characters, especially those that have persisted across long periods of time, have handled by different creators, and/or have moved across media. In the medieval world, for example, legends of King Arthur occur in disparate, often contradictory forms, but we still have a basic idea of who the character is and what the important events in the Camelot story are.

In the 20th century, with the proliferation of printed sources, movies, radio dramas, television, comic books, and mass culture generally, we can watch characters undergo more rapid change, accretion of canon, trying out and jettisoning of variants, etc.

Interestingly, in many cases, some kind of cohesion and continuity of identity persists. Of course, this needn’t be the case, or at least not strongly. For example, the very first, pre-Action Comics “Superman” story by Siegel and Schuster was about a bald telepath, and not an alien with super-strength. They then tried out a several more variants before getting the Action Comics version out. It’s not clear what sort of continuity exists between the bald telepath and the comic book version, other than that Siegel and Schuster had a name they kept playing with.

I want to claim that some of these characters, like King Arthur and  Batman, while perhaps loosely defined at the start, have some kernel that either coheres or fails to cohere with additional elements, and that, in part, what determines which elements become canonical is the extent to which they cohere with the central concept of the character, and with the other elements that, perhaps because they cohered so well with the central concept, had become canonical. (I think this is somewhat comparable to Daniel Dennet’s “center of narrative gravity,” and I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.)

In Batman’s case, you begin with the origin story: a young boy sees his parent murdered by a criminal, then moves into a cave and begins dressing as a bat and fighting crime. In short, you have a fairly dark story, beginning as it does with a child witnessing the murder of his mother and father.

I think that’s (in part) why the “light-hearted” Batman didn’t stick very well. It wasn’t cohesive with the character (I also think that comic book fans as a group probably weren’t the sort of readers who appreciated goofball comedy).  And I think that that’s why the 1980s reimagining of Batman as even darker, grimmer, etc, stuck so well. If a central element of the character is that he watched his parents die when he was little and he blames this on criminals,  and then he spends the next ten years doing nothing but training to fight crime, it’s going to make the most sense for him to be an obsessive, overly focused, somewhat grim individual.

Ultimately, there’s a narrative for these characters, and narratives are ways of editing from the infinite possibilities inherent in what happened. Narrative writers look for stories that hang together. The Batman narrative hangs together better if we edit out the campy version. We ourselves narrativize our experience; we also edit for cohesion. “That wasn’t me,” “that’s so like me.” Are these judgments sound? Or do we think in terms of a cohesive character for ourselves and exclude “out-of-character” moments (research in “attribution theory,” notably such effects as actor-observer asymmetry and the fundamental attribution error, point to ways in which we edit personal narratives for cohesion.)

It’s important to note that in the case of a fictional character, the success, aesthetic or commercial or in critical reception, probably fuels the keeping of some elements and the jettisoning of others. But we still have to ask why the critics and fans disliked some elements, and I think lack of cohesion with the central character elements is important for the readers as much as it is for the creators. The “but Batman wouldn’t do that!” response comes from this source, I think. There’s an idea that some of the versions of Batman just aren’t Batman.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the continuity of identity of the character. Is the new Sherlock Holmes on the British “Sherlock” series, or the one on the upcoming American “Elementary” series, continuous with, in some way identical to, the same as, etc., as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes? Are they less or more the same character as the one who appeared in the Basil Rathbone films? Is the movie Batman the same as the comic book Batman? At all? The same questions can be raised with legendary figures: Is Jupiter really Zeus? Are Wotan and Odin the same god? Is the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost the same character as the ha-Satan of the Bible? We can break this down into elements: the name is the same, some characteristic is the different, this story element is the same, etc., but we still need to ask why do we make judgments of sameness here?

Part of the answer, with Batman, involves the fact that this is a character that is owned by Warner Bros; any Batman that is not licensed is not, according to Warner Bros, the same Batman. But obviously this doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes, Zeus, or Satan, and I’m not sure it really works for Batman. If there was no chance that a consumer wouldn’t identify an illegal Batman product as the real thing, then Warner Bros wouldn’t have a case, so they have to claim that there’s at least a sense in which unofficial Batmans can be identified with the official Batman.

So I think the connection to the character’s defining concepts, attributes, elements, etc., may be more important for identity than something like copyright, since that’s going to be some of the basis for even making a copyright claim. Sometimes, the name is a key defining element, but not always: Jupiter and Zeus may well be “the same god” (in some sense) in spite of the name change. And if I tell a story about a man who’s parents are shot in front of him and who then dresses up like a bat and fights crime, I don’t need to call him “Batman” for the audience to know who I’m talking about.

