Modernism Superheroes & the Unfinished Business of Common Good Discussion


This week, you read three articles: “Modernism, Superheroes, and the Unfinished Business of the Common Good,” (Historical) “Our Unconscious Mind,” (Psychological), and “Brain Matters: From Environmental Ethics to Environmental Neuroethics” (Ecocritical). Now that you have read these articles carefully, address the following discussion prompt:

For each of the three articles, choose 1-2 claims or ideas that you found interesting. Include those claims word-for-word using quotation marks, and be sure to include a page number for each one. Then, explain why you thought that claim or idea was interesting.

Be sure to organize your post logically, and make it clear which claim came from which article/author. Your introduction, as all of your discussion posts this semester, should be 200-400 words.

“But — what can anyone do about it?”:
Modernism, Superheroes, and the
Unfinished Business of the Common Good
Andrew Hoberek
University of Missouri
Modernism’s frequently discussed antipathy towards mass culture might be seen as continuous with its distrust of the welfare state, insofar as both mass culture and the welfare
state figure versions of collective modern agency at odds with modernism’s typically conservative, individualistic response to modernity. Seen from this perspective, modernism
lies on a historical trajectory both with postmodernism’s putatively more open approach
to mass culture and with neoliberalism’s now triumphantly mainstream celebration
of individualism and critique of institutions. While we can identify other versions of
modernism in authors like James Joyce and John Dos Passos, we might also look to the
far less prestigious medium of the comic book, and in particular the superhero genre, to
begin to map an alternative vision of aesthetic engagement with modernity — one that
wrestles with the contradictions of but remains nonetheless committed to collective actions
on behalf of the common good.
Keywords: comics / modernism / postmodernism / individuality / collective
n Action Comics 12, cover dated May 1939, Superman tackles a problem that
might seem incongruous to contemporary readers, but is in fact typical of the
character’s earliest adventures, written before the conventions of the superhero
genre had fully gelled. En route to his job at the Daily Star (the precursor of the
Daily Planet) Clark Kent comes across a crowd and discovers that a reckless driver
has killed his friend Charlie Martin. He calls the mayor to complain about the
city’s traffic problem and, after being rebuffed — “It’s really too bad — but — what
can anyone do about it?” (Siegel and Shuster 155) — decides to take action in the
Andrew Hoberek ( is a professor of English at the University
of Missouri and the author of Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics (Rutgers
UP, 2014). He is also the comics editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 39, No. 2 • Copyright © The Trustees of Indiana University • DOI 10.2979/jmodelite.39.2.09
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Journal of Modern Literature Volume 39, Number 2
guise of his alter ego. He crashes into a radio station and commandeers their
facilities to issue a warning:
The auto accident death rate of this community is one that should shame us all! It’s
constantly rising and due entirely to reckless driving and inefficiency! More people
have been killed needlessly by autos than died during the world war! From this
moment on, I declare war on reckless drivers — henceforth, homicidal drivers answer
to me! (Siegel and Shuster 156)
Proving himself as good as his word, Superman smashes the cars of traffic violators stored at an impound lot and the unsafe cars for sale by a used car dealer.
He frightens a drunk driver and then, after being struck by a hit and run driver,
pursues the car and threatens its occupants. He destroys a factory that makes a
brand of automobile involved in many accidents, telling the owner “It’s because
you use inferior metals and parts so as to make higher profits at the cost of human
lives!” (161). Returning to the radio station (and once again smashing through the
wall that has just been repaired following his last visit) reissues his threat. He sees
a policeman about to accept a ten-dollar bill from a speeder, and intimidates the
officer into refusing the bribe (and punching the driver), then carves a new road to
replace an unsafe stretch of highway. Finally, he takes the mayor on a frightening
drive, ending with a visit to the bodies of accident victims at the city morgue,
finally extracting a promise from the public official to “do all in my power to see
that traffic rules are rigidly enforced by the police!” (166). The story ends with
Clark Kent receiving a ticket for illegal parking, and remarking under his breath
“Hooray! It worked!” (166).
As this summary suggests, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had not yet, at this
point, worked out what would become the defining characteristics of their character, and through his influence, the superhero more generally. In this story,
Superman acts in ways that we might associate with supervillains: breaking rather
than upholding the law and gleefully destroying private property — even when
such destruction is unmerited and unprovoked, as with the radio station’s ill-fated
walls. He does so, however, in the interest of the public good and in service of
the modern value, as he declares, of efficiency. Superman in this story clearly
represents modernity, or more specifically a counter-modernity posed against the
destructive version unleashed by technology and capital.
In this respect, the story also suggests an analogy not just with modernity
but with modernism, at least the version of modernism in which figures like
T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound sought to oppose what they saw as the negative
consequences of modernity with a more modern form of literature. But whereas
the work of these modernist writers limits itself to an aesthetic response — shoring fragments against one’s ruins, in Eliot’s famous formulation (42) — Action
Comics 12 suggests a way of understanding their formal strategy as a kind of
content: what a superhero does in the world. And, as should be apparent from
my summary, the story of Superman’s “war on reckless drivers” gives away the
hidden continuity between the superhero and that other great promoter of the
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general welfare that was, if not invented, then certainly refined in the 1930s:
the welfare state.
As Michael Szalay has taught us, many modernists were as deeply suspicious
of the welfare state as they were of the mass culture that produced the comic book
superhero. In what follows, I’d like to suggest two things: first, that modernists’
suspicion arises in both instances from their distrust of the collective, rather than
individual, agency that mass culture and the welfare state make possible; and
second, that in establishing this point, we can begin to understand the character
of the superhero who came to dominate the comics once they moved from newspapers to comic books as at least potentially a figure for what modernism might
look like if unbound by that constraint.
William Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August offers what we might identify as
a typical modernist allusion to the comics in their pre-comic book newspaper
format: it invokes them not as a parallel art form but as a register of an alienating modernity. In Light in August, the grandmother of Faulkner’s protagonist Joe
Christmas travels to the town where her grandson is being held for murder and
attempts to see him. After being rebuffed by the jailor, she travels to the courthouse in search of the sheriff, a scene that Faulkner describes in the following
The folks didn’t know what she was doing, because Metcalf hadn’t had time to tell
them what happened at the jail. They just watched her go on into the courthouse, and
then Russell said how he was in the office and he happened to look up and there that
hat was with the plume on it just beyond the window across the counter. He didn’t
know how long she had been standing there, waiting for him to look up. He said she
was just tall enough to see over the counter, so that she didn’t look like she had any
body at all. It just looked like somebody had sneaked up and set a toy balloon with
a face painted on it and a comic hat set on top of it, like the Katzenjammer kids in
the funny paper. (353)
This reference to the sort of prank that the German children Hans and Fritz might
play in the long-running comic strip drawn by Harold Knerr (who took over from
its creator Rudolph Dirks in 1912) has the effect of dehumanizing Christmas’s
grandmother. With the top of the counter framing her like the bottom of a comics
panel, in the process both hiding her body and accenting the plume of her hat,
she appears like not even a comic strip character but an object placed by such a
character to give the appearance of a person.
This simile is, in fact, part of a series of such similes in Light in August. After
Christmas has killed his adoptive father Mr. McEachern, for instance, he sets out
on the old man’s horse and rides the progressively slowing animal until “It — the
horse and the rider — had a strange, dreamy effect, like a moving picture in slow
motion as it galloped steady and flagging up the street and toward the old corner
where he used to wait, less urgent perhaps but not less eager, and more young”
(210). And Christmas’s grandfather, an old man obsessed with his grandson’s
mixed-race parentage, rants about God’s will in bringing this fact to light until
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“His voice just stops, exactly like when the needle is lifted from a phonograph
record by the hand of someone who is not listening to the record” (371). These
similes do not stress the new formal possibilities of such modern media as the
cinema, the phonograph, and the newspaper comic strip, but rather employ
mass culture in the service of making humans appear thwarted, objectlike, even
mechanical. Modernity, these similes imply, does not open up new possibilities
of agency for people, but takes away the ones they have.
