Uneven Apocalyptic Anxiousness: Nostalgia, Stranger Things, and the End of the Present in Popular Culture.

According to Fredric Jameson the current world is marked by the fact that we live in a “…pure present without a past or future” This present tense sense of the modern world is not because a past and a future do not exist, but because the postmodern cultural tools of advanced capitalism have constructed a fiction of an always repeating present and we, as media and cultural consumers, devour this timeless fiction. Of course, as any consumer of culture know, films, television, and books regularly rely on historically rooted stories—from period pieces, to nostalgic films, to science fiction—in the narrative structure, and tropes. But Jameson contends that these products are not about expressing or envisioning the future, per say, but about engaging with current anxieties, fears, and desires. The past and the future, in the post-modern moment, is a projection of the present.

The present-tense vision of postmodernity has always been threatened by the harsh realities of ecological limits and attempts to address historically situated atrocities, like slavery and native genocide, but commodification of time, as Guy Debord argues in Society of the Spectacle, make historical arguments nearly impossible. We consume and are consumed in the present and the past and the future are digestif’s to settle our stomachs. But the spectacle of comfortable consumption is increasingly breaking down as ecological limits, political corruptions, and harsh economic reality foreclose the dream of retirement, home ownership, or even paying back student loans While the Sex Pistols first screamed that there is “no future, no future for you” in the 1970s, the truth has only recently become clear. While apocalyptic fears and end of the world anxieties have existed in the past—such as the fear of nuclear holocaust during the cold war—the current versions of this anxiety seem to point at a break in the traditional understanding of time within the postmodern cultural theory. Nostalgia and futurism are shifting and changing as the catastrophic impacts of climate change have begun to appear unevenly in the present but seemingly universally on the horizon. The past, carbon emissions, and the future, ecological catastrophe, are collapsing onto the future. But the cultural response to these changes is not universal. Social and political positioning seems to impact the ways in which we, as a society, engage with the potential end of our “current way of life.”

In this article, I argue that the nostalgic turn towards the 1980s—both for directorial influence and for setting—in contemporary science fiction, best exemplified by Stranger Things is actually a projection of anxiety and of a perceived impending catastrophe existing on the horizon. The 1980s nostalgia of Stranger Things represents a white suburban (or newly urbanized) anxiety of the future world without us project backwards to the 1980s.

Part 1: The Politics of Nostalgia and Futurism

Walter Benjamin wrote “The work of memory collapses time.” The future is the accrued collected debris of history and our memory of the past is, always, a retelling. A fiction. The power of the past, of the narratives that define our collective direction, is coming into direct conflict with the warnings of the future. Climate scientists have, for decades now, warned of the future catastrophe of climate change, but new research is showing that those impacts are starting sooner than predicted, and the doom of the future, seems to be a central aspect of contemporary American political and media culture. To understand the ways in which the past, and the future, are being political mobilized, this section will start by exploring the academic work and discussions around the concept of nostalgia, focusing on Fredric Jameson engagement on “Nostalgia for the present” and Svetlana Boym’s “Restorative” and “reflective” version of nostalgia.

Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism or, the cultural logic of late capitalism (1992) developed a theory of how nostalgia functions within the postmodern era-which he defines through its use of pastiche and its reliance on historicity. In his work, Jameson contends that nostalgia plays an important role in postmodern politics, as a form of pacifying the present through a consumerist consumption of a mythical past. As he writes, “Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future (although its various forms use such representations): it can first and foremost be defined as a perception of the present as history; that is, as a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it and allows us that distance from immediacy which is at length characterized as a historical perspective” (Jameson 1992: 284). In effect, the nostalgic film or literary work, constructs an image of the past that is rooted in the concerns of the present; often as a way of displacing the cultural anxieties of the present and instead producing a mythical past based on a sense of security, wonder, and happiness. Expressing this he states that “For it is by way of so-called nostalgia films that some properly allegorical processing of the past becomes possible: it is because the formal apparatus of nostalgia films has trained us to consume the past in the form of glossy images that new and more complex “postnostalgia” statements and forms become possible” (Jameson 1992: 287). This consumption of the glossy past means that the narratives of nostalgia are not meant to unsettle but to comfort, to provide a sense of order and balance to us, in the present. He notes that, for the 1980s, this nostalgic turn was to the 1950s, where visions of the small newly suburban small town came to define the quintessential happy and safe life of the time. This focus on the small autonomous town helps displace the current anxiety around the expansion of global economic markets and the decreasing power of the local in relation to the global. In effect, nostalgia is always rooted in class politics and class anxiety. As pressure increase on “the middle class” nostalgic images of the idealized past provide both a political vision of the future and a comfort. In addition, as many have noted, this nostalgic turn to the past is often rooted in a white supremacist imagination of white picket fences and white faces. With race and class being so intertwined in the American experience, the racial dimension of nostalgia is essential.

The logic of nostalgia, to Jameson, is also linked to the narrative of anxiety around the future that typifies contemporary science fiction. He writes that:

If catastrophic “near-future” visions of, say, overpopulation, famine, and anarchic violence are no longer as effective as they were a few years ago, the weakening of those effects and of the narrative forms that were designed to produce them is not necessarily due only to overfamiliarity and overexposure; or rather, this last is perhaps also to be seen as a modification in our relationship to those imaginary near futures, which no longer strike us with the horror of otherness and radical difference. (Jameson 1992, 285-286)

In other words, the constant reliance of tropes of overpopulation, famine, and the breakdown of social order, as the only vision of the future offered, combined with a mythical nostalgic past, means that, in the postmodern era, that the past and the future are both foreclosed and held hostage to the present. Or as he says it: “what is implied is simply an ultimate historicist breakdown in which we can no longer imagine the future at all, under any form- Utopian or catastrophic” (Jameson 1992, 286). Thus, the role of nostalgia is part of a broader, historicity project that is designed to pull politics into an endless present, devoid of utopia, or catastrophic futures; to naturalize the here and now and copy and paste that into the future.

In contrast to the more cultural studies and theoretical work for Jameson, Svetlana Boym (2001) engages with the lived history of nostalgia as it functioned in soviet, and post-soviet cultures. In her analysis, nostalgia is a more nuanced and complicated concept that has a tendency to either promote a reactionary or liberatory impulse. The first tendency of nostalgia, she refers to as restorative. This version of nostalgia, which seems to be the foundational basis of nationalist myth making does not often view itself as nostalgia but, instead, as an assertion of truth and fact. This is a form of nostalgia that “rebuilds monuments” (p. 41). At the core of this approach is an attempt to invent a historical tradition that serves the purpose of the present. This form of nostalgia is not “…a creation ex-nihilo or a pure act of social constructivism; rather, it builds on the sense of loss of community and cohesion and offers a comforting collective script for individual longing” (Boym 2001: 42). In constructing national myth and narratives, often through the embrace of conspiratorial anxiety around the “lose” of greatness of a nation, this approach to nostalgia, inherently, uses the past as a reactionary device for present politics.

The second tendency, what Boym calls, reflective nostalgia, is on that “…lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and time” (Boym 2001: 41). This approach to nostalgia is not about national myths but collective memory. Boym writes that, “Re-flection suggests new flexibility, not the re-establishment of stasis. The focus here is not on recovery of what is perceived to be absolute truth but on the meditation of history and time” (Boym 2001: 49). This form of nostalgia is less collective and more individualistic in its assertion then restorative nostalgia; is more playful and ironic; and built upon narratives of pastiche. In effect, this is a similar description of what Jameson means by postmodern nostalgia, which is rooted in pastiche and historicity, but unlike Jameson Boym contends that this version of nostalgia is not inherently pacifying but is an assertion that critical thinking and longing can be interwoven.

For this paper, these two different thinkers and their understanding of nostalgia is, maybe sacrilegiously, going to be combined and flattened together, with pieces of both erupting from the crushed corpse left in the wake. Nostalgia, here, will be understood as a projection of contemporary social and political values and anxieties backwards in time, but unlike Jameson, nostalgia (or any temporal politics) is not about foreclosing engagement with the future, it will be understood as having both a reactionary (reconstructive) tendency that re-inscribes the inequalities and social power of the present, while also opening up space for critical engagement and irony that allows for an unraveling of the contemporary social and political relationships. This dialectical struggle in nostalgia between reactionary and critical tendencies develops a much more complex and nuanced political project then the critical theory influenced analysis often found within Jameson.

Part 2: Stranger Things and White Anxiety of the World Without Us

            While Hollywood has, from its beginning, exploited nostalgic images and settings—from Birth of a Nations glorifying reimaging of the birth of the KKK to Back to the Futures longing for small town 1950s life—over the last few years we have seen a unique strand of nostalgia emerging. Shows like Stranger Things have begun to look back to the 1980s by collapsing the nostalgia for the time period with a nostalgic desire to replicate a specific directorial form, in this case pastiche homage of early Spielberg, Carpenter, and other 1980s science fiction and horror directors with the long standing “child adventure” genre, typified by Goonies and Stand by Me. While previous attempts to Hollywood nostalgia have often looked to retell a comforting story of a lost past, filled with security and simplicity, as a panacea (or contrast) to the complexity and shifting social terrain of the present; the new turn to sci-fi horror nostalgia, looks back to the 1980s and, while creating a rose-colored view of certain aspects of the 1980s, also places horror, danger, and possible annihilation, not security and comfort, at the core of the decade. This is not a nostalgia that is meant to only make us longingly look back to the past, but on that is doing something much more.

While, most analysis of the nostalgic politics of Stranger Things have argued, like Myke Bartlett that, “it feeds the sort of backwards-looking resentment currently driving nationalist movements across the globe. When Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’, he was referring to that ‘national history’ that doesn’t (and never did) exist” in this section I argue that, this series is also about projecting a contemporary anxiety of climate change, social dislocation, and political collapse. In this instance, the nostalgic politics of Stranger Things takes this future anxiety and pushes it to the past, using the temporal shift of postmodernism to blend future, present, and past. Instead of imagining life in the future as a “world without us,” to borrow a concept by Eugene Thacker, the series explores our future struggle with an indifferent, destructive, and hostile nature by linking it to a nostalgic past. Like most nostalgia this series “…brings comfort when the present offers little” but it does so in a way does not embrace a reactionary and conservative politics of the past, but instead places the horror of the future in the past actions of the US State.

Stranger Things, the 2016, surprise hit for the streaming service Netflix, tells the story of a covert government conspiracy turned tragedy in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983. The story begins when Will Byers disappears into another dimension, referred to as the “up-side-down” after playing Dungeons and Dragons with his close friends Dustin, Lucas, and Mike. Unknown to the group of kids, or Will’s mother, Joyce and brother Jonathan, Will’s disappearance is due to the actions of a cold-war era government experiment, which included the kidnapping and experimentation on children. This government experiment led to a monster, which the boys refer to as a Demogorgon—a powerful monster in Dungeons and Dragons—, escaping and hunting both Will in the upside down and other children in the real world. By accidentally meeting one of the escaped experimented children, Eleven, who just happens to have psychic powers as a result of the government testing, the group of boys and her work together with Will’s mother and brother, some fellow high school students—who lost a friend Barb to the monster—and the local Sheriff to track down Will and destroy the Demogorgon. The first season ends with Will being saved and the Demogorgon being destroyed, though seemingly through the self-sacrifice of Eleven, but the Will that returns has been corrupted by the Upside down and seems to flip back and forth between the two dimensions. The second season continues Will’s horrific journey and introduce a “shadow monster,” another being from the Upside down that is committed to invading and, seemingly, destroying life on our dimension. The monster, invades Will’s body, and once again the team, with the addition of Max—a new student in town who just moved from LA with her brother and stepmother—needs to come together to both safe Will, destroy the new monster, and this time close up the gate that links our world to the other dimension. While the second season ends on a seemingly high note, as all the kids get to experience their first boy-girl school dance and, for Will, Eleven, Lucas, and Max, their first kiss, a horror is lurking over this celebratory good time, as the Shadow monster is shown looming over the school from the upside down (see image 2).


Image 2: Shadow monster looking down at the school dance from the upside down

While most of the accounts of the series, and its use of nostalgia, have critically looked at the reimagining of life in the 1980s, highlighting the relatively progressive vision of race, gender, and homosexuality that exists within the core group, effectively erasing the legacy of structural injustice and bigotry from the 1980s, in this I want to focus on the “upside down.” The upside down, the other dimension that the government experiment opened up, is shown as a world that mirrors the structure of our world but seemingly exists without humans, but with the remnants of humans’ civilization (see image 3). The post-apocalyptic landscape of the upside down shows buildings, overtaken with fungal growth, tendrils of organic material, air filled with spore like pollen, and devoid of natural sun light (the scenes are all cast in a cold blue or an unnerving dark red). When discussing the upside down in season 1, episode 5 they describe the place as:

Mike: What was Will saying? “Like home… like home…” but dark?

Lucas: And empty.

Dustin: Empty and cold… wait, did he say cold?…..

Mike: Upside down. When El showed us where Will was, she flipped the board over, remember? Upside down: dark, empty.

The upside down, while being an abandoned and inhospitable version of Hawkins, only has a few overlapping connections to the human dimension: lights, which flicker; the gate at the military base; \ the mental power of Eleven; and the Demogorgon, who can seemingly flip between the two.


Image 3: Image of Hawking, Indiana from the upside down

I contend that the upside down represents what Eugene Thacker calls “the world without us.” To Thacker there are three levels of perspective that one can take in understanding the world at large. The first, and most narrow, is the anthropocentric visions, or the “world with us,” it is the world that “we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to our feel alienated from, the world that we are once apart of and also separate from humans” (Thacker 2011: 4). This world is not as sealed and solid as our cognitive frames would like to believe and regularly the creatures we share the world with; and the natural forces we have to live with; force a vulnerability, a biting back, against us. This is a reminder that the world with us, primarily lives in our minds, and that in reality, the world we live on—i.e., earth—has countless other creatures and forces—both living and not—within it. The decentered human world, is the “world within itself.” But, to Thacker, there is another world, a world that if we take a step further back into the cosmic, highlights the relative unimportance of the human. The universe, the cold and uncaring void, that our planet exists within has no concern about human life, and the actions of humans are insignificant and meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos. From the perspective of the world without us, human action is unnoticeable and when we cease to exist, when extinction sets in, the universe will not even notice the loss of our species. These three spaces—the world with us, is human centered, the focus is the self; the world in itself, focuses on the planet, a frame that understands the importance and impact of humans on the ecosystems but which also understands the limitations of human power; and the final frame, which takes the perspective of the cosmos, in which the earth, and all the living beings on it, are cosmically meaningless.