I’ll pick up on this in a future post, along with some discussion of  theory of descriptions, rigid designators, and the ways in which knock-off, alternate universe, and unofficial versions of characters are and are not identical with the original. Look for special guest appearances by The Midnighter, Owlman, Nighthawk, and all those pictures of Batman and Robin making out that can be found in gay bars, on the internet, and in your mom’s bathroom.

Two values in reading: plot, summary, and genre

How much of any novel that you’ve read more than five years ago can you recall? Probably in some cases you have a strong memory of the plot, maybe some lines of dialogue (though these may well not be remembered verbatim…we tend to make small changes, as in the way “quotes” like “Play it again, Sam,” and “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” replace the originals). Maybe we remember specific scenes, though again memory isn’t quite reliable enough to ensure the we remember them entirely accurately. (A search through ERIC didn’t find terribly consistent results on this, nor much of anything focused on novel reading, so I’ll just go by experience and intuition here, but I’m pretty sure our ability to recall scenes in novels is no better than our ability to recall scenes from real life, about which there are mountains of studies on our unreliability.)

It’s not the purpose of a novel, of course, to forever imprint itself in our minds, nor is the value of the novel found in what we remember of it later. It could be that we have no memory at all of reading a book that had some profound influence upon us (I remember once being reminded of a book I’d read as a young teenager and had not thought of in many years, and realizing that it had lead me towards many other books, and had perhaps shaped my sense of story, or perhaps merely answered to what I would have valued in a story.)

If it were the purpose of a novel to do so, a summary of the novel might well be more effective than the novel itself. I could fairly easily pass a test on some classic I’d never read by just reading over its Wikipedia page and perhaps a few other sources the night before the exam. So if there’s some particular value in novel reading (and I don’t think there needs to be!) it can’t be in what one remembers of the novel, or the novel would be no more valuable than a summary or ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version. Which, as a philosopher pursuing the question, I can’t rule out. Perhaps we should all just read the Cliff’s Notes. It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis, anyway.

Though I’d rather look for some value in reading the novel itself (not to dismiss the value of reading summaries.)

But it raises an interesting possibility: perhaps being memorable is not an absolute mark of the value of a novel, nor is being forgettable an absolute mark of its lack of value. Again, the novel I read as a youngster that I was reminded of might be only one of many that I’ve forgotten that was, nonetheless, valuable in some way.

Maybe the value is merely in the entertainment and distraction that it provides while being read. I don’t want to dismiss the very positive value of this; I think being distracted can be a wonderful thing. Certainly in an unpleasant life, a few moments of distraction are a gift not to be taken lightly.

But if it’s not simply the entertainment value, nor what one remembers of the novel (even if those are important elements of value) what else is the value of reading?

One possibility: It might be a combination of these things. In other words, while novels may convey ideas or instill memories, they do so with a particular style and in a particular manner that is inherently valuable because they allow for forms of aesthetic appreciation.

Another: the summary, by being brief, leaves out one of the elements that makes the novel what it is, the extension through time, and the slowing down of the story. It’s been said that the plot of any novel can usually be summarized in a page or so (I can’t remember who said that, or the exact quote, but I want to make clear this is not my insight) and that the majority of the text is doing something besides plot. Part of what it’s doing is slowing down the revelation of plot! Extension has its pleasures.

The first possibility and the second may pertain to greater and lesser extent to different sorts of novels, as well. If the emphasis is on beautiful language and “literary” qualities, the conveyance of ideas with style may be a main source of value. If the emphasis is on enjoyment of the plot, the second possibility may pertain.

And this points to what some have said is a difference between “literary” and genre works: that genre works focus more on plot. I don’t know that I buy that difference, but there may be a genre difference between plot-oriented works and works that are less concerned with plot.

And one could claim that genre works are lesser because they’re plot oriented, and plot can be summarized, whereas the literary elements of the text are lost in summary: noting that the Nabokov’s language is complicated and rhythmic and etc. is not the same thing as reading complicated, rhythmic language.

