What if Dave is Batman? #rhizo15

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The question of week 4 in #rhizo15 is what happens if we don’t have Dave, the professor who dreamed up and organized the course and creates these great questions that initiate some of the best discussions I’ve been part of, on blogs, on twitter and on Facebook.  I’ve even been compelled to take Google+ more seriously because I think I am missing out somehow. Something shapes us.  Someone.  Some event.  The theory of Batman is that he is taught by his experience of a violent crime and the death of his parents to become the saviour of Gotham.  If you prefer the video version, published here under the excellent title, “Seriously, Though, How Many Times Do We Have To Watch Batman’s Parents Die?: http://video.vulture.com/video/Batman-s-Parents-Dying-The-Supe/player?layout=compact&read_more=1&init_autoplay=1 Stories overlaying stories over stories… voices and ruptures and testimony.  It is with the deaths of Bruce’s parents that his story begins.  Prior to them he’s just another kid with his parents watching the movie Zorro – if things had continued on he’d have started refusing to go with them, “OMG you’re so embarrassing…”  But, after their witnessed deaths he becomes, in effect Zorro-like. Is it all inescapable?  Are we shaped like bonsai kittens? BonsaiKitten But how many times have we met people in roles that we felt were completely unsuitable and yet they seem trapped in those roles?  How did they get there?  Refusing to move, and creating further vulnerabilities for everyone around them. I remember a teacher I worked with once, and as I went through the graded workbooks of one of her students, anxiety ridden and full of self-doubt, I started to snap photos of her comments to him over seven months, and then put them together on one big sheet of paper to show her that she’d given him consistently negative feedback, no matter what he did.  She said three nice things about his assignments in ten months.  He was ten.  No one could figure out why he didn’t want to hand things in anymore. She was as sincerely shocked and horrified as I was to see this, but I’m not sure what happened after – did she free herself from the bonsai jar and move on into some more suitable career?  I use that story and sheet of feedback in workshops and people are always appalled – they would never do that – but it requires some intentionality, forethought and carefulness to not do that to each other…  to remember to priorize relationships, to refuse to get caught up in the power dynamics of the settings.  Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 7.35.19 PM If we use Joseph Campbell’s model of the monomyth that is the Hero’s Journey, the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is the call to action, their ghosts his guide, and then through various versions of the story he is trained as a detective and fighter by the assassin’s guild (maybe) and his revelation is that he is responsible for Gotham.  He then transforms into the Batman and begins a process of atoning.  Answering the call of the bat-signal no matter what the hour or weather; watching over his city from the roof-tops.  Whether Catwoman is or isn’t the Goddess of Campbell’s visioning is a debate…

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The first variation of the Batman story  – the first death of Bruce’s parents, the first declaration that he will spend “the rest of my life warring on all criminals” – was published in 1939.  Those deaths engender his future fate. Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 7.13.08 PM How much are we shaped by events / teachers / books when they come to us at the right time, when we are most receptive to whatever they bring.  Or the wrong time.  I find it interesting that these days one of my favourite things is reading philosophy, even though it was such a difficult subject for me as an undergrad.  My first paper was returned with a red “F” and a one word comment: “solopsistic.”  I was wounded for years and imagined myself unable to read philosophy.  People would talk about Wittgenstein and I would sigh and wish, “If only I could read Wittgenstein.”  Then, by accident, I ended up in a philosophy course at grad school and loved it.  One day, looking for some background to a problem we were examining, I searched out my old philosophy text and when I started leafing through it, I was amazed at all the scribblings and questions: “What does this mean?” “What???” “Who says this?”  “WHY?” “WTF?” “How so?” “WTF?”  “WHAT???”  30 years later the things I hadn’t understood were all so clear.  For a moment, I couldn’t understand how I had not understood those things.  And then I remembered that I was no longer the person now reading those notes.

I really like LOVE this part of Dave’s blog from week 3, about the power of stories and have been thinking about it since reading it:

If we are journeying through the ideas that are made by different people, it doesn’t really matter where we start that journey. We start from the people we know, from the people we are familiar with… from a touchstone that grounds us in who we are. From there we grow out to the next piece we find and the next. The job of a teacher/instructor/guide/mentor is to continue that process of introduction as best we can manage. We may not know all the people that you might want to know, there may be two different people with the same story to share, but that’s not hugely important. We introduce you to a group of people who believe a certain way, who have a particular story to tell…

What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field. As you continue to learn, you’ll acquire more stories, more ways of looking at things, more people to grow your own story with. This could be the story of how you see the points of tension in your medical profession (things like prevention vs. medication), how you look at management, how you apply your own ethics to the way you vote or how you parent. As we become part of a community of knowing, our stories continue to grow. The community is always the curriculum. (italics mine)

Community / Curriculum / Continuum… And now I want to swing away from this idea of superheroes shaped by stories / events / people / moments and through this idea of a growing sense of “story” in one’s field of interest that, I keep thinking, turns into mastery.  I’ve had many great teachers and mentors – I’ve been incredibly lucky, in that way that what “lucky” really means is interested, showing up, listening, asking, following through, reading ahead, being proactive and priorising relationships.  But it was a sessional instructor, Dr. Rebecca Lock, was the person who kept asking more of me and helping me figure out what I was capable of, and led me to this realization that my work was part of a body of knowledge.  Prior to that, I had done well in lots of classes, but they were things I took… they were over there, a teacher or a prof was at the front of the room and I was in my place, in a group of ten or a group of 400 or a moodle… waiting to learn.  Rebecca made me feel I was co-constructing the body of work we were delving into. So, was she necessary?  I once told her she was singular and she said “Why do you think this?  How is this true?”  I should have known she’d have asked that.  It was because she asked good questions, ranging from “How can you make this shorter and more accessible?” to “How can you make your reader more certain of your sources?” to “Have you read X or Y or Z?  because they speak to your subject from a different perspective – you should know the opposite theory as well as the one you prefer.” So now I want to swing in a different direction, into Nel Noddings’ ethics of care in education:

Dialogue is implied by the phenomenology of caring. When we care, we receive the other in an open and genuine way. I’ve called this receptivity “engrossment,” but that term is not meant to suggest infatuation, obsession, or single-mindedness. It suggests, rather, a nonselective form of attention that allows the other to establish a frame of reference and invite us to enter it. As dialogue unfolds, we participate in a mutual construction of the frame of reference, but this is always a sensitive task that involves total receptivity, reflection, invitation, assessment, revision, and further exploration.  (131)

So do we need Dave?  Did I need Rebecca?  Or Dr Gloria Filax, who answered every single email I ever sent her before, during and after I actually took a course with her, from Mexico, from the gulf islands, from wherever she was, no matter what she was doing.  Or Dr Ken Banks who, when my thesis advisor suddenly went awol the month my dissertation was planned to start, emailed me back within hours to say “I am on sabbatical, I am in Toronto, I am painting and spending time with my family and I won’t be back to work until September but of course I’ll be glad to do this.”

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Part of what I like about Nel Noddings work is the mutual respect for the carers and the cared-fors and I’ve been thinking about this in terms of teachers, professors and trainers.  Why not get attached?  Why not invite them into our lives?  Why not hugely respect them for what they offer? I think of my favourite quote by social constructionist Dr Kenneth Gergen, one of my latest mentors (I’m not sure he knows it but I’m sure he will):

My hope is to demonstrate that virtually all intelligible action is born, sustained, and/or extinguished within the ongoing process of relationship. From this standpoint there is no isolated self or fully private experience. Rather, we exist in a world of co-constitution. We are always already emerging from relationship; we cannot step out of relationship; even in our most private moments we are never alone.  (From Relational Being)

My teachers have been an important part of that co-constitution of my own world.  Sometimes I meet people who seem to naturally think in ways that are not natural for me.  They can see the answers.  I need company. As a teacher, it was the intentionally brief interactions that made me decide to go do something else.  I would have terrific students and we would have great conversations and learn together (contemporary poetry!) and then the semester would be over and when I ran into them they barely recognised me.  They were so concerned with their new set of classes and what they needed to keep up with.  I didn’t want want to be part of a culture of scheduled distress. And, swing again.  Gentle Reader, you might notice that, oddly, I am reading comics.  I’m not sure how I missed them for the first 56 years of my life, but I’m enjoying them now.  My new favourite is Paul Pope’s Berlin Batman, featuring a rather Cabaret-eseque Jewish Baruch (Bruce) Wayne who in his alter-ego takes on the Nazis:

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And there is something about these comics that is helping me be more discerning about the realities we walk in and out of.  Was Bruce Wayne’s pathologically heroic response to the tragic killing of his parents necessary?  This cartoon asks the question in a different way: Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 7.16.11 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 7.16.24 PM Deleuze and Guattari offer us ways of examining the shaping that we undergo as something always in process, which might be interrogated, interrupted and questioned, even subverted.   Dr. Scott Jeffery, in his PhD and writings, explores comic superheroes through post-structuralist philosophy.  In his paper, The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman, he writes:

Carstens (2005) writes that the kind of boundary dissolutions engendered by psychedelics constitutes for Deleuze and Guattari:

An example of the shaman’s tapping into and traversing of a “higher disorder” of nature…For Deleuze and Guattari the distinction between nature and culture is, in any event, redundant…only shamen and other “unnatural participants” (such as cyborgs), they argue, are able to perceive this (2005:9-10)

In other words, the shaman’s “unnatural participation” in the world understands that technology is as natural as earthquakes and whirlwinds, and that understanding this is necessary if we are to, “…engender new and potentially less devastating technological conceptions” (ibid). Deleuze and Guattari own description of the concept of ‘becoming’ could serve just as well as a description of the psychedelic experience:

To participate in a movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all significations, signifiers and signified, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of non-signifying signs” (quoted in Bruns, 2007:704)

The new Batman, unlike the old 1940s and on version, can no longer just hang out on top of a building and listen for trouble.  Perhaps Gotham is bigger now, or the criminals are quieter, or, most likely, things are just way more complicated.  He is probably on twitter.  In the 60s he was assisted by the Bat-Computer (and he and Robin even kept their schedule on the Bat-Calender, way before synching iPhones) but now he also has Oracle, Barbara Gordon, now in a wheelchair and constantly monitoring banks and banks of screens and data picked up from everywhere.  Surfing…

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In these new versions of Batman, Catwoman points out to him that even though he positions himself as a loner who needs no one, he’s got a lot of people in his network… Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 10.05.40 PMWe all need to connect; we need to be known, to have strings…  in some ways these mentoring / teaching / leading relationships are one of the last places where that relational focus happens.  And it’s an itch that’s not going away – even in 2039, a hundred years after his conception as a gothic hero, artist and writer Paul Pope’s compelling vision of Batman is as one who needs others….

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And, finally, one last image, as we consider the question, What if Dave is Batman? BatmanShirt

3 thoughts on “What if Dave is Batman? #rhizo15

  1. So much that I love about this. Brings me to tears. Thank you for posting it! (btw, I got an F in poetry as an undergrad on a paper about imagery. Good thing, too, or else I wouldn’t be the slow learner I am today)

  2. Dang … comics and literature and teaching and rhizo … all wound together in a beautiful post of illuminations …. Thanks

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