While, this might seem like an abstract perspective that has little importance for contemporary political debates, but the current scientific knowledge of climate science and the catastrophic potential of a six degree warming, which is within possibility by 2100; the complete lack, if not retrenchment, of international action by politicians; and the already existing impacts of climate change throughout the globe—from increased flooding and draughts, to powerful hurricanes and other extraordinary weather events has forced contemporary societies to, at least unconsciously, begin to think about the planet Earth existing without us.[1] The nihilistic humor of millennials, from the tide pod challenge to memes about the end of the world, highlight the ways in which, at least younger generations, are dealing with the possibility of extinction. The emotional anxiety of grappling with the implications of the world without us can then be seen as one a central source of existential ennui. For most of white America, the possibility of not mattering, of decentering their power, and the disintegration of the currently functioning world of us, is, correctly, seen as a catastrophe, if not necessarily an apocalypse.[2] I contend that the nostalgic placing of Stranger Things in the 1980s serves as a way of displacing the current anxiety of the future into a horrific narrative that is set in the past.

The location of the show, in both geography and time, is not inconsequential to the impact of the film on a political unconscious level. To begin with, the series takes place within the suburban, small town, of Hawkins Indiana. This focus on the small suburban town can be seen as a nostalgic appeal to small suburban life, but I contend that it has a more complicated and critical importance. By focusing on the suburbs, the film centers the source of the horror, in the primary location of white, middle-class, America. The suburb, a product of decades of US racial housing policies, not only decimated the urban core of most big cities, it also helped develop a conception of whiteness that, from the 1950s on, has defined the “American dream.” The fact that cast is primarily white, with the exception of Lucas and his family, has been a source of derision by critics, who feel the show has erased the racial dimension of the 1980s, but in reality, it helps bring the racial, and class aspects, forward. The suburb, as source of the horror is only contrasted by the few scenes of the show that take place in Cities, primarily the episode 7 in Season two in which Eleven meets her “sister” in the government experimentation, Kali Prasad (eight). The multi-racial punk rebels in the city, use the government given powers to “fight back” against the government agency, and the complicit doctors and staff that tortured children under the guise of national security. The city is a source of resistance against the government power; the suburb is the epicenter of the horror, it is a defensive place, where at best the horror can be kept under wraps for the time being.

In addition, by setting the show in 1983 the temporal cause of the horror is linked to the past, primarily the past actions of a conservative government, and the suicidal struggle that existed between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. While the real cause of climate change, or the Anthropocene, is much earlier—either starting during the nuclear era in the 1950s, or the development of industrial capitalism in the late 17th century—by locating the breach of the world without us in the pro-corporate, national security driven, politics of 1980s neo-conservatism, the show correctly places the blame on previous generations, not the current one, for the crisis. In addition, the show focuses on the short-term thinking and selfish behavior of the government officials for causing and exploiting the crisis, both for career and also nationalist reasons.

Finally, by making the primary victims of the series, children (both Will and Barb), it focuses on the generational violence of climate change. The show, which was especially popular with millennials, portrayed them (and future generations) in the characters of Will, Mike, Lucas, Winston, and Eleven. In doing so, they highlight that the action of their parents, and previous generations, will primarily impact them, while in addition, they are going to be the primary actors who have any chance to stop or slow down the horror.

Overall, the suburban 1980s location of Hawkins, places the story as being centered on white America and blaming the conservative, cold war, politics of the 1980s. In addition, the upside down, the horror at play, represents our current cultural anxiety of their existing a world without us that decenters the current world, destroying the social, political institutions of contemporary society.

Part 3: Anthropocene Monsters

 While the primary existential horror in Stranger Things is about the world without us and the possibility of human extinction and the destruction of our current way of life, due to either ecological and political breakdown, the primary antagonists in the film, the Demogorgon, Demo-dogs, and the shadow monster all emerge from the upside down, but are themselves really “Anthropocene” monsters, or ecological monsters that symbolically, and often literally, represent the world fighting back against the human wrecked violence on the world. The Anthropocene monster has their legacy in two different horror genres. First, the 1970s eco-horror genres of the 1970s and 1980s, where ecological crisis lead to violent impacts on human society, but differ from that earlier genre in that monsters are not, toxins that cause zombification, but are embodied nature, given agency. Secondly, the cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian tradition, which decenters the importance of human, by showing beings that are nearly unstoppable and, violently, indifferent to human society. In addition, the Lovecraftian genre constructs a monstrous “other” whose cognitive process is completely non-human. The function of the Anthropocene monster, is linked to the idea of the world without us, and represents an anxiety of a force greater than us, that is both indifferent towards our continued existence.

The primary monster of the first season, the Demogorgon (see image 4), hunts Will throughout the upside down and terrorizes Hawkins before being defeated by Eleven. The Demogorgon, look resembles the visual motif of the upside down, with its cold colors, vine, fungus, moss, and vegetal quality. The monster, as shown has a bipedal body but with a head that resembles an open flower, but a flower filled with teeth. The vegetal quality of the monster, combined with the more traditional animalistic aspect, creates an unnerving hybrid creature that blurs the line between plants and animals, in much the same way that the image of the cyborg queers the borders between technological and biological. The blurring between plant and animal is made even more obvious in Season 2 when we are introduced to the Demo-dogs, the juvenile stage of development for the monster. This pre-adult stage shows a dog looking creature, which acts and seems to mimic dog behavior, which has the teethed flower head. Both stages of the monsters’ development, represents a hybrid nature monster that, relates to humans, not through animus or anger, but as a hunter stalking and searching out food. If monsters are meant to represent, in horror films, the primary source of anxiety, then the Demogorgon seems to represents an anxiety of a violent nature decentering and replacing humans, and highlighting the fragile position of “supremacy” we hold in the world.


Image 4: Demogorgon

In the second season the main monster is the Shadow Monster (see image 5). The shadow monster, which we never see outside of its silhouette, is a fog assemblage monster that seems to lack any formal physical structure. Unlike the Demogorgon, the shadow monster is not a revanchist animal/plant hybrid fighting back against human society, but a hive minded virus, seeking to expand, conquer, and control. In this season, the Shadow Monster, haunts Will—who randomly falls back into the upside down during his days—until he finally is able to capture and enter Will’s body. After entering Will, the Shadow Monster increasingly gains control over Will’s mind and body, working to undermine his friends as they try to save him, while also being a conduit that binds the Shadow Monster to this plane. While in the hospital at the security government research center, the doctors claim that the virus like nature of the Shadow Monster was increasingly swallowing up and control Will’s brain much like the zombie fungus that can control the mind and body of Ants. In addition to Will, the Shadow Monster, also appears to have some form of either control, or connection, to the Demo-dog and Demogorgon’s of the Up Side Down, making it the mastermind species, the elder god (in Lovecraftian language) that seeks to replace our world with the world without us.

In addition, to just conquering Will’s mind, the Shadow Monster is also building a network of tunnels throughout our world (see image 6), emerging from the breach underneath the government research center. The inside of these tunnels resembles the upside down, filled with fungal and tendril like plant growth, pollen and spores floating throughout the air, and a dark blue light drowning out all other lights. These tunnels flow throughout the town of Hawkins’ killing all organic plant life that uses the soil above it survive. The season begins with competing pumpkin farmers believing that their competitor is trying to poison their crops, while in reality the tunnels are built, and growing, slowly trying to take over the world with us, and replace it with the upside down.

The Shadow Monster in this season appears, not as a physically threatening Anthropocene monster, like the Demogorgon from Season one, but instead is a viral fear. The Shadow Monster’s viral qualities not only infected Will, taking over his mind and body, but nearly kills the Sheriff, who is hospitalized after contact with the spores, and also kills all organic plant life that uses soil near its tunnels. As a viral plague, the shadow monster represents the increasingly growing threat, due to the anthropocentric climatic changes, of expanding tropical disease ranges and, potentially, of long dormant ancient diseases being released from its cold arctic cocoon.


Image 5: Shadow Monster


Image 6: impact of shadow monster on the world

Overall, the threats posed in Stranger Things seasons 1 and 2 are Anthropocene monsters; monsters that represent, both symbolically but also aesthetically, ecological fears that are only growing do to climate change. The monsters in horror stories are often expressions of a cultural anxiety, or at least an anxiety to a sub-group of the population. In this case, the monsters of Stranger Things, represents the fear of a potential world without us. This fear is most commonly associated with cultural fear of catastrophic climate change, which has led to what E. Ann Caplan (2015) refers to as “pre-trauma.” This pre-trauma, and the anxiety around the world without us is not equally shared. The nostalgic motifs of the 1980s and the suburban setting help set the stage for what group’s pre-trauma Stranger Things is trying to placate: white middle-class suburban America. While other demographics are seriously concerned about climate change—in fact, polling of white America shows the least concern among any racial demographic; and are more likely to see the dangers of climate change as a future problem, not a current problem (Yale Project on Climate Change 2010)—other racial communities, do to the legacy of white supremacy in the United States, are in a different social position and therefore have different cultural reactions to the decline of US power, the change in lifestyle that is needed to either mitigate or adopt to climate change, or even the radical change/destruction of American society. While it maybe said that most white Americans fear a coming dystopia, or catastrophe, many other groups of people current are already leaving in a dystopian world, marked by disproportional prison sentencing, police murders, economic dislocation, and increased government surveillance. For those communities living in catastrophic times already, there is no need to project the fear of the future backwards, as a form of nostalgia.

Part 4: Uneven visions of the apocalypse.         

Capitalism proceeds under the logic that there is never ending progress without transformation or change. Every generation has better technology, better standards of living, less crime, and more efficient machines, but at its core, it assumes that the social relationships between people, and most importantly the economic relationships, will never change. They are preordained as natural. With the social relationships of the present naturalized, and the prospects of a different future foreclosed by capitalist logic, it makes sense why Jameson assumes that “It is easier to imagine the end of the world as it is an end to capitalism.” In a sense though, the end of the world, is the end of capitalism; and vice versa. When we think about the apocalypse, we often think about it meaning the end of the world, the apocalypse only represents the end of the present; the transformation of the world into something drastically different. The word means, “to reveal,” and is about revealing the truth; showing the contradictions of the present order so that they maybe negated. It is the exact opposite of the capitalist logic of time. Instead of focusing on a never ending technological progress, with social and economic relationships cast into the future forever; the apocalypse, at least in modern sci-fi and horror, sees a drastic decrease in technological and material wellbeing, but with that the end of our current social and economic relationships, and a space for new relationships—post-racial, post-patriarchal, and post-capitalist—to emerge. From the perspective of capital, the state, and those positioned at the type half of the current pyramid scheme, the apocalypse is something fear and something to constantly project into the future. But climate change is really the collapsing of past, present, and future. The impacts of climate change are already being felt. The warming waters, melting ice, more powerful and unpredictable storms, mud cracking droughts, and the teeming floods show that future is already here. We live, and maybe always have, lived in catastrophic times. A catastrophe is the “…end without revelation, a historical void, and end road that cannot point beyond itself” (Williams 2010: 4). A catastrophe does not provide as any answer, uncover any truth, or provide any possibility, path, or prospectus of a world beyond. But buried beneath the rubble of every catastrophe is the truth of the apocalypse. Politically, the goal is to bring forth the apocalypse from the current catastrophe’s that surround us; to reveal the truth of the present; we most become “post-apocalyptic,” which only happens “…when we accept the present as rubbish, as undead, and as under attack” (Williams 2011: 9)

[1] It is important to note that not all people on our planet are given the social, political, and ontological position of full human membership. For instance, the thinkers within the afro-pessimist school of thought have argued that blackness exists, ontologically, as the opposite of “humanity.” This means that the black can never be fully incorporated into the human category, within our current ontological world. This lack of full humanness, allows black bodies to experience “social death” that is part of the reason that black America has to demand white America to understand that “black lives matters.” The visceral response to that, relatively minor message, only further highlights the exclusion that black Americans face from the category of the human.

[2] For this paper, I want to distinguish between a catastrophe, which is a crises, decline, or destruction of the current world that does not lead to any transformative social and political changes and does not address, or reveal, fundamental truths or contradictions. The apocalypse, on the other hand, is thought of as a “revealing,” to link it back to the original concept of the term. As such, an apocalypse would not only destroy, but provide insight into the logic failing for the destruction, and therefore provide space and opportunity for the construction of a new world, free from that contradiction or falsehood.

POS 301w: The Politics of HORROR

POS 301: The Politics of Horror

Course Description:

Horror, one of the most popular genre of films, has often been ignored by critics and theorists for being “low culture,” “shock films,” or “pornographic. That said, over the last few years—especially recently with the critical success of Get Out and the popularity of the Walking Dead, American Horror Story, etc.—horror, as a field of study has gained popularity and credence. Horror is an inherently political genre, and expressly explores a range of topics. The point of this course is to explore the depth of what the horror genre offers political theorists and political scientists. At the core of this course is the assumption that what we fear is due to deep seated anxieties, taboo desires, and unconscious traumas. These emotions, while often assumed to be apolitical, are anything but. The point of this course is to introduce you to the theories, approaches, and lessons of cultural studies in order to provide the skills needed to code and decode films and media.

Due to the nature of subject matter, nearly every film and most—if not all—readings will deal with sensitive topics, extreme violence, nudity and sex (including scenes of violent sexual assault). The films are intentionally hard to watch and some trigger fear, anxiety, and trauma. If you are not willing or able to engage with these topics (which is completely acceptable) it might be worth reconsidering this course. If you decide to commit to the course but find yourself especially triggered by one or two pieces, please make contact and we will make other arrangements.

Course Schedule and Readings:

Part 1: Introduction to Cultural Studies and Horror

Week 1:

Tuesday, January 16: Intro to the class


  • Read the syllabus

Thursday, January 18: Why Horror?


  • Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)


  • Mathias Clasen, Why Horror Seduces, ch. 2 “How Horror Works: The Evolution and stimulation of negative emotions”

Week 2:

Tuesday, January 23rd: Criticism vs. review


  • Iam Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames, Intro: “Nobody asked for a toaster critic: Doing Videogame Criticism.”
  • Ian Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames, ch 3 “The Blue Shell Is Everything That’s Wrong with America”

Thursday, January 25th: Coding and Decoding


  • Psycho (1960)


  • Stuart Hall “Coding and Decoding

Week 3:

Tuesday January 30th: Horror and Liberalism?


  • Elisabeth Anker “The Liberalism of Horror”, Social Research 81, no. 4 (2014)

Part 2: Zombies!