But! It’s also not the same thing to read a summary of a plot and to feel the plot stretched out and extended, information withheld for (if the author is careful) just the right amount of time. The plot doled out in proper pacing, which is what fiction that’s read for pleasure is supposed to do well, is also lost in summary. So perhaps some recapturing of the value of the story-oriented book can be had if we understand the way in which the pleasures of the plot are necessarily delayed, and how that delay is itself an element of aesthetic craft.

Genre and Meaning

One of the most interesting comments on genre comes from Samuel L. Delaney, who wrote:

 In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible. (from Trouble on Triton)

Part of what Delaney is saying here is that, not only is it the case that a work falls into a genre the more it uses elements of that genre, but that, once in that genre, the meanings of sentences are changed by virtue of the genre.

That is, science fiction gives context to sentences like “His world exploded,” or “she was over the moon,” that informs how they’re supposed to be interpreted.

Delaney was asked why he refused to present himself as a “literary” writer and instead stuck with the as science fiction label at a time when he was being welcomed into the academic and critical discourse of literature. Notably, writers like Vonnegut and Atwood shunned, at various times, the science fiction label so that their work could be regarded as literature.

Delaney’s response was that science fiction gave meaning to sentences like “she turned on her left side” in his texts, and that the label “literature” would treat those sentences as metaphors.

Something about this reminds me of Kendall Walton’s “make believe” theory. While the theory has rich implications in metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of visual art, I want to look at only a small piece of it as it relates to the use of objects in genre.

Walton gives the following example in his book Mimesis as Make-Believe: (I’m reconstructing from memory because I don’t have the text handy, and this is a blog and not a real academic paper, and writing loosely is my favorite thing about blogging): two boys are in the woods playing a game. One says, “stumps count as bears,” and then, as they walk, when one sees a stump, he shouts, “A bear! Run!”

At one point in their game, a boy yells, “A bear!” and they start to run away, but then the boy notices that it’s not a stump, it’s  a rock that looks like a stump, and he yells to his friend, “no, not a bear, it was just a rock that looked like a bear.”

The point is that an agreement was made that certain sorts of entities had a certain meaning. Within the fictional world of the game, there is a truth-condition for the claim that a bear is present. But the interesting thing about the game is that that truth condition can fail to be met, and, since there is a condition, and it’s not the case that whatever anyone says goes, one can be mistaken about when the condition is met.

Walton extends this as an analogy for art: we pretend in a certain way in the imaginary realm of the work of fiction, following certain rules, and we accept that a world is being built based on these rules. The world that is built in, for example, Anna Karenina, has a set of rules that does not completely overlap with the rules in Lord of the Rings. Once the novel has established its genre and milieu, the reader is oriented by relating the sentences to the genre rules. So in Anna Karenina, had Tolstoy written “her world exploded” (which fits the narrative of the novel but is a little trite for Tolstoy) it would clearly not have meant that the planet earth had splintered in pieces. In Lord of the Rings, if Tolkien had written, “the forces of darkness laughed,” he might well have literally meant that Sauron and the Ring Wraiths burst out laughing. Had that sentence appeared in Anna Karenina, it would clearly have been metaphorical. In fantasy, “The forces of darkness laughed,” becomes, in Delaney’s word, a “possible image of the impossible.”

What is possible is laid out in the rules of the genre, in the counting-as that works for certain terms. “The world” counts as “this planet,” in science fiction; in literary fiction it might count as a subject’s realm of experience, the usual life that that character could expect to encounter every day, which might “explode” (where “explode” counts as “was shown to have been a lie” or “changed drastically”) in the event of a personal revelation or loss of status.

A lot of this ties into the question of world making, about which more in a future post. But the idea of different sets of rules for make-believe separating the different genres is, I think, helpful. Of course, each novel will to some extent have its own rules, but to a large extent “realistic” fiction all has the same world-rules, whereas, though there are rules common to many works in their genres, texts in certain science fiction and fantasy and some other genres have to clarify those rules within the text. So at some point, a genre author may have to make clear what a phrase like “you turn me on” counts as: if this is a story about robots, “you turn me on,” probably literally means “you turn me on,”  but if this is a story about a romantic awakening, then “you turn me on,” probably doesn’t mean that an actual switch has been flipped, though, “it was as though a switch had been flipped” is a phrase that could certainly appear in that text.

Interestingly, the science fiction case of “you turn me on,” is a more literal use, but to show that it’s not a metaphor is something that has to established in the text, and, for example, a description of an on/off switch on the back of someone’s neck would be needed to show that in this story, “you turn me on,” counts as “you turn me on.”