Superinstitutional Heros

I’ve never been a comic book guy or into heroes or superheroes. In fact, I have always had a thing for the underdog. This article points out The Batman’s Privilege Problem. I’ve skimmed a few comic books and graphic novels, and I’ve seen a few movies, but I am not really steeped in this space to speak to the nuance—and there is probably a difference between comics and graphic novels, but like I said: not inters. I just don’t identify with most of it. Not the violence. Not the Truth, Justice, and the American way of legacy Superman. But I do sense a privilege problem. Defenders of the status quo. I wonder if comic book aficionados tend to be more politically Conservative.

A quick Google search, and I’m mostly correct. Evidently, Marvel authors trend toward the Right. This article ranks some figures Conservative, Centrist, and Left, although the Left feel more Liberal than Left, and they are all constitutionalists. Apparently, X-Men were born of the Civil Rights movement in America in the 1960s. Still not my bag. Where are the Anarchists? At this rate, I’d settle for a Marxist.

One last mention: this piece points out that even where there are prominent social justice issues raised in one or another comic, the subtext (or overarching meta) is Conservative. This likely creates tension in a manner of speaking, but it creates dissonance for me.

I don’t have much more to add, but the article caught my fancy. It resonated for me, and having not posted for a while, I figured what the hell.

Identifying Identity

“Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.”

— Voltaire

God knows that I am not interested in God, but in the quoted sentence, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him‘, Voltaire has established a pattern: If X did not exist, it would be necessary to invent X. Identity is a possible X. Time and now are other possible Xs.

I’ll focus on identity. That identity is a social construct may be technically correct, but so what? My position is that identity doesn’t exist, yet people–including me–identify. We search for identities that don’t exist. What I was when I looked is no longer there. And if someone invents a new attribute of identity, we tend to evaluate how we relate to it. Among other things, cognition is a difference engine.

“The mirror is a worthless invention. The only way to truly see yourself is in the reflection of someone else’s eyes.”

— Voltaire

When the concept of race is brought up—as invalid of a concept as it may be—, we assess how we relate to it. Sex, gender, self—it’s all the same pattern.

I’ve written on race identity in the past. Given it’s a fiction for the human species, it’s a moving target even within the realm of identity, a moving target in its own right. In my estimation, race is a conflation of colour, class, and culture—evidently, the 3Cs. So, although I don’t believe the concept of race is valid for homo sapiens sapiens, I still have a sense of what the users of this term mean. Besides colour, which I feel is the primary attribute, couched in this notion is cultural affinity as proxied by national original, another nonsensical notion.

In my case, I was raised as a WASP. My family background is white, Anglo-Saxon (Norwegian), and Protestant (Northern Baptist), so in the US I am afforded privilege. Were I to play it up, I should be able to parlay this into better jobs, better housing in better neighbourhoods, with access to better networks, and on and on. And even though I don’t play that game, I still accrue some of these benefits. Others I eschew. But I have options. This is the nature of privilege.

I don’t identify as white, nor do I identify as black or brown. This mantle is cast upon me. I can deny the notion, but I am helpless. Just as the black person can’t escape being identified as being black, the white person is similarly chained to their whiteness. In the United States, historically, a white person can deny the attribute of white, but simpletons will still consider them as white. But this is not a disadvantage to overcome. Some might argue that with a shifting colour landscape these days are coming to an end, but they haven’t ended yet, to the chagrin of the white folk who want to continue to ride the wave of privilege. People of colour, on the other hand, likely want to see this wave crash (and burn, if that’s possible).

But I’ve gone off the plantation—or is that reservation? No matter. Identity is nothing more than a connected locus of stateless states. It’s an n-dimensional snapshot of everchanging moments. The relationship between identity and identification might be viewed by analogy as the relationship between sex and gender, both social constructions in their own right. As with sex, identity is assigned. Except in rare cases, one doesn’t have the option of denying their biological sex. As with gender, identification is a space where you can self-assess. It’s just as pointless, but it somehow makes us feel better.

As with Voltaire’s quip, if the Self did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. And invent, we do. As with objects in physical space, there is more absent than there, but that doesn’t prevent us from imagining it as real and present. In the end, identification is a heuristic that has survived as an evolutionary fitness trait. For what it’s worth, it affords us the capacity to differentiate between friends and enemies, us and them. But it also can be over-indexed and lead to unwanted or at least unexpected results. The question is how much energy should one expend on identity formation and assessment?