Thursday February 1st: Zombie, history and origin


  • I walked with a Zombie (1943)


  • Ian Olney, Zombie Cinema, ch. 1 “Black Mask, White Zombies”

Week 4:

Tuesday February 6th: Zombies and Political Space


  • Ian Olney, Zombie Cinema, 2 “Consumer Culture”

Thursday February 8th: Zombies and Capitalism


  • Night of the Living Dead (1968)


  • Camilla Fojas, Zombies, Migrants and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture 4 “Zombie Capitalism: Night of the Living Debt

Week 5:

Tuesday, February 13th: Zombies


  • Camilla Fojas, Zombies, Migrants and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture6 “Sinkholes and Seismic Shifts: Ecological and Other Disasters”


Part 3: The Legacy of Slavery and the horror of White Supremacy

Thursday, February 15th: The Horror of Slavery


  • The Girl With All the Gifts (2017)


  • Frank B. Wilderson III, “Blacks and the Master/Slave Relationship” from Afro-Pessimism an Introduction

Week 6:

Tuesday, February 20th:


  • Annalee Newitz, Pretend We are Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Ch. 3 “The Undead: A Haunted Whiteness”

Thursday, February 22nd:


  • Excerpts from Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • Birth of a Nation (2016)


  • Nikhil Singh, “The Whiteness of Police” from American Quarterly Vol. 4 (2014)

Week 7:

Tuesday, February 27th: Race and Social Death




  • Get Out



Part 4: Gender, Misogyny and Agency in Horror

Week 8:

Tuesday, March 6th: Gendered and the Horror Film


  • Cynthia Freeland, “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films” from Film Theory and Criticism, (1996)

Thursday, March 8th: Gender and Agency


  • The Witch (2015)


  • Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, ch. 4 “The Great European Witch-hunt”

Week 9:

Tuesday March 13th: Gender Violence and Women’s Agency


  • Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, ch. 1 “Her Body, Himself”

Thursday, March 15th: Feminist Revenge Films


  • Teeth (2007)


  • Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, ch. 3 “Getting Even”


Week 11:

Tuesday March 27th: Catch-up day



Thursday March 29th: Male Anxiety, Misogyny, and Motherhood


  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968)


  • Lucy Fisher, “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby” from The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film

Week 12

Tuesday, April 3rd: Queer Horror?


  • Sam S. Miller, “Chapter 11. Assimilation and the Queer Monster” from Horror After 9/11

Thursday April 5th: Queer horror


  • The Babadook (2014)



Part 4: Trauma, National Identity, and Horror 

Week 13

Tuesday, April 10th: Horror and National Trauma


  • Adam Lowenstein, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Horror Film, “Introduction: the Allegorical moment”

Thursday: April 12th: Hororrism and War


  • The Devils Backbone (2001)


  • François Debrix, “Horror beyond death: Geopolitics and the Pulverization of the human”, New Formations: A journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, vol 89-90 (2017)

Week 14:

Tuesday April 17th: Horror, Gender, and Islam


  • A Girl Walks Home At Night


  • TBA

Thursday, April 19th: Korean Conflict


  • Train to Busan


  • TBA


Part 5: Capitalism, Anxiety, and Sacrifice

Week 15

Tuesday April 24th: Class, capitalism, and Inequality


  • Purge: Anarchy (2014)


  • Ben Brucato, “An American Exception: The Counter-Insurrectionary Function of the Color Line” from Why Don’t the Poor Rise up?

Thursday April 26th: The end of the world


  • Cabin in the woods


  • Sean Parson “Cthulhuscene: Ecological Catastrophe, Horror, and the Politics of Suvivalism” (DRAFT)


Part 7: Presentations

Week 16: Presentations all week no readings


Syllabus for POS 230: Superheroes and American Political Culture

Below is the course description, list of required texts, and course plan section for my POS 230 syllabus. Any and all feedback on the syllabus would be great, as I am still working and developing this syllabus…and will hopefully turn this into a more permanent intro to cultural studies type class.

POS 230: Superheroes and American Political Culture

Course Description:

Umberto Eco, the famous Italian philosopher, once referred to superheroes as the quintessential American myth. To Eco, superheroes represented American liberalism—from their rabid individualism, commitment to the protestant work ethic, moral certainty and grandeurs of greatness. In this course we will complicate Eco’s claim and explore superhero narratives and stories in order to understand what they tell us about American politics and culture. We will focus our attention on graphic novels, movies and TV series.

From the darkened movie theater to the covers of graphic novels, to videogames, cartoons, lunchboxes, and almost every form of media and merchandise imaginable, superheroes are a ubiquitous presence in popular culture. Yet, while most know what it means to find someone’s “kryptonite” or to stay away when someone is “hulking out”, the political and philosophic content that is so intrinsic to the genre is often ignored. Much like other forms of movies, television, and literature superhero narratives—whether in comic books or in film—provide insight into aspects of cultural values and politics. This course will centralize superhero narratives and explore the complex political and cultural values that be found within the genre. Using the techniques and skills developed by Cultural Studies and American Studies, this class will provide a means for students to plumb the depth of movies, graphic novels, and other forms of media for political meaning.

Required Books:

All required books can be ordered on Amazon and other online book services (such as Powells.com or Amazon.com, which can be much cheaper) and might also be available at the local comic book store CAB comics (1471 S Milton). Please make sure you have the books by the time they are being used in the course. In addition the books can be purchased digitally from multiple sources (I recommend Comixology) and read using a CBZ (or equivalent comic app reader). 

Graphic Novels:

  • Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett, Superman: Red Son (2014)
  • Ta-Nahisi Coates, Black Panther vol. 1
  • Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, amal Igle, Khary Randolph, Black Vol. 1, Black Mask Studios (2017)
  • Kelley Sue Deconnick and Valentino De Landro, Bitch Planet Vol. 1
  • Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, We3
  • Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening

Class Schedule

Part 1: Introduction to Cultural Studies and Superheroes 

Week 1:

Tuesday, January 16: Intro to the class


  • Read the syllabus

Thursday, January 18: Introduction to Superheroes


  • “Our Fascination with Superheroes” in Our Superheroes, Ourselves (eds.) Robin Rosenberg
  • Matthew Costello and Kent Worcester “The Politics of the Superhero” in PS: Political Science & Society, January 2014

 Week 2:

Tuesday, January 23rd: How to do Cultural Studies and Criticism


  • Iam Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames, Intro: “Nobody asked for a toaster critic: Doing Videogame Criticism.”
  • Ian Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames, ch 3 “The Blue Shell Is Everything That’s Wrong with America”

Thursday, January 25th: Doing Cultural Criticism, examples


  • Stuart Hall “Coding and Decoding
  • Annika Hagley and Michael Harrison “Fighting the Battles we Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identity” in PS: Political Science and Politics January 2014


  • Avengers (2012)

Week 3: What is a superhero?

Tuesday January 30th: The early history of comics


  • Bradford W. Wright Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, ch. 1 “Superheroes for the Common Man: The Birth of the Comic Book Industry, 1933-1941”

Thursday February 1st: Superman


  • Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman and first official superhero comic) found at
  • Ben Sanders Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes 1 “Superman: Truth, Justice, and all that stuff?”


  • Superman (1978)

Week 4:

Tuesday February 6th: Complicating the Superhero


  • Ian Gordon, Superman: The persistence of an American Icon,, ch. 2 “Ideology and Morality”

Thursday February 8th: Superman as nationalist hero?

Graphic Novel:

  • Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett, Superman: Red Son (2014)


  • Fredric Wertham, “the Superman conceit” from The Superhero Reader by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester (eds)


Part 2: The Superhero, Political Nationalism, Imperialism, and War

Week 5: Superhero as nationalist icon

Tuesday, February 13th:


  • Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the Nationalist Superheroes, ch 1 “Introducing Nationalist Superheroes”

Thursday, February 15th:                    FIRST FILM CRITICISM DUE


  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2014)


  • Matthew Costello , Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books & The Unmasking of Cold War America, ch. 2 “The Enemy Without: 1961-1968”

Week 6:

Tuesday, February 20th: Gender and American Nationalism


  • Ben Sanders Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes 2 “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Liberation”

Thursday, February 22nd:


  • Wonder Woman (2017)


Week 7:

Tuesday, February 27th: Imperialist Superheroes


  • Chris Gavaler, “The Imperial Superhero” from PS: Political Science 47, Issue 1 (2014)

Thursday February 29th: Military Industrial Complex and Iron Man


  • Iron Man 3 (2013)


  • Scott Jeffery, “The military-Industrial Body” from The Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics (2016)

Week 8:

Tuesday, March 6th: Terrorism and the Superhero narrative


  • Jerrod S. MacFarlane, “Desperate Times and Desperate Measures: False-Representation and distortion of Terrorism in Post-9/11 Superhero Films” from Critical Studies on Terrorism 7, issue 3 (2014)

Thursday: March 8th: The Animal-industrial Complex

Graphic Novel:

  • Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, We3


  • Allison Dushane “We3 and the Violence of Sentimentality” from Superheroes and Critical Animal Studies: The Heroic Beasts of Total Liberation

Week 9: Gender and Horrorism and the Trauma of War


  • François Debrix, “Horror beyond death: Geopolitics and the Pulverization of the human”, New Formations: A journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, vol 89-90 (2017)

Thursday, April 19th: War, Trauma, and Agency

Graphic Novel:

  • Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening



Part 3: Superheroes, Race, and Agency

Week 11:

Tuesday March 27th: The Black Superhero


  • Adilfu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes 1 “Color them Black”

Thursday March 29th:                                    SECOND FILM CRITICISM DUE

Graphic Novel:

  • Ta-Nehisi Coats, Black Panther: A Nation Under our Feet


Week 12

Tuesday, April 3rd: Race


  • Adilifu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, ch. 2 “The Birth of Cool”

Thursday, April 5th: A bullet proof black man

Graphic Novel:

  • Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, amal Igle, Khary Randolph, Black Vol. 1, Black Mask Studios (2017)


  • Kenneth Ghee “Will the ‘Real’ Black Superhero please stand up?!”: A critical Analysis of the mythological and cultural significance of black superheroes” in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (eds) Sheena Howard and Ronald Jackson III


Part 4: Superheroes, Gender, and Resistance 

Week 13

Tuesday, April 10th: Gender Violence and Women’s Agency


  • Carolyn Cocca, Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, introduction “Representation Matters”

Thursday, April 12th:                                      THIRD FILM CRITICISM DUE


  • Jessica Jones (2016) first three episodes


Week 14:

Tuesday April 17th: Feminism and Superheroes


  • Neal Curtis and Valentino Cardo, “Superheroes and thirdwave feminism” from Feminist Media Studies

Thursday April 19th: Gender, Prison and Dystopia

Graphic Novel:

  • Kelley Sue Deconnick and Valentino De Landro, Bitch Planet Vol. 1


  • Ellen Kirkpatrick “you need to learn to see yourself in your fathers’ eyes’: Feminism, Representation and the Dystopian Space of Bitch Planet” from Feminist Review 116, No. 1 (2017)

Part 5: Class, Inequality, and Migration

Week 15

Tuesday April 24th: Class, capitalism, and Inequality


  • Marc DiPaoli, War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and film, 1“Batman as Terrorist, Technocrat, and Feudal Lord”

Thursday April 26th:                                       FOURTH FILM CRITICISM DUE


  • Batman: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


Week 16:
Tuesday May 1st: Catch-up Day


Thursday May 3rd:

Film: Logan


Cthulhuscene: Ecological Catastrophe, Cosmic Horror, and the Politics of Doom

Below is an article draft I just wrote for a conference. I thought it would be interesting to put this up here on my blog, even if it has nothing to do with comics so I can share it easily and get some good feedback from friends!


“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Amid the desolate winds of the Antarctic, the ice sheets strain under the increasing pressure of warming air and water. Cracks start to form, starting off small, and spreading as they fill with water. Soon the ice itself starts to scream in existential dread, weary and assured of its impending fate. Human rarely hear the screams, and when they do, they do not comprehend the pain and meaning behind them. Instead they simply view the ice with a voyeuristic awe, as the fear of what it means to their future collides with the spectacular power of the visuals. But maybe other ears hear the cries, as the sound waves travel through the ocean, playing a symphony of dread for all who care to listen. Piece by piece starts to crumble into the churning water below. With each piece that the calves from the glacier tides rise and thousands of miles away coasts are slowly encroached upon. As the seas rise we learn that: “The Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.”

The arctic is under siege from increasing warming air and water and every year the scientists warn of us the coming catastrophe. The arctic is a warning and with the decreasing ice our prospectus for a stable and safe future diminishes. Like many, the increasing fear of the future has brought forth a feeling of doom in me. At first the horrific news stories filled me with dread. Through the tears I would choke down I would attempt to channel that sadness into rage and that rage into action. But overtime, as the stories continued, and the prospectus for addressing them have decreased I have found it harder and harder to come to terms with the possibilities that are currently likely. As microbiologist Dr. Frank Fenner said in 2010 “Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years… I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off” (O’Callaghan, 2015). While not all scientists agree that the end of humanity is nigh there does seem to be increasing concern from scientists about the likelihood of the world to survive as we know it, from climate change. Expressing this we see the “doom” and “death” spiral graph showing the feedback cycle around both global temperature (image 1) and of the vanishing of ice in the arctic (image 2). Unlike the era of the 1960s activism where the conversation was on utopian imaginaries, or the 1990s anti-globalization movement with their idyllic desires for “other worlds”, today the conversation has shifted towards “doom” and “dystopia.”

What do we do, as theorists and academics, in engaging with this increasingly pessimistic view of the future? Over the last few decades the language and topic of hope has been centralized in the majority of our political and intellectual discussions. The defenders of hope argue that we need hope to provide a light to guide our actions through the darkness and that pessimism is more likely to turn people toward apathy or conservative political projects. As James Davis writes, “From a rhetorical standpoint, catastrophism is a win/win for the right… fear and paranoid serve as rights political predisposition more than the left or liberal on” (Lilley, 2012: 106). Similarly, Rebecca Solnit states that “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope” (Solnit, 2016). This general logic that pessimism breeds conservatism and that liberal or left politics requires hope is at the core of the current tensions and problems we find with the current attempts to engage with the catastrophic possibility of climate change.

This paper argues that instead of turning our eyes away from the horror in front of us that we should embrace the encroaching doom and tackle it head on. This focus on horror is a continuation, and expansion of Eugene Thacker’s trilogy of books on the “horror of philosophy” (Thacker, 2011, 2015a, 2015b) In the beginning to his trilogy, Thacker writes that

The world is an increasingly unthinkable—a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always looming threat of extinction…to confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all—an idea that been a central motif of the horror genre for some time (Thacker, 2011: 1).

