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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I’m pleased to announce that Routledge has officially published my second collaboration with Nathaniel Goldberg. After wetting our toes in Superhero Thought Experiments, this is our deep dive into the literary and pop-cultural concepts of reboots, retcons, and sequels, providing a philosophical framework and applications well beyond the world of comics that inspired them. Our working title had been “Bilbo, Brontosaurus, and the Bible,” which might give you a sense of both our scope and the oddness or our specifics. Though I’m the literary critic of our dynamic duo, Nathaniel is the Tolkien expert.

Here’s (much of) the Introduction: Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical ...

Novelists change old characters by restarting their stories and reinterpret old stories by revealing new things about them. Journalists correct mistakes in earlier articles, while science writers update textbooks after the latest discoveries. Religious communities follow scriptures that sometimes reinterpret and other times continue previous views of the divine.

These are revisions of written texts concerning fiction, fact, and faith, respectively. Such revisions are ubiquitous. Philosophers however have tended to focus on revisions not of written texts directly but rather of the meanings and theories that those texts express. Even then they have usually focused on factual texts. We provide a philosophical account of revision of written texts both directly and generally.Filling that conceptual gap produces unexpected insights into the philosophy of language, the metaphysics of fact and fiction, and the history and philosophy of science and religion.

The phenomena of revision that we analyze is perhaps most recognizable in literary and popular culture. Though not new, its prevalence is relatively recent. Film culture is especially rife, and we might draw from any of a wide range of franchises. All series have installments that follow one another, and many of the sequential Halloweens, Missions Impossible, and Rockies continue (albeit often loosely) adventures in the same fictional worlds without either restarting or revealing new things about earlier installments. Star Wars also provides multiple examples of installments occurring later (Episodes VII–IX) and earlier (Episodes I–III) than the initial series of stories (Episodes IV–VI). Yet later installments of that initial series also reveal new things about its own earlier installments (the status of Luke’s father, Darth Vader, in Episode V, and his sister, Leia, in Episode VI). Marvel movie franchises include later stories that restart earlier ones about Spider-Man. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) restarts The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), which may itself be considered a restart of the comic book series Amazing Spider-Man begun in 1962. Moreover sometimes some prefer an earlier installment to a later one. Star Wars fans are especially (in)famous for this.

Comics publishers Marvel and DC themselves present an overwhelming number of examples of revision. Frequently later stories pick up earlier plots without changing them. They do not do so always. As we explained elsewhere (Gavaler and Goldberg 2019, 110–11), the first comics example of a later story revealing something new about an earlier one occurs when Action Comics #13 (June 1939) reveals that newly introduced Ultra-Humanite was behind crimes detailed in Action Comics #2 (July 1938). The first example of a later story restarting an earlier one occurs when Showcase #4 (October 1959) restarts the story of Flash, detailed in Flash Comics #1 (1946) and continued through All Star Comics (1951). The prevalence of revelations and restarts, rather than mere continuations, in comics is likely due to their multi-author nature. Characters are intellectual property owned by corporations, which in turn employ a constantly changing roster of writers collectively revising serially published fiction.

Yet literary fiction by single authors exhibits the same revisionary phenomena too. The majority of Louis Erdrich’s novels either continue or reveal new things about her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), and fifteen of William Faulkner’s novels are set in his fictional Mississippi Yoknapatawpha County introduced in Sartoris (1929) and so continue its story. Because Harper Lee’s first written manuscript Go Set A Watchman (2015) has similar but distinct individuals, objects, and events from her more famous and first published manuscript To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Go Set a Watchman restarts To Kill a Mockingbird’s story, though had the publication order been reversed then the reverse would be so. In Lee’s case, a majority of readers likely accept the earlier published work, rejecting the later one as non-canonical. The variant manuscripts of Hamlet are themselves alternating restarts and rejections of restarts of the same story, and the relationships among the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles involve an especially complex combination of all the kinds of revision that we analyze. Add the vast online platforms for fan fiction about all such movies, comics, novels, and more and the application grows exponentially.

