Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The New, Improved Opioid of the Masses

So I had a thought, one that is doomed to be utterly unpopular.  It came as I reflected on the latest mass-market production from the superhero-industrial complex, which churns out film after film about the godlike beings that seem to sell so many movie tickets.

Superhero narratives, or so I've mused before, are nothing more and nothing less than the god-fables of a post-theistic age.  They reach back into a human hunger for primal polytheistic stories, as immensely powerful beings who represent archetypes of the human experience do amazing things.  They battle.  They squabble.  They canoodle.  Then they battle some more.  It matters not if it's Marduk or Superman, Shango or Storm, Thor or...Thor.  

We love these stories, and have as long as we've been able to tell tales.  They're fun, and they speak truths about both the world and human nature.

So that leaves me with assertion A: Superhero stories serve the same purpose in our culture as the stories of the gods in polytheistic cultures.

Which brings me to assertion B, that old classic Marxist line.  As Karl would have it, religion is the opiate of the masses.    Now, as a Christian and a pastor, I've got some real beef with that as a general statement.  Faith has power to transform culture, it's oriented to the truly transcendent...shatters the power-idols of culture and nation.  In the United States, abolitionists were fiercely, intensely religious people, as were the most effective leaders of the civil rights movement.  Elsewhere, faith has given peoples the strength to defy imperial and colonialist power.

But people of faith would be deluding themselves if they didn't acknowledge how religion has also been co-opted, over and over again, in the service of human power.  It has been used to justify the domination of whole peoples, and so fused with the ethos of our concupiscent power structures as to give some legitimacy to Karl's point.

Assertion B is then nothing more than a modified version of Marx: Religion often serves the purposes of power, agitating or pacifying a populace towards ends that have nothing to do with the transcendent.

So IF (Superhero Movies are Post-Theistic Archetypal Narratives) AND (Religion is the NeoOpiate of teh Masses), THEN _______________?

Given the corporate power dynamics behind most of these stories, my sense of these tales is that there's a tendency for them to become...distractions.  Power has always known that nothing keeps the masses placated like good ol' fashioned circus.

Take, for example, the two big news stories about Africa recently.  Story number one was, of course, Black Panther.  This old and awkwardly well-intended creation of 1970s comic books (Jungle Action!) has been reworked and repurposed into an Afrofuturist fable, in which a technologically sophisticated and fiercely independent African nation stands proud.  It's undeniably cool.  Africans like it.

But then there was also the news from the real world we inhabit.  That was much quieter, but more of a harbinger of Africa's future.  South Africa is running out of potable water, after a catastrophic and unprecedented drought.   The city of Cape Town is almost completely dry, as public reservoirs and private wells go empty.   Draconian conservation measures are in place, as the city of half-a-million struggles to stave off what they're calling "Day Zero:" the day the local water utility will be forced to turn off the taps.

On the one hand, the fantasy, involving alternate pasts and vibranium.  On the other, the reality, in which the future looks...different.  Harder.  More demanding.

And so we turn our attention to the appealing daydream.