As suggested by the passage about the grandmother, told in Faulkner’s typically socially dispersed fashion (folks who don’t know what she is doing watch
her, and then someone named Russell relates a story of what he is doing when
she materializes in front of him), this dehumanization is further linked with the
social. And indeed Light in August demonstrates notable skepticism about collective agency. In two of the most obvious examples, public opinion dooms the
Reverend Gail Hightower to isolation for his wife’s promiscuity, and the National
Guard captain who organizes a force to protect Christmas from lynching ends up
himself killing and castrating the fugitive.
It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that each of the allusions to mass culture
that I have cited effaces language, whether in the form of a reference to the visual
components of media that also include verbal ones — a comic strip panel with
no words; what looks like a silent film scene three years after the advent of talkies — or an invocation of the silence when a needle is taken off a record. Words,
it seems, remain either the harmful murmurings of the crowd or the province of
a real artist such as Faulkner. Subtending all of this, we might argue, is Light in
August’s obsession with the itinerancy of Lena Grove, Christmas, and others, a
register perhaps of the stress placed on regional autonomy in an era when both
the Depression and the New Deal were radically remaking the American South.
As Donald Peyser has argued, Faulkner’s writing evinces a “stimulating cluster
of anxieties concerning commercialisation, modernisation, powerlessness before
financial and bureaucratic authorities, and miscegenation” (2) that early took
the form of anti-semitism but later was dispersed into a more general critique of
modernity embodied not least by the “centralised, bureaucratically administered
governmental power . . . realised in such grand projects as the Tennessee Valley
Authority” (11). Movies, newspapers, and phonograph records are, we might say,
metonyms for the real external threat to both a community like Yoknapatawpha
and the South in general: a federal government whose economic largesse comes
at the cost of disruptive social change.
This admittedly schematic account of Faulkner’s relationship to mass culture
and modernity has the virtue of suggesting that Siegel and Shuster are not entirely
idiosyncratic in positing the superhero as a figure for the New Deal in Action
Comics 12. Siegel and Shuster’s story allows us to see the superhero as a figure for
the way modernity not only hinders but also facilitates human agency — think
here of Batman’s scientific and physical training, and later (and more directly) all
the Marvel superheroes of the early 1960s who derive their powers from exposure to radiation. The superhero genre understands modernity, to borrow Homer
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Simpson’s unselfconsciously dialectical account of alcohol, as the cause of, and
solution to, all of life’s problems. Modernism’s understanding of modernity, at
least in its most conservative incarnation, is more black and white. Modernity,
including its various mass cultural avatars, is purely a problem, and the only good
form of innovation is the aesthetic innovation of modernist artists. This limits
modernism’s commitment to making things new to both a rearguard action
and (as numerous commentators have noted) an individual protest, since largerscale interventions remain linked to “centralized, bureaucratically administered
government power.”
It is precisely this link, though, that Siegel and Shuster court, a potential
perhaps already implied by the name of their most famous creation. If, as Ted
Atkinson has argued, Faulkner intends the lynching at the end of Light in August
as a figure for a “mob mentality . . . distinctly associated with the lower ranks
and marginalized sectors of the social structure, as well as outside agitators”
(151) — that is to say, for “the potential rise of homegrown fascism” (152) — then
the utopian dream of Superman’s young Jewish American creators is that the
Übermensch might be bound to democratic goals. Of course the superhero genre
has its own commitment to individual action, one that is — and this is perhaps
the most fascinating thing about the genre — prima facie at odds with the stories
it tells. This is the paradox that creators like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and
Frank Miller would explore in the 1980s, in the process giving rise to the comic
book’s own belated modernist period. But Siegel and Shuster’s 1939 story, with
its seemingly incongruous combination of individual lawlessness and social planning, might be seen as an attempt to work through this contradiction before the
conventions of the genre had become fully fixed.
It is in part this vexed commitment to the common good that remains foreclosed by the modernist aversion to mass culture. And while we sometimes understand postmodernism as departing from modernism in more readily embracing
mass culture, from the perspective we are charting here that embrace seems more
like a stranglehold. Consider, to cite examples from two different media, Donald
Barthelme’s 1964 story “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and Roy Lichtenstein’s
series of paintings based on comic panels such as Whaam! and Drowning Girl
(both 1963). If Faulkner’s evocations of mass culture efface language, maintaining
it as preserve of serious literature, these works — including, strikingly Lichtenstein’s paintings — incorporate it. They do so, however, in a way that continues
to link it with a degraded, deindividualizing social realm. In Barthelme’s story,
Bruce Wayne’s friend Fredric Brown tags along (Robin, at least initially, is at
school at Andover) when Batman is summoned by Commissioner Gordon to
consult on a clue to a future crime that the Joker has sent the Gotham police. The
story incorporates the conventions of comic book dialogue, imbricating them with
and thereby reducing them to the level of banal small talk:
“Flying Dutchman!” Fredric exclaimed, reading the name painted on the bow of
the model ship. “The name of a famous old ghost vessel? What can it mean!”
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“A cleverly disguised clue!” Batman said. “The ‘Flying Dutchman’ meant here is
probably the Dutch Jewel merchant Hendrik van Voort who is flying to Gotham
City tonight with a delivery of precious gems!”
“Good thinking Batman!” Commisioner Gordon said. “I probably never would
have figured it out in a thousand years!”
“Well we’ll have to hurry to get out to the airport!” Batman said. “What’s the best
way to get there from here Commissioner?”
“Well if I were you I’d go out 34th Street until you hit the War Memorial, then
take a right on Memorial Drive until it connects with Gotham Parkway! After you’re
on the Parkway it’s clear sailing!” he indicated. (39)
Here, as throughout Barthelme’s story, the lack of commas and abundance of
exclamation points (applied to both eureka moments and traffic directions)
give the effect of a flat, affectless tone. Barthelme’s characteristically postmodern fiction incorporates mass culture, to be sure, but hardly in the interest of
celebrating it.
Similarly, much of the satiric effect of Lichtenstein’s enlargement and reproduction of comics panels or portions of panels depends upon the clichéd language
found in the originals: the caption box narration “I pressed the fire control . . .
and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky . . .” and eponymous sound effect
of Whaam!, based on a 1962 Irv Novick panel from DC’s All-American Men of
War (Harris); the thought balloon “I don’t care! I’d rather sink . . . than call Brad
for help!” of Drowning Girl, derived from a 1962 Tony Abruzzo splash page for
the company’s Secret Hearts (Miller).1 Lichtenstein’s comics-based paintings, like
Andy Warhol’s paintings of Campbell’s soup cans or sculptures of Brillo boxes, are
generally recognized as breaking with the modernism of abstract expressionism
to inaugurate postmodernism in the visual arts. Yet Lichtenstein’s characteristic
enlargement of the Ben-Day dots then used in the color printing process for comic
books — an enlargement that makes them both visible and abstract — might be
seen as continuous, at the level of the image, with the critic Clement Greenberg’s
modernist dictum that each art form should work “to determine, through the
operations peculiar to [that form], the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself ” (5).
It is, in this regard, specifically the words in Lichtenstein’s paintings that both
push them into the realm of the postmodern and at the same time insist upon
the triteness of the mass cultural idioms that they borrow. Crucially, Lichtenstein
omits from the Novick panel he adapts for Whaam! the more mysterious and
potentially poetic language spoken by the pilot in a word balloon, “The enemy
has become a flaming star!”2
Yet this is only one possible history of modernism’s relationship to comics, and
a different history might give us a different, more expansive version of modernism
itself. Writing nearly a decade before Light in August, the cultural critic Gilbert
Seldes — whose tenure as an editor at The Dial had encompassed no less seminal
a modernist event than the 1922 publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land — made a
case in his 1923 The Seven Lively Arts for the aesthetic value of popular art forms
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such as the movies, vaudeville, and, as one of his chapter titles put it, “The ‘vulgar’
comic strip” (193). In that chapter, Seldes dismissed The Katzenjammer Kids as
“the least ingenious, the least interesting as drawing, the sloppiest in colour, the
weakest in conception and in execution, of all the strips” (200), but commended
the drawing and storylines of other features. He reserved his greatest praise,
and a separate chapter, however, for George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which he
calls “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in
America to-day” (207). “It happens that in America,” Seldes writes, “irony and
fantasy are practised in the major arts by only one or two men, producing highclass trash; and Mr. Herriman, working in a despised medium, without an atom
of pretentiousness, is day after day producing something essentially fine” (207).
