The Road to Hell: A review of "Red Son"
This is a reprint of an essay I wrote in my undergrad for a political theory class. It was one of those fun, unrigorous classes where you got to do a lot of arguing and speculation. The writing style is my older, hackneyed style of an undergraduate essay, which I make no apology for. You have been warned. The professor asked us to do a political-philosophical analysis of both a graphic novel and a children’s book. The graphic novel I chose was “Red Son,” about a Superman who landed in the USSR instead of the USA. You can read it here.
We had to refer to the assigned texts, so you may notice some awkward textual references to McLuhan. Also, my knowledge of gnosticism was much cruder. Obviously, this essay contains spoilers.
Red Son derives its initial appeal from a clever premise: that of a communist Superman. I will argue that Red Son's Superman is actually something much more radical: he is the Anti Christ, an anti Savior who, like a deluded Demiurge, has mistaken this world for the true one, and has fulfilled the demonic promise of technocratic planning by abandoning spiritual struggle for material gain.
This interpretation might not be an obvious one. Red Son's complexity derives from the fact that it is not simply the story of a “bad Superman.” The inversion in Red Son is a geopolitical and ideological one, not a moral one. Superman retains his upright moral character and selfless dedication to the protection of the weak. This locked in path of moral interventionism in the human world leads him inevitably to a conclusion that he cannot accept. In this sense, he enacts the tension between technological optimists and technological pessimists. Technological pessimists can point out the unintended consequences of new technologies, arguing for a zero or negative sum interpretation of technology, where gains require corresponding losses, or extensions imply amputations. Technological optimists, frustrated with this response, can legitimately ask if it is moral not to take the shortest and most effective path away from human suffering.
If technology is the extension of biological human capacity, Superman has been extended near infinitely on every axis. If humans move mostly in two dimensions, Superman moves comfortably in three. He can see through physical obstructions, has near infinite strength, and is able to both process information and move at great speeds. As a super being with an unbending moral code, Superman is the ultimate humanitarian technology and a total example of the zero sum Faustian bargain of technical progress, saving humanity from all of her problems but utterly removing her autonomy and agency in the process. If accelerative technology is as disruptive as McLuhan argues, Superman's disruption to humanity's development is near total. He saves humanity from herself, but he cannot let her eat the bitter fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and gain the wisdom that only comes with pain.
Superman is dimly conscious of his impact. In conversation with Wonderwoman, he laments the carelessness that his rescuing engenders, a world where precautions such as life jackets have been abandoned. But he has mistaken the content of what he does as more important than the fact of it. He is trapped in a moral interventionist narrative that leaves no room for outside vantage points or reflection. For all of his power and righteousness, he is a finite entity, and so cannot make the decision to grant humanity free will and all of the suffering that this entails. It is only the profoundly amoral Lex Luthor who is able to see the consequences of Superman's interventions from the outside.
This tension is captured in Superman's thwarting of Pyotr's suicide attempt. Suicide is one of the freest of human acts: it refuses capitulation to the deepest of human instincts, that of self preservation. Pyotr, in a moment of self reflection, realizes that he is, in fact, an evil human being. Superman, an untainted being of deep moral conviction, cannot empathize with him, catching the bullet and flying off quickly as Pyotr is about to confess to the act of parricide. Later it is revealed that suicide is prevented in Superman's technocratic utopia by adding drugs to the drinking water.
Both Marxism and technological progress have been deeply troubling to Christian philosophers and theologians. Marxism has an undeniably millenial current. But communist ideology has been, overall, hostile to religion, seeing any attempt to separate the question of human want and suffering from the material world as being a narcotizing distraction. The productive capacity of capitalism, once freed from the distorting effects of the bourgeoisie and marketplace, could be applied to material human betterment. There could be no higher good than this. What Christianity deferred to the coming of the Kingdom, Marx insisted on realizing through the proletarian revolution. Soviet Marxism, with its central planning and five-year plans, was a failed technocratic project.
Progress, like Christianity, is a wider and more enduring belief than Marxism. Actually existing communism might now be largely past, but the premise that technical solutions will be found for human problems is a core narrative of late modern society. When confronted with the enduring phantoms of disease, famine, malnutrition and other ancient problems, it seems monstrous not to correct them as quickly as possible. Problems created by previous technologies, such as global warming or the storage of toxic waste, seem solvable only through technological application. The continuing appeal of technological progress, and the costs of continuing or discontinuing such a path, is what makes Red Son more than just a clever re-imagining of a bygone era.
“King makers in the Party were already circling, eager to anoint this reluctant successor...”
The death of Stalin is a time of trial and temptation for Superman. He retreats from the world into solitude by circling the Earth at trans light velocity. Pyotr personifies the forces of this world in presenting Superman with the possibility of leadership. Superman's initial refusal is couched in humility: “I'm a worker...” But what the powers and principalities in Moscow cannot persuade him to do, a childhood friend with two hungry children can. The savior chooses the kingdoms of the Earth. He has made a decision to save humanity, not in a haphazard fashion from individual misfortunes, such as falling satellites, industrial accidents or the occasional alien invader, but from the material adversaries of want and scarcity. Superman is not the Demiurge, a false and deluded creator, but he is a false and deluded savior. He mistakes this world, the material one, for the one which truly matters. Humanity's sufferings cannot have any redemptive quality, they are only an aberration which he must use every available power at his disposal to eliminate.
