National allegories and power fantasies

I saw this comic, About Face, about fascist aesthetics and Punisher by Nate Powell, which got me thinking about superhero comics – but getting there is going to require some preamble through cultural theory, so please bear with me as I lay down the foundations:

In 1986, Fredric Jameson, a Marxist and political and literary theorist who ran with the New Left Review crowd, published the controversial article, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” He presented the idea of the “national allegory” wherein all texts produced in the third world are in essence, a reflection of a national perspective, even if the text itself does not explicitly deal with political matters.

“All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel. Let me try to state this distinction in a grossly oversimplified way: one of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud versus Marx. Our numerous theoretical attempts to overcome this great split only reconfirm its existence and its shaping power over our individual and collective.”

Fredric Jameson, Social Text no. 15 (August 1986), p.69

The criticism was swift, and in the words of English and Comp Lit professor Neil Lazarus, the article “brought [Jameson] nothing but brickbats.” Chief among the criticisms were how Jameson collapses all third world nations into one group and how this presents an essentializing framework of first versus third world nations as well as the presumptuousness of a first world scholar teaching third world readers how to interpret their own work.

Having said that, if we consider the latter half of the Jameson quote above and role of narrative – in particular, narratives of mass consumption – in the formation of national identities, we may not wish to be so quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Around the same time, in 1983, Benedict Anderson published the highly influential book, “Imagined Communities,” which traces the roots of nationalism to “the revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism” wherein the rise of print as a mass medium coupled with an economic system based on ever-expanding markets, eroded the status of Latin and created “monoglot, mass reading publics” that made possible the idea of a national consciousness and “set the stage for the modern nation.” (Verso 2006 ed., p. 39-46) In other words, narratives of mass consumption give rise to the possibility of expressing national character or shaping it.

If we accept then, that a popular text from a third world nation can a least find valuable interpretation when we adopt the perspective of that nation’s history with colonialism and its introduction to modernity, could we not then also say that a text from a first world nation can be usefully read from a national perspective too? In other words, we approach any first world text as a reflection of how that imaginary national community understands its political and economic conditions: the violence it exercises in order to perpetrate and rationalize its own power, the pleasures derived from extracting resources from the third world, the psychic and material costs it incurs to police and control the colonized, etc.

This brings me, finally, to the superhero genre.

I’d like to propose the idea that the American superhero genre can be understood as a national allegory wherein we might consider superhero comics as narratives constructing a national identity.

It’s interesting to note that The Golden Age of American comics began in 1938 with the introduction of DC’s Superman and that comics’ cheap and mass distribution helped sustain superheros as a popular genre throughout WWII. This is a period in American history when its national identity radically changed and was shaped by the superpower of the atomic bomb, exercised not once, but twice against Japanese civilians. Postwar economic growth also helped propel the American nation into an era of immense prosperity and on a pathway toward becoming the world’s sole superpower.

Superhero narratives are often described as a “power fantasy.” That term irritates me because it implies things about power that I believe are not necessarily true. Bdsm play is also a power fantasy, and how power is understood and exercised in this context is radically different from a superhero context – which is why this play is also called “power exchange” by practitioners. When we describe superhero figures as fulfilling a “power fantasy” what we are saying is that power is not about power exchange or mutual pleasure. It is not about power in collective action and organizing. It is not about power that is entrusted to you based on community stewardship or social norms and boundaries. It is not about power you should teach and pass onto others.

The superhero “power fantasy” is first and foremost, a fantasy of brute force, often unearned and undeserved. It is also a fantasy of not being accountable to anyone except yourself. Superheros may personally choose to feel responsible for their powers and act accordingly, but usually, that is ultimately up to the individual. To me, the superhero figure is not so much a power fantasy as it is an impunity fantasy. And is this not how the American nation operates? Now more than ever, it is plainly apparent that the US chooses to answer to no one – not the UN, not the WHO, not the Hague – because its superpowers are its military, political, and economic dominance. The only difference is that these powers were not innocently acquired by spider bites or mutant genes, but rather, are continually funded and subsidized to the hilt by American taxpayers.

It is also worth noting the narrative tension in superhero stories focuses on whether a superhero decides to play the Good Guy or the Bad Guy (or to choose between a team of elite Good Guys or nefarious Bad Guys) in a grossly moralizing framework that is so extreme, there is a naive, childish quality to it. The superhero genre offers no solutions to the abuse of power except more superheros. In this way, even if the surface content of the genre was once about fighting fascism, we could also think about how, on a deeper level, the genre’s capitulation to unassailable forces of power might also promote fascism on top of constructing a national identity. About Face may not be about superheros, but its investigation into military aesthetics, uniforms and popular culture points us toward such an interrogation.

In fact, it might also be a worthwhile exercise to track the popularity/sales of superhero stories against American geopolitics to see if popularity increases when the US nation feels under existential threat.* Is it a coincidence that American superhero movies have become so wildly popular post 9/11 and as China has been rising as an economic power? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe there is something to Jameson’s idea of the national allegory afterall, more so than he himself conceived.

* Emphasis on feels – decades of climate science has failed to induce feelings of being threatened in the American populace (and that of most other nations) whereas the increasing presence of Black people in popular culture and politics is for many voters.