The Batman paradigm

Sat 05 Oct 2013 10:12 AM

I am teaching my Scientific Revolutions course this term, and so I've been rereading Kuhn. I also happened to be reading Roy Cook's recent article on canon in serial fiction.

Cook is especially interested in what he calls MSCFs: massive, serialized, collaborative fictions. Examples include long-running franchise worlds like those in comics (e.g., the DC comics multiverse) and film (e.g., Star Wars).

It occurred to me that the world of Batman, for example, is a paradigm in precisely Kuhn's sense. It begins with specific stories which are taken as canon. The stories are open-ended, in that they leave space for more stories to be told. Yet they also provide a promise of further adventure and a largely implicit constraint on what those further stores can be like.

Creators and fans might write guides to the canonical universe which spell out matters in more detail than the paradigm stories, but these are never entirely binding. Stories can be dropped from canon, if they seem distasteful in retrospect, and the series bible can be revised or ignored if it stands in the way of telling good stories.

For Kuhn, a paradigm structures normal science. Most scientific activity is not ground-breaking discovery or critical testing of the paradigm. Instead, normal science works on the problems provided by the paradigm toward the anticipated solution. This is interesting and rewarding because it requires skill and cleverness to get there. It is, he says, puzzle solving.

In the same way, most Batman stories aren't ones with innovative plots which reveal unprecedented things about that fictional world. Authors and artists instead work to solve the puzzles provided by the paradigm. It is challenging and rewarding for them insofar as they can do so in entertaining, dramatic, beautiful, or artistically successful ways.

But the authors and artists aren't the only ones working within the Batman paradigm. Readers and fans are also working on the puzzles the paradigm provides. Finding errors in continuity is just superficial. Fans more often work out resolutions to the apparent errors. Continuity poses puzzles, challenges which allow them to deploy and demonstrate their skills and cleverness.

One reason canon exists, then, is because it allows stories to provide a paradigm. It provides both the direction and constraint required for further story-telling and appreciation to be a puzzle-solving activity. Without some conception of certain works and facts as canon, further stories are merely isolated tales.

Perhaps it is better to put it another way: Once some stories come to define a paradigm, then there's a serial with a distinction between canon and non-canon. This holds regardless of whether actors use the term 'canon'.

ADDENDUM: By strange coincidence, my second blog post ever, precisely eight years ago, was about the relation between theories and stories.


from: Christy Mag Uidhir

Mon 28 Oct 2013 02:37 AM

When Roy and I talked about this, I suggested making a distinction between the actual canon and some idealized canon (I think he mentions this in a footnote in the article), with the former understood as being subject to change in accordance with various conventions, readership, practices, and changes therein but with the latter understood as being in some substantive sense independent of such things (e.g., the ideal canon for Batman is the maximally consistent Batman world description (or the most aesthetically virtuous Batman world description within the set of such Batman worlds). I smell another co-authored adventure.

from: P.D.

Fri 01 Nov 2013 08:13 AM

I think it might be a mistake to think of canon in terms of a fictional world or class of worlds, because worlds are logically complete. My suggestion instead is that canon is just a set of prior stories or story elements along with the open-ended suggestion to continue in that way.