These qualities of irony and fantasy, Seldes goes on to suggest, inhere not
only in Krazy Kat’s running story of the androgynous title character’s love for the
brick-throwing Ignatz Mouse, but also in its constantly shifting backgrounds
and — perhaps most importantly in the present context — its use of language.
Writing of its main character’s “private idiom,” Seldes notes that
The accent is partly Dickens and partly Yiddish — and the rest is not to be identified,
for it is Krazy. . . . There is a real sense of the colour of words and a high imagination
in such passages as “the echoing cliffs of Kaibato” and “on the north side of ‘wild-cat
peak’ the ‘snow squaws’ shake their winter blankets and bring forth a chill which
rides the wind with goad and spur, hurling with an icy hand rime, and frost upon
a dreamy land musing in the lap of Spring”; and there is the rhythm of wonder and
excitement in “Ooy, ‘Ignatz’ it’s awfil; he’s got his legs cut off above his elbows, and
he’s wearing shoes, and he’s standing on top of the water.” (215)
This concluding verbal description of an image within a comic strip performs
some of the same defamiliarizing work as the Katzenjammer Kids-inspired image
from Light in August. It does so, however, in the interest not of modernist alienation but — as Seldes suggests — of a kind of surrealist expansion of possibility.
Moreover, it is not some silent image given voice by a literary author, but a part of
the hybrid aesthetic work of the comic strip itself, comparable in this regard to that
of modernist literature. In his chapter on Finley Peter Dunne and Ring Lardner
Seldes asserts that “It may shock Mr Lardner to know that he has done in little
what Mr Joyce has done on the grand scale in Ulysses” (117), glossing this claim
in the 1957 edition of the book by noting that he was comparing Lardner’s slangy
prose to Ulysses’ “devastating parodies of the sentimental style,” particularly “the
scene on the beach in which Cissy Caffrey’s mind is revealed to us in a parody of
the family-magazine serial” (118). Seldes probably means Gerty MacDowell here
and not Cissy Caffrey. But his confusion may arise from the fact that Krazy Kat’s
language parallels that of Joyce’s 1922 novel in a different sense. It has less to do
with the satire of mass cultural language attributed to Gerty in “Nausicaa” (“Gerty
just took off her hat for a moment to settle her hair and a prettier, a daintier head
of nutbrown tresses was never seen on a girl’s shoulders” [306]) than with the
sheer linguistic play of the dialogue in “Circe,” where Cissy reappears (“I confess
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I’m teapot with curiosity to find out whether some person’s something is a little
teapot at present” [358]).
The point here is not to identify Krazy Kat as the one great work of early
twentieth-century comic art that attains Joycean levels — although this is Seldes’s
point, and if any strip attains this distinction it is probably Herriman’s — but
rather to locate a modernist use of mass cultural language that is not satirical.
Cissy, notably, shows up at the beginning of “Circe” singing a traditional song,
“The Leg of the Duck,” with similar elements of word play (“I gave it to Nelly
To stick in her belly, The leg of the duck, The leg of the duck” [350]), and in the
brothel that Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit, the late nineteenthcentury Canadian minstrels Tom and Sam Bohee show up to sing a snatch of “I’ve
Been Working on the Railroad” then “diddle diddle cakewalk dance away” (357).
This is Joyce neither as satirist nor even as innovator in subjective realism,3 but
rather the Joyce that Marshall McCluhan praises in The Mechanical Bride (1951)
as someone who “saw that there was a new art form of universal scope present in
the technical layout of the modern newspaper” (4).
For McCluhan, modernism’s achievement is not its inward-looking refinement of subjective narration but, on the contrary, its outward-looking incorporation of the potentially global worldview made possible by the newspaper. The
newspaper, as a “collective work of art, a daily ‘book’ of industrial man, an Arabian
Night’s entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales are being
told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience,” underlies in
McCluhan’s estimation “the visual technique of a Picasso, the literary technique
of James Joyce” (3). “The cultural patterns of several societies, quite unrelated
to one another or to our own,” McCluhan asserts, “are abruptly overlayered in
cubist or Picasso style to provide a greatly enriched image of human potentialities” (3). The “Aeolus” section of Ulysses does not wholly bear out McCluhan’s
more utopian assertions: the snippets of newspaper language here remain less
global than national and provincial, and satire remains one of Joyce’s objectives.
Nonetheless, this episode does support McCluhan’s assertion that Joyce offers,
among other things, a “stylized” version of the “cosmic harmonies” underlying the
“superficial chaos” of the daily paper (4). Crucially, newspaper language circulates
in this chapter, not through characters’ dialogue or thoughts, but independently,
as part of the landscape the modernist novelist is committed to representing. This
element of Ulysses corroborates McCluhan’s more positive account of modernism’s relationship to mass culture, his argument that in the relationship between
modernism and the newspaper we see “a major instance of how a by-product of
industrial imagination, a genuine agency of contemporary folklore, led to radical
artistic developments” (4). This formulation does not, to be sure, undermine the
hierarchy between modernist language and that of mass culture, but it does at
least hint at the possibility of mass culture providing its own, trans-individual
representation of the modern world — a possibility borne out perhaps most fully
in the line of modernism that leads through the “Newsreel” portions of John Dos
Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy.
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I have been arguing here that alongside its individualistic approach to artistic
creation and its distaste for mass culture, modernism evinces a seemingly contradictory openness to mass culture as a transindividualistic vehicle for representing
the world. This is important to note because modernism’s opposition to mass
culture, as I have suggested, was continuous with its opposition to the different
version of transindividualistic grappling with modernity embodied in the welfare
state. This opposition to the welfare state might be modernism’s most lasting
legacy in a world where, since about 1980, its avant-gardist aesthetic positions
have become mainstream economic ones. Both modernism and neoliberalism
share a celebration of the individual, a distrust of institutions per se, a commitment
to innovation as a pure value in its own right. To explore the hidden underside
of modernism’s appreciation of mass culture might thus provide a way to think
ourselves outside of the taken-for-granted and seemingly irrefutable logic of
contemporary neoliberal capitalism.
But as I have also suggested, another way to pursue this task is through
twentieth-century mass culture, including the comic strip and comic book, itself.
In his landmark history of comics Projecting Culture, Jared Gardner persistently
returns to the ways the medium (or perhaps media) elicited audience participation
in ways that at the very least symbolically figured forms of mass agency within
modernity. One way to understand the superhero is as an embodiment of such
agency, although one troubled by the genre’s own commitment to exceptional
An early work of fiction by Siegel and Shuster shows them grappling with
this inherent paradox of the emerging form. In 1933, Siegel wrote and Shuster
illustrated a text story called “The Reign of the Superman” for the third issue of
their self-published fanzine Science Fiction. This story anticipates the superhero
genre in that it tells the tale of a man named Bill Dunn who is taken off a breadline
by a chemist and subjected to an experiment that gives him tremendous mental
powers. His first experience of these powers, strikingly, reads like a literalized
version of the modernist interpolation of mass cultural language:
Suddenly, as he lay there on the ground, a veritable holocaust of confusion burst
upon his mind. “I tell you! We’ve got to use a little strategy. Brains is what this gang
needs, and brains is what it ain’t got.” “The damn fool; I thought she said she could
play bridge.” “I gotta have that dough, Ma. I gotta have it!” “I’ll wait until he turns
around and then I’ll let him have it in the back.” “He’s just a kid, Mame. Why don’t
you let him alone?” “Listen, you; we don’t stand for welchers in this burg see?” “I
wonder what she thinks I am; a sap for her to wipe her dirty shoes on?” “Listen,
Chief, get this straight. It was Maretti who did the killin’, not me. I wouldn’t squeal
on a pal, but — ” “So I tells the umpchay I’m not that kind ova dame. Well, he just
looks at me and laughs himself blue in the face. And say, dearie, did I get mad!”
