A glowing ring descends from the sky. It beckons: “You have the ability to overcome great fear. You are chosen.”
A letter arrives by owl: “We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”
A door into danger opens: “Welcome to the X-Men! Hope you survive the experience.”
Readers have long imagined themselves into such encounters, taken here from Green Lantern, the Potterverse, and Marvel Comics, but common to many fictional realms. On the surface, these tableaux are vehicles of adolescent wish-fulfillment, summoning us into adventure beyond childhood. Lurking below, however, are traditional rites of transformation—prophetic commissioning, artistic epiphany, and scientific discovery—and their institutional equivalents—joining the assembly, founding a movement, and advancing higher learning. By extending these traditions, contemporary media transmit the modernist revival of art, ritual, and myth meant to challenge and enlighten us. This is not an evil science project or a plan for world domination; popular cultures evolve by figurative means the kinds of people who can literally defend the world. Like the pulse of a Green Lantern or a witch’s spell, tales of the fantastic shape the creatures and communities we need to become. We have only to heed the call! Enter themetahuman.
In comic books, film, television, and video games, a metahuman, or meta, is a person with extraordinary abilities (meta, “beyond” + human)—hero, villain, or otherwise. Popularized in the Pixar film The Incredibles (2004), the term originates in the DC Comics limited series Invasion!, published in 1988. Though the term metahuman now denotes anyone with powers, Invasion! emphasizes the origin of these abilities in genetic variation, revealing the influence of an earlier term, mutant, from Marvel Comics. As book 1 opens, an alien race called the Dominators expose kidnapped humans to physical threats that would destroy normal people. Only seven test subjects survive, and the Dominators conclude that these survivors possess latent superpowers. This potential is considered a threat to Dominator hegemony. Our planet “is apparently capable of generating a dazzling array of heroes possessed of powers as unpredictable as they are dangerous.” This danger prompts the invasion, which aims to destroy the genetic capacity to develop superpowers, known as the metagenome. Invasion! and its legacy shifted the discourse of power in Anglophone popular culture beyond the realm of comics. While Marvel had been publishing stories about genetic variation since the 1960s in its iconic X-Men titles, DC heroes such as Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Superman gained their abilities from sources other than mutation. With its turn to the genome as the origin of superpowers, DC emphasized the ability of humanity to change for the better. The planet was in peril, and humans naturally developed the powers to save it.
Yet capability is not enough. We must also choose to defend the world. The ethical commitment to world defense requires a culture of metahumanism. In the absence of a community of practice, we find the aloof Übermensch—or worse, the villain. As Ramzi Fawaz explains, “What distinguished the superhero from the merely superhuman . . . was its articulation of an extraordinary body to an ethical responsibility to use one’s power in service to the wider community.” Therefore, metahumanism requires a process of learning to evoke, discipline, and apply one’s powers to the common good. Like the X-Men, we have to cultivate mutant abilities in order to make a better world. Metahumanist discourse democratizes the aristocratic concept of the Übermensch and negates eugenic typologies of the superior breed threatened by criminal, insane, and degenerate forces. This would not be the first time that a threatened population had imagined superhuman mobilization. Many histories of the superhero note that Superman, Captain America, and other Golden Age heroes were created by Jewish Americans as ironic reversals of the Aryan overman. Steve Rogers and Clark Kent may look like Nazi ideals, but they are enemies of fascism. In the idea of the metahuman, the irony untwists into a democracy of virtue: now a hero can look like anyone. “What if,” the Dominators muse, “it is discovered that this genetic trait is inherent not just in some humans, but all?” In that case, the power to protect the world waits in everyone, and it is the function of metahumanism to cultivate our capacity to defend the Earth, even from our former selves and their planetary systems of doom. Herein, I suggest, lies the potential of metahumanism to inform the project of constructing ecotopia in the twenty-first century.
Metahumanism is necessary because of the effects of the Anthropocene, the term proposed for the geologic era in which human activity comes to radically alter the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Environmental humanists and activists have adapted this term as a tool of critique. As Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz explain, “the Anthropocene is a sign of our power, but also of our impotence” because it is marked by a damaged atmosphere, disrupted climate, mass extinction, and violence against the poor. Though their book is called The Shock of the Anthropocene, they insist that “we should not act as astonished ingénues who suddenly discover they are transforming the planet”: the project of the elites of the Global North has been the mastery of nature throughout modernity. The name of the epoch forces us to ask, “What to do now?” Critics have already taken the term to task for ascribing the problem to Anthropos (“man” as a species) without contending with the systems of power—global capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy—that drive ecological degradation. However, they go beyond critique to offer new names for other ages that struggle to emerge. My favorite is the Phronocene, the age of practical wisdom (from the Greek word phronesis, “intelligence” or “wisdom”), which would mark a disruption of the disruption of Earth systems, an attempt to live wisely with other species and elements. The Phronocene would be a chastened age of ecotopia—not a perfected world, but a homeplace honored with genuine care. This chronotope fits Donna Haraway’s project of “staying with the trouble”—neither repressing awareness of the crisis nor despairing of effective action. The question arises, then, of how to move beyond adjustments in individual consumption—imagined as governmental and personal austerity—to evolve cultures capable of staying with the trouble in order to cultivate planetary flourishing. Metahumanism would help us to move beyond tropes of the Anthropos as supervillain, the Anthropocene as world domination, and academic humanism as sidekick to the Big Bad. As I argue elsewhere, nerd culture offers tropes, narratives, and ethics that ground metahumanist philosophy and practice. Here I offer two visions drawn from American literature and television: Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–89) and showrunner Greg Berlanti’s TV version of The Flash (2015).