Trolley, Trolley

I love finding Trolley Problem takes. If I had spare time, I’d set up trolleyproblem.com to archive the content. This graphic contextualises the problem. In university, I recall discussing different nuances, including the medical doctor problem of saving a Nobel Prize laureate at the expense of 5 indigent people, whether health compromised or not, so this perspective of privilege is not new. The twist here is that this flips the neutral decision with you in control of the path of the trolley but without knowing anything about the people on the track to the capitalist deciding between another capitalist versus workaday proletariats. It’s almost always frame in from a consequentialist perspective.

May be a cartoon of 1 person and text that says "How you imagine the trolley problem YOU 00000 5 How it's actually going to be 000000 0000 YOU"

Foucault wrote about épistémès, where knowledge and perspective are contextualised in time and place. The bottom picture sums up how the mortgage crisis was resolved in 2008. Too Big to Fail (TBTF) financial institutions were salvaged at the expense of ordinary citizens. Main Street was sacrificed for Wall Street. Considering Derrida, Wall Street had the privileged position over Main Street or High Street.

In the midst of COVID, you can see the argument playing out in the UK and US, as the top route is to close businesses to reduce social contact and the bottom route is to open business because it inconveniences a few shop owners. Note that even people on the bottom path are shouting for the switchman to send the trolley careening down their path.

Metanarrative Problem

Postmodernism was summarised by Lyotard as having an incredulity toward metanarratives.

What does this mean? What are metanarratives, and why harbour incredulity toward them?

Metanarratives are narratives. Stories presented through a lens with a certain perspective. These stories provide a historical account of how a culture arrived to where it has. They can be viewed as origin stories. Metanarratives are also teleological, as they provide the foundation to progress, to advance the culture to a better future. Embedded in these metanarratives are the rules and conditions necessary to navigate, both from the past and into the future.

We’ve got stories. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian, Yuval Noah Harari tells us how important stories are for having made human progress. Hooray for us!

This sounds good so far. Right? We’ve got Caesar, Cornwall, and Kahn. We’ve got triumph of us over others. Good prevailing over evil. Right over wrong. So why the incredulity?

Let’s keep in mind that Lyotard is suggesting incredulity and not rejection. The narrative could be fine and accurate enough. One might argue that the benefit of the narrative for the purpose of cohesion outweighs the detriments posed.

There are several notable problems with metanarratives.

Firstly, the past suffers from a cherry-picked survivorship bias. The story threads that don’t support the narrative are abandoned, and some threads are marginalised. So, there’s a dimensional problem. As with any historical account, one needs to adopt a perspective and create a story. Let’s not forget that the word history comes from the word story. In fact, French only has one term: l’histoire. History is story.

Secondly—and this is somewhat related to the survivorship bias problem—, is that we privilege the perspective we take to view this history. In his book, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour uses this line of argumentation to arrive at the conclusion that we have never been modern. It is only because we are here now and surveying history through a rearview mirror that we can even look into the past. And we feel that we have somehow overcome this past. The past was primitive, but we are modern. Some time in the future we’ll deservedly be viewed in the same light because that’s how progress works. But there is no reason to accept this privileged assignment. It’s a function of ego—and to be even more direct: hubris.

Lastly, there’s the issue of teleology. Through this privileged vantage, we orient toward some alleged destination. Like fate, it’s just there for the taking. The only barriers are time, not keeping your eyes on the prize, and not following the rules to get there. There’s an embedded deontology. Those other societies don’t understand what it takes. You need to follow this path, this religion, this sports team. Because this is the best there is.

But there are no crystal balls. We cannot divinate the future. There is no particular reason to believe that our imagined path is the best path. If you don’t believe this, just ask the culture next door.

I’d like to think that somehow Progressives would be more aware of this tendency—and perhaps in some sense they are, but it’s not very apparent pragmatically. I don’t want to get distracted by the notion of institutionalism, but that is evidence of taking a privileged position regarding the status quo—even if your vision of the future would take a different path than your more conservative brethren and sistren.

In closing, this has been a summary of the problem postmoderns have with metanarratives. It could be that the metanarrative you believe to be valid is valid. It could be that your religion is the true religion. It could be that your sports team is the best sports team. That your system of government is the best of all other alternatives. It’s more likely that you’ve convinced yourself that these things are true than them being true.

We can either adopt the perspective of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss and consider our world to be the best of all possible worlds, or we can step back and consider that we haven’t exhausted all of the possibilities.