(“1933’s ‘The Reign of the Superman’ ”)
Dunn’s powers subsequently expose to him the evil intentions of the chemist.
But because this is not quite yet a superhero story, Dunn defies the chemist not in
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order to fight evil but to amass a fortune and seek world domination himself — a
plan that fails only when the element responsible for his powers wears off. The
story ends with a moralizing vision of what he might instead have done with his
powers. Declaring, “ ‘I see, now, how wrong I was. If I had worked for the good of
humanity, my name would have gone down in history with a blessing — instead of
a curse,’ ” Dunn pulls a lever on a device holding a reporter captive and tells him,
“ ‘In fifteen minutes you will be automatically released and I . . . I shall be — back
in the bread-line!’ ” (“1933’s ‘The Reign of the Superman’ ”).
Siegel and Shuster’s next version of Superman, five years later — influenced,
we might speculate, by FDR’s efforts to deal with the Depression — seeks to put
in motion this other possibility. Superman’s powers are now physical rather than
mental, but more importantly, he does employ them “for the good of humanity.”
The contradictions between private ability and public good remain present in the
first superhero stories: Superman and Batman are wanted by the police in their
early adventures. Yet Action Comics 12 suggests the utopian dimensions inherent
even in these contradictions: in his efforts to deal with the destructive power of
modern traffic, Superman both enforces the law when it works for the common
good (stopping the policeman from taking a bribe) and gleefully breaks it when
it upholds the purely selfish and publicly deleterious interests of private property
(with the radio station’s walls as exuberant collateral damage).
It is the conventionalization of this idea that the superhero will work for
the public good that, no longer taken for granted, fuels the revisionist comics by
Miller, Moore, Gibbons, and others — comics that begin appearing, perhaps not
coincidentally, during the successful wave of attacks on the welfare state initiated
by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain.
While these revionist comics were bracingly realistic, what got lost in them and
the new wave of cynical superhero stories they inspired was the sense that people,
exceptional or otherwise, might indeed bend their efforts to the common good.
This idea, so far from being simplistic, is in fact forbiddingly complex, and for
that reason, still unfinished in the history of human thought.4
1. See Barsalou for more side-by-side comparisons of Lichstenstein’s paintings and their source
panels, and Beaty 49–69 for a discussion of the contentious relationship between Lichtenstein and
comics artists.
2. In his blog post on Lichtenstein’s use of Novick’s image, Harris gives the backstory for this
unusual phrasing: “In this tale, [the recurring character] Johnny Cloud relays a story from his childhood, when a shaman gave him a spirit vision that revealed to him a scene of his own future when he
would fly fighter planes. In his vision, he sees a dogfight where the Nazis appeared to him as flaming
stars in the sky. Later in the story, he shoots down an enemy fighter and it explodes in a brilliant
fireball, causing Johnny to remember his earlier vision” (n.p.).
3. In the 1957 edition of The Seven Lively Arts, Seldes claims that he did not go far enough when he
praised Lardner as a satirist, quoting a line from Lardner’s 1921 book The Big Town and noting that
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Superheroes and the Unfinished Business of the Common Good
“The only basic defence of grammar is that it enables us to express ourselves accurately — and here is
a totally wrong sentence which still says exactly what is in the speaker’s mind” (118).
4. Although modernists such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Wyndham Lewis (among others)
espoused their own versions of “impersonality,” with a critique of the bourgeois ego, how this aspect
of their work fits with their evident celebration of individual genius was — and still is — left to the
future to explore.
Works Cited
“1933’s ‘The Reign of the Superman’— The First Superman Story, EVER.” 27 June 2012. 20th Century Danny Boy. Web. 1 June 2014. .
Atkinson, Ted. Faulkner and the Great Depression: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Cultural Politics. Athens: U of
Georgia P, 2006. Print.
Barsalou, David. Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein. 2000. Web. 1 June 2014.
Barthleme, Donald. “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph.” The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables,
Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barhtelme. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1992. 37–44. Print.
Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2012. Print.
Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” 1922. The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems. Mineola, NY: Dover,
1998. Print.
Faulkner, William. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1985. Print.
Gardner, Jared. Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling. Stanford, CA:
Stanford UP, 2012. Print.
Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Eds.
Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison. New York: Westview, 1982. 5–10. Print.
Harris, Scott. “The Most Important Comic You’ve Never Heard Of.” 7 April 2012. The Vault. Web.
1 June 2014.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Hollywood, FL: Simon & Brown, 2012. Print.
McCluhan, Marshall. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Boston: Beacon, 1951. Print.
Miller, Scott. “Secret Hearts #83 and ‘The Drowning Girl.’ ” Web. 1 June 2014. .
Peyser, Donald. “Faulkner, Jews, and the New Deal: The Regional Commitments of ‘Barn Burning.’ ”
Cambridge Quarterly 42.1 (2013): 1–19. Print.
Siegel, Joe and Jerry Shuster. “Superman Declares War on Reckless Drivers.” 1939. The Superman
Chronicles Volume One. New York: DC Comics, 2006. 153–166. Print.
Szalay, Michael. New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State.
Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001. Print.
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Our Unconscious Mind
When psychologists try to understand the way our mind works, they frequently come to a
conclusion that may seem startling: people often make decisions without having given them
much thought — or, more precisely, before they have thought about them consciously. When we
decide how to vote, what to buy, where to go on vacation and myriad other things, unconscious
thoughts that we are not even aware of typically play a big role. Research has recently brought to
light just how profoundly our unconscious mind shapes our day-to-day interactions.
One of the best-known studies to illustrate the power of the unconscious focused on the process
of deciding whether a candidate was fit to hold public office. A group of mock voters were given
a split second to inspect portrait photographs from the Internet of U.S. gubernatorial and
senatorial candidates from states other than where the voters lived. Then, based on their fleeting
glimpses of each portrait, they were asked to judge the candidates. Remarkably, the straw poll
served as an accurate proxy for the later choices of actual voters in those states. Competency
ratings based on seeing the candidates’ faces for less time than it takes to blink an eye predicted
the outcome of two out of three elections.
For more than 100 years the role of unconscious influences on our thoughts and actions has
preoccupied scientists who study the mind. Sigmund Freud’s massive body of work emphasized
the conscious as the locus of rational thought and emotion and the unconscious as the lair of the
irrational, but contemporary cognitive psychologists have recast the Freudian worldview into a
less polarized psychological dynamic. Both types of thought processes, it turns out, help us adapt
to the protean demands of a species that survives by marshaling the mental firepower to hunt a
Stone Age mastodon, face off in a Middle Ages joust or, in the new millennium, sell Apple’s
stock short.
Post-Freudian psychology has set aside the id and ego for a more pragmatic take on what defines
our unconscious self. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has described the modern distinction
between the automatic and the controlled. In his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow,
Kahneman characterized automatic thought processes as fast, efficient and typically outside the
realm of conscious awareness, making them devoid of deliberation or planning. They require
only a simple stimulus: the words on this page, for instance, connect effortlessly in your mind
with their meaning. Controlled processes are the opposite. They require purposeful and relatively
slow engagement of conscious thought — picture the labored effort that goes into doing your tax
Similar to Freud’s primal id and controlling ego, the automatic and controlled systems
complement each other yet also, at times, conflict. You need to react without reflection to dodge
an oncoming bus but also need to check yourself from throwing a punch at the reckless bus
Snap judgments — relatively automatic thought processes-abound in our daily life — and for good
reason. Outside of the relatively small number of individuals any one of us knows really well,
most people we interact with are strangers we might never see again — while standing in line at
the bank, say — or others we come across in the course of their jobs — cashiers, taxi drivers,
Page 1 of 9
waiters, insurance agents, teachers, and so on. The default unconscious perception generates
expectations about behavior and personalities based on minimal information. We expect
waitresses to act a certain way, which is different from what we expect of librarians or truck
drivers. These expectations come to us immediately and without our thinking about them, based
only on a person’s social place.
