Superheroes give us a way to get at the ideologies at work in transhumanism and politics. The genre of superhero comics is a fantastical take on an often dystopian version of our own real world. Some superheroes work through their dismal realities by assuming libertarian positions, and some do so by way of authoritarianism. Superman, likely the most powerful hero of the genre, usually allows freedom to humans, other heroes, and even supervillains. Without godlike powers, more is at stake for heroes like Batman, and their authoritarian attitudes may be needed for survival. Transhumanism can help us make sense of this. It suggests that the differences between libertarian and authoritarian superheroes reflect competing models for a posthuman future.
1. Governing Gods
Superheroes work hard for their mundane human communities, and work to make life better and ease social maladies. The way heroes go about doing that, and their attitudes toward the relative freedom of others as they try to solve problems, however, varies widely. Consider Superman and Batman. Superman respects the liberty of the humans he lives alongside, even traditionally championing an “American way” of justice and freedom. But Batman lives in a grittier world, though Gotham City is just a short flight from Metropolis. Batman must take an authoritarian posture with the people he fights for, and the criminals he fights against, in order to keep a city that always seems to be falling apart from getting any worse. Nielsen’s analysis of Superman as a Hegelian and Batman as a Hobbesian (2013) gives us a look into the basic attitudes of each man — one as an optimist, the other as a pessimist. Beyond this insight, we can further imagine Superman as an ally of transhumanism, and Batman as a proponent of a militant, monopolistic technocracy.
Let’s look at transhumanism and technocracy, now, and imagine them on separate ends of a spectrum from liberty to authority. Transhumanism has “Enlightenment roots [and an] emphasis on individual liberties” (Bostrom, 2005: 4). What we might here call “technocracy” is more concerned with controlling populations with technologies such as the United States National Security Agency’s MUSCULAR and PRISM mass surveillance programs, Apple Watch’s heart monitor, or Amazon’s eavesdropping through our Alexa smart speakers. In technocratic regimes, divisions “between ‘international terrorism’ and ‘conventional crime’ is arbitrary” (Pascal, 2013). This is technocracy as ‘authority coupled with unassailable technology’, which is often tagged as “big government” in the boilerplate of recent nods to libertarianism. It’s an always-on big-tech batarang.
Throughout their careers in text, image, and film, examples exist for both a laissez-faire Batman (letting Catwoman — “The Cat” — escape in Batman #1, 1940) and a statist Superman (working explicitly for the aims of the government and military of the United States in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, 1986); yet an overall pattern emerges with Batman as micro-managerial and obsessive compared to Superman. There are many different versions of Batman and Superman to consider, as well, but here two seminal 21st Century versions will serve as our samples, both written by Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman 2011, and Batman Incorporated 2012).
In Morrison’s work, as in the DC Universe generally over time, Superman and Batman are respectively “libertarian” and “authoritarian” in the sense that Superman allows most things to pass, and Batman does not; we need only consider how many other suicide attempts and incidents of domestic violence were taking place within Superman’s range of hearing when he stopped to coax a teenage girl down from the side of a building (Morrison, 2011: 236). Superman is necessarily selective, and his position seems to be one of respect for the liberty of humans — even when that liberty leads to harm. Batman is perhaps psychopathically compelled to react to harm and violence, and to protect and/or avenge its victims — and individual liberty is less of a concern.
2. Liberty and Authority
Superman is godlike, aloof, and has a libertarian streak. Superman’s potential for conservatism may be read as an acknowledgment of the rights of freedoms of others (see my 2014 article, “Why They Won’t Save Us”, for a discussion of the “cosmic contract” that keeps superheroes from total intervention in human affairs). If Superman were authoritarian, his interventions would be constant and overbearing — perhaps tending to every lost kitten, ending every drunken brawl, and feeding every hungry child. The reasons Superman doesn’t solve all of the problems that he could solve is an area of increasing debate (see Anton 2013, for an excellent discussion).
Superman’s libertarianism is of the “negative” sort. This is the view of individual agency and freedom that assumes self-ownership, and that “each agent has a right to maximum equal empirical negative liberty, where empirical negative liberty is the absence of forcible interference from other agents when one attempts to do things” (Vallentyne). Superman does limit freedom when free actions cause great harm to others (he stops Lex Luthor, etc.), but he must actively ignore the vast majority of the harm done to others in the world as he flies to take refuge in his Fortress of Solitude, hearing the distant screams. In effect, Superman is the absence of forcible interference for the constant harm endured by billions daily (see Evans, Feltham, and Robichaud for discussions of Superman’s utilitarian attitudes).
Batman, though, is mortal, very intimately involved in the life of his city, and authoritarian. Carmichael (2011: 54-60) shows the contrast between Batman and his chief enemy, the Joker, as a struggle between order and anarchy. Batman is fighting with an agent of chaos, of “pure anarchy”. If Batman is somewhere opposite on a spectrum weighted with the Joker’s anarchy at one end, Batman heavily represents authoritarianism. He “spreads order through terror” as he has fought to control the streets and end the chaos of crime and violence in Gotham (55).
