Worldviews in Dialogue 1. Superman Explores His Sensitive Side

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[Editor's intro: This article has been cross-posted from the EnlightenNext editor's blog. Through his writing at EnlightenNext Magazine, author Carter Phipps has influenced the thinking and work of many on this site (writers and readers alike!). Here Br. Carter writes clearly and explains a subtle topic in an understandable and engaging way. Reading this article promises a better understanding of what terms like Modernism and Postmodernism are when they're no longer just philosophy - but alive in the world around us. Enjoy. ~ Bergen]

In this new series, Worldviews in Dialogue, we want to explore the interior nature of different historical worldviews, comparing and contrasting the values, perspective, and the quality of consciousness intrinsic to different types of worldviews both in contemporary, and sometimes ancient, culture. We hope to use art, literature, pop culture, media and just about every other form of cultural expression to illustrate the ever-fascinating differences between these deep underlying structures of consciousness that have informed the evolution of human culture.

worldviewModernism and Postmodernism. We use these words a lot on this blog to talk about the difference between two worldviews, two fundamentally different sets of values, two historically different ways in which human beings have constructed the world around them and made meaning. And whether we’re talking about Spiral Dynamics, Integral Philosophy, developmental psychology or some other school of thought or research that identifies the critical importance of worldviews in the evolution of consciousness and culture, it is important to have a deep understanding of exactly what makes up the differences between these two stages of culture.

Of course, when we’re talking about such broad yet fundamental distinctions, the differences express themselves in myriad ways but are not always exact or perfectly clear cut. Yet as culture has changed over the last hundreds of years we know that there are certainly real differences between the values and perspective of a modern worldview that emerged on the cultural scene in the European Enlightenment and the values and perspective of a postmodern one that has been on the mainstream cultural stage since the 60s.

Modernism calls to mind things like scientific insight, reason and rationality, nation-states, industrialization, democracy, Newtonian physics, etc. The postmodern worldview calls to mind environmentalism, political correctness, pluralism and equality, respect for marginalized peoples and indigenous cultures, the breakdown of hierarchy, self-awareness and self-exploration, etc.

Now, my colleagues and I at EnlightenNext never get tired of exploring the differences between these worldviews and how they express themselves in popular culture. One of the ways to explore the interior difference between them is to use art in all its forms, so in this first edition of Worldviews in Dialogue, I want to employ music. 


I have a couple of clips here that can help us compare and contrast. Please don’t take these distinctions I’ll be making as gospel truths but as fun pointers that reveal fascinating differences, highlighting the evolution of culture. My point here is not to critique these songs. I genuinely like each of them. Please don’t think postmodern examples are better than modern ones or vice versa. My point is to explore the differences and how the characteristics of the two different cultural worldviews, modernism and postmodernism, are richly represented in these works of music and lyrics.

First, let’s take Superman. He was a DC Comics superhero (for those keeping score, DC comic-book heroes tend to be more modernist, Marvel Comics a little more postmodern).. Here is a video clip of the musical theme, created by popular composer John Williams, for the great 1978 movie with the late Christopher Reeve. Listen and take in the quality and emotional transmission of the music.

(These links are chosen from YouTube. Some have artwork associated with them, which was immaterial to my selection.)


Now that’s a heroic soundtrack. I love it. It contains all the glorious optimism, confidence, power, and strength that we associate with modernism. It’s uplifting and makes one want to go out and save the world, or jump tall buildings in a single bound or…well, at least do something very positive.

Let’s move on to another much more recent soundtrack about Superman. The group here is Five for Fighting, and the song is “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” Musically, it’s a beautiful melodic song. But check out the lyrics! I can’t imagine these lyrics ever being written before the year 2000. I guess Superman in the new millennium is super-sensitive, and is searching inward, looking for his more sensitive self.

supermancloudsIsn’t that interesting? Superman can’t stand to fly? Looking for the “better part of me”? The lyrics are hilarious and full of irony (another postmodern sign). New millennium Superman is officially postmodern. But even beyond the irony, notice the inward nature of the lyrics, so fundamentally different than the outward-focused optimism of the movie theme song. Superman is no longer interested in heroism; he wants to find his true self and explore the interiors that he has marginalized. He’s trying to find “special things inside” of him. And whatever you think of the song, it is richly evocative of the move from the more externally focused, inspired (though probably naïve) confidence of modernism to the more internally self-aware, existentially concerned, authenticity-seeking angsty world of postmodernism.

Okay, let’s try another example. I’m going to use two different songs describing men falling in love, both of them ambivalent about it. One captures modernist sensibilities and the other postmodern. Let’s start with the postmodern example.