The unconscious way we perceive people during the course of the day is a reflexive reaction. We
must exert willful, conscious effort to put aside the unexplained and sometimes unwarranted
negative feelings that we may harbor toward others. The stronger the unconscious influence, the
harder we have to work consciously to overcome it. In particular, this holds true for habitual
behaviors. An alcoholic might come home in the evening and pour a drink; a person with a
weight problem might reach for the potato chips — both easily casting aside the countervailing
urge toward restraint.
Understanding the tug the unconscious exerts on us is essential so that we do not become
overwhelmed by impulses that are hard to understand and control. The ability to regulate our
own behavior — whether making friends, getting up to speed at a new job or overcoming a
drinking problem — depends on more than genes, temperament and social support networks. It
also hinges, in no small measure, on our capacity to identify and try to overcome the automatic
impulses and emotions that influence every aspect of our waking life. To make our way in the
world, we need to learn to come to terms with our unconscious self.
Gut Reactions
When we meet someone new, we form a first impression even before striking up a conversation.
We may observe the person’s race, sex or age — features that, once perceived, automatically
connect to our internalized stereotypes about how members of a particular group are apt to
behave. These assumptions about the social group in question — hostile, lazy, pleasant,
resourceful, and so on — are often incorrect for the particular individual from that group standing
in front of us, someone who usually has done nothing to merit any of these impressions, bad or
These reflexive reactions often persist, even if they run counter to our conscious beliefs. Many
people who say they have a positive attitude toward minority groups are astonished when social
scientists reveal contradictions using a simple test. The Implicit Association Test calls on test
subjects to characterize objects on a computer screen according to qualities they possess — a
puppy may be good, a spider bad. Afterward, the test taker sees a series of faces of people of
different races and is asked to classify them as white, black, and so forth.
Here’s the trick: the same buttons are used for the initial evaluation and the group classification
tasks. The left button might be for making both good and white responses and the right one for
both bad and black. In a later trial, the button labels are reversed so that the left button records
good objects and black faces and the right corresponds to bad and white. A white respondent
would reveal underlying prejudice if the task is easier — measured by a faster response — when
the buttons are configured for bad/black than for the good/black condition. Many people who
hold positive conscious attitudes toward minority groups and who think of themselves as being
Page 2 of 9
motivated to treat all people fairly and equally are nonetheless surprised by the greater difficulty
indicated by a slower pressing of the good/black buttons.
These types of reactions complicate interpersonal relationships and fair treatment in the courts,
the workplace and schools precisely because they originate in the unconscious mind. Because we
are not aware of them, these feelings tend to get mixed up in whatever we are consciously
focusing on at the moment. Instead of recognizing an unacknowledged racial bias, we divert our
attention to some negative feature or characteristic about the person in question. A college
admissions officer might zero in on a less than stellar grade in an otherwise solid medical school
application from a prospective minority student without realizing those same negative features
are not weighted so heavily for the other applicants.
Although research on unconscious social perception has often focused on stereotypes and
prejudice, in reality the scope of this line of inquiry is much broader. In general, people have a
hard time untangling the sources of various positive and negative feelings and are prone to
misunderstanding their true causes. In a classic demonstration of this effect, the current day’s
weather affected how people being interviewed over the telephone rated how well their entire life
had gone up to that point — they were more likely to characterize their whole existence as sunny
when the weather was nice. Conscious awareness of this effect, moreover, brought about an
immediate change. When the interviewers called attention to the weather outside, the feelings
colored by the presence of either sun or clouds no longer had an effect.
Out of Control
Unconscious thoughts and feelings influence not only the way we perceive ourselves and the
world around us but also our everyday actions. The effect the unconscious has on behavior has
provoked debate among psychologists for decades. For a good part of the 20th century, B. F.
Skinner and the behaviorist school of psychology argued forcefully that our actions were entirely
under the control of what we saw, heard and touched in our surroundings and that conscious
intent played no role. This idea was embodied in the classic experiment in which a rat learns
through trial and error that pressing a bar results each time in the animal receiving a food pellet.
In the Skinnerian worldview, most of what we do translates into a more sophisticated variation
on the theme of pressing the bar with one’s snout — we just need to press the equivalent of the
correct bar — perhaps sliding the dollar bill in the candy machine — to get what we want.
Research in the 1960s debunked Skinner’s behaviorism. Yet the opposite extreme, that behavior
is always under intentional control and never directly triggered by environmental cues, is equally
false. Merely watching or listening to someone else can make us behave in ways that we do not
even realize.
People have a natural tendency to mimic and imitate the physical behavior of others — their
emotional expressions, arm and hand gestures, their body postures. These impulses appear
throughout the natural world in the fluid way that schools of fish, herds of antelope and flocks of
birds coordinate group behavior so that they move almost as if they were a single organism. In
humans, the tendency to spontaneously mimic and imitate what others around us are doing has
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been observed in very young infants and toddlers, and for nearly a century psychologists have
argued that being a copycat helps us learn language and other behaviors from our parents.
Imitation, moreover, does not disappear with childhood. In what is known as the chameleon
effect, you might find yourself taking on the posture and other physical behaviors of someone
you have just engaged in conversation at a party — the crossed legs, the folded arms, the same
head scratching. The mimicry carries on until you decide to refresh your drink and seek out a
new interlocutor whose stance and gestures you then take up, like a chameleon blending in with
its environment. Conforming to the same behaviors of others would seem to make adaptive
sense, especially when you do not yet know what is the appropriate thing to do in a given social
The advice “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” makes sense because others are unlikely, in
general, to be engaging in unsafe or socially inappropriate behaviors. And as is demonstrated in
research by Paula Niedenthal and Robert Zajonc, when both were collaborating at the University
of Michigan, a fascinating long-term effect of this propensity toward imitation turns up in
couples coming to more closely resemble each other the longer they are together, presumably
because on a daily basis they unconsciously assume their partner’s facial expressions and
Imitation fosters a social mind-set without the need for providing an explicit road sign that
instructs people in what to do next: waiting patiently in a long line encourages others to do the
same; holding a door for a neighbor, curbing one’s dog and not littering put others in a frame of
mind to do the right thing. Unconscious imitation fosters empathetic feelings toward others, a
“social glue” that creates a sense of closeness even among total strangers. The strongest form of
mimicry results when two or more people engage in the same activity at the same time: armies
marching or churchgoers singing a hymn together. Research on behavioral synchrony has shown
it has the effect of increasing cooperation even if the individuals involved have never met before.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency toward imitation cuts both ways. As psychologist Kees
Keizer of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and his colleagues found in field
research, one misdeed leads to another. The researchers placed graffiti on an alley wall, which
led to an increase in littering of pamphlets that were placed around the handlebars of bicycles
parked along the alley. Fighting graffiti and other small, nuisance infractions, it turns out, can
have a large impact on improving the quality of urban life. This research supports the “broken
windows” theory championed most famously by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani,
who in the mid-1990s promoted the strict enforcement of laws against minor infractions -littering, jaywalking and vandalism; the dramatic drop in crime during this period has been
attributed, in part, to this policy.
A tendency to copy others often extends beyond the imitation of mere gestures and facial
expressions to taking on facets of someone else’s personal identity. When we meet or are
reminded of an acquaintance, an unconscious mental process may begin that “primes” us to
initiate behaviors characteristic of that individual. Some studies have shown that college students
exposed to descriptions associated with the elderly — “Florida,” “gray,” “bingo,” and so on -subsequently walk down the hall more slowly after the experiment is finished, in line with the
Page 4 of 9
stereotype of the elderly as slow and weak. Similarly, “priming” words or images related to the
stereotypical idea of a nurse leads to greater helping behavior, and cuing stereotypes associated
with politicians results in more long-winded speeches. All these effects appear to occur
unconsciously, without the participants being aware of how their behavior has been influenced.
