Matters of Gravity

Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century

Matters of Gravity

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 55 illus.,17 in color Published: July 2003

Author: Scott Bukatman

Art and Visual Culture, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Media Technologies

The headlong rush, the rapid montage, the soaring superhero, the plunging roller coaster—Matters of Gravity focuses on the experience of technological spectacle in American popular culture over the past century. In these essays, leading media and cultural theorist Scott Bukatman reveals how popular culture tames the threats posed by technology and urban modernity by immersing people in delirious kinetic environments like those traversed by Plastic Man, Superman, and the careening astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff. He argues that as advanced technologies have proliferated, popular culture has turned the attendant fear of instability into the thrill of topsy-turvydom, often by presenting images and experiences of weightless escape from controlled space.

Considering theme parks, cyberspace, cinematic special effects, superhero comics, and musical films, Matters of Gravity highlights phenomena that make technology spectacular, permit unfettered flights of fantasy, and free us momentarily from the weight of gravity and history, of past and present. Bukatman delves into the dynamic ways pop culture imagines that apotheosis of modernity: the urban metropolis. He points to two genres, musical films and superhero comics, that turn the city into a unique site of transformative power. Leaping in single bounds from lively descriptions to sharp theoretical insights, Matters of Gravity is a deft, exhilarating celebration of the liberatory effects of popular culture.


"Well-written and worthy. . . . The underexamined medium of the comics clearly deserved a writer of his breadth and depth . . ." — Michael R. Mosher , Leonardo Reviews

"Matters of Gravity [is] a book that contains much worth thinking about for cultural-studies scholars, sf scholars, and those of us who just like thinking about the world around us." — Brooks Landon, Science Fiction Studies

"Matters of Gravity is a collection worth owning (at its modest price), a thoughtful grab bag that has some significant things to say about superheroes and special effects. . . . Bukatman's sensitivity to issues of race, class, and gender enriches his remarks throughout." — Dan Shaw , Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

"[S]timulating and often startlingly brilliant. . . . [I]ndividual chapters display what in a superhero would be metahuman vision, piercingly far-reaching but also capable of narrowing to a microscopic, diamond-hard focus." — Will Brooker , Popular Communication

"[T]he book as a whole lays a groundwork for understanding special effects as a genre of sort that cuts across media; each variety of popular entertainment he addresses provides its own glimpse at a different system at work in modernity's body, and each piece in this collection adds another transparency to layer over the last to provide a fuller picture of that body." — Mary Helen Kolisnyk , Film-Philosophy

"[T]his book can be extremely useful for those aspiring college freshman composition teachers who are interested in teaching a course on science fiction, popular culture, or urban modernity, and who have been long waiting for exactly such an expert guideline." — Jie Lu , Extrapolation

"Bukatman . . . can turn a phrase like no one else. . . . Compelling and heady. . . ." — Dene Grigar , Leonardo Reviews

"Bukatman's voice and personal perspective succeed in tying everything together, making the book a rewarding and intriguing read." — Steffen Hankte, Journal of Popular Culture

"Everyone knows that academics are a major species within the genus Geekus, but few celebrate this fact as eloquently and energetically as Bukatman, whose new collection of essays on special effects, comic books, science fiction, and Hollywood musicals includes a photo of a well-worn Superman T-shirt, credited to 'collection of the author.' . . . Bukatman's approach [has] an endearing bedside manner, a Gibsonian penchant for phenomenological brain-games, and a determined muddying of boundaries between the writer and his subject." — Ed Halter , Village Voice

"I like [Matters of Gravity] for its enthusiasm; its imaginative guide to new avenues of technology, the body, and popular culture; and its reminder that the irrational has its place in technology." — George Basalla , Technology and Culture

"In Matters of Gravity, the seriousness of popular culture is revealed. In Bukatman, we have found a substantial voice in the realms that were once not matters of gravity." — Alison Harvey , Canadian Journal of Communication

"Physically, the book is a handsome volume. Readable, well designed, with a good set of plates and illustrations, it should satisfy the general public interest in films, comics, or popular culture. Academic readers should be pleased with an excellent set of annotations about comic, film, or cyberspace theory, with a good bibliography and an adequate index. . . . Matters of Gravity . . . will also be of value to stodgy academics by reminding them that today's great books were yesterday's trash, and that again, comics can articulate a political, social, utopian message worth examining." — Oscar R. Marti , Utopian Studies

"The superhero story and cyberpunk [are] two traditions that are, among others, superbly analysed in Scott Bukatman's collection of essays. . . . Bukatman's passion, evinced throughout these essays, for sci-fi films and pulp comic-books is infectious. . . ." — Steven Poole , The Guardian

Matters of Gravity is more than a collection of tour de force essays, although it is certainly that. It maps an important theoretical and critical project, reclaiming the ‘lively arts’ and exploring the kinetic and affective dimensions of popular culture. Scott Bukatman’s breathless prose and conceptual pyrotechnics embody popular culture’s dynamism, making us feel it, making us want to dance it. His writing crackles with wit, sparkles with vividness, and throbs with his own passionate engagement with his topic.” — Henry Jenkins, coeditor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture

“Scott Bukatman is one of the very top figures in the attempt of cultural studies to understand modernity by looking at the interlocking of such phenomena as urbanism, new forms of masculinity, new technologies, and the role of the body.”
  — Dana Polan, author of the British Film Institute books In a Lonely Place and Pulp Fiction


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Scott Bukatman is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface xi

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1

One Remembering Cyberspace

1 There's Always . . . Tomorrowland: Disney and the Hypercinematic Experience 13

2 Gibson's Typewriter 32

3 X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero (1994) 48

Two Kaleidoscopic Perceptions

4 The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime 81

5 The Ultimate Trip: Special Effects and Kaleidoscopic Perception 111

Three The Grace of Beings

6 Taking Shape: Morphing and the Performance of Self 133

7 Syncopated City: New York in Musical Film (1929-1961) 157

8 The Boys in the Hoods: A Song of the Urban Superhero (2000) 184

Notes 225

Bibliography 257

Index 270
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3119-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3132-2
Publicity material