Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Welcome to Bizarro World: Part Two, Revenge of the Nerds


It has taken me a long time to write a follow up to my first post on Bizarro World. That is because once you begin to think about the strange inversions in which the persecuted are made out to be threats, and the comfortable are made out to be threatened, it is hard to not see it. Our entire world seems reversed and inverted, those who are most subject to violence are made into violent threats, and those who are most comfortable have made the threats to their comfort our central concern with the claims of cancel culture. Bizarro world would be one of those "descriptive theories" that Althusser talks about, something that stops thinking because it seems to be such an accurate description of what one is thinking about. 

I have decided to approach the topic by breaking it up, by trying to grasp the specificity of the different reversals, following what I did earlier with the inversion of the relation of workers and capitalists to that of the relation of human capital and job providers I would now like to examine the way in which margins and mainstream have also become inverted, and what that inversion means for both terms in question, the dominant culture and the marginal subculture. In doing so I would like to start with a particular philosophy, or spontaneous philosophy, that characterized my life as a young teenager. As a nerdy kid interested in comic books, science fiction, and other things, I fostered the belief, shared by many of my kind, that our rather minor marginalization made us sympathetic to the marginalization of others. This was helped in large part by the fact that many of the dominant comic books when I was growing up, such as the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, were all in some sense allegories of oppression and exclusion. With respect to the first in the list, the idea that the X-Men stand in for an oppressed minority, complete with the conflict between Professor X's integrationist philosophy and Magneto's more militant position, is so entrenched in its reception that it ceases to be subtext (even if it is not true). Comic books were at least in the eighties, both in their culture and in their content, stories of the misunderstood, the maligned, and the excluded. 

One could raise two questions about this mythology. The first has to do with the allegorical distance of framing the stories of marginalization and exclusion through such science fiction content as genetic mutation, or, in other contexts, alien visitors or androids. In some sense these science fiction elements set up the necessary allegorical distance to make the stories palpable as entertainment. The condition of possibility is the condition of impossibility, however, in that the detouring of exclusion and marginalization through such allegories as the "mutant menace" always made it possible that some readers would miss the point. That people actually did is demonstrated by the twitter posts that ask in all sincerity "When did X become political?" where the X in question is some bit of pop culture such as X-Men or Star Trek that was always steeped in political subtexts. Such posts miss the point, but the possibility of missing the point is inscribed in the text in question and is a necessary condition of its popularity. Of course there are comics, television shows, and books that bridged this allegoric divide, more directly connecting the fictional exclusion of mutants and aliens with the actual history of oppression, but they are to some extent exceptions. There is something awkward, however, when the history of imagined exclusions confronts the real history of discrimination. There are the moments when we realize that the Nazis were an actual political ideology, and not just bad guys that seem ready for the four color word of comics. 

Second, and more importantly, one could argue that the marginalization I felt at the time was slight and temporary, I was (and remain) a white cis male, after all, and being bullied after school, or made fun of in the back of the bus, is nothing compared to what other adolescents face, nor does it really deserve a place in the ongoing history of persecution and discrimination. However, becoming an outcast of sorts, a nerd, and later a punk, can be understood as a becoming minor in Deleuze and Guattari's sense. For Deleuze and Guattari majority and minor are not simply quantitative matters, but the relation between constant and variable. As Deleuze and Guattari write, 

"Majority implies a constant, of expression or content, serving as a standard measure by which to evaluate it. Let us suppose that the constant or standard is the average adult-white-heterosexual-European-male-speaking a standard language. It is obvious that “man” holds the majority even if he is less numerous than mosquitos, children, women, blacks, peasants, homosexuals, etc. That is because he appears twice, once in the constant and again in the variable from which the constant is extracted.”

Since we are speaking of comic books, it is worth noting that superhero comics themselves illustrate this majority, not just in the proliferation of various prefixes appearing before the world "man"," bat, super, iron, spider, etc., man is the constant, the norm, but in the fact that white and male is the unstated norm from which the first "black," "Asian," or gay superhero takes their meaning. Marvel comics in particular does not bother to create new characters and superpowers it is enough to add "-woman" or "she" to Spider or the Hulk to create a new character. The deviations appear meaningful because the norm is assumed. One could say there is both a majoritarian and minoratian element to comics, they are minor in terms of their themes, variations on how to manage a damaged identity, but their characters are still majoritarian, still working from the unstated standard of male, white, straight, etc., 

This reliance on the major in the minor begins to illustrate the limits of the social justice dimension I alluded to above, I think that becoming a comics nerd is itself a kind of becoming-minor. To quote Deleuze and Guattari again, 

"Minorities, of course, are objectively definable states, states of language, ethnicity, or sex with their own ghetto territorialities, but they must also be thought of as seeds, crystals of becoming whose value is to trigger uncontrollable movements and deterritorializations of the mean or majority."

