On the underlying values of superhero culture

Culture embodies values and imprints them in the collective conscience as models of acceptable or desirable states of affairs. To think of cultural artefacts as mere entertainment, a transient exhibition with no further consequences, is to ignore the social-political function they perform. This is more so for works that are conceived, designed, and delivered in a top-down fashion, where a handful of power elites wields the authority to effectively dictate the narratives that inform the quotidian life of people.

A case in point are Hollywood’s superhero movies. The tropes and stereotypes they rely on and perpetuate are characteristic of the underlying value system that their corporate overlords consider appropriate for the preservation of their status qua overlords.

The abstract plot of a superhero story is that of the champion of all that is good against the rapacious forces of evil. While the hero’s backstory typically is a variant of two archetypes:

  1. The benevolent billionaire.
  2. The product of bio- or cyber- engineering.

Making economic injustice likeable

We are told in one of those movies that the Batman’s parents are the ones who built the public transport network that connects the city where the story unfolds. There was nothing before it and, apparently, the rest of the citizenry had no means to help themselves. Perhaps because some unjust political order preemptively deprived them of the resources to fund such projects; resources that were instead redirected to the coffers of some plutocrat?

That story hints at the philanthropic facade of real-world billionaires. Just browse the list of the world’s richest people to notice the incredible coincidence of supreme power going hand-in-hand with bleeding heart altruism. As with the movies, there is never any question as to whether this apparent philanthropy is genuine or some stratagem to extract yet more value and to further consolidate the billionaire’s position.

Do those plutocrats, be it in our life or in the stories, employ every trick in the books to erode their tax base, siphon their profits to some jurisdiction that facilitates so-called ‘foreign direct investment’ (i.e. tax avoidance), and ultimately not pay their fair share? What about their political status overall? Are they favoured by policies such as lowered taxation, ‘incentives for investment’ that provide legal loopholes to not make tax payments, a broadened interpretation of copyright and patents laws which further empower their oligopolistic grip in the industries they operate in, etc.? And are such policies funded by those same billionaires in the form of promoting their political candidate of choice, controlling or influencing the media, lobbying, and so on? Are those billionaires platformarchs exactly because of their symbiotic relationship with the state apparatus? Do they form part of the demistate?

There are no such concerns in the superhero movies, just as no-one is supposed to ever scrutinise the motives of a billionaire’s vaunted philanthropy and “corporate social responsibility” , nor examine the wider context in which it unfolds and is enabled by. The story just offers us a version of the world where the vast majority of humans have no part in shaping; a world where the nexus of legal, political, economic forces is presented as decisively external to those affected by it. It is a state of heteronomy where all that is instituted is touted as a constant and a necessary good and where the subjects of that order are conditioned into thinking of it as impossible to re-institute in a manner that would be beneficial to everyone (also read my Notes on Rules).

The superhero billionaire serves as a plausible fantasy of what the next step of philanthropy is. Is it not reasonable to expect whichever real-world billionaire-philanthropist who is currently in vogue to care for “the city and its people” by also buying or outright making those cool gadgets, weapons, power suits that grant supernatural powers? We see here how the superhero model serves as a proxy of what money can do when it is combined with noble feelings. And since it is claimed by the establishment that our world is replete with bleeding-heart moneymen, it follows that they too are stalwart guardians of all that is good. Ergo, do not question the status quo.

The ‘cool’ robotisation and weaponisation of the person

Same principle for the other category of superheroes: those whose powers are either in large part or completely the result of the regime’s or some powerful institution’s intervention in the human biological constitution. They are equipped with cybernetic enhancements or engineered mutations and they act as weapons in the hands of the establishment; an establishment that is not rendered clear, yet whose underlying values are never questioned either.

In several of those stories we are told that scientists conduct experiments on humans. Who is funding those scientists to begin with and what agenda does that programme serve? In our real world, the average scientist is either severely underfunded or has to receive grants in exchange for working in a particular area of research that ultimately benefits some mega-corporation or imperialistic end. Think, for example, of big pharma and big tech, or the military-industrial complex. In either case, the scientist no longer serves the principles of objective inquiry into the world, but is instead instrumentalised into forwarding the interests of their sponsors regardless of whether they like it or not, understand it or not.

