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p a r t i i The Immediate Experience Writing shortly before his death in 1955, Robert Warshow argued that “the unresolved problem of ‘popular culture’ . . . has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism, intruding itself on all our efforts to understand the special qualities of our culture and to define our own relation to it.”1 Three decades had passed since the publication of Gilbert Seldes’s The Seven Lively Arts. There was a growing recognition that Seldes had correctly identified the cultural importance of popular art, but there had not yet emerged a critical language to talk about what was most engaging and interesting in those traditions. In the introduction to his book The Immediate Experience, Warshow identified a need for criticism of popular culture “which can acknowledge its pervasive and disturbing power without ceasing to be aware of the superior claims of the higher arts and yet without a bad conscience.”2 On the one hand, he viewed himself as reacting against writers such as Rudolf Arnheim whom he saw as elevating film to the level of art through elitist claims of aesthetic purity; on the other, he viewed himself as reacting against writers such as Siegfried Kracauer who he claimed used films simply as indexes of mass psychology. Both approaches slighted “the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to the movies as most of us see them and respond to them.”3 Warshow accused both critics of denying their own personal stakes in the works they criticized, “holding the experience of the movies at arm’s length.”4 For Warshow, any meaningful criticism of popular art “should start with the simple acknowledgement of his [the critic’s] own relation to the object he criticizes.”5 Warshow began his collection of essays with a description of his own relationship to the cinema: “I have felt my work to be most successful when it has seemed to display the movies as an important element in my own cultural life, an element with its own qualities and interesting in its own terms, and neither esoteric nor alien. The movies are a part of my culture, and it seems to me that their special power has something to do with their being a kind of ‘pure’ culture, a little like fishing or drinking or playing baseball—a cultural fact, that is, which has not yet fallen altogether under the discipline of art. I have not brought Henry James to the movies or the movies to Henry James, but I hope I have shown that the man who goes to the movies is the same as the man who reads James.”6 What Warshow called “immediacy” we might see today as a number of distinct aspects of popular art, each of which has been the focus of its own body of theory and criticism.7 So, for example, immediacy might be understood in terms of emotional intensification, a topic that has been examined most heavily by writers like Rhona Berenstein, Kevin Heffernan, and Eric Schaefer in their work on horror, exploitation, and trash cinema .8 Immediacy might also refer to identification, the strong attachments fans feel to fictional characters or celebrities, a topic that has been explored by writers like Lawrence Grossberg, Jackie Stacey, or Richard Dyer.9 We might also see immediacy in terms of intimacy, the embedding of popular culture in the fabric of our daily lives, in the ways we think about ourselves and the world around us, a topic which is the focus of my essay, “Death Defying Heroes.” My MIT colleague Sherry Turkle asked me to contribute to a book she was editing around the concept of “evocative objects,” everyday things we use to reflect upon our own lives and experiences. I was still mourning the recent death of my mother, and I found myself thinking about the comics I had read in the hospice and the way that so many American superheroes get defined through their response to the death of a parent or loved one. Turkle urged me to write not about texts but about artifacts, exploring the material practices that grow up around comics rather than simply their content. The resulting essay is deeply personal, yet it also seems to articulate the shared rituals of a generation of comic book fans. Interestingly, one of Warshow’s most overtly autobiographical essays also dealt with comics—in this case, his attempt to understand his son Paul’s fascination with E.C...


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