But maybe Batman can only be authoritarian because his scope is (usually) limited to Gotham. Bruce Wayne / Batman believes his city would be a nightmarish and ruined version of Gotham, burning and violent, without him (Duncan, 2011: 147). He has to be out every night, hunting horrors and petty thieves (it was a petty thief, after all, who killed his parents); when Batman isn’t out, a version of Bruce Wayne is — usually playing the playboy role to get information about a target or to advance some strategy.
In Batman Incorporated, however, we see Batman sigilizing himself (typical of Grant Morrison’s concerns with symbolic power) by franchising the Batman “brand” globally. Here, Batman lets his need to right wrongs everywhere win out over his sole ownership of “Batman-ness”, his usual loner disposition, and his distrust of others (see Nielsen’s note (1) on trust and suspicion for a deeper dive). Still, we find Batman’s authoritarianism expressed even in his relationships with other “incorporated” heroes. In insisting that his protégés follow his rules, Batman nearly causes Tokyo’s Mr. Unknown to die. Batman had ordered: “Rule number one: No guns”, after which Mr. Unknown set out to prove himself to Batman by taking on a machinegun-wielding enemy unarmed. Just before Mr. Unknown’s apparent murder, Catwoman foreshadows the tragedy: “One mistake,” she says to Batman, “and you’re all judge, jury, and executioner” (Morrison, 2012: 39).
Embroiled in a never-ending and “harrowing war of all against all,” Batman’s only choice is the constant expression of his own will into the chaos (Nielsen, 2013). Batman can give no quarter, and can offer no happy alternatives to his enemies; “Mutants! Surrender now — or be destroyed!” he shouts from a tank before rampaging through a gang in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (75). Contrast this with Superman’s response to a world-eating extraterrestrial villain, Solaris. “Rehabilitation begins here,” he simply says (All-Star Superman: 266). Batman can never relax. Supes is rarely very vexed.
Christopher Bundrick makes Batman’s attitude toward law, freedom, and authority very clear in his examination of the Arthurian elements in the The Dark Knight Returns. Batman has finally given up on “the culture of law, the democratic process, even basic human rights” in favor of the violence and authoritarianism of a “Dark Age tyrant” (28). Batman’s authoritarianism would not work without using violence, and Gotham could fall into (further) chaos without Batman’s authoritarian vigilantism. For Batman, none of this is debatable. He lives or dies by relentless violence.
3. Posthuman Politics
Superhero comics, like much Twentieth Century science fiction, deals with transhuman and posthuman themes, and many characters in the genre are transhuman or posthuman. What is transhumanism all about? Advanced technology plus people, more or less. It invites us to imagine what happens when powerful emerging technologies get pulled into the daily experiences of everyday folks. Fukuyama, a critic of transhumanism, calls it an attempt to “liberate the human race from its biological constraints” (2009). Do we become better people as we remove our “restraints”, and as we move toward godhood? Should we assume that social ills subside if technologically-driven wealth and wellbeing increase for all? Or will the future (which is already here, but not evenly distributed, as William Gibson famously put it) grow in spasms for certain segments, widening the gaps between the haves and the have-nots? We can imagine how advanced technologies have advanced and will further advance the agendas of all sorts of villains, from thugs to bankers to presidents. Transhumanism offers (as superheroes do) a useful lens on politics and power (see especially Ron Novy’s exploration of transhumanism in Spider-Man, 2012).
Imagine a posthuman world — a world in which transhumanism works — that turns out well for us. We are all supermen, of a kind, and can provide for ourselves and our loved ones easily and without violence. Such a world might be similar to Kal-El’s home, Krypton, which is sometimes described as a utopia, a “no-place” that we long for without quite knowing why (Yockey, 2008: 26-27). In such a future paradise, we would be physically secure and safe to pursue our pleasures and interests in a spirit of total freedom. Michael Moorcock, a progenitor of transhuman fiction, said that his characters in the Dancers at the End of Time stories are posthuman because
“…they are immortal, pretty much omnipotent — and not unhappy. All such stories before were essentially dystopian, saying ‘you can be immortal, without pain or hunger — but such conditions make you ultimately miserable.’ I wanted to write a story in which such people were actually pretty cheerful… Even the miserable characters are only pretending to suffer.” (Evans, 2009).
Superman is a posthuman by this definition, too — not just an alien god, but posthuman because he is immortal, because he is largely without pain or hunger, and because he remains “cheerful” enough in such a condition to delight in the simple life of his alter ego, Clark Kent. He isn’t transitioning into a god, but he is dealing with life as a god. Moorcock’s (1972) posthumans grant themselves and each other a great deal of personal liberty — even allowing the exploration of melancholy in a jubilant future (in the character of Werther de Goethe, especially). Like them, Superman is essentially free and at leisure. Others can do whatever they wish, and Superman only gets involved to help others when he feels that it is the right thing to do, or when he wants to. Superman, then, is a generally libertarian posthuman.