Thacker here is correct, the issues we are currently facing have best been engaged with in the genre of horror and, not just any form of horror but the genre of cosmic horror. In making this argument, I am using the metaphor of Cthulhu, the horrific and indifferent God found within the mythos developed by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. This figure, which represents cosmic doom, is also connected to the vile racist, xenophobic, and misogynist, and anti-Semitic politics and fears that guided the writing of Lovecraft. This figure, I feel perfectly represents the Anthropocene better then does any other figure. Cthulhu is a metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the pessimism, fear, and anxiety that currently exists around climate change, and the racial, misogynistic and xenophobic aspects of Lovecraft’s work, sadly also works as a metaphor for the unequal impact of doom that will (and currently is) assuredly coming from the climate crises. In this article, I will begin with an overview of the literature on the Anthropocene and concepts of hope, before exploring a revolutionary politics of doom by combining the theoretical work of the 18th century Russian nihilists and Adorno’s concept of the negative dialectic. I finish the chapter by engaging with the implications of looking to cosmic horror as a way to explore living and acting, as a revolutionary pessimist, in the Cthulhuscene.

Ecological Pessimism in the face of Catastrophe:

There is little debate among the scientific community about if climate change is happening and that it is primarily the cause of human actions, nor is there much debate about the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. What is still up for debate among scientists is if we have already passed a threshold point after which there is no way for human action to keep the climate warmth below the 2 degree Celsius mark (a mark that is still very dangerous for human society and that would require the relocation and potential end to many island nations and cultures). In the face of both the potential catastrophic impact of climate change, and the way that it highlights the power of humans to alter the entire planets ecosystems, the concept of the Anthropocene has emerged within the geological, political and philosophic academic fields. The Anthropocene is a new geologic era defined as the “human centered” era; it is an era in which human action, and not natural process, is the primary force shaping the planet. The concept is not with out controversy and criticism, most notably the concept of the Anthro has been critiqued for “flattening” human differences and moral culpability—allowing all of humanity to take the moral blame and not the small groups that have profited and thrived over ecocide. While the causes of the current era are important to unpack, as are critical exploration of the ways in which “terms” used shape the possibility of politics that exist, for this paper I want to highlight the way that hope is still centered in the discussions of the Anthropocene. For the rest of this section I want to focus on the debates on the concept of hope, despair, and action that exists within the literature on the Anthropocene.

The future is scary and no one knows exactly what the planet will look like by 2100. For Roy Scranton, in his controversial and provocative book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, the potential of the human species is something that we need to not only come to realize is a possibility but that we need to actively accept. Scranton, a soldier who fought for the US in Iraq, links his military experience with being a climate activist, claiming that to survive in Iraq you had to give up on accepting your life to continue; you had to learn to die. It was only by throwing off the weight of “living” that one could live in the moment and do what is needed to get the job done. Similar to Scranton, Joana Macy, the Buddhist philosopher and activist, in a recent interview argued that the current world is a “dark storm” that threatens all life on the planet. To Macy we need to be aware of the potential destruction that this storm can bring but also that…”it is this very storm that could very well bring about The Great Turning. We need an opposing wind to fly. It’s the hardship that catalyzes our awakening (Jamail, n.d.).” For both Macy and Scranton by realizing the possible horrors of the future, we can accept the “changing” nature of the world but through that we can become more active in the now, which allows us to actually change the world and make it better.

In contrast to Scranton the authors Fernando Flores and Scot Rousse provide a wonderful account of the need for hope in the Anthropocene. In this work the authors argue that climate change will lead to an “ontological death,” if not a literal death, for the modern human species. This ontological death is a result of the radical end to our current way of life—defined via our addition to fossil fuels—which will require us to create a new “ontological world.” Developing an argument that expands on Jonathan Lear’s idea of radical hope, which they define as “a stance of a commitment to possibility. But this is a particular kind of commitment: it is a commitment to something completely indeterminate and currently unimaginable. The commitment is only that to the bare possibility that, from this disaster, something good will emerge…” (Flores & Rousse, 2016: 135-136). Similarly, in an odd way, many of the more radical environmentalists and eco-anarchists who look to collapse as essential to creating the new world, share a similar belief; to them the collapse of modern society opens up space for the emergence of a new world of egalitarianism and sustainable living (Jensen, 2006a, 2006b; Zerzan, 2015).

Finally, there are thinkers who look to Anthropocene and refuse to accept that the era means the end of human life, civilization, or the species. Instead they see the fact that human action has harmed the planet as also implying that through coordinated human action and through scientific projects—like bioengineering—that we can not only solve the crises but also improve the planet. If the previous authors—around radical hope—so the end as a space in which hope emerges after the collapse, these others see their hope in technology and human ingenuity; if we can destroy the planet with our technology, we can save it as well.

What all three account share is a value to focus primarily on the possibility of hope—even Learning to Die, which focuses on a, primarily, Buddhist acceptance of letting go in order to act in the present. The focus on hope is, as I mentioned earlier, part of a century long project of the left to centralize hope in their political agenda. Hope serves as an essential philosophic principle that allows radical politics to believe in a better world, be it the communist revolution, or the progressive vision of humanity moving ever further from barbarism.

But is this idea of progressive human development a concept worth embracing, and should it be at the core of a left and radical politics? According to philosopher John Gray:

For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a place in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. …But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are – as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier – ‘like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedoms’. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they then opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living (Gray, 2014).

In this quote Gray, one of the most well known contemporary pessimist thinkers, argues that the vision of “human progress” is not only wrong, it has the potential of causing harm. I would argue that the left, which as embraced this progressive myth, is now facing a period of radical pessimism and darkness in which the vision of a utopian world is no longer possible. Even the attempts to think about Utopia, which is at the heart of Jameson’s politics (Jameson, 2007; Jameson & Žižek, 2016), often turn quickly to dystopian fears of a Mad Max future. With the election of Trump and far right politics more generally as well as reality that these elections means that if there was any chance to stop catastrophic climate change, it is probably no longer possible, the left is in an era of dark pessimism. Much like the “living prisoners” in Gray’s metaphor the left has lost its faith and that loss of faith has made it so that they cannot longer make sense of their actions or living.

Revolutionary Pessimism in the Face of Catastrophe

Adorno in his seminal work Negative Dialectics asserts that, “Disenchantment of the concept is the antidote of philosophy (Adorno, 2015: 13). This view of disenchantment is connected to living and theorizing in a world shaped by the horrors of the holocaust, which closed the door on much of the optimism and hope that existed in the pre-holocaust Marxist academic work Adorno asserts that “There is no getting out of this, no more than out of the electrified barbed wire around the camps. Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems (Adorno, 2015: 362). To Adorno, the horror of the holocaust both foreclosed the world of optimism, as his generally pessimistic work highlights, but it also provided a moral imperative to act, even if there was no hope. This moral imperative to Adorno was to do everything we can “…to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen (Adorno, 2015: 366). It was the end of hope and development of a revolutionary pessimism that provided both Adorno’s critique of traditional Marxist dialectic as well as the moral imperative radical and revolutionary action.

If want to think about a revolutionary pessimism for this current era, we need to start by centering Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics. Traditionally dialectics “As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of a “negation of negation” later became the succinct term (Adorno, 2015: xix). Adorno, in his work, tries to alter this historical project and separate form dialectics the “positive” trajectory, in the process critiquing both Marx and Hegel and their progressive vision of historical change. Instead of view dialectics as a “positive” process that, through negation, new and positive worlds are formed, Adorno argues that we can never fully understand the future of a dialectical struggle and that, more often then not, that which is produced is not positive but negative. Similarly to Walter Benjamin and his beautiful description of history, where he wrote that:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (Benjamin, 1986: 249)

In both Adorno and in Benjamin, the dialectical and historical process is not fully known and in a brutal pessimism undergirds both their description of “progress.” This concept of a negative dialectic helps remove, from our analysis of politics, a vision of the future—as since the angel looks back she can make no claim about what the future she is being pushed to. If we cannot envision a future all that leaves us with is an analysis of the past and a politics of action in the present.

To add more to the revolutionary politics of pessimism, I want to move directions and connect Adorno’s work on negative dialectics to the ideas and work of the Russian nihilist political movement. The focus on the nihilist political movement, and not the philosophic work of nihilism, is that the political work of Russian nihilists provide a unique lens to imagine and engage in a radical politics while rejecting any conception or value in a future—and unlike many of the philosophical nihilist, the political movement always centralized their radical and anarchistic politics. The Russian Nihilist political movements formed in the 1850s in Russia, after the freeing of the serfs and allowing them to enter the wage labor movement. The movement, which became associated with “propaganda by the deed” and acts of political terrorism, had originally started off as an early counter cultural and artistic movement with strong connections to radical urban Russian feminism. It was brought into the mainstream of Russian life by the classic work Fathers and Sons by Turgenev and also by Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?, which influenced Lenin in the writing of his screed of the same title. The character Vera, from What is to be done? Became one of the central figures of Russian nihilism. Vera, in this book, famously declared:

You call me a dreamer and ask what I want out of life. I prefer neither to dominate nor to submit. I wish neither to deceive nor to dissemble. I don’t want to be concerned about other peoples’ opinions, or strive for what others advise…I don’t want to submit to anyone. I want to be free. I don’t want to be obligated to anyone for anything. I don’t want to every to say, “You’re obligated to do this for me!” I want to do only what I desire and I want others to do likewise (Chernyshevsky, 1989).”

This desire for freedom from oppression and opposition to Russian society served as the primary impetus of the movement.

This early Russian nihilist movement, started with the premise that the current world has no value and is an inherent enemy to freedom and happiness. By denying the value of the current world, the Russian nihilists focused, almost exclusively, on the present and attempted to undermine all aspects of their contemporary society—its politics, its economic order, and its moral codes. It was, as Peter Kropotkin wrote about the movement “the Highest Revoltees against the conventional life in all its aspects (Kinna, 2016: 83)” It was this focus on moral codes that feminist nihilist often latched onto—though the majority of nihilist terrorists where also women—as it allowed them, and their male counterparts, to radically reject Russian patriarchy and work to undermine the institutions of Russian moral order. Nihilist women wore their hair short, to confront the beauty norm that fetishized long hair on women, and they dressed in clothing that was not deemed socially fit for women. Both nihilist men and women rejected the social norms of the society and worked to create alternative, and radically free spaces, for sexual, gender, and person expression. One of the core institutions that nihilists fought against was the institution of marriage. Kropotkin, once again, expressed this hostility writing “Marriage without love and familiarity without friendship was repudiated. The nihilist girl, compelled by her parents to be a doll in a doll’s house, and to marry for property’s sake, preferred to abandon her house and her silk dresses… (Kinna, 2016: 84). This rejection of contemporary social mores was linked to an embrace of revolutionary socialism and anarchism, and not the egoistic aristocratic politics of Nietzsche, and as such might provide a more valuable lens

In addition to primary focus on the present, the Russian Nihilist movement also embraced revolutionary action in all aspects of life. This focus on deeds and not words meant that action was the primary role of nihilist politics and, as government repression of the movement grew, their actions primarily turned to violent acts to try to destroy and bring down the government. “He was not born to be a martyr- he knew it only too well and it pained him to hurt even a dumb creature. But frightful, necessity over which he had no control, compelled him to trample down his feelings (Stepniak, 1889).” It was this desire and need to act against the institutions of present oppression that led nihilism to embrace a revolutionary political project without a demand or desire for a specific future. They instead valued a pragmatic revolt against the present and it was the action of revolt, be it against moral codes, or political elites that mattered. They also rejected a sense that a single act of revolt would change the world, revolt needed to be constant and the revolutionary to be fully committed to the destruction of society. This is why, Nechayev in his infamous “Catechism of a Revolutionist” write that

The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name…The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily (Nechayev, 1869)

This revolt against the present and a radical rejection of the institutions of the modern world, mean that political action to the nihilists was not focused on a sense that they could bring about a specific world but instead on an immediate reaction to the world they experience. They felt the horror and doom of Russian life in the 1850-1890s and experienced harsh repression from Russian authorities and they reacted to that reality not by moderating their political stance, or giving up, and neither did they speak about a “better world in the future.” Instead they revolted against that system. They killed political leaders who oppressed them, they worked to undermine marriage, which forced women into sexual slavery, and they rejected the growing capitalist economic system. They acted not expecting their actions to motivate the peasants and lead to revolution—like other anarchists believed—but simply because, as Bakunin put it “The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.” It was a full negation of the present they wanted but there was no vision of the future. Theirs was a politics of negative dialectic.

How do the revolutionary manifesto of Nechayev and the politics of the Russian Nihilists change in a world in which every person in the world is doomed, as we are now due to catastrophic climate change? Much like the writing of Scranton, I think this acceptance of doom opens us to a political project of the present, but unlike him, I do not see the acceptance of the potential end of the world meaning as a relief that allows us to complete the hard work needed to save ourselves. All we can do now is act, and not act to save our future, or ourselves but, as the Russian Nihilists highlight, we act because through action we express ourselves and by destroying that which oppresses us we might still have the last laugh. Those in power, who caused this crises fear death, and the fear chaos, and there is nothing more cryptic and haunting then manic laughter in a dark graveyard. Lets make them scared, even if that fear is only for our own enjoyment.

To end this article, I wan to quickly look at the concept of cosmic horror as serving as a space to imagine and explore revolutionary pessimist politics and action.

The Fascination of Fear: Genre Horror and Cosmic Horror

Everyone knows the feeling of horror; we have experienced it at certain points throughout your life. Be it during a traumatic event that we have experienced, while covered in a blanket reading a book during a windy fall night, or in the shock of seeing a shadowy figure in a corner when you wake up in a sweat during a nightmare. Horror is an emotional experience is universal, potentially an evolutionary trait essential for survival, as it is felt by humans and by nonhuman alike. What is interesting is that horror, a feeling typically associated with a fight or flight response, is searched out by many in the public—as seen by the high sales for horror movies and books, the infatuation and love of Halloween and haunted houses, and the rise of extreme sports and other adrenaline fueling activities. While many early cultural critics, who where confused by this niche experience, saw horror lovers as emotionally stunted or harmed individuals; as people who look to horror do to some deep seated psychological problem, most would nowadays, find that to be inaccurate as many horror lovers are, otherwise, well functioning members of society. Many current theorists claim that horror connects to broader social and political fears—and they are, as such, linked into a dialectic conflict with other political meaning, in much the way that Fredric Jameson theorizes. This means that different types of horror tend to engage with different types of fears.