Investigations into what social psychologists call stereotype threat have shown that merely
bringing to mind a stereotype about, say, race or gender in a member of a group that is the target
of such biases may affect performance in school or the workplace. Claude Steele of Stanford
University has documented the negative impact on test performance when a minority student,
before the exam begins, is asked to check off what racial or ethnic group the student belongs to.
The late Nalini Ambady, then at Harvard University, demonstrated that even preschool girls at a
Harvard day care do worse on simple math tests if they are first subtly reminded of being female.
Widely held positive stereotypes have the opposite effect. In the same study with preschool girls,
Asian-Americans did better than average if they were reminded of their ethnic background but
faltered if the priming exercise emphasized their gender instead.
Recently controversy has emerged over an inability to reproduce the results of some priming
studies. The reasons that the studies could not be repeated are complex and depend, in part, on
the methods used to carry them out — subtleties explained further in the accompanying box on
the opposite page.
Unconscious influences, in fact, are not always effective in motivating what we do. Many people
are familiar with the idea of subliminal advertising in movie theaters — having the words “eat
popcorn” flashing imperceptibly on the screen was once thought to cause concession stand sales
to boom. Worries about subliminal advertising emerged in the 1950s with Vance Packard’s best
seller The Hidden Persuaders. As it turned out, these reports were mostly bogus, but many
people still wonder about the possibility of subliminal messages influencing consumer behavior.
Indeed, subsequent research has consistently shown that if a person is already motivated to take
some action-quenching thirst, for instance — a subliminal message favoring one brand of
beverage over others can be effective.
Regular advertisements, unencumbered by hidden messaging, are powerful influences in their
own right. In one new study examining regular television ads, participants watched a five-minute
segment of a popular comedy show and were given a bowl of Goldfish crackers. The presence of
any food ads during commercial breaks substantially increased consumption of the snack by
participants. The food ads primed snacking absent any subliminal subterfuge. The error we often
make is to assume that we can control the effects an ad has on our behavior just because we are
fully aware of its content.
Embodied Cognition
Some of the research on the unconscious and behavior focuses on the way the surrounding
physical environment influences our psychological state of mind. In the 1980s a series of
experiments by Fritz Strack, now at the University of Würzburg in Germany, and his colleagues
showed that unconscious feedback from their own incidental facial expressions — smiles or
frowns — sufficed to cause people to register the value judgment of liking or disliking an object
Page 5 of 9
that was in their field of view. Study participants held pencils in either their teeth — activating the
smile muscles — or their lips — flexing frown muscles. The physical positioning of the facial
muscles produced the corresponding psychological state.
Studies in this area of research, known as embodied cognition, have shown that a host of
physical actions and sensations trigger psychological states that are metaphorically related to
those behaviors and feelings. Remembering a past incident in which you hurt someone
emotionally may cause you to have a stronger desire to help and cooperate with others in a
friendly way — a compensation for the bad deed. In one well-known study, after being prompted
to recall a guilt-inducing behavior, participants had to wash their hands, ostensibly to help
prevent the spread of the flu virus within the room where the experiment took place. The
physical act of hand washing seemed to “wash away” guilt. Any lingering friendly or helpful
tendencies vanished in the group that had gone through the scrubbing exercises compared with
others who had not washed up — a phenomenon dubbed the “Macbeth effect,” after Lady
Macbeth’s compulsive hand-washing rituals in the eponymous play by Shakespeare.
In similar fashion, protecting against disease appears to satisfy abstract social or political needs.
In one study, politically conservative participants just inoculated against the H1N1 flu virus
reported more favorable attitudes toward immigrants compared with those who had not received
a shot, as if protection from invasion of the flu virus carried over to a perception that newcomers
were well-meaning and not somehow invading and despoiling their adoptive culture.
Metaphors also apply to the way we describe people we routinely encounter. Everyone knows
the meaning of a “close” relationship or a “cold” father. One recent theory, conceptual
scaffolding, asserts that we use these metaphors so readily because the abstract version of the
mental concept is strongly associated with the physical world we inhabit. In experiments, people
who clutch a hot coffee cup for a brief time form impressions of others as being “warmer,” more
friendly and more generous than if they hold, say, an iced coffee. Related studies on the way
physical experiences unconsciously influence judgment and behavior in metaphorical ways have
revealed that having participants sit on hard chairs during a negotiation causes them to take a
“harder” line and compromise less than do those sitting on soft chairs. And when holding
something rough, they judge an encounter as more awkward and not having gone smoothly.
We tend to unconsciously evaluate nearly everything we come into contact with in a crude goodor-bad manner. The unconscious, automatic response even translates into our basic movements,
our inclination to approach or avoid an object. Clinical psychologist Reinout Wiers of the
University of Amsterdam recently developed a successful therapeutic intervention for alcoholism
and substance abuse based on this insight. In treatment, patients had to respond to images that
represented alcohol abuse in various ways by repeatedly pushing a lever away, without any
further instructions about how to evaluate the meaning of the pictures. Compared with a control
group of patients, those who responded by pushing away the lever showed markedly lower
relapse rates a year later, as well as more reflexively negative attitudes toward alcohol. The
unconscious connection between making muscle movements associated with avoidance caused
the development both of negative psychological attitudes and of a visceral gut reaction that
helped the patients forgo the temptation to imbibe away from the clinic.
Page 6 of 9
Freud Redux
The most recent experimental work deals with unconscious motivations and goals — the basic
question of “What do people want?” — which was, of course, a central theme of Freud’s long
career. The modern theories about what drives behavior differ from the one put forward by the
Austrian neurologist because this thinking derives from studies on groups of average people
instead of case studies of abnormal individuals. They also point to a single psychological system
that we all possess that can operate in both conscious or unconscious mode, unlike Freud’s
unconscious, which plays by its owns rules, wholly separate from those that drive conscious
In fact, in the modern psychology of desire, researchers have found that whether or not we are
conscious of a particular goal we have set for ourselves, the way we go about pursuing that goal
is very similar. In research on this phenomenon by Mathias Pessiglione and Chris Frith, both
then at the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at University College London, study
participants were asked to push a lever as fast as they could when prompted. Before each trial,
they received either a conscious or subliminal cue about the reward they would receive. Higher
incentives (British pounds versus pence) produced faster pushes, whether they were consciously
perceived or not. Moreover, brain imaging revealed the same incentive-sensitive brain regions
switch on in both the conscious and the subliminal reward trials. This and other studies suggest
that an unconsciously perceived stimulus may suffice to cause someone to actually pursue a goal
without any awareness of how it originated — no conscious deliberation or free will required.
Our unconscious mind may not only nudge us to choose a particular option, but it may help
muster the necessary motivation to actually achieve it. Psychologists have long known that
people given power in a social science experiment often exhibit selfish and corrupt behavior,
putting personal interests first. The urge to exert power within a group often reveals itself
through a series of subtle, physical cues of which we are unaware. Participants in one study
randomly assigned to sit in a professor’s desk chair showed less concern with what other people
thought of them and had less inhibition about expressing racist and other antisocial sentiments,
compared with participants seated instead in a student’s chair in front of the desk.
Fortunately, many people’s goals are directed toward the welfare of others, as is the case for
parents who put their child’s interests above their own. If power has the general effect of
unconsciously activating important personal goals, these “communally” oriented individuals
should react by being more likely to help others and less apt to focus on themselves. Indeed,
studies have shown that power causes these individuals to assume more of an altruistic
perspective and leave less for others to do, all again without any awareness of their motivations.
These individuals also become more preoccupied with what others think of them and display less
of a tendency to hold racial biases.
