Imagining a Superman of the Left

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on June 21, 2013

“Is there a place, in a disoriented world, for a new style of heroism?”
-Alain Badiou

So this is what a culturalist reading of Man of Steel would be like: Ah, the alien, initially feared by the Americans, eventually gets around to loving our way of life, saving our world as we know it, and we accepting and tolerating his difference. The integration into the American dream. Likewise, the Christian symbolism throughout the movie was too obvious to miss. In that one scene, where after a conversation with the image of his father in that spaceship thingy, Superman falls back to the earth cutting a Christ-on-the-cross like image, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to that biblical verse from John 3:16, considered by many to be the essence of Christian theology, “For god so loved the world that he gave his only son and those who believe in him shall not perish but have life eternal.” So there it is, Zack Snyder’s good movie for liberal Christian, multiculturalist consciences.

But what if Superman was an adherent of biblical radicalism? An incarnation of that ‘other’ Jesus Christ, passionately promoted by Slavoj Zizek, the radical who tells his followers that he arrived on earth not to promote peace but to generate upheavals? Or a figure who showed a big intolerant middle-finger to our old way of life and was hell-bent on establishing universal justice and equality even at the cost of sacrificing narrow particularities, political correctness and pluralisms? Simply put, could we imagine a Superman of the Left?

Communist Superman

Communist Superman in Mark Millar’s ‘Red Son’

One can already anticipate what the liberals would say to the idea of a communist Superman – “you already had one. His name was Stalin!” (Doesn’t ‘Stalin’ itself roughly mean ‘Man of Steel’?) Indeed, the idea of communist Superman, when explored by Mark Millar in the DC Elseworlds comic book series titled ‘Red Son’ released in 2003, portrayed him as an accomplice of Stalin and as a crypto-Stalinist. This Superman enforces a communist revolution worldwide against US interests, overrides notions of liberal democracy and ‘free choice’ and quite literally, rules with a steel fist. He is eventually overthrown by American Lex Luthor, who convinces the indestructible man of the inherent falsity of his faith, and heralds an age of global capitalist utopia. It is interesting to note that while it was possible to imagine Superman as a communist superhero, even in an alternate comic universe it has been impossible to think of Batman on the same lines. In ‘Red Son’, Batman plays the role of an anti-revolutionary saboteur, something on the lines of the Contras in Nicaragua.

Why is this? Batman is inherently systemic, a product of and the defender of an inherently problematic system, a Manichean who almost never considers the nuances of what he holds to be as ‘true’. Just like the global hegemons who use rational means for irrational and unattainable ends, Batman too thinks that pumping the profits of his daytime business into the demands of his night-time activity will make his beloved city a better place. A hooded vigilante who cleans up undesirables of the system – this is the picture perfect image of the death squads that operate in several conflict zones in Latin America and South Asia. That dark part of the system which the system knows is there, which the system recognizes as necessary but whose real nature it refuses to acknowledge for fear of the consequences. Fetishist disavowal anyone?

Superman can be read differently. Of course, the ‘mainstream’ portrayal of the guy is problematic. But is a Man of Steel problematic as such? In a subversive (and, in my opinion, rather unfairly criticized) reading of Zack Snyder’s 300, Zizek in his short essay “The True Hollywood Left” reads a foundation for modern egalitarian principles in the “emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline”. I think Zizek’s emphasis, and this his critics failed to acknowledge, was not so much on what the Spartan ideal historically was, but on what the Spartan ideal can become. A similar subversive reading and appropriation can be made of Superman too.

Unlike a Batman, a Superman is not a product of the system. He is trans-systemic, or at least has the potential to be so. A Superman’s superhuman strength, endurance and penetrative vision needn’t be seen as physical attributes alone. It very well can be the mental attributes of the Nietzschean Übermensch. (The abuse of Nietzsche’s concept by fascists has been drilled enough by several scholars. I needn’t elaborate that here.) In my reading, Nietzsche’s Übermensch ideal was the one who could be faithful to the following exhortation in The Antichrist:

“Truth has had to be fought for every step of the way, almost everything else dear to our hearts, on which our love and our trust in life depend, has had to be sacrificed to it. Greatness of soul is needed for it: the service of truth is the hardest service. For what does it mean to be honest in intellectual things? That one is stern towards one’s heart, that one despises ‘fine feelings’, that one makes every Yes and No a question of conscience!”

Needless to say, these demands require a ‘superhuman strength, endurance and penetrative vision’ and a trans-systemic perspective that critically observes not only the flaws in the existing system, but also the flaws in the solutions that is thrown about as a panacea to the system. This virtue cannot be over-emphasised at this moment when the Left gets orgasmic at any mass gathering which it perceives to be anti-system, be it the Arab Spring, the OWS, or the recent Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey. This will sound cynical, but taking from Lenin who warned his fellow communists against conferring a divine status to the revolution by only referring to it with the capital letter R, we need to warn ourselves today against referring to ‘people’ with capital P or ‘humanity’ with capital H. The war has never been between the 1% oppressors in the ruling class and the rest 99%. It has been and will continue to be, if you take as valid the western military doctrine that war is the clash of wills of commanders, between the 1% oppressors and the 0.1% of the theoretically and politically sound from the oppressed over who gets to command the remainder. Hence, the Superman of the Left is not the one who asks in the face of a people’s outburst ‘What now?’ – He asks ‘What tomorrow?’

Back to Badiou, who defines ‘heroism’ in his evocative essay “The Figure of the Soldier” as “the luminous experience, in a concrete situation, of something that assumes its humanity beyond the natural limits of the human animal.” We have to transgress Marx who decried the importance given to Heroes in History and take the side of Hegel and Nietzsche instead. Lest I be accused of heresy by my orthodox Marxist friends, let me add here that even Mao approved of ‘healthy personality cults’. Our ideal of Hero needs to be something more if we are to answer the question raised by Badiou mentioned earlier.

Heroism can be that moment where a people decide that ‘enough is enough and the old way is not liveable anymore’ and act in assorted fashions to achieve their humanity transcending the limits placed by the situation they are in. But Heroes are those who capture this moment, use this sentiment to ensure that any return to the old way is absolutely untenable, making the necessary sacrifice of plurality for a fighting collectivity, particularity of factions for universality of justice, political correctness for political truth. This Hero, humanely inhuman, is the ‘virtuous terrorist’ and his political ancestry can be traced to the Jacobins. This is the Hero, the Superman ideal, which the left desperately needs to imagine at the current conjuncture.

The regime of repression in Turkey, racist fury in ethno-chauvinist states in South Asia, strengthening of economic models of Asian countries that have capitalism without liberalism, the Syrian crisis exacerbated by American intervention, turmoil in African countries seem far away nightmares. The European left, while snickering over the economic crisis in the West, still fails to come up with a viable – more than that, an inspiring alternative to the current system. In that European country where the pinch was felt the most, the Right capitalized where the Left failed. And thus you have the fascist Golden Dawn that seems to be winning support and popularity day by day not just in Greece, but in other countries as well.

There is nothing essentially fascist about Heroes and heroism, and the Hero ideal cannot be abandoned to liberals or fascists. The Left needs its Men and Women of Steel.

If they don’t exist, they should be invented.

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