While there are many sub-genres of horror—from ghost stories to slasher films—this article will focus on the work of “cosmic horror.” Cosmic horror is a subset of horror, most commonly associated with the mythological stories of Lovecraft, the eerie creepiness of Stephen Kings The Mist, the cosmic otherness of Clive Barker’s films, and the pessimism of the TV series True Detective. There are three primary traits associated with cosmic horror: the non-human nature of the horror, the indifference of the power at play, and the strict limitations of human agency. First, in cosmic horror the main horror is never a human force—it is always a being or force that is unknowable and understandable from the human mind. In Lovecraft, the main horror tends to be Elder Gods, beings who came to this planet before human existence and who where trapped here by some unknown force. These beings are beyond human comprehension, having biological systems that are alien to our knowledge, and having power greatly beyond anything we can ever imagine. By making the horror something that is, inherently, unknowable, and often coming from beyond the planet, cosmic horror places the Earth, and human life, as relatively minor forces in the universe. This leads us to the second theme; cosmic horror decenters the human, highlighting the relatively minimal importance humans have in the cosmic order. These horror stories, instead of focusing on the importance of humans, focus instead on the fact that there was life before humans evolved and there will, most likely, be life on this planet well after we go extinct. Often the horror in the stories comes from characters learning how inconsequential they and humans as a whole are. By focus on cosmic powers, much greater than humankind, cosmic horror reminds the reader that we are not the apex predator or power that we claim to be; we are not made in God’s image; and are not, in any way, the most important being, even on the planet. Finally, cosmic horror draws its dread, by highlighting the limited, and often futile, power that we have in stopping the cosmic forces we are facing. In many cosmic horror stories, the catalyst for the event are literally stars aligning meaning that there was nothing at all humans could have done to stop it. While other versions of comic horror stories, like Horror at the Red Hook and Ballad of Black Tom, use doomsday cults working raise or channel a being of immense power. In the doomsday cult stories, human action was involved in starting the crises, but in these stories there is almost nothing that anyone can do to stop the horror for happening; once one starts a cataclysmic process, there is nothing to be done to stop it. Overall in cosmic horror, “what emerges is a philosophy at the end of the world, in which thinking gains its power by cultivating the ruins that outlive this end before then employing these ruins as ambassadors for a lost humanity” (Trigg, 2014: 4). It is important to note that often times the ruins that are at the core of the story are not human, but these are stories of dread, doom, and the end. Which is exactly what we need to understand right now.

Because of the dominant themes in cosmic horror, the genre has typically been criticized for being misanthropic. This misanthropic aspect is the primary reason that Donna Haraway, in her work on the Chthulucene intentionally distances herself from Lovecraft and cosmic horror, instead looking to a more optimistic metaphor in web like and binding nature of tentacle creatures and “namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact” (Haraway, 2016). But there might be a difference between the indifferent nature cosmic horror antagonists and misanthropy. While many of the stories in these genre revel with the potential end of the world, none of them actually make the forces anti-human, they tend to be anti-life in general and do not differentiate between human and non-human life on this planet. To a cosmic force from another galaxy (or dimension) what makes us think they feel anything but indifference towards us? While this can be unsettling and troubling, it is important to note that natural forces on this planet are also indifferent towards us. Expressing this Eric Wilson writes, “the Lovecraftian world cannot be changed or controlled. It is a no-mans-land with arid desolation, without love or warmth. It contains no human value or worth since it does not allow anyone to be represented as the immanent ‘I’” (Wilson, 2016: 16). While taken to the extreme the Lovecraft world is similar to the world we currently live in. The climate cycles, while impacted by human behavior, are indifferent to us as a species. As such, in facing the threat of climate change, what better antagonist is there to serve as a metaphor for the potential devastation ravaged on the planet then an indifferent but destructive God?

Conclusion: A Light in the Darkness and Politics as Survival

We are alone dark room, with windows sealed with dark curtains taped to the wall to keep all light out, we reach for a light switch, flicking up and down to no effect. The darkness of the room permeates all, as even shadows are hidden in the all-encompassing void. Stumbling in the dark room some objects, a table or a chair, are notable as we flail around but most of the room is empty—of light and of objects. Giving up our quest to find a way around the room, we notice a musky smell, the smell of salt water and mold reminiscent of dilapidated harbors left vacant after the fishing industry went under. In the dark a creak in the wood floor echoes, but there is no way to tell the direction, as the sound seems to come from all around. As the creaks continue, and the smell gets worse, we scramble towards the nothingness. Heart racing, breathing increasing, and hands shaking we finally find a table. Fumbling around—looking for anything that our hands can remember—our sweaty palms collide with a flashlight. The creaking grows and the air around us turns warm and humid. As the beam of the flashlight flies through the darkness, we see…. nothing. A wall in the distance, a cabinet in the corner, and a door to the far left, but nothing more. The creaking grows deafening, as the need to cover our ears to suffocate the painful sound, grows. We turn and turn with the light, looking for the source of the breath and sound but see nothing. The void gives way to the light, but provides us no more insight into what hunts us. Lost in the void, we run to the door, breathing heavily and stomping loudly as our heavy feet clomp on the hardwood, but when we get there, the door is locked shut, and even more unnerving it is covered in a viscous and sticky coating. With our back against the door, or legs give out and we crumble to the floor, dropping the flashlight to the ground. Crying just loud enough to drown out the cracking of the floor, we look up from our hands and see in the path of the light a figure that both seems human and not at the same time. The silhouette of the face and chest seem human but the lower extremities, seem…strange. There are no legs, at least not in the way that the human mind can comprehend. Instead, the creature seems to slither along the floor on what can best be described as tentacles, though that barely gets at the horror before us The figure is somehow shrouded in darkness, even while the light beams over it, the only things piercing the shadows is a bright white smile and yellow eyes. You hear a laugh and the figure disappears. The creaks grow louder, the breathing around you gets stronger, but you appear to be once again completely alone in the void. The door unlocks, but you know that the creature is still out there…

Sometimes, it is not the fear of the unknown that is most terrifying but it is a glimpse, however briefly into the unknown. Our minds are unable to comprehend the world that is to come, yet science has provided us a flashlight that flickers light against the walls. It allows us to see the dark creature in the room, at least for a brief moment, but it does not tell us what that figure means or plans to do to us. Unlike in horror, the full vision of the monster that hunts us will not be showing itself for a long time, and from now until then we have to live in the shadow of its dread. The present is terrifying, the future is horrifying, and scariest part of all of it is that we have only limited control over what is about to happen to us.

As we move forward and closer to our doom in the Anthropocene we need to look to and explore horror with much more depth, as this article argues. In cosmic horror, the stories are about survival, not about redemption, healing, or transcendence. By focusing on a politics of survival, which is all that is left of activism at this moment; we can also focus on the need to have a politics of the present. In cosmic horror, the characters are confronted with catastrophe that is beyond their own comprehension and often there is no way to save the world from doom. It is through the process of acting, only in the present, that in some stories they are able to survive and delay catastrophe. But, unlike other horror genres, they never “solve” the problem but merely delay the inevitable and one of the dominant themes within the genre is that at the end of the stories, the characters are aware that doom is still on the horizon and they try to scream and get the attention of the world so that we can all be aware of this. That is of course, unless you are reading the stories in which the protagonists intend to bring about the end of the world, to watch the world burn, and in the fires of the dying present a new world is not born but the suffering of the old world is purified.

“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming”

Works Cited:

Adorno, T. (2015). Negative dialectics. Place of publication not identified: Routledge.

Benjamin, W. (1986). Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Chernyshevsky, N. G. (1989). What is to be done? Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Flores, F., & Rousse, B. S. (2016). Ecological Finitude as Ontological Finitude: Radical Hope in the Anthropocene. Telos, 2016(177), 127–143. https://doi.org/10.3817/1216177127

Gray, J. (2014). The silence of animals: on progress and other modern myths.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jamail, D. (n.d.). Learning to See in the Dark Amid Catastrophe: An Interview With Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy. Retrieved February 24, 2017, from http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/39448-learning-to-see-in-the-dark-amid-catastrophe-an-interview-with-deep-ecologist-joanna-macy

Jameson, F. (2007). Archaeologies of the future: the desire called utopia and other science fictions. London: Verso.

Jameson, F., & Žižek, S. (2016). An American utopia: dual power and the universal army. London ; New York: Verso.

Jensen, D. (2006a). Endgame (Seven Stories Press 1st ed). New York: Seven Stories Press.

Kinna, R. (2016). Kropotkin: reviewing the classical anarchist tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lilley, S. (2012). Catastrophism: the apocalyptic politics of collapse and rebirth. Oakland, Calif: PM Press.

Nechayev, S. (1869). The Revolutionary Catechism. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from https://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm

O’Callaghan, J. (2015, June 15). Mankind will be extinct in 100 years because of climate change, warns expert | Daily Mail Online. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3131160/Will-child-witness-end-humanity-Mankind-extinct-100-years-climate-change-warns-expert.html

Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the dark: untold histories, wild possibilities. Chicago, Ill.: Haymarket Books.

Stepniak, S. (1889). The Career of a Nihilist: A Novel. Ann Arber, Michigan: Harper.

Thacker, E. (2011). In the dust of this planet: [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1] (1. publ). Winchester: Zero Books.

Thacker, E. (2015a). Starry speculative corpse.

Thacker, E. (2015b). Tentacles longer than night. Charlotte, NC: John Hunt Pub.

Trigg, D. (2014). The thing: a phenomenology of horror. Winchester: Zero Books.

Wilson, E. M. (2016). The Republic of Cthulhu: Lovecraft, the weird tale, and conspiracy theory.

Zerzan, J. (2015). Why hope? the stand against civilization. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Academic work on Luke Cage


For all of you who are comic fans but living under a rock, Netflix released the Luke Cage series on Friday, September 30th (which might have been popular enough to knock out netflix streaming services for a short bit on Saturday). The show has been incredibly well recieved by critics (it is rated at 79% on metacritic and 95% on rottentomatoes) and most reviews have been well aware of the socio-political aspects of the show…most notably the importance of a bulletproof black man at a time when police shootings are finally getting the publicity and attention they deserve (example 1,example 2, example 3).

I hope to spend sometime monday writing a short review/analysis of this series but till then..here is a list of some good academic publications about Luke Cage. Please let me know if I missed anything, and I will make sure to add it. Sweet Christmas!!
David Taft, “Imagining a Strange New World: Racial Integration and Social Justice Advocacy in Marvel Comics, 1966–1980” from Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misappropriation of African American Pop Culture (2014)

Adilfu Nama Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011)

Philip Lamarr Cuningham “The Absence of Black Supervillains in Mainstream Comics” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics Vol. 1, issue 1 (2010)

Rob Lendrum “The Super Black Macho, One Baaad Mutha: Black Superhero Masculinity in 1970s Comic Books” Extrapolation Vol. 46, No. 3 (2005)

For Truth, Justice and Animal Rights?: Untangling the difficulties in being an animal abolitionist superhero in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (Part 1)

“I’d been horrified by harrowing scenes from the animal rights documentary The Animal Film, and a single viewing was enough to bring about my conversion to vegetarianism. And I saw how to use Animal Man as a mouthpiece against cruelty to animals and the general degradation of the environment as well as for deeper explorations of the superhero as an idea” (Morrison 2011: 217)

In 1988, Grant Morrison, already a critically acclaimed comics author, convinced the owners of Detective Comics to allow him to take a forgotten superhero from the 1960s—Animal Man—and make him the centerpiece of superman oppresseda new ongoing monthly series. The series was meant to explore the relationship between humans and nonhumans and push the boundaries of the traditional superhero narrative. Prior to Animal Man, superheroes almost exclusively addressed human concerns, and while many characters take animal names—from Wolverine to Batman—none actually fought to protect animals from abuse. This is especially surprising since superheroes have been viewed as protectors of the weak ever since the founding moment of the genre—Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. In the early adventures of Superman the tagline for the hero was not “for truth, justice, and the American way” but “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed.” Even though superheroes protect the weak, the anthropocentric values of our culture made it so nonhuman suffering was not constructed as a form of “oppression.”

The life long confinement, suffering, torture, and use of nonhuman animals for human consumption and benefit was always defined as an acceptable process within the superhero genre—super scientists most likely did medical research on rabbits, superman never questioned the treatment of the cows that make up his hamburger, and while Batman beats up purse snatchers within an inch of their lives he never questions the billions of nonhuman living beings suffering in Gotham or being vivisected by Wayne Industries (there are even a few stories in which he actively tried to stop Cat Woman from freeing animals from medical research labs). Animal Man changed this narrative, and while even today animal issues are rarely discussed within the superhero genre, a space was opened for nonhuman animals to be discussed.[1]

In this paper, I put Grant Morrison’s twenty-six-issue run of Animal Man into dialogue with the contemporary work in Critical Animal Studies and Animal Rights ethics. I contend that Grant Morrison explores some of the philosophic concepts within the animal rights philosophy and through speculative fiction provides important comments on the limitations, contradictions, and radical potential of animal liberation activism. More specifically, I argue that Grant Morrison’s Animal Man explores three central topics of concern for Animal Liberationists: the role of empathy and the ethics of care, the interconnected nature of animal and human oppression, and the role of power in the maintenance of the anthropocentric political and ethical systems.

Section 1: Comics as Political Texts

Superheroes are enmeshed in nearly every facet of modern American life. The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy tantalize the film-going public, while Green Arrow, the Flash, Agents of Shield and Constantine entertain on us on Television. Batman dominates the videogame market with his award winning series Arkham Asylum, while the logos and images from comics are found on t-shirts sold in major retail chains including Target and Wal-Mart. Everyone laughs at the jokes about the lame powers of Aquaman and nearly every adult knows that Kryptonite is Superman’s biggest weakness and that you wont like Hulk when he is angry. Even though Superheroes are everywhere, because they are viewed as a form of “low” culture (like pulp fictions and romance books), the political and social implication of these narratives are rarely explored.

Superheroes are more than escapist fictional narratives meant to merely entertain the masses; they are, and have always been, political texts. Comic book superheroes help us understand the meaning of American values, they help us explore the major social and political issues that confront our society, they can reinforce or undermine gender and race stereotypes, and they are ways of playing with ideas—from the early Silver Surfer’s Philip K. Dickesque exploration of reality to Animal Man’s engagement with Animal Rights theory.