Freud spent countless thousands of words in providing explanations as to why our unfulfilled
wishes express themselves in the imagery and stories that populate our nightly dreams. The latest
research provides a more pragmatic perspective on how thought and emotion just below the
surface of our awareness shape the way we relate to a boss, parent, spouse or child. That means
we can set aside antiquated notions of Oedipus complexes and accept the reality that the
Page 7 of 9
unconscious asserts its presence in every moment of our lives, when we are fully awake as well
as when we are absorbed in the depths of a dream.
In Brief
Decision making often occurs without people giving much conscious thought to how they vote,
what they buy, where they go on vacation or the way they negotiate a myriad of other life
Unconscious processes underlie the way we deliberate and plan our lives — and for good reason.
Automatic judgments, for one, are essential for dodging an oncoming car or bus.
Behaviors governed by the unconscious go beyond looking both ways at the corner. Embedded
attitudes below the level of awareness shape many of our attitudes toward others.
Sigmund Freud meditated on the meaning of the unconscious throughout his career. These newer
studies provide a more pragmatic perspective on how we relate to a boss or spouse.
A Response to Critics
Why Some Social Science Studies Fail
Reports have recently documented that some of the original studies demonstrating unconscious
effects on social behavior — research, for instance, that showed that people walk more slowly
after hearing words associated with the elderly (“Florida” and “bingo”) — could not be replicated
when the procedures were repeated in new studies. The accounts, however, have generally
neglected to mention that many other studies published over the past decade or so have
successfully reproduced original findings on unconscious thought and behavior and have also
extended this line of investigation in new directions.
These studies have confirmed that an unconscious gesture or a casual word for which a strong
association has previously been formed — “priming” to a social psychologist — can change a
person’s behavior. They provide evidence that subliminal motivations make use of the same
mental processes — working memory and executive function — as used in conscious acts of selfcontrol and that people often misunderstand the actual underlying reasons for their behavior
when influenced by unconscious impulses.
Studies with replication failures have generally neglected to incorporate procedures, learned
through earlier trials, that increase the likelihood of pinpointing an unconscious influence on a
person’s behavior. In many of the original studies, words and verbal material were used to prime
a behavior. Studies that have avoided the use of verbal cues and have instead brought to bear
more natural and realistic stimuli that trigger a behavior, such as photographs of victorious
athletes, have met with more success. These stimuli are the kinds that matter most for
unconscious priming effects in our daily lives.
Page 8 of 9
Further support for this area of social psychology has come from imaging studies examining the
workings of brain regions activated by the unconscious cues that affect our behaviors and
judgments. This work provides some understanding of the physiological basis for priming
effects. Brain scans show that areas typically activated by the perception of whether a surface is
“rough” or “smooth” also light up when a person does or does not have difficulty — in essence,
has a rough or smooth time — interacting with someone else, and the same midbrain regions that
respond to physical warmth have been shown to respond to the friendliness and generosity that
characterize social warmth.
The question is not whether various unconscious effects on judgments and behaviors are real and
can be replicated — because they are and often have been — but rather why some researchers
reproduce these effects and others do not. This question is important to advancing our knowledge
of how unconscious social influences operate, and it draws needed attention to the precise
contexts and conditions required to produce thoughts and behaviors from unconscious priming
cues. More work remains. Still, the overall body of evidence collected so far clearly shows that
unconscious influences on judgment, emotion, behavior and motivation are of practical
importance both to society as a whole and to the everyday lives of its members.
John A. Bargh is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His Automaticity in Cognition,
Motivation, and Evaluation Lab at Yale investigates unconscious influences on behavior and
questions such as the extent to which free will exists.
Works Cited
Bargh, John A. “Our Unconscious Mind.” Scientific American, vol. 310, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 30-37.
Page 9 of 9
Cabrera et al. Environmental Health (2016) 15:20
DOI 10.1186/s12940-016-0114-3
Open Access

Brain matters: from environmental ethics to
environmental neuroethics
Laura Y. Cabrera1,2*, Jordan Tesluk1,3, Michelle Chakraborti1, Ralph Matthews3 and Judy Illes1
The ways in which humans affect and are affected by their environments have been studied from many different
perspectives over the past decades. However, it was not until the 1970s that the discussion of the ethical relationship
between humankind and the environment formalized as an academic discipline with the emergence of environmental
ethics. A few decades later, environmental health emerged as a discipline focused on the assessment and regulation of
environmental factors that affect living beings. Our goal here is to begin a discussion specifically about the impact of
modern environmental change on biomedical and social understandings of brain and mental health, and to align this
with ethical considerations. We refer to this focus as Environmental Neuroethics, offer a case study to illustrate key
themes and issues, and conclude by offering a five-tier framework as a starting point of analysis.
Keywords: Brain health, Mental health, Environment, Ethics, Social implications
Background: At the crossroads of environment,
brain and mental health
Humans have altered their environments in pursuit of
self-improvement and better opportunities since ancient
times, but the scope and impact of these changes are unprecedented today [1]. Technological advancements have
yielded positive economic growth, improved standards
of living, and provided new ways of protecting human
health. At the same time, technology has contributed to
widespread negative changes in the environment that include global climate change, deforestation, suburban
sprawl, ecosystem loss, and increased health risks from
exposure to radiation, toxicants, and stress.
While there are different views among scholars of environmental ethics about why humans should value the environment [2], a common position focuses on direct and
potential consequences to human health and well-being
[3]. Environmental health experts similarly focus on environmental changes in terms of their impact on human
health. However, within approaches to environmental
* Correspondence:
National Core for Neuroethics, Division of Neurology, Department of
Medicine, University of British Columbia, 2211 Wesbrook Mall, Koerner S124,
Vancouver, V6T 2B5 B.C., Canada
Center for Ethics & Humanities in the Life Sciences, Department of
Translational Science and Molecular Medicine, Michigan State University, East
Fee Hall, 965 Fee Road, Rm C211, East Lansing, MI 48823, USA
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
ethics and environmental health, less attention has been
paid to the specific ethical, social and legal implications of
these changes for brain and mental health.1 To do so, requires that we probe the intersection of diverse biological,
social and cultural contexts of human well-being.
Brain and mental health are determined by complex interactions between individual predispositions and behavior, social and economic processes, and the environment
[4, 5]. Classic examples pointing to an association between
neurological function and environmental changes include
neurological deficits from exposure to mercury [6] and
lead [7–9], various forms of air [10–14] and water pollution [15], pesticides, and solvents [16–20]. Moreover,
cross-cultural studies of indigenous worldviews on identity, concepts of the self, and wellness have highlighted the
direct and intimate connections between individuals and
their environments [21, 22]. These studies remind us not
only about cross-cultural differences involved in experiencing brain health and the environment, but also about
different layers of vulnerability [23] brought forward by
the impact of environmental change. Children [24], the
elderly [25], workers who may be exposed occupationally
to neurotoxicants [20] and people who live in the proximity of neurotoxicant sources [26] are more vulnerable than
other sectors of the population. These unequal levels of
exposure interacting with brain stage in development or
decline, and differential effects from environmental risks
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Cabrera et al. Environmental Health (2016) 15:20
are at the core of the environmental justice movement
and, in regard to brain and mental health outcomes, are a
central concern of Environmental Neuroethics.
Our goal here is to begin a discussion specifically
about the impact of modern environmental change on
biomedical and social understandings of brain and mental health, and to align this with ethical considerations.
There are several reasons for thinking that this approach
is timely. To start, brain and mental health disorders,
many of which have important environmental factors,
are leading contributors to disabilities and morbidity
that produce critical public health, societal and economic impacts [27]. In addition, brain development, as
well as its optimal function throughout the life of individuals, is particularly susceptible to the environment to
which a person is exposed [24]. Considering the vulnerability of brains towards environmental exposures that
are not easy to identify or to eliminate [24], we can see
why brain and mental health are matters of global concern and social justice and, in particular, as the health
risks related to environmental exposures are often distributed unequally. Thus, it becomes crucial to mitigate
the negative impacts of environmental change while ensuring fair distribution of the positive ones. This balance
represents a key aspect of the Environmental Neuroethics approach we present here.
