Friday, March 1, 2013

The Measure of a Man

I've been thinking about Issue 6 of All-Star Superman a lot lately. I've excised the chapter that focused on it from my book, replacing it with a chapter based on fieldwork instead. I'm contemplating turning the excised chapter into an article, so it's got my attention even though it's gone. And I've been looking over the story.

On top of that, there were the superheroics of early last month. It would seem to work nicely with a line from All-Star issue 6. Clark Kent, delivering a eulogy for his father Jonathan, says: "He taught me that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does." It seems a profound moment.

But it only seems that way. I'm not the only one to find trouble in this, or in other aspects of Morrison's work, but as time goes by I feel like this line in particular just isn't correct.

So, this really isn't a post about Superman.

With that out of the way, the idea at issue in the line--that doing things is more important than saying things--creates a dichotomy between words and actions. We've all heard the notion that 'actions speak louder than words.' There's a hint of this in the old saw that 'seeing is believing,' because it opposes the active seeing to the passive 'hearing about' something (the modern phrase, however, is just half the older version, which told us that "seeing is believing, but touching is for real").

It's a false dichotomy.

Talking is doing. A silly sentence, yes, but it gets right to the point. I'm troubled by the notion that speech isn't an action, that there's no agency behind it. It's right up there in the US Constitution, among the other actions of petition, assembly, and whatnot in the First Amendment. If speaking wasn't an action, then it would have no effect. People wouldn't be motivated by words, or driven to hatred and love. In performance studies, there's a special word for speaking as action: speech act. I dub thee knight. I pronounce you husband and wife. I'm breaking up with you. Some of these are accompanied by actions, but the words are often enough by themselves. Words written, words spoken, words signed...these things can bring us to tears, spur us to victory, put us to sleep, and take away our fears.

And to me, it's interesting that Morrison, a man who makes his living with his output of words, overlooks that when writing Superman's speech.

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