The field of textual scholarship—including bibliology (studying the history of books as physical objects), paleography (dating historical manuscripts through handwriting analysis), and textual criticism (studying variants of manuscripts, such as Hamlet)—opens the range of possible application even further. Our goal however is not to overview its application, including within just literary studies. Though our philosophical account of revision is inspired by and applies to numerous narrative texts, it is not limited to them and its application beyond them is at least as significant. While our study should be of interest to literary critics and theorists, popular-culture scholars, and narratologists generally, it is not a work of literary theory of criticism. It instead generalizes insights from fiction to reveal unexpected insights into the philosophy of language, the metaphysics of fact and fiction, and the history and philosophy of science and religion. Moreover we limit our analysis of fiction to a single set of texts by a single author. Because his fictional texts encompass various kinds of revisions, we begin with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by John Ronald Reuel (“J.R.R.”) Tolkien.

Chapter 1, “There and Back Again,” distinguishes the purely physical aspects of texts, the linguistic aspects of texts, and the worlds to which the latter refer. It then turns to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to establish that sometimes new texts are read as replacing old ones, as revealing something new and seemingly contradictory about old ones, and as continuing old ones. Further, sometimes others reject such revisionary readings. The chapter isolates, identifies, and analyzes each of these revisionary kinds as well as their rejection, using Tolkien’s texts as exemplars.

Chapter 2, “Semantic Dualism,” demonstrates that two different theories of the reference and meaning of proper names, descriptivism (the common core of Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege’s, Bertrand Russell’s, and their followers’ views) and referentialism (the common core of John Stuart Mill’s, Saul Kripke’s, Hilary Putnam’s, and their followers’ views), explain each of the revisionary kinds and rejection just considered. Neither however explains them all. The chapter then argues that the two theories previously construed as competitors are instead complementary components of a single semantic account. We call that account ‘semantic dualism’.

Chapter 3, “Metaphysical Foundations of Fiction and Fact,” likewise relies on two analyses of fiction previously construed as competitors, David Lewis’s and Kripke’s, to propose our own metaphysical foundations of fiction and fact out of their complementary components. It then compares those foundations to others.

Chapter 4, “Reporting, Applying, Bracketing,” expands our metaphysical foundations by canvasing case studies concerning fictional and factual planetary objects, thereby making forays into the history and philosophy of astronomy. It does so to distinguish reporting of fact, applying of fiction, and bracketing of texts as fact or fiction.

Chapter 5, “Considering Kuhn,” demonstrates that our philosophical account of the revision of fictional texts of fantasy literature applies equally to the factual texts of scientific disciplines. It does so by bringing that account into dialogue with Thomas Kuhn’s famous analysis of factual, and specifically scientific, change. Considering how the history of astronomy and dynamics converge, the chapter then diagnoses where Kuhn and his critics disagree and uncovers distinctions that they missed. The chapter closes by further distinguishing fiction from fact by analyzing restrictions on kinds of revisions.

Chapter 6, “Being Brontosaurus,” analyzes a complex episode in the history of paleontology. Besides showing a further application of our philosophical account of revision, the chapter also demonstrates how scientific and popular texts can diverge. And it provides a general analysis of illustrations.

Chapter 7, “Analyzing Abraham,” expands our account to religious texts. The chapter argues that, rather than being distinct, such texts are always also read as other kinds, that faith tends to be more important as evidence for religious texts than for others, and that the latter explains why religious communities tend to have remarkable historical longevity. The chapter then applies our total analysis to compelling episodes in the history of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Finally, the conclusion catalogs overall lessons that Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith reveals. These concern revisionary kinds and their rejection; reference and meaning; metaphysical foundations of fiction and fact; planetary objects, dinosaurs, and religions; and fiction, fact, and faith, and their revision. The chapter closes with the metaphilosophical lesson that one way of studying fiction, fact, and faith is studying the history of how their corresponding texts have been revised, offering a philosophical account of revision.

[If you’d like to request a copy to write a review, here’s the form.]



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