Friday Flotsam: Grammar, Super-Heroes, and Socio-Political Stuff

1. I’m learning grammar at the moment. I figured after five books, a few short stories, and dozens of articles published, it was probably time. Don’t want to rush into these things.

Obviously, I already knew a fair bit of grammar, but I knew it either instinctively, simply out of use, or from distant recollections of how it was taught in school. Now I’m going back and applying myself to acquire greater mastery of the subject by following a more classical style (I started off of Sister Miriam Joseph’s book The Trivium and am building from there).

Because what I am finding, here as in elsewhere, is that part of the reason why the grammar we learn in school is mostly useless and doesn’t stick is because it’s taught in isolation; hermetically sealed off from the other subjects as a set of seemingly arbitrary laws. But you can’t really learn grammar properly without learning some philosophy along with it; the difference between substance and accident, for instance, and the nature and purpose of language as such. Most importantly, as you study grammar, you begin to pay more attention to what is actually being said in a given sentence, how the different elements work together, and the difference between what is and what is symbolized.

Placed as a foundation of knowledge and in context with some basic philosophy, grammar suddenly becomes much more interesting.

2. Among other things, you start to notice the oddity of certain idioms. This week my attention was arrested on the common construction “there was”. As in, “There once was a man from Nantucket…” What does ‘there’ refer to here? Ordinarily it indicates a specific place in relation to the speaker: “I looked and there was the shark.” But in this form, there seemingly has no content.

What is happening here is that there is used to present a hypothetical to the listener’s mind. It is the equivalent of the British barrister’s “I submit to you that, in fact, he sailed out to sea in a bucket!” That is, it asserts an idea for the audience’s consideration. There refers to “before your eyes” or “in your mind’s eye…”

And it’s distinct from another ‘there’ phrase: There is a God. In this case, there is not presenting a hypothetical, but stating a universal fact. Therefore, there refers to reality as such.

3. More My Hero Academia and getting into the really dark sections. The show remains quite excellent, with a very strongly realized world and some great character work. I’m especially impressed by how well the core group of students comes across; there are twenty of them, and yet almost all of them come across as distinct individuals, with their own contributions and character arcs (especially impressive when you remember there are also a number of teachers and adults to juggle, not to mention a whole second class).

For instance, there are two characters who hang around about the ‘middle’ of the action (not the background, but rarely center-stage), mostly sniping at each other, but usually connected in some way. Then at a crucial moment, the one is asked to think of whatever’s dearest to him…and he thinks of her, and that gives him the charge to overcome his fear and do what he needs to. It’s a very sweet, low-key little arc that lands beautifully. There are lots of bits like that, and most of the class gets a focus at one point or another. Another character is focused on being ‘manly’ and ‘chivalrous’, which pays off when he goes toe-to-toe with a powerful villain, who ends up so impressed by his fortitude that he calls a temporary truce in respect to allow him to heal up.

4. On the other hand, one set of episodes focused entirely on the League of Villains, and man, that was a slog, because these are not likable people. I’ve talked about them before, but I found them to be an almost uniformly repulsive set of psychos and hypocrites whom I definitely do not like spending time with.

That said, the author does a very good job of depicting the kind of self-justifying hypocrisy that such people often engage with. Almost too good a job, as it seems a fair number of fans buy into it (“Aw, the vampire girl who stabbed her classmates because her parents didn’t want her killing small animals is so sympathetic!”). For instance, at one point one of the heroes is obliged to use lethal force against one of the League members, as they were in a very crucial situation, the man’s power was extremely dangerous, and he refused to surrender. The other villains immediately act shocked and horrified, crying about how “They murdered him!”, speculating as to whether the heroes mean to kill them too, and generally taking this as confirmation that they are the real victims.

This from people who have themselves murdered and attempted to murder any number of innocents, including children, without the least remorse. In fact, the dying villain’s last act is to kill one of the other heroes in the same way he himself was killed (and without any of the efforts to de-escalate that he had been offered), just to drive home the point.

It’s a genuinely disturbing and very familiar dynamic that doesn’t get displayed so often in fiction, at least not so finely. They are very much the true savages who “laugh when they hurt you and howl when you hurt them.”

5. I’m on the fence about the trope of superheroes not using lethal force. On the one hand, I can understand the thinking; when, say, Spider-Man is facing your average thug, the difference in power level is so extreme that there are few scenarios where killing would be necessary. And even with the supervillains, the core idea of a superhero is to be a force for hope and positivity; that when he shows up, it means things are going to be okay. Introducing killing, or even the possibility of killing, would tarnish that.

Furthermore, the original concept of the superhero was that he was an exaggerated ‘Good Samaritan’; just an ordinary citizen trying to help in a crisis. Therefore, he does not hold any of the ruling authority’s power over life and death, so for him to kill would be a usurpation.

