The X-Men and Overcoming Power by Following the “Rules”- The Ethics of Foucault
In our last post, we discussed feminism and its encouragement to regard superheroines as equal in their ability to use their powers to make the world a better place. This has been a long struggle, and as we argued, its not over yet. But what drives this change? How did we come from a place where taking Wonder Woman off the front line and making her the Justice Society of America’s secretary was not only acceptable, but encouraged? Why is that now regarded as tasteless, while in 1942 it was normative?
As tempting as it is to write off the people of the 40′s as backwards, that’s too simple an answer. After all some of the greatest heroes performed their greatest work in that time. Think of Einstein. No, something changed in the way people thought, meaning this is a job for philosophy to explain how something regarded as normative becomes insulting. Thankfully, the philosopher/hero Michel Foucault gave us a possible answer.
Foucault started by pointing out that rules are used to oppress those not in power, such as homosexuals and those of other races. But those rules can serve another purpose; they are ultimately the tool which the oppressed use to overthrow their oppressors. To wit:
Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who have used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them.
- Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 151
In short, overcoming the way people think is a matter of taking rules which society takes for granted, then turning those rules against oppressors, thus subverting the system from the inside.
One comic in particular seems to have seized on Foucault’s philosophy: the Uncanny X-Men. The X-Men fight for mutants to be recognized as equals by a society that fears and hates them. And society does so by regarding the mutants as “not human”. We see this in the classic X-Men graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills.
In God Loves, Man Kills, the X-Men go up against an insane preacher named William Stryker, who argues mutants, like the X-Men, are a deviation from God’s plan for humanity, and thus less than human. In a telling line, he argues mutants are “Homo Superior- which relates to a different species altogether.”
Stryker attempts to kill all the mutants on earth, but the X-Men thwart his plan. When the X-Men eventually confront the insane reverend, they argue against Stryker by challenging his definition of “human,” defining it as how one lives versus who one is (a virtue ethic versus a deontological ethic, for those who are keeping track at home). But in order to cut the argument short, Stryker pulls a gun and prepares to shoot the X-Men:
But all of a sudden, Stryker is shot, by a police officer. Society has accepted the X-Men’s definition, and used it against Stryker.
Here we see Foucault’s philosophy in action: the X-Men are saved by a rule the Reverend Stryker advocated: protect human life. But that rule was turned against Stryker when the X-Men managed to convince a policeman, society’s law enforcer, that “human life” included mutants. Cyclops articulates this idea at the comic’s conclusion, “But don’t you see, we’re human too! A different branch, but the same basic tree! Such a fundamental shift can’t be imposed- to have any meaning, it must grow from within!” (emphasis mine)
And that’s Foucault’s point exactly: take the rules imposed, then turn them to benefit the people group being oppressed.
Its worth noting, though, that Foucault didn’t end his thinking at that point. Because, you see, power is not static. In Foucault’s thinking, there is no point at which everyone, everywhere is free from oppression. As power moves from one group to another, that group will implement new rules, which will be used to oppress new groups. Those rules will then be turned against the oppressors, the new group will attain power…and so on. In other words, as mutants gain more power, they will use that power to oppress humans, and then instead of God Loves, Man Kills, we get House of M.
And that, my fellow heroes, is why the world will always need heroes. As long as power exists, it will be abused. And wherever power is abused, it is our place to make sure justice prevails, no matter who abuses it.
Even if it’s us.