Pyotr Iosif Roslov
If we take seriously Marshall McLuhan's assertion that technology is an extension of man's biological capacity, we must conclude that politics and economics are essentially technological. The exercise of power, which I will define in a political sense as the ability to compel others to do what they would not otherwise do or to dissuade them from doing what they would otherwise do, makes them extensions of the one who commands. Superman is McLuhan's quintessential technological somnambulist, so preoccupied with his instrumental ends that he cannot understand the greater impact of his means. To fully engage in his moral mission, he must supplement his own considerable superpowers with the technology of politics, a technology rife with moral risk. He does not understand that with this decision, an invisible and insidious tarnish has begun to cling to his armor of righteousness.
Superman is innocent of politics. Despite having knowledge of his predecessor's crimes, he believes he can escape the moral dilemmas and contradictions of politics. He can disarm any (super) human enemy non lethally. His super senses and the speed at which he can process information make him a one man totalitarian state without precedent in human history. Without realizing it, he has embarked on a path that must end his innocence. A power not traditionally attributed to Superman is added by technological means. He can regulate and control human behavior. He leaves dissidents with their lives but takes their free will. A momentary crack in Superman's facade appears in the moment following his victory over Batman. Batman chooses to end his own life, detonating a suicide bomb and spraying his viscera all over Superman, rather than suffer the loss of free will that Superman has technologically engineered.
The Gnostics would sometimes invert Biblical narrative, recasting villains as heroes who resisted the insane and evil Demiurge. They were the authors of the provocatively titled “Gospel of Judas Iscariot.” These inversions served to raise a point about the nature of the entity overseeing these events. Heroes were villains, villains heroes.
Lex Luthor appears here as an antagonist to Superman's demiurgic character. Lex Luthor has no superpower beyond his freakish intellect, but is morally unconstrained. He murders his underlings and is willing to risk an entire city on his own country's soil. Just as Superman here is a villain without being a moral inversion of his American self, so is Lex Luthor a hero without being a moral inversion of himself. Day to day moral exigencies do not concern him in the slightest. He understands the nature of power and is not disturbed by it. He is human in the worst senses of the word. His sole mission is that humanity should taste good and evil for herself.
But this allows Lex Luthor to be aware of the world in a way that Superman cannot. Lex Luthor sees Superman's collateral impact on human development because he does not share his moral mission or its attendant tunnel vision. Superman is like Marshall McLuhan's technical specialist, who can recognize symptoms and their causes, but cannot attend to the overall condition of being sick. Lex Luthor, who does not care one whit if humanity suffers or not, is in the end its true savior.
At this point, it is worth noting that Lex Luthor would be, at least in Marshall McLuhan's view, the quintessential artist. As someone who is profoundly disturbed by the disruptive effects that Superman, the unbridled technological impulse, is wreaking on society, he moves in McLuhan's words “from the ivory tower to the control tower.” Or, in Luthor's case, from the laboratory to the White House. Worth noting is how precisely McLuhan's interpretation of the artist's role here corresponds to Lex Luthor's role in Red Son: “The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old.” We may chafe at finding one as cold blooded as Lex Luthor heroic, but as one capable of anticipating Superman's effect on humanity, the “sociological disaster” that he represents, Lex Luthor plays the role of McLuhan's artist to a T. It is not through technological sophistication or the use of physical force that Lex Luthor ultimately defeats Superman, but through the use of a single phrase crafted to strike at Superman's very sense of moral self worth, one which brings him suddenly and violently to a full aesthetic and emotional impact with reality.
At this point, an objection can be raised. Isn't Lex Luthor every bit the technocrat that Superman is? Doesn't Superman's defeat pave the way for a world governed by Luthorism? It is with a completely unselfconscious irony that Lex Luthor refers to Superman as a “sick totalitarian control freak”, and with a subtle, wink-and-nudge breaking of the fourth wall Lex Luthor speculates that if Superman had landed in America, they might have been “the best of friends.” Something is awry here.
The narrative of Red Son as a techno-pessimist morality play would seem to suffer in the last part. But it need only do so if we conclude that in this piece, technology represents technology instead of assuming that Superman represents technology. Superman is, here, a radically new technology. He is the equivalent of introducing television to a preliterate society. The shock is a severe one.
McLuhan mentions the example of an Indian village which, as part of a development project, had indoor plumbing installed. When people were no longer required to leave their homes to get water, the social fabric was effected. Under Lex Luthor, the technocratic impulse is fully subsumed to humanity, even if it is one of humanity's morally worst specimens. And the result is, in the end, far better than if technology were to drop literally out of the sky, imbued with agency, and begin setting aright human affairs. In discovering that Superman is, in fact, a distant descendant of Luthor's from the future, we understand fully the point of the narrative, which qualifies its techno-pessimism in the final chapter: Superman is a savior whose time is not yet come, a technology which far exceeds the capacity of human civilization to control or regulate. Such a technology, loosed on the world, inevitably makes human beings extensions of itself and its own will. To overcome this, it took a ruthless and amoral Lex Luthor, a man profoundly adjusted to his time and place in history.