Now imagine unevenly distributed opportunities in a world with deadly-powerful technologies. Such technologies are controlled by those who are either wealthy enough or ruthless enough to get them — and, once gotten, such tools are not simply given away for the benefit of others. This is Batman’s world.
Even Moorcock, happy to embrace a jolly trans- and posthumanism in his fiction, shares a bleaker view when reflecting on our own world’s technocracy: “the future might well be a headlong tumble into some version of the Middle Ages or worse” (Marshall, 2002). Frank Miller’s Gotham City dramatizes such a concern when he puts Batman on horseback in a blacked-out near-future. The Dark Knight Returns is a great example of an unevenly distributed future in which those who can use technology to get advantages over others usually do; the Mutant Gang does, and so does (and so must) Batman.
Comiskey’s discussion of the bat-sonar (reminiscent of the NSA’s PRISM, etc.) in the 2008 film The Dark Knight reveals a Batman who doesn’t hesitate to cross legal or ethical lines to try to rid his city of anarchy (2011: 132-133). This is a world of transhuman and technocratic struggle, not yet matured into a utopia of Kryptonian posthumanism. There is none of Moorcock’s ecstasy and humor. Batman’s is the hard, dark, bloody world of becoming something better, or of preventing something worse. Batman’s is a technocratic authority of moment-to-moment fighting, of tactical maneuvers, and of street-smarts.
Batman is like Sisyphus, work never done, and an authoritarian by necessity. We want Batman to win because he does all of this fighting for us every night, and because he is one of us. Bruce Wayne became the Batman through his own discipline, skill, and training. He inherited wealth, and he inherited pain, and he used them to turn himself into a superheroic human. Even when his methods are against the law, we still want him to catch the bad guys, and he remains one of us. Similarly, as distant as Superman so often is, we believe that he would come out to save people when it mattered most; he always shows up to fight the really big fights, after all. These heroes — one a tortured mortal man trying to hold it all together, the other an immortal dabbling in salvation while he explores his own self-realization — are possibilities for posthuman culture and politics. But which model makes for the best way to govern all of us merely human pre-posthumans?
Returning to the transhumanism versus technocracy model, we could find examples of good will from both camps. Technocrats in China enforcing the so-called re-education of young men in Xinjiang province, we might try to hope, had some part of their program motivated by something like what they might see as a utilitarian “greater” good; and if transhumanists in Santa Cruz, California, want to sell nootropic drugs to teenagers, we might hope that some part of their plan was motivated by something like the libertine zeal we read in Thomas Paine. We would also be very naive to think well of either plan. Take your transhuman schemes with a big dose of skepticism.
4. The Art of the Possible
One of the best summary comments on the superhero genre must be Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s: “comic book readers long for utopia-in-progress rather than utopia achieved” (2003: 510). If utopia is achieved, Batman’s work will end, and we will no longer need him. We would have no more stories for him to play a role in. But if utopia is always kept in an in-progress state, we can have our flawed heroes (the aloof and libertine Superman, or the technocratic zealot Batman), we can keep our stories, and we still get to feel hope that we’ll have better days ahead.
In looking at Supes and Bats, we have examined two ways to “do” transhumanism, and two ways to govern a rapidly changing world. More possibilities exist for our future than just a libertarian posthumanity on one hand, or an authoritarian scramble for controlling technology and resources on the other. What if we now use alternative transhuman metaphors to create new choices for our own human experiences? Consider Animal Man. He was not a god, not an Übermensch, and neither was he a technologically-enhanced crime-fighting vigilante. During Grant Morrison’s time writing the character, Animal Man / Buddy Baker was just a normal guy who accidentally got exposed to alien radiation. Afterwards he found that he could commune with animals through the “morphogenetic fields” that he learned about during a hallucinatory ritual, and he could borrow various animal powers (Craft: 154).
Animal Man, however, performs a supremely super-human act in realizing his own condition as fiction; he moves his attention in a way that demonstrates the “boundary between the fictional world and ours has been shattered” (Thoss: 191). Like him, we too may find “authorization” as a next step after the “realization” that we can create whatever we wish to (Kripal, 2011: chapters 5 – 6). This, at its best, might be the major concern and desire of the transhuman: becoming the authorized (and benevolent?) posthuman.
In Thoss’s reference to Gérard Genette’s notion of metalepsis in discussing Animal Man, we can find a path for transhumans and posthumanity. Fictional narratives can intrude into and disturb the natural world (Pier, 2016). If transhumanism leads to posthumans, and if posthumans take onto themselves powers that we can’t yet imagine (becoming like gods), then phenomena which may be seen from our current point of view as supernatural in effect (whether or not in fact) and as issuing from currently fictional realities will break into our own reality. Transformation becomes a metaphysical phenomenon, and superheroes and supervillains become very useful metaphors for thinking about how we would like the world to be as we become posthuman together.
The continuing exploration of the ideologies motivating our heroes — and villains — will be vital as we move forward into such a future.
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