(This, by the way, is why Captain America can kill and Batman can’t: the former is a soldier, the latter is a private citizen. Though I think you could make a case that his semi-aristocratic position gives him a degree of responsibility and so authority in that area, if you wanted to, but more on that below).

On the other hand, raging lunatics threatening innocent lives really do not have much of a right to live, and there are times when lethal force really seems like it would be justified to protect the innocent. In cases of large-scale attacks by multiple armed opponents who are themselves willing to use lethal force, for instance (a Die Hard scenario), or a powerful villain threatening many lives. In such a case the hero might not necessarily go for lethal force, but I would say he shouldn’t hold back from it either.

The Incredibles did this really well, where the Parr family don’t exactly try to kill Syndrome’s goons, but they don’t have any qualms about employing lethal or potentially lethal force against them either. This is because they’re in a desperate situation on an isolated island full of violent men, where hesitation could get them or their children killed.

In any case, things like Batman going out of his way to save the Joker really seem like they’re pulling back the curtain to show the writers saying, “we just don’t want the Joker to die and we wrote ourselves into a corner.”

In MHA, the situation is altered by the fact that the heroes actually are officially licensed by the state and so do hold some of its life-and-death authority, after the fashion of police officers (though it’s noted that heroes are still generally expected not to kill people).

6. Overall, I think this trope is largely due to the social context in which the genre arose (socio-political digression incoming!). The superhero genre is a distinctly modern one, originally from America. Now, one of the core features of the modern nation-state is the notion that the state has a monopoly on violence (the aforementioned authority over life and death); they can use coercive force against criminals and foreign armies, but individual citizens, however powerful or wealthy, cannot, at least not legally. Even in cases when it is their own property or lives, they are expected to ‘leave it to the authorities’ wherever possible, and only reluctantly allowed any scope to exercise violence on their own behalf. This authority is never supposed to be arbitrary in the western tradition, but when the time comes it is the state apparatus and no one else who exercises it.

Superheroes, on the other hand, are essentially aristocratic concepts; the idea of the man in a unique position of power and responsibility who is expected to use that position to guard his people both from without and within. But a genuine aristocracy is deadly to the nation-state, because the aristocrat represents a counter-balancing independent force. He is not, individually, as powerful as the central authority, but he’s powerful enough to be reckoned with. It’s always necessary, therefore, for centralizing authority to neutralize or minimize aristocratic elements (though, ironically, these same states often came from aristocracies chafing against their restrictions: it’s all a complicated set of progressive back-stabbings and evolving structures).

The rule against killing allows the two to coincide; it keeps the super-powered aristocracy in its box, as it were, and places it firmly under the nation-state. Batman can act as an aristocrat as long as he does not go so far as to claim that all-important power over life and death, because then he would become fully independent of the state and so be a potential threat to it. He would be moving from one social paradigm: that only the state has the right to violence, to another: that the lord rules in his own lands.

Which is better or worse is another question, of course.

7. Incidentally, some commentators (including Pilgrim’s Pass) are saying that the above may be changing, with the rise of private militaries and security forces (that is, mercenaries) being employed by corporations and other groups, and the increasing instability and deterioration of the national militaries. If and when there comes a time when a private military force successfully defeats or even severely challenges the military of a major nation, the nation state as we know it will be done, practically speaking (though I’m sure it’ll linger on as a semi-impotent framework for a long while). Because once the nation state loses its monopoly on violence, the whole dynamic of the world changes.

I really think that’s inevitable at this point, though I’m no expert. Food for thought, anyway.

2 thoughts on “Friday Flotsam: Grammar, Super-Heroes, and Socio-Political Stuff

  1. For what it’s worth, I think “there was” is simply the past tense of “here is”. “Here’s a man with a wooden leg for his only friend and no spare change to speak of.” “There once was a man with a wooden leg for his only friend and no spare change to speak of.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interestingly, if you press some of the more anarcho-libertarian types on the whole concept of government and monopoly of violence, it comes out that they (at least, the one’s I’ve argued with) view “violence” as a more provocative word for coercerion. Which, of course, they object to regardless of who does it and that’s why they object to government. But if you have a right, and somebody tries to violate it, and you stop them by force, they think of that as completely different from the government committing “violence”, because you’re not coercing anyone (in their thinking), you’re merely saving yourself from violence or coercion from them.

    I’m not 100% clear on whether this is mixing up the “the state has a monopoly on violence” concept and the anarcho-libertarians’ own anti-coercion “principle”, on the part of those I argued with, or if “violence” really means “coercion” in the modern idea of the state having a “monopoly on violence”.

    (It’s a pretty artificial idea either way, niether very true to life as it actually happens nor very natural in terms of humanity and philosophy.)

    Liked by 1 person

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