Though Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy is not an ecotopian work, it fits the parameters of what scholars call a critical utopia, which Ildney Cavalcanti argues displays a consciousness of utopian tropes and offers a revision of the “ideal place” through the integration of dystopian elements. In the opening book of the trilogy, Dawn, Butler tells the story of Lilith Iyapo, an African American woman who wakes up on an alien spaceship hundreds of years after a nuclear war. While she and other survivors slept, the Oankali—a race of tentacled gene traders with three sexes and a strong sense of family—restored the Earth to a semblance of ecological health. They offer to send humans to it, as long as we agree to interbreed with the Oankali to produce a hybrid race that will inherit the Earth. Though critics emphasize the overtones of slavery, colonialism, and genocide in the novel, Lilith is a moral agent driven by her consciousness of these histories. Lilith can neither escape the Oankali nor deny the near destruction of her world by nuclear war, and the Oankali forbid human self-rule on Earth. Having failed to escape, she chooses to mentor the new hybrid species, which inherits human intelligence without the drive for domination that the Oankali consider humanity’s fatal flaw. Lilith’s choice preserves a human legacy under threat of annihilation, but it also reflects the will to restore other species and the biosphere itself. Lilith is thus an exemplar of first-generation metahumanism: a teacher who ensures the continuation of history by choosing to shift shape, hoping that her students will be better but knowing that they will be different. The next generation gains metahuman powers such as rapid healing and great strength, but their most importantpower is an absence: they have no instinct for social hierarchy and therefore no urge to fight for dominance. Butler’s critical ecotopia wrestles with the drive to be free, to reject Oankali compulsion, in light of species preservation and planetary health. It offers metahumanists the knowledge that change depends on the power to relinquish dominion in favor of alien pleasures.
If the Xenogenesis trilogy finally grants the status of world-historical figure to a woman of color, the TV series The Flash moves the white savior into a matrix of multiracial community. In its current incarnation on the CW network, The Flash enacts a standard comic book origin narrative: young Barry Allen is caught in an explosion that grants him superhuman speed and resilience. In his classic form, the Flash is a modern Hermes, the youngest and most lighthearted of heroes. In bringing him to television, producer Greg Berlanti poses the questions: How can anyone be wise enough to use superpowers ethically? How can virtue and good judgment team up for the common good? Berlanti answers the first question by surrounding the Flash with family, friends, and colleagues who mediate his metamorphosis from insecure youth to responsible adulthood. Even his opponents teach him to be a better meta. Season 1 makes clear that it is impossible for an isolated individual to use his powers rightly: the greater hero is the extended community. The Flash is really Team Flash, grounded in its beloved Central City. Seasons 2 and 3 extend the logic of metahuman praxis into that community. As they help Barry develop, others discover their own gifts. Some of these gifts are less paranormal than exemplary: Iris West, who in previous iterations of the Flash’s franchise was the girlfriend, discovers that she needs no catastrophe to manifest the intelligence, cunning, and bravery of an investigative journalist. The cultivation of individual gifts strengthens the team’s network of virtue and wisdom, which helps the city to flourish. In this framework, the hero is the lightning that catalyzes a metahuman polity.
