I read a lot of superhero comics growing up. And so, I was intrigued when I came across David Graeber’s brilliant essay Super Position, which dissects the super hero genre — comics and movies both — in order to expose the world view these stories propagate.
Most superhero stories follow the same basic pattern: a bad guy begins a project of world conquest or destruction. The hero finds out about it and seeks to stop the bad guy, and eventually succeeds at the last possible moment. Everything returns to normal until the next bad guy (or even the same bad guy) shows up with a new plan.
It’s a variant of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Man in hole” theory: Man falls into hole. Man struggles to get out of the hole. He succeeds. The end. In short: Trouble occurs, and the hero needs to rise to the occasion to fix it. As Graeber writes:
These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own (..) In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.
Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas.
Graeber points out that the superheroes are always seeking to maintain the status quo, even though the status quo is not by any means fair or just in its own right. It’s as if they don’t have the imagination to think of how things could be changed for the better.
Reading this, I realized that this is a fundamental pattern: It’s easier to say what you don’t want than what you want. It’s easier to point out the problems with other people’s solutions than it is to suggest your own. It’s easier to rally to fight something you disagree with that it is to organize around a shared vision of what could be. In short: Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.
It is easier to imagine yourself as a superhero fighting crime than it is to imagine yourself living in a society where there’s no crime to fight. And it is even harder to imagine how you can help bring about such a society.
It is easier to fight the symptoms rather than the root cause. It’s easier to give to a charity than wonder why charity exists in the first place. As the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Imagination is a very sensitive thing. If you think too much about how things could be different, you tend to get bummed out about how impossible it seems to change them. And if you tell people around you how you’d like things to be different, they might call you a dreamer or a communist or a utopianist. And they’ll probably laugh at you.
In a way, we’re all just super-villains with low self-esteem. We’re so unused to imagining how the world could be any different that it takes a lot of courage even to try. And even more so when we decide to act upon our ideas to affect the change we want to see in the world.
And so, our efforts tend to be humble: A party. A conference. A rally. A culture centre. A food coop. A co-working space. A magazine. A website. A free software project: Projects that can be started up with a minimum of money with a little spare time. Not just to minimize the risks of failure but also to minimize the risk of ridicule.
But even though these projects are humble, we must remember that every such effort is monumental: They are acts of imagination. Attempts at creating something new that challenges the status quo. Something new that we want to be part of. Something that we can point to and say “We want more things like this” instead of always opposing the things we don’t want. Such projects allow for bolder dreams and higher hopes. It gives us the courage to imagine. And to act.