Aren’t our favorite Superman stories the ones in which Superman—drained of all his powers by Lex Luthor, who has hidden kryptonite in a pill or behind a painting, take your pick—must recover his strength to outwit Luthor? Reduced to a pile of muscles, the Man of Steel is momentarily vulnerable and forced to rely on the only superpower he has left—one that we ordinary mortals share with him: his creativity and imagination. The pleasures of these stories arise precisely from the challenge of things not being ideal. Given the perpetual threat under which Superman lives, it would not be inaccurate to say that he flies between the stratospheres of the ideal and the impossible. This hovering between perpetual impossibility and an absolute potential also measures the distance between the bespectacled, clumsy Clark Kent and his alter ego. But what if the true alter-ego of Superman is not Clark Kent, but Walter Mitty, the everyman from James Thurber’s 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, who dreams his way into his absolute potential much like all of us? What if Superman is the necessary fiction that allows Kent/Mitty to fly, despite the heaviness of the real world around them? After all, Walter Mitty is the one who really understands that the most subversive power we possess is our imagination—it penetrates walls, stops bullets, flies across the world, and in it we are all light as air.
Italo Calvino urges us to take things a little lightly as we step into the twenty-first century. Enumerating lightness as one of the desirable attitudes to cultivate, Calvino says that when the entire world is turning into stone through a slow petrification, we should recall Perseus’s refusal of Medusa’s stone-heavy stare. To slay Medusa without allowing himself to be turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and “fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.”[footnote Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).] Calvino reminds us that Perseus’s strength lay in his refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live. But what of those who live under the terror of the Gorgon—do they wait for their Perseus, their Superman? For his 2010 documentary on the crisis of the education system in the United States, Davis Guggenheim used the appropriate title Waiting for Superman, in reference to a Harlem teacher’s childhood belief that a superhero would fix the problems of the ghetto, and his frightful realization when his mother tells him that superman does not exist.
The transformation of Clark Kent into Superman is always precipitated by a crisis, usually one large enough to potentially destroy the world. But what if it is not a monumental end-of-the-world that scares us, but the prospect of losing the small worlds that we inhabit and know: a bookstore disappearing, a public organization running out of funds, an independent gallery shutting down?
The crisis of funding in arts and culture threatens to destroy many such worlds with a slow petrification of our sensibilities, and the understandable impulse is to despair and bemoan. It is, after all, no coincidence that a state of the economy—depression—also names or appropriates an affective state whereby a self-fulfilling prophesy is initiated: an economy drained of capital produces a draining of life. An alternative economy would have to seek a language that does not just name a different economic process, but names different psychic energies amidst the prediction of gloom that normally accompanies the retreat of capital from all forms of life, including creative life. And yet it remains important to maintain that the mere presence of healthy public institutions does not guarantee a richer cultural life, just as their absence does not necessitate a poverty of cultural life.
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