Given the metahumanist focus on transformation, it is no wonder that the Xenogenesis trilogy and The Flash draw from the tradition of the bildungsroman, the novel of maturation, self-cultivation, and entry into adult society. For the same reasons, both feature pedagogical subplots in which students grow up to be mentors themselves. This is useful for a practical ecotopianism because it answers the vexing question of how to get there from here: education must be one vector of ecotopian culture. This is more than theoretical, however. There are already pedagogical projects that feature metahumanist principles. One example of pedagogical metahumanism is Operation Superpower, a participatory chamber opera founded by a composer, two baritones, and a pianist. It began touring in 2013 for K–12 audiences at schools, theaters, and opera houses in the United States and Canada. The premise of the project is that “a SUPERPOWER is a student’s inner talent and a SUPERHERO is one who uses that talent to help others!” Structured loosely around the origin stories of an alien orphan (Superman) and an urban vigilante (Batman), the performance asks student audiences to respond to the musicians with demonstrations of their own powers, artistic or otherwise. This structure creates the reciprocity that the project asks teachers to extend after the performance is over. To provide a framework for local pedagogy, the performers offer theory and praxis: icebreakers and vocal warm-ups followed by an exposition of the heroic virtues of courage, hope, imagination, honesty, and friendship. This is an example of Aristotle’s theory that virtues can be cultivated through the formation of habits by wise action toward a good end. It is his Nicomachean Ethics 101 transformed for a democratic polity in the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey. This system is no longer for the propertied citizen-in-training male subject alone but for everyone willing to commit to its principles. The results thus far have been both adorable and effective: teachers report “transfer,” the successful application of skills from one context to another. Skills transfer through cognitive and metacognitive activities. Students apply the show’s logic to other activities, reflect on their learning, and assess their achievement as part of a team. The project provides material anchors such as stickers, handouts, and T-shirt patterns to turn initial enthusiasm into long-term retention. Because the show requires only three performers, it is easy to create multiple casts that are inclusive in terms of gender and race. Moreover, because of its initial success, Operation Superpower is moving ahead with plans for a full-scale opera. In only a few years, this grassroots effort led by performing arts students has demonstrated that metahumanism can be leveraged to artistic and pedagogical ends.
If Operation Superpower confirms the pedagogical potential of metahumanism, then the fan activism of the Harry Potter Alliance demonstrates its political potential. Since 2005, the HPA has turned “fans into heroes” by organizing local groups dedicated to the magical world of J. K. Rowling into political task forces. The founder, Andrew Slack, characterizes the group’s strategy as “cultural acupuncture,” the creation of a better world by focusing fan energy toward particular goals. The HPA has over 100,000 members in seventy countries; given these numbers, the HPA provides a strong counterexample to the traditional suspicion of popular culture shared by conservative commentators such as Allan Bloom and Marxist critics of the Frankfurt School. Far from seducing fans into fascistic groupthink, HPA supports diverse projects ranging from charity work to political activism, as documented by media scholar Henry Jenkins:
The group collaborates with more traditional activist and charity organizations, such as Doctors for Health, Mass Equity, Free Press, The Gay-Straight Alliance, and Wal-Mart Watch. When the HPA takes action, the results can be staggering: for instance, it raised $123,000 to fund five cargo planes transporting medical supplies to Haiti after the earthquake. Its Accio Books! Campaign has collected over 55,000 books for communities around the world. HPA members called 3,597 residents of Maine in just one day, encouraging them to vote against Proposition 9, which would deny equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Wizard Rock the Vote registered more than a thousand voters.
The HPA is significant from a metahumanist perspective for reasons that transcend its results. As a group that operates through the tropes of metamorphosis and heroism, it shows that the rhetoric of virtue transcends the superhero framework, appealing to a different fandom cathected to another kind of story world. In the Harry Potter series, magical ability runs in families, but it also appears in nonmagical Muggle families as well. Here, the eugenic framework of the comic book world is destabilized by the political debate about blood heritage, with racist “pureblood” wizards allying with the villain, Voldemort, to deny the rights of “mudbloods,” a pejorative term for wizards with nonmagical lineage. Because political debates about racism, misogyny, slavery, and fascism structure the story world itself, the HPA does not need to connect Rowling’s work to contemporary politics so much as extend its politics into the world of the audience. The HPA further translates story structures such as the sorting of students into academic houses and the competition between houses into organizational and motivational principles. Members are sorted by their interests into houses that mirror the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and houses take on particular projects, competing with others to maximize results. Like Operation Superpower, the HPA translates the capacity to imagine a better self and world into the practice of fostering utopia.
These seeds of transformation illustrate how nerd culture can be yoked to civic responsibility, but it remains to be connected to ecotopian politics. Metahumanism offers a direction for humanism foreseen by philosopher Val Plumwood when she called for the development of “environmental culture” as the antidote to human domination of nature. Plumwood argues that “the problem is not primarily about more knowledge or technology, it is about developing an environmental culture that values and fully acknowledges the non-human sphere and our dependency on it.” The human sciences are good at culture. As the humanities are currently configured, however, transmission of past culture trumps the creation of culture, though movements of critical making and postcritique are challenging this paradigm. The recent constellation of the environmental humanities moves toward the latter, but it remains framed in terms of high culture. As a scion of popular culture, metahumanism should build on humanistic strategies for the reproduction of canons, the creation of new works, and the critical analysis of culture and move into a constructive mode in order to cultivate ecotopian ways of life. At a moment when the neoliberal university views the arts and humanities as handmaidens of the STEM disciplines, metahumanists should seize the high ground as builders of the Phronocene. As the HPA website notes, “We believe that unironic enthusiasm is a renewable resource.” Enthusiasm for environmental justice steers a path beyond a defense of human supremacy and the quest for disembodied immortality, whether technological or religious. Such unabashed utopianism will be difficult, given that the globe has been dominated by realpolitik. Yet it is precisely this fetish for realism that has led to ecocide: the present order is the natural order, and resistance is futile. This is the way Dominators think, which clarifies the cause of metahumanism: to overcome static notions of human nature that prevent us from turning aside our doom.