The comic book emerged as an art medium in the 1930s, first as book collections of the Sunday funnies. Quickly, as the original source material started to dry up, publishers began creating comic adventure books, which combined simple drawings with pulp inspired stories about crime, horror, romance, and the supernatural. The medium came into its own in 1939 when National Comics (now DC Comics) published the fantastical adventures of Superman in Action Comics #1. This first appearance of Superman set the norms of the genre—the character had superhuman abilities, a duel identity (without his glasses he was Superman but with them on he was mild mannered Clark Kent), he wore a colorful spandex costume (and looked good in it), and he used his superhuman powers to fight crime and make the world a better place. Superman was an instant hit, selling millions of copies and within only a few months he was given his own series. Quickly the rest of the comic industry followed suit and countless imitator superheroes where created—including Batman and Wonder Woman—and in a flash an entire genre was born.

Comics have helped define much of American culture, starting with Superheroes’ role in ramping up patriotic fervor for World War II and the role the medium played in reinforcing the cold war liberal consensus of the 1960s and 1970s. During wartime an estimated 90% of children, regardless of gender, read comics while on military bases throughout the world; series like Green Lantern and Captain America outsold the other magazines and newspapers on offer. At their peak the top-selling comics–Wonder Woman, Superman and Shazam— sold up to 5 million issues a month.

Supporters and critics alike immediately noted the political dimension of comics. Dr. William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, believed that comics could be used to instill feminist values and empower both men and women alike. Wonder Woman was, in his mind, a form of feminist propaganda that was meant to show the emotional, political, and sexual superiority of women.[2] Likewise, Superman originally spent his days fighting every day social problems that working class people faced: he would protect workers on strike, stop domestic abuse, uncover government corruption, and even work to improve public housing. The character, created by two first generation Jewish Americans, embraced the socialist left wing politics that typified the Jewish diaspora of the time.

Right wing critics noted the progressive dimension of superhero comics, many of them critiquing some of the anti-racist and socialist messages of early comics, but such criticism did not garner the attention of the nation. The comic criticism that gained popular support was from the progressive Marxist psychologist Fredric Wertham. Wertham argued in his best selling book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) that superhero comics undermined the rule of law (by showing the value of vigilantism and the limitations of liberal governance), undermined parents’ authority by making them seem weak in comparison, reinforced racist stereotypes, justified violence against women, championed a “might is right” ethic, and promoted fascism. Wertham’s critique of the political dynamic of comics was so successful that thirteen states—including New York—passed laws censoring comics. Even though these bills were all either vetoed or overturned by the courts, the threat of government censorship forced the comic book industry to pass the most comprehensive and restrictive industry censorship code, the Comics Code.

Even though from the 1940s on critics saw the political dynamic of comics, it has taken academia until the early 2000s to really begin exploring comics as a legitimate field of study. That said, within the nascent field of comic studies there are two dominant research approaches that have emerged. The first type of analysis the authors carefully select characters (between one and three) and use in-depth historical analysis to explore a dominant theme or concept imbedded in the superhero character. This work is typified by the work of Costello (2009), who examines the cultural anxieties during the Cold War, Dittmer (2012), who looks to the history of Captain America as a way of exploring the construction of national identity, and Robinson (2004), who uses the publication history of Wonder Woman to explore the changing debates around gender and feminism. Within this approach the scholars assert that the narrative shifts that occur within the stories over time correlate with changing cultural shifts in society.

The second form of scholarship attempts to use specific characters and story arcs to explore a given topic. For example, Alaniz’s (2014) recent book explores debates and tensions around disability by exploring the way superhero characters have explored the topic—from Daredevil’s struggles with being blind to the Thing’s emotional stress around being hideously deformed. Likewise, Nama (2011) used the stories that surround nonwhite superheroes—from Luke Cage and Blade to the Black Panther—to explore what comic books and superheroes tell us about racial anxieties. Finally, Dipaolo (2011) uses a range of superhero narratives to explain the tense relationship Americans have around foreign policy and militarism. Within this approach, the concern is not in describing shifting cultural anxieties, but using Superheroes as a tool for explaining and understanding political and philosophic tensions that exist within society. In effect, these projects take comic book narratives as spaces to explore ideas and therefore treat the work as a form of political theory or as political cases.

This project is following the model of the second approach and argues that comic book narratives should be understood as a form of “speculative philosophy.” By this I mean that comic books provide a space for philosophic ideas to be explored, debated, and developed. The comic, like all fictional stories, provides a way to see the potential impacts of a philosophic position by using the comic page to speculate on the how those idea work out (or don’t).


Section 2: Background on Animal Man

Buddy Baker, while on a hunting trip with his friends in the 1960s, comes across a downed UFO in the backcountry forests. While investigating the crash, the UFO explodes, seemingly killing the young man. Miraculously he does not die but instead the accident gives Buddy super powers which allow him to “borrow” the powers of animals that surround him. Meaning he could see a bird and gain its ability to fly (although he does not sprout wings) or he could see a fish and borrow its ability to breathe underwater (without growing gills). The explosion turned Buddy Baker into Animal Man, “the man with animal powers!”

            The character was originally created by David Wood for the comic Strange Adventures #180 (1965) where the character was a surprise hit and was regularly featured over the next two years (image 1). After his run in Strange Adventures Animal Man would sporadically appear in comics throughout the 1970s and 19tumblr_m3scn7MaDf1qbgo38o1_128080s, once battling Wonder Woman and another time helping Superman. He was even a member of the short-lived “super group” of minor characters called “The Forgotten Heroes.”

            The stories and comics that Animal Man starred in during the first three decades of his existence have been, for the most part, completely forgotten, and it was not until Grant Morrison, a critically acclaimed British author who had just had a successful run on Batman, convinced DC to let him take the character and develop a monthly series about his adventures. Partially due to the success of Neil Gaimen’s Sandman, which also resurrected a forgotten character from DC’s past catalog, DC comics agreed. The series was originally created as a vehicle for Morrison to work through his own ideas and concerns regarding animal rights, as he had just recently become a vegan animal rights activist, and it also allowed him (and DC) to push the boundaries of what a “superhero” is.

In Grant Morrison’s hand the character was given a deeper backstory and his origins and powers are further developed. Most importantly, Morrison changed Animal Man’s powers, as he no longer “borrowed” from animals around him but he instead connected into the “morphogenic field,” which is never fully described but seems to be something like a platonic transcendental space where the “forms” of all animals exists. While this “morphogenic” field sounds absurd, it allowed Morrison the ability to discuss the idea of transcendental reality and also allowed him to explore biocentrism. It is the first of these aspects—the ability to discuss transcendental reality—that has garnered the majority of academic discussion on Animal Man. Grant Morrison’s run is mostly known for its unique narrative style, with its intentional breaking of the fourth wall, the introduction of Grant Morrison himself as a character in the story, and the overall discussion around issues of free will, authorship, and continuity. What has been lost in academic readings of the series is the way it engaged with animal rights.


Either tomorrow or Thursday I am going to be putting the second part of this piece up. This will be the actual analysis of Animal Man and what he says about Animal Liberation.

[1] Since Animal Man a handful of other superheroes have addressed the suffering of nonhuman animals. For instance, Beast Boy—a member of the teen titans who can shape shift into an anima—became vegan and made animal rights part of his identity and Cat Woman began focusing her attention on protecting animals and for a while was stealing jewels from the wealthy in order to fund an animal sanctuary, and

[2] Wonder Woman’s early run is a really interesting and complex feminist story. Many important second wave feminists were inspired by the series and saw it as promoting a message of female empowerment, but others saw it as the sexual fantasies of Marston—who was a strong supporter of BDSM and in the comic bondage accounted for nearly 25% of all panels. Recently third wave feminists have been reclaiming the bondage feminism of early wonder woman and seeing it as a story not only of female political empowerment but also of female sexual empowerment.

Fighting the Monsters We Create: Exploring the Political meaning of the Age of Ulton (spoilers inside!)

avengers2posterLast weekend saw the release of the much-anticipated Avengers: Age of Utron. The film, which brought in nearly 200 million in its opening weekend, is already a financial success for Marvel Studios with the second largest weekend release in history (loosing only too the first Avengers movie). Many of the reviews seem to focus on the relationship between Black Widow and Hulk, the overwhelming special effects, and the clown car amount of superheroes forced into the story. While these are all really interesting aspects of the film, especially for folks reviewing the quality of a movie, I want to focus a bit on the political and cultural aspects of the film.
The theoretical starting point for this blog post is the academic article “Fighting the Battles we Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identity” by Annika Hagley and Michael Harrison. This piece, which is one article of many in a phenomenal special issues of PS: Political Science, argues that the first Avengers film needs to be viewed in the context of a post 9/11 America. As such the Avengers is primarily about what is needed to protect the American homeland from a second terrorist attack (there is a symbolic reason that Loki attacks New York). In their analysis all the characters in the movie—Iron man, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye, Thor, the Hulk, Shield, and Loki—symbolically represent certain aspects of society and their final analysis claims that the Avengers movie is a meditation on how the different aspects of American politics need to come together under the guidance of the security state (Shield) in order to stop global terror (Loki) from destroying the American way of life (i.e., New York City). In conducting their analysis they deconstruct all the main characters from the movie to highlight what they symbolize. For time sake I am going to focus only on a few of the characters—ones that I think are important for understanding Age of Ultron.

ironmancaptainThe two most important characters in the new Avengers, when it comes to symbolic value, are Iron Man and Captain America. Iron Man can easily be viewed as a stand in for the US military-industrial-complex as Tony Stark is a billionaire who made his fortune from selling advanced military weaponry around the world (he took over the business which his dad started), while Captain America stands in for American values (hard working, honesty, dedication, wholesomeness, etc). In addition to the big two, you have Black Widow and Hawkeye representing the intelligence/spy community and you have Bruce Banner/The Hulk (according to Hagley and Harrison) representing the American populace (like able and shy but dangerous and unpredictable when enraged).

Viewing the characters through these symbolic lenses provides for a unique and interesting cultural reading of the new Avengers film. First off, and most importantly, if the first Avengers movie is a stand in for America dealing with, and fearing, a second terrorist attack on New York City (with Loki standing in for global terrorism) then the second film is largely about current American anxieties around the empowerment of Putin’s Russia and the threat of a new cold war. The Age of Ultron largely takes place in the made up former soviet country of Sokovia. Sokovia is shown as a small eastern European country ravaged by internal conflict, civil war, and American and Soviet intervention. The opening scene, in which the Avengers attack a Hydra strong hold (a stand in for fascism) nestled in the mountains of the made up country, shows the people of Sokovia resisting attempts by Iron Man to provide “humanitarian protection” through his “global defense” program (in which computer run iron men nonviolently protect civilians from harm and “social” disturbance). Later we are told, by the twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, that they had grown to hate Iron Man because during the civil war their house was bombed by weapons made by stark industries, killing their parents and forcing them to live for days in the rubble. The war torn eastern European country is shown as a victim of the cold war—a country impacted by Soviet power and US imperialism. The chaotic and dangerous place becomes a safe haven for fascism and a threat to liberal political order in the rest of the world.

ultronIt is from the base of Sokovia that Ultron hatches his plan to destroy the world. Utron decides to turn the country into a massive asteroid that will extinguish all life on the planet after impact. The final battle shows the Avengers, with the help of a newly resurgent SHIELD, saving the civilians while defeating the army of Borg like robots (connecting to the long standing symbolic use of hive minded enemies to represent American fears of Russia).   In this final battle, the US (Iron Man, Captain America, et all) is once again at war with a Soviet style threat (a borg like enemy) in Eastern Europe. The battle, which echoes the media coverage of the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, shows the fear the American zeitgeist has of an Russian imperial power pushing its power further into eastern Europe—Sokovia, like Ukraine, could be the asteroid that extinguishes all life. Also, much like the narratives of the cold war, the US has to respond to the potential dangerous threat posed in Eastern Europe through force—in effect, it is a narrative that asserts that the crisis in the Ukraine and Eastern Europe with Russia cannot be solved by diplomacy and that Putin (maybe Ultron?) can only be stopped by force.

Secondly, the film also highlights the shifting nature of spy/civilian relationships in the US by its expanded narrative around Hawkeyes life and the budding relationship between the Black Widow and Bruce Banner/Hulk. In both instance, the film takes the symbolic intelligence agents and humanizes them by tying them with stand in for the “American pehawkeye the farmerople” and American history. Both narratives show the increasingly regularity of internal spying in the US. Hawkeye is shown being a quintessential American—living in the country side with a wife, kids, and dog; primarily concerned with home repairs and fixing his tractor; and having sweet tea in a living room that seems lifted from a cracker barrel. His connection with rural America seems to root spying deep into the American historical consciousness, reaching back to the yeomen farmer of Jefferson’s democratic dream. Thus, unlike the historical narrative in which federal level domestic and foreign surveillance developed during the rise of industrialism in the US (with the red squads and Palmer raids of the late 1800s and early 1900s) spying is given a pre-industrial foundation. As such intelligence gathering is naturalized in the American unconscious making it as American as apple pie and wood chopping. Almost in direct response to Captain America 2, where the NSA was criticized for going against American values, Hawkeye shows that surveillance is foundational to the American experience.

In addition, Black Widow and her relationship with Hulk/Banner represent the growing intimacy between the US public (Banner) and foreign surveillance (Black Widow). The relationship is shown to be a tool for blackwidowhulkcontrolling the dangerous anger of the American people (she develops a technique to calm the Hulk down) allowing for the US to use the Hulk for its own gain without as much of a danger of it getting out of control (though this might be a losing cause, as the Hulk does go out of control in South Africa and can only be stopped by Iron Man/the military industrial complex using force to pacifiy and controls the beast). It is also shown as a humanizing figure for the Black Widow, who seems to be questioning her role as a cool, collected, killer as she wants to disappear with Banner and quiet her job as a spy. Banner does not let her do so, as he realizes that the he (the public) is a threat to her and not the other way around.

Third, and finally, the relationship between Iron Man and Ultron highlights the potential danger of the military-industrial-complex. In the movie, Stark decides to use Loki’s staff (later we find out it is the mind infinity stone) in order to develop a complex AI system for his cybernetic defense system. Stark thought that by having a strong enough AI system, his robotic army could provide the security and protection that the earth needs, in effect forcing the Avengers to disband. In homage to literally every single sci fi movie ever made, the AI comes to realize that humans are, inherently, a threat to peace and as such human life needs to be eradicated. In this sequence, the biggest threat to humanity—Ulton—is the result of paranoid fear combining with he Military-industrial-complex. This fear leads Stark to develop an automated system that would, theoretically, stop all threats to the planet. The politics of control and surveillance promoted by neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian takes the inevitable dystopian turn, and the good intensions of its creator ends up creating a massive threat to life. It is important to note that in the construction of Ultron Stark and Banner do the project without the input of the rest of the Avengers—in essence this is what happens with the military-industrial-complex uses fear to rile up the American people.