Not to be too autobiographical, but I would describe my entire life as a passage through different minorities, different subcultures, comics, punk, philosophy, etc., all of these where very different territories, with different languages and cultures, but the overall movement was an attempt to evade majority, to not be the constant, a position which Deleuze and Guattari argue, is all the more oppressive because it is occupied by no one. If all of this language of major and minor seems a bit baroque, then I am reminded of a passage from Deleuze and Guattari that seems uncharacteristically direct. After a few lines that state "There is no subject of the becoming except as a deterritorialized variable of the majority; there is no medium of becoming except as a deterritorialized variable of a minority," they bring up a historical/literary example, writing, "As Faulkner said, to avoid ending up a fascist there was no other choice but to become black." This cuts through the particular neologism to make the stakes clear. Such an assertion has a lot to unpack, but I would argue here that a lot of subcultures, especially those that embrace their deviations and exclusions from the mainstream and are, it is worth saying primarily but not exclusively white, are attempts to avoid becoming fascist, to avoid being part of the majority. You cannot change the color of your skin, but you can change the color of your hair, and that seems like enough especially if it gets the same people to hate you. That is my all too glib summation of some of the politics of punk aesthetics. 

My main reason for bringing up this little theory of subcultures, as well as the subtext of comic books, now is that it seems to have completely exhausted itself. Comic books, or, more to the point, superheroes, have gone from the margins of our culture to the center. They are the dominant culture, have become majoritarian, and as much as one would like to think that they have carried with it their fundamental minoritarian political aspect the opposite seems to be the case. Love of mutants and other imaginary minorities has not extended to a support for actually existing marginalized groups, but has been mobilized to not only perpetuate exclusions but to become the voice of the majority.

In part this happens through the politics of nostalgia, which demands that the present, the film adaptation, identically recalls the past, which in this case means that the film must resemble comics written in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, complete with the racial politics of those eras.  There have been online freak outs over the casting of Idris Elba to play Heimdall in Thor, of John Boyega playing a central role in Star Wars, of Moses Ingram appearing in Obi Wan Kenobi. These deviations from some supposed canon have all been met with vicious online hate campaigns that have led actors to shut down accounts and retreat from the digital public sphere. The demand to preserve the sanctity of one's childhood memories has led to absolute hostility towards any of the social change that has happened since one was a child. Lest this all seem incredibly minor (in the conventional sense) and all too online, I would argue that this cultural nostalgia, the demand that the present match the past, has been thoroughly weaponized into MAGA nostalgia. 

This hostility is not limited to changes to the canon, but is extended to include even new characters and stories that do not so much recast or change past memories but create new ones. Both Ms. Marvel and She Hulk have been "review bombed" on online review sites, hit with a flurry of negative reviews almost before they air primarily for the crime of casting a muslim woman or a woman in a comic book themed show. There seems to be an entire online niche of people who hate Brie Larson for not only playing Captain Marvel, but for speaking up for diversity in film and film criticism. We live in an age in which a film that was basically an hour and half long recruitment advertisement for the Air Force is seen by its critics as too woke, too concerned with social justice, because of its cast. All of this criticism coalesces in the online mantra, "Get Woke, Go Broke" which threatens companies and brands with boycotts for embracing "social justice."

The world of comic book fans has been no less critical of those who criticize their beloved films for their artistic merits. Martin Scorsese famously declared that Marvel films are not cinema, and he has been ridiculed online ever since. It is not enough that these films, the Marvel films, be commercially dominant, being the most financially successful films that are released each year, and culturally dominant, reshaping all of popular culture in their image, they also most be loved and revered by everyone. Dissent cannot be tolerated. Blockbusters must be acknowledged as art. 

It is at this point that we get our bizarro world inversion of the comic book nerd. The fan of comic book movies is now something of a "sore winner," who continues to act the victim, marginalized, even in his dominance. I would argue that this "sore winner" idea is integral to our contemporary version of the majority, and even fascism to recall the quote about Faulkner. We are far from Deleuze and Guattari's image of a majority that is all the more powerful in being unstated, in being assumed, now dominance, cultural, political, and economic, focuses on its apparent marginalization in order precisely to reassert its dominance. The inversion is not just that comic books have gone  from margins to mainstream, but that marginalization has gone from being the basis of empathy to an expression of dominance. Victimhood is the language of domination. The bizarro world that we are living in is not just that what was once the obsession of a few has become the culture of many, that Moon Knight is now practically a household name, but that grievance against perceived marginalization has become the language of the majority. 

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