SupermancouchThe Counting Crows are a great example of a Generation-X version of postmodernism. First, let me say it’s a beautiful song, one of my favorites from this band. It is about a person who is falling in love but is ambivalent about it. Notice the interior, introspective nature of his reflections, the sensitivity to minute emotional experience, and hesitancy about deep commitment. He is hyper-self-aware, ruminating on his own emotional and psychological responses to things, reflecting on all of the various options and imagined consequences. He is even self-aware of his own ambivalence and even his own tendency to objectify his lover by escaping into fantasy. It is a study in uncertainty and sensitivity, and of the interior experience of falling in love. This kind of interiority and sensitivity and psychological self-awareness and the subtle narcissistic flavor that goes along with it all are reflective of the postmodern character.

Now let’s take another ambivalent man who is falling in love, this one much more characteristic of the modern mind. It’s a famous and fantastic song.

supermanhappyRex Harrison is genius here. What a wonderful song. Again, he is falling in love and not happy about it, almost in denial. Even that reflects the less interior focused nature of his reflections. In this song, his thoughts are not about his emotions or psychological responses as much as his external perceptions of her. He’s grown “accustomed to her face.” She “makes the day begin.” Notice how that represents a less interior-focused perspective, less introspective. He is concerned with his independence as a man and the whole song is obviously characteristic of the polarization of gender more reflective of the modern worldview. In the transmission of this song, one feels less inside his experience, more aware of it from the outside, so to speak.  He is less concerned and perhaps even less aware of what he feels about his personal subjective experience.

So there you go. Is Superman a bold, larger-than-life world-changing superhero, or a self-seeking, inwardly focused anti-hero? Well, it all depends on your worldview. These two examples represent two general worldviews as expressed through music. Again, not necessarily good or bad (though please spare me the postmodern Superman), but different and indicative of the ways in which consciousness is changing and evolving, and culture right along with it.

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  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 11 July 2011 22:25 posted by TJ Dawe

    another song that takes a postmodern look at Superman is the Crash Test Dummies' Superman Song (1991):

    It's a slow, sad song, exploring the loneliness of the character. Check out these lyrics:

    when Supe was stopping crimes
    I'll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back on man
    join Tarzan
    in the forest

    But he
    stayed in the city
    kept on changing clothes in dirty old phonebooths
    till he work was through
    had nothing to do
    but go on home...

    In his book The Enneagram Movie and Video Guide, Thomas Condon describes how in old Hollywood, many leading men were often type Ones: Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Alan Ladd. They often played Ones: upstanding men who knew exactly what was right, and did it. I'd say Superman could be an Enneagram One. But as Condon goes on to say, this isn't the case anymore. Very few leading men are Ones (Harrison Ford is the only one he could name). And that's probably because audiences aren't as interested in leading characters who are so totally morally resolute. It doesn't reflect the experience of the audience anymore.

    Christopher Nolan has been doing excellent work breathing new life into the Batman film franchise, and he's working on rebooting Superman as well. Can't wait to see what he does, and if postmodern sensibilities will be evident in there at all. The most recent Superman film wasn't a very big hit, so it's possible the studios will be open to a new approach. Maybe one that incorporates doubt, self-consciousness, and a moral ambuguity on Superman's part, as he fights crime but knows that for every person he rescues, for every natural disaster he averts, he's removing the impetus from human beings to take care of themselves, to become super in their own way...

    anyway, thanks for this excellent article.

  • Comment Link Paul P Tuesday, 12 July 2011 19:00 posted by Paul P

    Cool article.

    I like how the music and lyrics were able to evoke an appreciation of the different interior spaces in me.

    TJ, the Crash's song seemed to be a look back at modern superman's character from the post modern view of the singer, rather than from the interior as in 5's Supe, which added an interesting perspective.

    I am curious about Carter's comment that 5 for Fighting's song was "hilarious" and that he wants to be "spared" that character. What's with that?

    And hey, what is the post-postmodern view on superman anyway?

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 12 July 2011 21:19 posted by TJ Dawe

    Paul, you're very right. but it's interesting to look at such a modernist icon from the pm point of view like that.

    I haven't read many Superman comics, perhaps because the character's less interesting to me precisely because of this modernist feel he has. although Alex Ross (whose artwork is in this article - the second image from the top, with Superman's cape flying off to the left) and Paul Dini did an oversize one shot titled Peace on Earth, in which Superman decides to dedicate his efforts for twenty-four hours to relieve world hunger. The artwork is all painted, each panel made to look as realistic as possible (Alex Ross's specialty) There's no dialogue, all the narration comes from Superman. And we do wind up seeing the ambiguity of his situation in certain cases. And the ending is extremely powerful. Highly recommended.

  • Comment Link Paul P Tuesday, 12 July 2011 23:43 posted by Paul P


    Yes, I agree. My poor lost clause
    "which added an interesting perspective" was intended to refer to your comment being the interesting bit.

    Me, I always preferred Spiderman.

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