1827_Vision_AAofU_50In contrast to Ultron, the Vision—another robotic creation—is the protector hero of the movie. Originally designed by Ultron to be his ultimate weapon, Vision is stolen by the Avengers and Stark and Banner work on turning him into a robotic weapon as well—obviously not deterred by their earlier failure with Ultron. Unlike before, the rest of the Avengers—Captain America, Thor, and Hawkeye—intervene and attempt to stop them before their creation comes to life. In the ensuing fight over Vision, Thor uses his powers and attempts to destroy the robot through a huge electronic blast. Instead of destroying Vision, Thor’s action brings it life. Unlike Ultron though, Vision is a hero, he embodies an American foreign policy in balance—in which the military does not act alone, but is pressured by the other prevailing interests in society.

Overall, the second Avengers movie can be seen as continuing in the symbolic and theoretical aspects of the first film. The Avengers films seem to be a cultural mediation the fear of the “other” that is seen as a threat to our way of life. The first film, emerges from the post 9/11 context to provide a discussion of how we can work to stop the next terrorist attack on New York City, while the second Avengers film discuss the neoconservative fear of an empowered Russia on our eastern front. In both cases the movie narrative promotes neoconservative values—the need to come together to protect ourselves from an always threatening other—but does so in ways that complicates the traditional narrative. For instance, in both movies the threats to America are brought about by US policy failures. In the first Avengers this is seen by Shields attempt to weaponize the Tesseract, provoking Loki it to steal it for Thanos, and in the second, it is Starks attempt to use Loki’s staff as part of a global weapon that leads to the development of Ultron and the potential end of the world. Likewise, in the second Avengers film the enhanced villains turned allies, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, are the blowback of US intervention in the world—both characters are turned towards Hydra due to the usage of Stark Industries munitions in the death of their parents. In an odd way, the Avengers then seems to be saying that, “as more and more of our past actions come back to threaten us we must come together and protect ourselves and our way of life from the monsters we have created.” Luckily for the movie going public the Avengers never learn their lesson and are constantly creating new monsters to fight; sadly for the world, the US does the exact same.

Thinking like a Swamp Thing? Love in the form of chlorophyll (Part 3)

This is the third of a three part post about the politics and philosophic aspects of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. If you missed the first part you can find it here while the second posting can be found here. These posts are all part of a rough draft I wrote for a conference and any comments or feedback would really helpful in moving forward.

Love in the form of chlorophyll: Can either Plants or humans actually love?

In addition to exploring the political and ethical world of the plants, Alan Moore uses the pages of Swamp Thing to also explore the intimate and loving relationships between humans and the natural world and in doing so he questions much about our understanding of intimacy. The relationship between Swamp Thing and Abbey Cage (the niece of Anton Arcane, his Lex Luther) transcends much of our culture’s understanding of both love and sex. The boundary blurring relationship between the two is consummated in the issue “Rites of Spring” (issue 34) when Swamp Thing and Abby share a psychedelic tuber (which grows from where his heart would be). The tuber allows for him and Abbey to fuse their consciousness and reach an unparalleled intimacy (image 3). While linked together, she thinks:

Through him, I sprawl with the swamp, sopping, steaming, dragonflies stitching neon threads through the damp air surrounds me…Beyond him I wrestle the planet, sunk in loam to my elbows as it arches beneath me, tumbling endlessly through endless ink. …we…are…one creature…together we know the light, exploding upward in a bird cloud, fragmenting into whirling feathered shrapnel, dancers in the glare…for life is not all that we comprehend. We are the world…there is no contradiction…only the pulse. The Pulse within the world. Within us. Within me.

loveswampthingThis “libidinal Ecology,” between Abby and Swamp Thing provides an example of a radical, queer, and ecofeminist understanding of love and relationships. Their relationship prefigures the ecological utopian vision of a non-domineering and holistic relationship between humans and the natural world and asserts that it is only through accepting our emotional and physical vulnerability that the human mind can finally grasp the oneness of the ecological system. By relinquishing control and intimately relating to the world around us, Abbey’s characters shows that we can have a respectful and caring relationship that connects us to the greater world and not isolate us in the ways that patriarchal relationships do.

plantsex1The caring and loving relationship between Abby and Swamp Thing is seen as a threat to mainstream society. After reporters sneak some pictures of the two in an embrace, and print the photos in the media, Abby is arrested and charged with “crimes against nature” for her intimate and transpecies sexual relationship with Swamp Thing. Fearing the punishment of a vengeful society Abby flees from custody to Gotham, in hopes of hiding within the big city. When she is caught and sent to trial. What follows is the three issue series “the greening of Gotham” in which Swamp Things love of Abby makes him enact green vengeance on the city of Gotham.

In this story arch, Swamp Thing goes to Gotham and holds the city hostage, making all plants in the city grow and take over the streets and buildings. He enters Gotham by connecting to the Green and emerging in the courtroom from a rose that Abby wears on her shirt. Upon forming in the courtroom he declares:

You…are…warning….me? Do…you warn…a hurricane? Do you warn…the earthquake? You have taken …that which I love…away from me…I have come…to reclaim it… … I have tolerated…your species…for long enough. Your cruelty…and your greed….and your insufferable arrogance…you blight the soil…you poison the rivers. You raze the vegetation…till you cannot…even feed…your own kind.…and then you boast…of man’s triumph…over nature. Fools. If nature were to shrug…or raise an eyebrow…then you would all be gone… (Swamp Thing #52)

From there he holds Gotham hostage, filling the streets and buildings with overgrown plants. This effort shuts down the city, clogging the streets, and stopping industrial production. With the streets overrun with the green, children start playing in the newly found forests, people flock to the city to commune with nature, and thieves and the homeless treat the new green spaces as “commons” and build their own spaces. While many folks see the new green Gotham as an uncivilized paradise (the news reports that over 45% of Gotham are either sympathetic or strongly supportive of the green overgrowth) the protectors of civilization see it as a powerful threat. Commissioner Gordon of the Gotham police department says, “You see, he’s given Gotham a taste of some sort of savage Eden. What if the city likes it? Some people out there are acting as if it’s a natural born paradise. But all I see is a green hell (Swamp Thing #53). Even earlier he laments the fact that “This is unbelievable. Two hundred years of civilization reduced to jungle in as many minutes (Swamp Thing #53). This narrative is shown as a common struggle between civilization and nature, in which the dualism between the two is reinforced. The city—the defining aspect of civilization—is made to realize that it has not conquered nature, but if anything, nature has patiently accepted the rise of human power.swamp-thing-52-gothamYet the vengeance that Swamp Thing forces on the city of Gotham is described as an abuse of his power as an avatar of the green and he is reminded of the Parliament’s warning on taking and abusing power; the story highlights that his love for Abby fuels a rage in him that leads to his downfall. Even though Swamp Thing defeats Batman with no problems, his abuse of power has brought the wrath of the US military on him, who use their power to kill him, right as he gets Abby back from the authorities.

Swamp_Thing_Vol_2_53The general reading of this story is that the love Swamp Thing has for Abby might be a remnant of his human consciousness, and therefore the love is not a plant emotion but a human one, and because of that his love corrupted the green in much the same way the hatred of Woodrue did. I find this reading, while potentially consistent with the story, unconvincing. Firstly, love in the story is shown as not being consistent with civilization and in fact a threat to the prevailing  order. In a conversation between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, Batman states that “My city is dying because it insists on the letter of the law over love and justice? My city, Jim…dying where it stands.” In this quote, Batman highlights the cold, calculating, and emotionless state of human civilization. If love does not exist with plants or within civilization what is the role and place of love in the world?

Instead, I think its worth exploring what it means to think of love as a natural emotion—as a concept that transcends species—in much the way that Rousseau understands the idea of compassion. Under this understanding, it was not the love of Swamp Thing that made his actions counter the values of the green, but, as I would argue, his concept of ownership. In this narrative, Swamp Thing talks about his love being stolen from him and wanting it back. This language, more than the language of love, seems to me to be counter the values of the green. The green has no conception of ownership or of separation—the entire world is connected into a global consciousness. To view his love as not a part of him, simply because she is in jail, is to missunderstand the connection of the green.

If anything, I would argue that it is the concept of love in Swamp Thing that serves as the mediating emotion between the world of flesh and the world of bark. It is the love between Swamp Thing and Abby, the queer transpecies love that forges intimacy and not isolation that provides the only example of a healthy, peaceful, relationship between humans and the more-than-human world. So what does the plant love entail? Apparently it is a respect and admiration for interconnectedness. To be interconnected in the world is to love the world.

Concluding Comments:

            The enormity of the global crisis facing the planet requires humanity to alter its behavior. This requires not only a cognitive change in our relationship with the world around us but material changes to the social, political, and economic structures of our society. In order to really start understanding what it means to live in a healthy relationship with the world around us, to realize that we are, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “members of a community of interdependent parts,” we need to rethink our understanding of politics, economics, agency, and community. We need to creatively imagine what it would mean to actually include the nonhuman world into our political frameworks. To do this we need to learn how to listen to the world around us, we need to imagine the way the world around us thinks and understands itself and we need to, primarily, question our own self-inflated sense of importance.

Works of fiction provide us the best lens in actually thinking through these ideas and concepts. Unlike philosophy, biology, or other mediums, fiction provides a space to creatively explore the limits of the human mind. Swamp Thing serves as one of the most provocative and powerful examples of “uncivilized” writing and as such provides a window into a decentered human politics. By centering the story, not on a human turned plant monster but on a sentient plant, we are able to explore some of the ways in which plant thought differs from that of human thought. While we might not ever be able to know what and how plants think, we still need speculative and creative thinking to push the boundaries of human ideas and to fundamentally question the categories and concepts that have calcified into “common sense” and hegemonic ideas.

Thinking like a Swamp Thing? Developing a Plant Politics and Ethics (Part 2)

This is the second of a three part post about the politics and philosophic aspects of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. If you missed the first part you can find it here. These posts are all part of a rough draft I wrote for a conference and any comments or feedback would really helpful in moving forward.

Thinking like a Swamp Thing: Developing a Plant Politics and Ethics

With Swamp Thing’s human foundation removed by Alan Moore the character becomes, as Colin Beinke notes, an example of the Green Man literary trope. The Green Man is a folklore character that represents the struggle of the natural world against the destructive tide of civilization. Examples of the Green Man are: Dionysus, Pan, Jack-in-the-green, the Green Knight and most recently, the Jolly Green Giant. As Beinke states, “…the Green Man is ‘adopted’ by the cultural imagination of each subsequent ‘society and time’ as need” and because of that “…is possible to make assumptions about the way in which humanity viewed its relationship with nature (Beinke 2010).”

While I think Bienke is correct and we should view Swamp Thing through the Green Man lens, we can do much more with the character and the series. Swamp Thing not only helps us understand our own flawed and anxious relationship with nature, it also provides a lens to explore what plant politics, ethics, and relationships mean. Swamp Thing, in this regard, can be used as an example of “uncivilized” writing promoted by The Dark Mountains Project, a group of radical eco-writers who have begun to create a counter literature free from human centered narratives. In the Dark Mountains Project Manifesto they state that uncivilized writing:

…sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation — and us — into perspective. Writing that comes not, as most writing still does, from the self-absorbed and self-congratulatory metropolitan centres of civilisation but from somewhere on its wilder fringes. Somewhere woody and weedy and largely avoided, from where insistent, uncomfortable truths about ourselves drift in; truths which we’re not keen on hearing. Writing which unflinchingly stares us down, however uncomfortable this may prove.

Swamp Thing, as we shall see, is an early example of this sort of story and even though Swamp Thing exists as nature anthropomorphized, the character allows a unique lens to explore the possibility of plant politics, ethics, and agency.

The foundation of Alan Moore’s understanding of plant social and political dynamics is the idea of “the green.” The green represents the interconnectedness of all green life on the planet and is shown as a means for plants to communicate and interrelate. The green represents the “town hall” or public agora for the chlorphillic world. Through the green Swamp Thing is able to hear and experience what all plant life on the planet experiences. He can sense the violence of deforestation in the rain forest and can feel the intimate relationship that exists between roots and mycorrhizal fungi.

Central to the green are the Parliament of Trees, a group of former environmental avatars (like Swamp Thing) that in their retirement have become the organizing political council of the green. The Parliament makes their appearance in issue 47. Here he learns the ways of the plant world and gets his first insight into how his humanity has harmed his ability to understand this reality. Unlike in a human conversation the majority of the exchange pOfTreesbetween Swamp Thing and the council happens within their consciousness, as only one of the trees remembers the words that humans use. The consciousness level of the conversation is explained as existing because, “Flesh….speaks…wood….listens.” The parliament informs Swamp Thing that if he wishes to learn he needs to stop speaking, to rest, be still, and listen. In planting his roots in the soil he communicates, and he gains access to much of their shared knowledge—this is the first time he fully taps into the green. While tapped into the green he learns about the power he could have if he fully shed his human ego and embraced the mind of the plant; he would be able to manipulate his size, reanimate dead wood, control insects through altering his pheromones, and possibly even travel through time. Before Swamp Thing can gain too much knowledge, the Parliament pushes him out of their consciousness; to them his mind is still too human and the human ego and desire for power, in their mind, is a threat to the green.

In response Swamp Thing pleads to the Parliament to teach him how to control his power, so that he may save the planet, and they collectively respond (speaking with one voice):

Power? Power is not the thing. To be calm within oneself, that is the way of the wood. Power tempts anger, and anger is like wildfire. Avoid it…Flesh doubts. Wood knows. If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bark, the roots, the worms of the earth that is the wisdom of an erl-king. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds on soil…is aphid evil? Is Ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil in all the wood? (Swamp Thing #47)

The discussion Moore provides here offers a unique view into a possible social and political politics of the plants. There seems to be a fundamentally ontological difference, in this account, between, in their words, the worldview of the flesh and that of the wood. The plant world seems to follow a slower, more intentional understanding of time, seen by the slow cadence of Swamp Thing’s dialogue and reminiscent of Tree Beard and the Ents in the Lord of the Rings book series. The slow cadence is often contrasted with the frantic, almost anxious speaking style of the humans within the series. The slowness represents not only a more deliberate use of language but also a means to allow for the dominance of silence and nonverbal communication to serve as the basis of communication—remember “Flesh..speaks…plants….listen.” The message from the Parliament of Tree is that to hear the plant one must listen, not to their words, but to the space between words, to the silence and cracks of the forest. In fact, as the Parliament discusses, only one of their members remembers the human tongue, and the rest have grown mute—to wait for them to speak is to wait for an eternity. To hear them, one must listen for communication that transcends words.