Against this opposition between is and ought, we can assert the connection between them as theorized by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” in which he defends fantasy against the charge of escapism: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” Tolkien views imaginary worlds as places of refuge and reflection, from which one returns to the present world with the capacity to change it. As the HPA website puts it, “We know fantasy is not only an escape from our world, but a means to go deeper into it.” For this reason, metahumanism at large should refine its techniques for strengthening the gifts of community members in service of an ecotopian order. Meanwhile, metahumanists in the academy should further this goal through the evolution of assignments, curricula, requirements, and degree programs. By focusing the will to mutate into the arts of change, metahumanists can combine forces to cultivate a ground for ecotopia.
Another Path: Terragouge
My thanks to my colleagues in the Juilliard JAM writing group—especially Lisa Andersen, Aaron Jaffe, Greta Berman, Cory Owen, Fred Fehleisen, and Jordan Stokes—for trenchant feedback.
1. For an account of Anglophone modernism’s appropriation of myth and ritual through the concept of “culture,” see Marc Manganaro, Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).
2. Keith Giffen, Invasion! (Burbank, Calif.: DC Comics, 2016), 13.
3. Ramzi Fawaz, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 6.
4. Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) connects Superman to the Golem of Prague, the protector of the Jewish ghetto. For a more detailed account by comics industry creators, see Danny Fingeroth and Stan Lee, Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero (New York: Continuum, 2007). Famously, Captain America punches Hitler on the cover of Captain America #1 (1941) a year before the United States entered World War II, well in advance of public sentiment in favor of the war. This legacy was recently extended when America Chavez, Marvel’s queer Latina hero, time travels to that iconic moment and punches Hitler herself in America #1 (2016).
5. Giffen, Invasion!, 14.
6. Indeed, one might argue that the origins of “Silver Age” heroes such as the Fantastic Four and the X-Men in radiation exposure marks the dawning of contemporary environmental consciousness as much as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in which pesticides are represented through implicit metaphor as radioactive fallout.
7. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene (New York: Verso, 2016), xi.
8. Bonneuil and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene, xi.
9. Bonneuil and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene, xii.
10. See, for instance, Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1 (2015): 159–65, and Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso Books, 2015).
11. Bonneuil and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene, 129.
12. The standard conception of phronesis enters Greek philosophy with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and in that work, it is a virtue possessed by individuals, not society as a whole. So the idea of a collective wisdom through which societies act prudentially in the face of ecocide would itself be a matter of cultural evolution, at least in terms of canonical Western philosophy.
13. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016).
14. Anthony Lioi, Nerd Ecology: Defending the Earth with Unpopular Culture (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 197–206.
15. The Xenogenesis trilogy was originally published as three separate novels: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). An omnibus edition was published as Octavia E. Butler, Xenogenesis: Dawn, Imago, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner, 1989).
16. Ildney Cavalcanti, “The Writing of Utopia and the Feminist Critical Dystopia: Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Series,” in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, ed. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan (New York: Routledge, 2004), 47–69.
17. In Jewish folklore and Talmudic commentary on the book of Genesis, Lilith appears as the first wife of Adam, created before Eve to be Adam’s peer. When he refuses to treat her as such, she flies over the wall of Eden and into the wilderness, where she gives birth to demons, the lilim. The Xenogenesis series can be read as an extrapolation of that tradition.
18. Season 4 features a Flashless Team Flash that must protect Central City in Barry Allen’s absence after he disappears into the Speed Force at the end of season 3. This plot represents a new degree of empowerment for the team and also reflects developments in other series in the Arrowverse. The Flash: The Complete First Season, DVD (Burbank, Calif.: Warner Home Video, 2015).
21. In 2017, students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government founded the Resistance School (https://www.resistanceschool.com/#resist), an anti-Trump movement modeled after the student-led resistance to Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003).
22. Henry Jenkins, “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,” in “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10 (2012), https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2012.0305, ¶ 1.3.
23. Jenkins, “Cultural Acupuncture,” ¶ 3.2.
24. Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York: Routledge, 2001), 3.
25. See Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
26. J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983), 156.