Everyone knows that academics are a major species within the genus Geekus, but few celebrate this fact as eloquently and energetically as Stanford professor Scott Bukatman, whose new collection of essays on special effects, comic books, science fiction, and Hollywood musicals, Matters of Gravity, includes a photo of a well-worn Superman T-shirt, credited to “collection of the author.” But Bukatman’s book is no mere catalog of after-school obsessions. His goal, as initiated with his cyberpunked sci-fi kulturschrift Terminal Identity (1991), is to reconcile the physical thrills of 20th-century entertainment with the cognitive flights of high theory, focusing on the reciprocal, evolutionary transformations that take place between new technologies and our concepts of the human body.
Critical theorists frequently take on pop culture in two ways, neither wholly satisfactory. Some employ an arms-length Doctor Adorno tactic, analyzing masscult artifacts as symptomatic pustules on the sickly body politic; others cite student-friendly phenomena like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and The Matrix in order to sugarcoat otherwise daunting philosophical horse pills. Bukatman’s approach has its roots in the former, but with a more endearing bedside manner, a Gibsonian penchant for phenomenological brain-games, and a determined muddying of boundaries between the writer and his subjects.
Indeed, the most dynamic, anxious body in these essays is Bukatman’s own: that of an avowedly nerdy man-child whose intellect plays constant catch-up with his overweening fanboy joy. In “X-Bodies,” he envisions how colleagues would react to hearing of his work on mutant superheroes: “People would laugh knowingly, laugh appreciatively, or leave quickly. Oh that Scott! they would say. I tried it out at a couple of parties.” But even his own endearing vacillation is subject to analysis. Ending a chapter on morphing that questions liberatory notions of performative transformation, Bukatman ponders the idea that “there is something comforting, perhaps, about the stability of unstable identity.”