What’s the Matter with Matter?

on November 26, 2014

When my son Toby recently proposed that he and a friend interview me as a bonus episode for their comic book podcast, one of his suggested questions was, “Does the rise of superheroes during WWII–their slump thereafter–and their rise again during the cold war corollate with real world events.”

That really confused me. In my own timeline, the Cold War began immediately after World War II. And it would never have occurred to me in the early 1950s, when I was a little kid bouncing off the furniture with an old baby blanket pinned around my neck for a cape and pretending to be Superman, that I was living in the middle of a superhero slump.

But apparently I was. As Toby explained it, there had been a great proliferation of superheroes during the war, but by the time I began reading comics around 1952, they’d been pruned back to just Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And even those titles weren’t particularly memorable — not compared to Carl Barks’ brilliant Uncle Scrooge stories, which I was reading at the same time. The superhero genre wouldn’t get back on track until 1956, by which time I’d outgrown the kid-oriented comics of the day.

Once I started to think about it, though, a number of things fell into place, and I realized that the answer to Toby’s question had to do with science. After the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, science came to be viewed as a destructive force rather than a savior, and that made science-based superheroes a lot less appealing. Over the next decade, even science fiction backed off from scientific extrapolation in favor of sociological SF, reality trips, and rationalized fantasy.

That phase had pretty much run its course by 1956, and in SF the next couple of years were marked by a resurgence of galactic future history stories from writers like Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson. Those stories weren’t as serious or literary as many from the early 50s, and they’re not generally as well remembered — but they did signify the return of an appreciation for hard science.

The shift gained added momentum when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October 1957 and Americans decided they had to get serious about science and scientific education. This was also when the political anti-communism of the early 50s (associated with the witch-hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy, who died in May 1957) gave way to the technological, missile-based confrontations with the Soviets which Toby thinks of as the real Cold War.

The next half dozen years, when I was in junior high and high school, were a time of maximum enthusiasm for science. This peaked in May 1961 when President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress calling for the United States to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

The enthusiasm didn’t last, however. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which documented the destructive effects of DDT and other pesticides, prompted a renewed skepticism about the science-based approach to the world. This was reinforced by the assassination of JFK in 1963, which was taken as further proof that despite our advanced technology we weren’t really in control of events. By the end of the decade, there had been a wholesale turning against the arrogance of science, and after the Moon landings of 1969-72, even space exploration fizzled out.

These abrupt zigzags in attitude may seem random on the surface, but they make good sense in terms of the sequence of visions that I’ve been presenting here. The venerable scientific materialism vision — which Western society had relied upon for centuries to explain the nature and meaning of the physical universe — was finally dying. As it did, attention turned towards its successor, the environmentally-based holism vision. And in the years since, holism has increasingly gained acceptance as our primary scientific paradigm.

However, these transitions are never as simple as an older vision dying and a younger one moving in to take its place. There are always loose ends.

In this case, the hard sciences — physics, astronomy, cosmology — were effectively left orphaned. The scientific materialism vision that had given them birth was discredited. The holism vision was based on the life sciences and had little to say about non-living matter. And because the visions are to some extent mutually exclusive, there was no available cognitive space in which these orphaned sciences could give rise to a unifying vision of their own.

It’s only now, with holism becoming more practical and less transcendent, that a niche is opening up for a new science-based vision with all the mystical appeal that holism has lost. One sign of this is the nostalgia that has been developing for the forgotten delights of scientific materialism, ranging from steam engines to the unfulfilled promises of flying cars and jetpacks. It seems as though we are preparing ourselves to think about physical science again in transcendent terms.

But whatever new vision emerges will inevitably be as different from scientific materialism as contemporary leading-edge science is from the science of a century ago. And that’s another interesting loose end — because the most speculative science of the present day can be traced back specifically to that 1956-64 period when scientific materialism was experiencing its final spurt of influence and innovation.

The many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics was first proposed in 1957. The theory of quarks appeared in 1964 as the culmination of several years of efforts to account for the ever-growing array of subatomic particles. And these theories have since been joined by others, ranging from string theory to the holographic universe, all based on an assumption that the world of matter is not what it appears to be.

It seems possible that the flareup which every aging vision undergoes just before the end may represent an attempt to venture outside its original premises and explore new territory. That attempt is never successful — perhaps because there are powerful political and intellectual interests wedded to the vision as it has been — but it provides an essential source of creative possibilities for the future.

So at the present moment, all the pieces for a new scientifically-based vision are in place — except one. It still requires a compelling metaphor.

The central metaphor of scientific materialism was the machine. The roots of that image go back to the late Middle Ages, when clocks and mills and other devices employing wheels and gears began to proliferate. Its culmination came in the eighteenth century, when the universe itself came to be viewed as a piece of divine clockwork.

But in the 1800s, the concept of God the Watchmaker faded, leaving only a perception of physical reality as mindless, unstoppable, and bone-crushing. This metaphor of grinding oppression was also extended to society, which is why Thoreau could write in 1849, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go … but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Over a century later, Mario Savio would echo Thoreau’s call for civil disobedience, proclaiming in a speech delivered on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!”

The degradation of its central metaphor was one reason why scientific materialism had to be discarded. Since 1964, the alternative metaphor of the system of nature has served instead as our central article of faith and source of utopian ideals.

But now, as the holism vision begins to gain worldly power, the bloom is wearing off and the word “system” is starting to take on negative connotations. After Watergate, people rejoiced that “the system had worked” — and there are still a few diehards saying the same about the Ferguson grand jury decision. But it’s becoming more common to see complaints that the system is “rigged” or “broken,” and the Ferguson case has even sparked calls to “indict the system.”

Meanwhile, other downsides to holism are becoming apparent. One is that an excessive focus on systems tends to exalt the abstract relationships among their parts over the actual people, living things, or physical objects that constitute them. A similar over-abstraction is associated with the chilliness of digital art and music when compared to their analog equivalents. This probably explains why hipsters are notorious for their devotion to fixed-gear bikes, vinyl records, and ersatz analog photographs.

The holism vision is not about to curl up and die, of course. It’s in a position comparable to where scientific materialism was in Thoreau’s day. It still has many important things to accomplish and will be with us for a long time to come. However, all the signs point to the imminent birth of holism’s own successor.

But when that successor does take shape over the next few years, it won’t be in the form of either retro-tech or theoretical scientific speculations. Instead, it will appear first as myth, as newborn visions always do.

And the most likely place to find that myth will be in comics. They’ve been on the case from the start and have all the necessary tools for the job. They also have the freedom from existing assumptions that goes along with any pulp medium.

I intend to be watching as closely as I can — and to enlist both my kids as spotters.

(Note: The interview is now up and can be accessed here.)

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