This conception of communication among plants has, not without controversy, become a topic of debate within biology. In recent years, biologists have begun exploring the ways in which plants communicate—as it is now assumed that there is some form of communication within the plant kingdom. It has been shown that plants apparently communicate among each other about insect outbreaks and that this communication allows for plants, not just infected by pests, to ramp up their protections. What is not known is how plants communicate; some have argued that it is through the release of pheromones (the smell when you cut your grass is a signal warning other plants of the danger) while others argue that it is through a network of rhizomes, fungi, and roots (similar to the Green). The fact is the existence of plant communication requires questioning of the idea of sentience and, even more importantly, an altering of our understanding of communication and language.

Connected to the plants’ seasonal understanding of time comes their complex and distanced understanding of ethics. During their dialogue with Swamp Thing they ask him “where is evil in the wood?” They highlight the idea that the concept of good and evil are rooted in a human consciousness and that, from the point of view of the bark, the interconnected nature of all existence means that there can be no good or evil. As they say “Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds on soil…is aphid evil? Is Ladybug evil? Is soil evil?” Instead of a moral politics centered on evil, the plant world here understands the real danger to be power and anger—things they expressly view as emotions of the flesh. They view power as a form of “wild fire”, as a purging element and (since they live in the rainforest) as a danger to the health and well-being of the plant world. In a way, the views expressed by the Parliament of Trees develops a complex ethical world view that seems to echo the words of Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, while at the same time critiquing his fetishization of power. Nietzsche writes:

That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey. And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?” there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal, except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down on them with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, “We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs. We even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.” To demand from strength that it does not express itself as strength, that it does not consist of a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph, is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength.

To the plants, this narrative is altered and while they agree with the critique of “good” and “evil” expressed here, they argue that Nietzsche does not completely move beyond the simplistic human fascination with power. This is, in their words, the politics of the Flesh. Instead of replacing good and evil with a quest for endless power, the plants call for a rejection of good, evil, and the desire of power. Instead of a “will to power” a nascent “will to disengage.” The alternative conceptions of power and agency here are partially tied, in my estimates, to the differing understanding of time and communication. The plant world, in Swamp Thing, understands time in a cyclical way—such that all space-time is connected to the present—and understands change in a geologic sense. So while, to the leaf, the aphid can be viewed as evil, that evilness becomes inconsequential when, in the cosmic unfolding of seasons, that aphid is eaten by the ladybug that becomes food for the soil. If everything is connected then the leaf, aphid, ladybug, and soil are already one. As such, it is not good and evil that need to be avoided but the power—power serves as a vehicle to concentrate and centralize, destroying the delicate balance of life, and as such is the closest there is a to a concept of evil.

200px-FloronicManThe difference between the plant ethic and the human ethic is most clearly articulated in the two-issue series arch found in issues 23 and 24. In these issues, Dr. Woodrue, the Floronic Man, consumes a tuber that he stole from Swamp Thing while performing his botanical autopsy. The Floronic Man, due to a failed lab experiment, is already partially a plant and has the power to communicate and slightly control plant life. The tuber amplifies his power greatly and he can now control plants at a planetary level. In these issues, the Floronic Man decides that humanity has caused too much destruction to the environment and that humanity as a whole needs to suffer for the sins of civilization. In order to punish the flesh he orchestrates a plan to amplify plant life throughout the world, having trees, flowers, and grasses grow exponentially. His goal is to over oxygenate the atmosphere, in effect killing all human and nonhuman life on the planet. In his mind, after the flesh of the world are dead a new epoch will arise, the rule of the green.

Woodrue launches his plan in rural Louisiana, which becomes the epicenter to the growing and sprawling plant invasion of earth. When first confronted, by a woman in the town who cries “no more!” to him he responds:

Did you say ‘no more’ when you and your fellow hamburgers were stripping the land bare? When they dipped their chainsaws into the tender flesh of my people? Did you say “no more” then? There will be more. Lots more. For I am Wood-rue. I am the pain the bitterness of the woods. I am come to announce the green millennium! I am one with the wilderness…its will works through me. For I asked of it, saying ‘what should you have me do?’ and it is said ‘purify’ and it said ‘destroy.’ ‘Destroy the creatures that would destroy us, that would destroy the ecosphere with their poisons and bulldozers! Cut them down, like blighted wood. Let us have another green world…Another green world, as there was at the beginning, before the beasts crawled up out of the oceans…those long green centuries…where no birds sang…where no dogs barked…where there was NO NOISE! WHERE THERE WAS NO SCREAMING MEAT!! For I am the anger and regret of the forest.

In this encounter, as Beinke and others have noted the Floronic represents the most destructive, misanthropic and angry aspects of the deep ecological tradition. In this narrative, that response is defined as counter to the way of the plant. In the story, he represents the “burning rage of the dying planet” but he does so in a deeply human way. In this way, a critique of deep ecology emerges, in which it is shown that humans place their emotions and desires on the world at large even though the natural world does not share human emotions like anger, rage, and revenge.

The human desires of Woodrue are instantly noticed by Swamp Thing because a red (fleshy) growth appears within the green, infecting the plant world with an alien anger and rage. He says, “There is anotherfloronicmanswampthing mind in the green. It crawls like a cancer…painting everything with the sticky darkness of old blood…” The human desires of Woodue become a cancerous and dangerous growth to the green since the desires and emptions of humans are categorically different from the plant. Swamp Thing confronts Woodrue and in the battle that ensues, he breaks Woodrue’s arm (highlighting how very human he is). In response, confused, Woodrue asks, “why do you keep hurting me” and Swamp Thing responds “Because…you…are hurting… the green.” The dialogue and panels that follow, masterfully highlight the tension between the plant and human understanding of the world (as understood and expressed by Alan Moore). In these images (side) Swamp Thing highlights the human violence of Woodrue’s, asserting that the death and destruction that he seeks to inflict on the world, the abuse of and acquisition of power, are human desires not plant desires. By speaking for the plants and infecting their message with anger and rage, he is not only harming human life but also plant life. As Swamp Thing says, “Look! Look at…all…this! This…is not…the way …of the wilderness. This…is the way…of man. Your way, Woodrue…The green…did not do this. You did. This…is what…you wanted. You are ill…Woodrue… …and you poison…the green…with your desires…” What flows from this conversation is an understanding that plants do not have anger, or desire revenge but instead seek balance and harmony. Of course, what emerges from this that is never fully explored, is then why does the green need a superhero defender? If time and cycles maintain some sort of karmic harmony and, as an avatar of the green he must forgo the desire for power, then why have a powerful avatar in the first place?

Some form of answer appears in Swamp Thing #32 an issue titled “pog.” The issue, which is an homage to Walt Kelly’s series Pogo, tells the story of an alien race fleeing the environmental destruction of their planet. The Pog are shocked and depressed to swamp_thing_pogosee that humankind is doing exactly what they did, and the entire issue stands as a pretty straightforward critique of human consumption and environmental destruction. What emerges form this story is a realization that Swamp Thing’s job is not to acquire power but to be a check on power, to wield power but not to take power. In doing this job he is tasked to protect the overgrowth of the green when need be, to limit his own power when it gets too great, and to stop the destruction of humans from getting out of hand. His role is that of a balance maker and not as a warrior for the Green—as Woodrue thought himself to be.

Coming up on Friday is Part 3: Love in the form of chlorophyll: Can Plants love?

Thinking like a Swamp Thing? Part 1:

So the chaos of the term has slowed down my regular blogging but I have been writing some academic work on comics. I am going to spend the next few days posting a draft of a paper on Swamp Thing I just wrote. Instead of posting it all at once (the paper is 24 pages) I am going to chunk it up in a few sections. This first post is on the introduction to the topic and to swamp thing. The second will be on plant politics and ethics and the final section will be on the question of love. Please enjoy, read, and please comment. This is a first draft of a paper that I hope to turn into something more. I know its not yet there, but I am hoping that with work and comments from other folks, I can get something pretty great out there in some sort of academic journal.

Thinking like a Swamp Thing: Speculative Philosophy and the Political and Ethical World of Plants

“Fools, if nature were to shrug…or raise an eyebrow…then you would all be gone…” Swamp Thing in Swamp Thing #52 (1986)

Industrialism has caused a ravaging violence to the natural world—the burning of coal and fossil fuels ripped from the earth are leading to a massive alteration of the chemical balance of our atmosphere; the plastics, waste, and poisons manufactured burn the soil and toxify the waters; and the trees, plants, and fungi that make up the landscape are stripped from the land and converted into farms, cities, and roads. Our hubris and ignorance has led to a new geologic epoch—the Anthropocene. The natural world, the raped female of Francis Bacon’s power fantasies, though is not passive. While the human eye often fails to see the agency and politics of the natural world and the human ear fails to understand the words that nature whispers to us during storms and in the calm of a warm spring day, the world stands resistant all around us.

Our culture has defined the agency of the world away with our narrow understanding of terms like “politics” “agency” and “language.” That said the fields of philosophy and environmental political theory have begun expanding their understanding of social and political terms. This is most notably in the work on new materialism and actor network theory, but it is also evident in the earlier philosophic work on deep ecology and feminist transhumanism. This paper proposes a different approach then these and recommends using Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed run of the comic book Swamp Thing (1984-1987) as an example of speculative philosophy. By speculative philosophy, I merely mean that we (as theorists and philosophers) allow fictional narratives to serve as a form of “empirical” example of how ideas and concepts operate.

In this paper, I use Swamp Thing as an attempt to explore how the plant world understands concepts like politics, agency, ethics, and love. In attempting to understand the “other” we create the space needed for a respectful relationship with the natural world that is rooted in solidarity and not in paternalistic stewardship.

Swamp Thing: From Campy Monster to Green Superhero

house of secrets 92The character Swamp Thing was originally created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson and appeared in House of Secrets #92 in 1971 (image 1). Wein and Wrightson followed traditional horror story tropes to create Swamp Thing, creating an interesting but not horribly unique swamp monster (Marvel comics put out Man-Thing, a similar looking swamp monster, in 1971). In his original origin, the biologist Alec Holland, who was working on a biorestorative fertilizer that would allow humanity to radically increase food production in the world and even allow for the deserts of the world to grow nearly unlimited produce, is killed by the Sunderland Corporation. The corporation hired contract killers who planted bombs in his house/lab and the resulting explosion kills his wife and doses Holland’s burning body with his experimental formula. Luckily for him, his body falls into the neighboring swamp and his body, the swamp, and the formula combine together to turn him into a half-human half-plant monster.

In Wein and Wrightson’s hands Swamp Thing developed into a well-regarded horror comic that followed the “monster of the week” formula found in b-movies and campy tv shows. In every issue Swamp Thing would come into contact with another monster and they would battle it out. Over time a slowly developing larger narrative developed that linked together corporate conspiracies, supernatural magic, and traditional monster horror narratives. Wein and Wrightson saw their Swamp Thing series ended in only 13 issues but the series was brought back in 1982 to capitalize on the forthcoming movie. Martin Pasko wrote the first 19 issues of the new series and continued developing the conspiracy aspects of the original series. When then unknown author Alan Moore was given the writing duties to the series (in issue #20) it was a confusing mess, with loose ends at every turn.

In Alan Moore’s hands Swamp Thing, as a character and a series, was radically transformed. No longer did it just hem to the “horror” or “monster” genre but it became a transformative series that defied categorization—combining aspects of horror, science fiction, superheroes, romance stories, and supernatural fiction—and pushed the boundaries of comics.

In order to transform the series, Moore first had to do the unthinkable, and in his first issue (in which he was forced to end a series arch started by Pasko) he killed Swamp Thing. In this issue Swamp Thing is chased by a corporate death squad, cornered and killed in a halo of bullets. The killing of the main character was needed in order to have the character reborn and the series purged of itfirst alan moore issues past associations. In Moore’s second issue (#21), which some consider to be one of the best written comics of all time, Swamp Thing’s body is dissected by the Sunderland Corporation, who wants to explore the possibility of turning the biorestorative formula into a chemical weapon. In order to understand Swamp Thing’s biology they bring in Dr. Jason Woodrue, a brilliant scientist turned super-villain (the Floronic Man) who had previously turned himself into a plant-man and had the power to communicate with, and control, plants. While examining Swamp Thing’s body Dr. Woodrue comes to understand that Alec Holland was dead, but that he died well before Swamp Thing was killed by the Sunderland Corporation. He comes to realize that Holland died in the explosion that created Swamp Thing and that Swamp Thing was not part man and part plant but was in fact a sentient plant that was imbued with some of Alec Holland’s memories. Dr. Woodrue claimed that just like planarian worms, which he asserts can gain the memories of other worms they eat “The implication is that consciousness and intelligence can be passed on as foodstuffs! That second alan moore covermaybe explains the custom among cannibal tribes of eating the wise man after his death in order to receive his wisdom (Swamp Thing #21 1984). Shortly after Dr. Woodrue has this realization, Swamp Thing awakens (bullets cannot kill a vegetable) and proceeds to hunt down and kill the CEO of the Sunderland Corporation and, in a mischievous plan orchestrated by Dr. Woodrue, he gets access to his “medical” report and learns that, as Woodrue says: “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! A plant, trying its best to be Alec Holland (Swamp Thing #21 1984).” Eight issues later, with issue #28, Swamp Thing digs up the bone remains of Alec Holland and buries himself into a shallow grave he digs next to the swamp; at this moment the character is changed—he has buried what he once thought was his body and has come to fully grasp the fact that he is no human. This decentering the human from Swamp Thing’s story does not lead to a mournful sadness in which the character laments his lost humanity, but instead is shown as a liberatory moment where Swamp Thing can shake many of the human structured confines that distorted his connection with the natural world.

The loss of Swamp Thing’s human ontological foundation allows for Moore to radically transform the narrative and expand and develop a powerful and important mythology—one that has drastically altered the DC comics universe. Over the next 40 issues Moore turns Swamp Thing into an “avatar” of the green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. The Parliament of Trees, which monitors the Green, informs Swamp Thing that he is the newest in a long line of Erl-kings, and that he is tasked with protecting the green and maintaining the planetary balance with the red, the force that connects all animal life (whose avatar is Animal Man), and the Black, which connects all rot and disease. The mythos created here ends up promoting a deep ecological ethos in which all life is interconnected into complex webs of relations and where balance and order is needed to maintain a healthy world, but also hints the limitations and failure of Deep Ecology to correctly develop a plant centered politics or ethics.swamp thing arms up


Thinking like a Swamp Thing: Developing a Plant Politics and Ethics