Fracking as a case study
Fuel sources with low greenhouse gas emissions are frequently advanced as a replacement to the rapid expansion
in fossil fuel usage [28]. Technological advancements such
as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have now made extraction
of these gas reserves profitable. The fracking process can
impact the environment in various ways through the extraction and discharge of massive quantities of contaminated water, injection of various chemicals into the ground,
and the disruption of the landscape with high densities of
Page 2 of 5
roads and well-heads that encroach on human settlements
and wild habitats [29]. Like other literature on environmental change, contamination of the air and water supplies in
the vicinity of fracking operations [17, 30] has been linked
to health impacts that include asthma, respiratory complaints, gastro-intestinal effects and nosebleeds [31, 32].
Such contamination is also related to negative neurological
effects. For example, McKenzie and colleagues [26] carried
out a retrospective cohort study of 124,842 births between
1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado examining the associations between maternal proximity to fracking sites and
birth outcomes. They found that births to mothers residing
close to or surrounded by wells (>125 wells/mile) were
twice as likely to have a neural tube defects compared to
those with no wells within a 10-mile radius (OR = 2.0; 95 %
CI: 1.0, 3.9, based on 59 cases).
With these types of foundational studies in mind, we examined the prevalence in the literature of associations
made between fracking and neurological or mental health
impacts. To this end, we carried out an extensive search of
peer-reviewed and gray literature of articles, theses, books,
abstracts, and government reports on unconventional gas
development (UGD), environment, brain and mental health
using Google Scholar, the most comprehensive database
relevant to the goals of the study. The searches were based
on two primary key terms: (1) unconventional gas development, and (2) brain; key UGD search terms: {unconventional natural gas (+/−) development}, {shale gas (+/−)
development}, {fracking} and {hydraulic fracturing}; and,
key brain search terms were {brain}, {neuro}, {neurological}
and {mental}. We also used a range of secondary search
terms to ensure that searches identify studies relevant to
culture, First Nations, health, ethics, and solastalgia.2 Of the
one hundred and six articles identified, 83 articles originated from the peer-reviewed literature (reviews,
N = 57; primary research N = 26) and 23 from the gray literature, dating back to 2009 (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 Number of articles on fracking and brain by year (*up to September 2014)
Cabrera et al. Environmental Health (2016) 15:20
To provide context, we explored the origin of the
cases in our sample for country of corresponding author
and corresponding author disciplines. Most returns originated from the United States (USA) (N = 83). Twelve
papers originated from Australia and six from Canada.
One paper meeting our inclusion criteria originated each
from China, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland and
United Kingdom. Based on the corresponding authors’
affiliation, we found that the majority of corresponding
authors held multiple disciplinary associations (N = 45).
Twenty-two held affiliations in the health sciences (e.g.,
medicine), 21 in the social sciences (e.g., sociology, law),
11 were associated with environmental sciences, such as
ecology or forestry, and seven have disciplines represented only in a limited basis such as engineering or regional planning.
To explore the texts in depth, we conducted a
three-part content analysis [33, 34] of the full set of
cases. Each individual article was used as the unit of
analysis. In the first phase of the analysis, we found
that the dominant themes relate to public health
(N = 31), and regulation and policy (N = 22). Five articles mention UGD and fracking broadly as a threat to
Indigenous health.
In a second phase, we focused on brain and mental
health. Eight of the 106 papers contain elaborate detailed
examination of the impact that UGD poses for brain and
mental health, arguments for associations between brain
and mental health related to UGD, or both. The remaining
papers only explore the relationship between fracking
chemicals and neurotoxicity superficially and provide little
if any mention of ethical implications.
In the third phase, we focused specifically on content
related to ethics. Two papers provide substantial ethical
discussion. One paper argues that environmental damage caused by hydraulic fracturing poses “a new threat
to human rights” [35]. The other, written by members of
the present author group, makes a call to the Presidential Commission for the integration of ethical considerations and neuroscience into the study of environmental
change [36]. Sixty-five papers mention safety and issues
related to the duty not to inflict harm; 41 papers mention at least one other ethical concern such as trust, vulnerability, justice, and disempowerment but without any
further elaboration on the matter. Overall, the findings
reveal that while there is emphasis on health, there is
limited ethical discussion of brain and mental health
Environmental Neuroethics in the wild
Environmental Neuroethics can provide a framework to
investigate the ethical and social implications of environmental change on brain and mental health. Building on
previous work [37], we propose a five-tier framework:
Page 3 of 5
1. Brain science and the environment: Neuroscience
discovery that is aligned with the measurement and
evaluation of factors that affect the way individuals,
communities and society adapt and cope with real
or perceived environmental threats to well-being.
2. The relational self and the environment: The
interface between the environment and brain and
mental health, and the mechanisms by which
exposures at key points in life may mediate different
brain and mental effects; relationships among
mental health stressors, susceptibility to mental
health issues, and resilience within the context of
changing environments.
3. Cross-cultural factors and the environment:
Exploration of the role of culture in the relationship
between environment and brain and mental health;
interactions between Traditional Ecological
Knowledge and neuroscience evidence; the impact of
environmental change and varying effects on First
Nations and settler communities given respective
relationships between culture and the environment.
4. Social policy and the environment: Priorities and
allocation of resources of local social organizations
to deal with environmental impacts on brain and
mental health.
5. Public discourse and the environment: The
engagement of professional disciplines and
communities in multidirectional communication
and discourse about neurological, psychological,
sociological and ethical dimensions of
environmental change; facilitation of international,
cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary collaborations;
creation of effective outreach programs that
promote public understanding about the impact of
environmental change on brain and mental health.
This framework can be extended more broadly to
other environmental impacts such as the extraction of
natural resources, air pollution, use of agricultural chemicals, water contamination, proximity to noxious facilities, mining waste and nuclear plants, ocean
degradation, food contamination, and habitat destruction. Moreover, while the focus here has been on
changes to the physical environment, Environmental
Neuroethics is also concerned with other environments
such as digital and social environments, and how these
impact neurological health.
Notwithstanding the opportunity to expand ethical and
social discussion around environmental change, priority
setting and paths to action are not without challenges. Reliability and stability of evidence [38], knowledge of impacts [39], and appreciation of risk [40–42] are perceived
and weighted differently by different stakeholders and are
among the key obstacles.
Cabrera et al. Environmental Health (2016) 15:20
The identified gaps in the ethical discussion related to
environmental change and health as well as the vulnerability of brains, suggest that it is time for an Environmental Neuroethics dedicated to address the interaction
of biomedical and social understandings of anthropogenic environmental change. In moving forward, results
and resulting scholarship and guidance must be specific,
solution-oriented, and proportionate to the benefits and
risks in play.
Page 4 of 5
We use the term mental health to include “wellbeing, everyday problems in living associated with bodily
symptoms of stress and anxiety, mild depression, and
seasonal fluctuations in mood and energy, as well as
more severe psychiatric disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychotic
disorders” [21 xiv].
A term used to refer to distress cause by environmental change.
Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Authors’ contributions
LC participated in the design of the study, carried out analysis of data and
drafted the manuscript. MC gathered the data and helped with the analysis.
JT, RM participated in the design of the study and interpretation of data. JI
conceived the study, participated in its design and coordination, and helped
to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
We would like to acknowledge the support of CIHR (MOP-111240), the North
Growth Foundation, and the Canada Research Chairs Program. This work was
further enabled by support from the British Columbia Knowledge Development
Fund, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Vancouver Coastal
Health Research Institute.
Author details
National Core for Neuroethics, Division of Neurology, Department of
Medicine, University of British Columbia, 2211 Wesbrook Mall, Koerner S124,
Vancouver, V6T 2B5 B.C., Canada. 2Center for Ethics & Humanities in the Life
Sciences, Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine,
Michigan State University, East Fee Hall, 965 Fee Road, Rm C211, East
Lansing, MI 48823, USA. 3Department of Sociology, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Received: 7 September 2015 Accepted: 4 February 2016
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