08 May 2006

Allright, Class, Open Your Context-books to the Reading for American Identities

In Marvel: 1602, we saw familiar superheroes removed from their normal settings and placed in England at the beginning of the 17th century. When placed in a new context, an interesting thing happened to these familiar characters. Origin stories had to change to correspond to the new setting. Peter Parquah, the character derived from Peter Parker/Spiderman, for example, was not Spiderman in 1602 because there was no source of powerful radiation from which to derive spider powers. Similarly, the X-Men of 1602 were not mutants, but mutantir, Latin for “changing ones.” The knowledge of genetics and mutation was not common in the 1660s and therefore did not influence Carlos Javier when identifying and discussing the witch breed under his protection.

Context is also important in Marvel: 1602 for another reason. Before one can understand how the new context affects these characters, one has to understand the context from which they came. If the reader does not know the origin of Spiderman, then the subtle jokes where Peter keeps almost being bitten by a spider become utterly meaningless. In fact, the whole book loses significant impact if the reader is unaware of the context of the Marvel universe from which Marvel: 1602 draws so much. I know this for a fact because a friend who read 1602 who was not familiar with comic books said about it, “It’s a very nice book about wizards in England.” The book was still enjoyable to her, but most of the intended effect had been lost due to lack of proper context.

In the same way that Marvel: 1602 can not be fully appreciated without the proper context, so American identity also needs context to be understood. When I was a very little girl, I went on a day trip with my family to New York City. I was excited by the tall buildings and all the new things to see, but I had no awareness of New York as anything more than just another place. I had only the vaguest of ideas about immigration, so when I saw the Statue of Liberty I was impressed only by its size and not by its symbolism. When we went to the top of the Empire State building I saw only another long set of stairs to climb, I did not see an example of American engineering. I was missing the context that made these places more than mere places. Because I lacked the context I was merely visiting places to which other people might make a pilgrimage.

The more complex the discussion of American identity, the more important the role of context becomes in the discussion. This helps explain why it is so very hard to pinpoint what, exactly, American identity is at all. So many questions exist about the value of different American experiences because of the subtle and varying influence of context. If a man has grown up in the U.S. and lived his entire life in an American setting, is he more or less American than the immigrant who has lived here only five years, but to whom America itself means so much more? Canada and South American countries share historical significance with the U.S. in many ways--being part of the New World, the meeting of native and European cultures, separation from European culture and continent--all these things influence American identity, which means that not only the U.S. but all of the Americas need to be considered when discussing American identity. How can an American superhero be an American superhero in an era when America was nothing more than a handful of British colonies still loyal to the queen? Perhaps they can when the writer is a man in an era when America is a global power, who grew up reading American comic books and wrote with America specifically in mind, but once again, this is a matter of context.

And the problem with context is that there is no sure way to measure its influence. If context is the only determinant of identity, then identity becomes nothing but a pattern in a swirl of discourses. It loses permanence and significance if it can be shaped and changed so entirely by environment. Buddhists and postmodernists may nod their heads emphatically at this point and cry, "Yes, that’s exactly how it is!" but the rest of us probably find that a bit hard to swallow. When I remember climbing the Statue of Liberty, I remember the little girl as myself as an earlier version of the person currently writing this sentence. I certainly don’t look fondly back on the grouping of physical and emotional phenomena influenced by societal dialogue that once existed in a specific point in space/time known as the Statue of Liberty in the late '80s. Continuity of memory seems to suggest that there is at least a central core to identity that external context can’t account for. That central core might be why we can still identify Carlos Javier as Charles Xavier, or why Queen Elizabeth remains Queen Elizabeth no matter how many superheroes she’s hanging out with these days.

So how does one incorporate a thing so subtle and prone to personal interpretation such as context into one’s reading of American identity? Maybe it can’t be done at all. Context can be as limited or as expansive as the reader chooses to perceive it, so how much influence it has can vary. Perhaps the best way to view context, then is not to question how it impacts the observed, but how affects the way it is observed. When looking at American identity, the question to ask my not be “How does context make this American?” but instead, “How does context cause me to see this as American?”

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