When it comes to realising the goals of some corporate actor, there arises again the issue of where does that concentrated wealth come from? Which brings us to the previous points about the billionaires.

If, on the other hand, it is some government programme that uses those scientists to turn people into drones, we need to question its claims on its legitimacy. The regime always purports to serve its people, the nation, the will of some divine authority, and so on (also read Communitarianism and the self-institution of divinity). Its acts are supposed to be just and benevolent (see Against the secularised theology of statecraft) and its intent is to mass produce soldiers for its cause.

What if the state is not just? What happens when it operates as the iron fist of a power elite that exploits the rest of society to preserve its illegitimate status? What if its wars on the other side of the world are not just and that the real motive of such campaigns is to further reinforce tyranny at home and abroad?

The fact that ‘scientists’ do the dirty preparatory work does not mean that the end-product is necessarily good and desirable. Nor that it is value-free because some exaggerated objective method is in effect. Here we discern another pernicious meta-narrative of our era, that of scientism.

Scientism derives from interlocking misunderstandings about the work of science, all predicated on the assumption that the scientific enterprise delivers objective and final truths and has all the answers. Contrary to what happens in reality, scientism presents the “expert” as the indisputable authority in their field, whom none shall ever challenge. By extension, that field of research only delivers propositions about the world that are universally accepted.

In truth, science finds itself in a continuous process of research, inquiry, review, and disagreement. Scientists maintain distinct schools of thought within their area of expertise. Oftentimes one such school becomes the mainstream paradigm, with or without external interventions, or just because scientists are also human and remain subject to biases, obsessions, tribalist patterns of behaviour, logical fallacies, and so on. There is, in other words, an enforced orthodoxy that decisively marginalised heterodox positions; positions which are cast aside without sufficient consideration in a non-scientific fashion.

What we can learn from epistemology and philosophy in general is that science does not offer answers that are characterised by absolute certainty and that disagreements should remain at the epicentre, else science turns into yet another dogma.

Scientism remains limited to the phenomenality of science, stripping it of its underlying ethical values: those that instruct the student of the world to remain dubitative, inquisitive, dialectial, and plain-spoken (parrhesia). Instead it gives us ersatz science, a simulacrum that tries to impress the audience by citing decontextualised numbers, statistics, charts, and a bunch of awe-inspiring jargon, all of which scream of objectivity and deontologically sound research.

Couched in those terms, the regime employs scientism as an intellectual shield to fend off critics. Who are you to question, say, the central bank’s policies that outright favour the banking establishment? Do you hold a PhD in monetary economics with a specialisation in this particular subject? If not, then your opinion is irrelevant. If yes, yours is still a fringe position, because the central bank has an army of such PhDs who claim otherwise.

Linking this back to the superhero fantasy, we are indoctrinated into thinking of weaponised and/or robotised humans as ‘cool’ and ‘badass’. As with the case of the benevolent billionaire, we must accept the instituted world as-is. We are made to believe that the state is there to tend to our needs, and that the humanoid drones that ‘science’ unscrupulously engineers are just fancy forms of life that serve some higher cause of justice.

The citizen manqué

There is another logic to the whole superhero craze that the Hollywood establishment promotes: that of the passive subject of the polity. In those stories the people have no role in moulding their inter-subjective experience to suit their needs and aspirations. They are just there to serve as the backdrop of the story, cannon fodder, or the age-old pattern of some damsel in distress.

The superhero world is one of elitism. Only a select few have the means to exercise some degree of control, while a tiny minority pulls the strings. The rest lack the means to enact any kind of reform. Citizens appear to have no agency, no collective will to take matters into their own hands, form associations based on solidarity, establish parallel economies that circumvent the capitalist oppression, and ultimately self-organise in ways that abolish the control of human by human.

The superhero fantasy is the manifestation of the power elite’s ambition to impose slavishness from the top. To impress upon the average fellow’s mind a sense of powerlessness and desperation. It all comes down to turning the citizen into a citizen manqué who basically is little more than a compulsive consumer and the cash cow that the state and demistate exploit with impunity.

To change the world we must be prepared to challenge the prevailing narratives. To deface every idea that finds currency and whose advocates maintain hidden agendas or have clear incentives to impose some form of tyranny.