By Alexander Riccio
In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology David Graeber dedicates some time to the historical development of current anarchistic societies within Madagascar, which he explains happened as an insurrectionary response to the unsuspecting Malagasy government. Graeber points out that the people of varying enclaves had been laying the foundation for such insurrectionary potential through the creation of spectral universes of magic and mysticism. Such folklore was used to impart lessons concerning power, justice, and virtue. According to Graeber:
“these spectral zones are always the fulcrum of the moral imagination, a kind of creative reservoir… of potential revolutionary change. It’s precisely from these invisible spaces—invisible, most of all, to power—whence the potential for insurrection, and the extraordinary social creativity that seems to emerge out of nowhere in revolutionary moments, actually comes.”
Amidst the growing popularity of sci-fi and fantasy art forms (particularly evident in wildly successful movies like The Hunger Games, Avengers, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter) it strikes me that perhaps in our own way we are engaging in such myth-making that may ultimately prove foundational for future revolutionary success. Almost serendipitously, at the same time I began ruminating on this question I had a conversation that revealed just how impactful the world of fantasy can truly be. It came from the personal account of one friend’s experience growing up marginalized.
Aaron Kuhn was thirteen years old when he first appreciated X-Men comic books. Living in the semi-affluent suburb of Springfield, Oregon, he stuck out in school for his scrawny build and “nerdy” interests. But he was also a target of homophobic mockery and bullying. In part owing to his misfit status and gay orientation, the beleaguering world of the fantasy mutant task force resonated with Aaron’s own feelings of isolation and ostracism. As he told me:
“I was definitely powerless when I read these things [comics]. There was this one guy that would hang out after math class, and he would wait until I walked past him so that he could call me a faggot. Every day, without fail… His dad must have been a real asshole.”
The characters in X-Men comics and their resilience in the face of oppression provided a source of comfort and empowerment for Aaron’s thirteen year-old self.
His interpretation of the comic series struck me for multiple reasons, but mainly illuminated the way our positions in the world shape messages and meanings we derive from art and literature. Having read some X-Men as a younger person, my unquestioned view was that the series was a literal metaphor for racism. Here were characters targeted, brutalized, and excluded by society solely for their genetic makeup and “otherness.” When I told Aaron about this interpretation he simply shrugged and conceded that “maybe it is a metaphor for racism.” But, he pointed out, in the series some characters are physically marked, so that they cannot hide amongst larger society unnoticed, whereas other characters must reveal themselves as mutants because there are no identifying marks or physical attributes to expose them otherwise. The analogy here is for people of color who cannot mask their physiognomy in a racist society as opposed to queer-identified individuals who typically (though not always) can choose to pronounce their identity or attempt to assimilate amongst the status quo.
Aaron told me about a series within the X-Men catalog that introduced the legacy virus, an infection that only mutants could contract, and was quickly fatal. The series ran through the early 90s, and its overt allegorical components are not merely a coincidence. In this instance the writers felt compelled to address the ravages of HIV/AIDS that was disproportionately stealing the lives of gay men, and Aaron’s remembrance of this series and his awareness of its existence was a stark display of social positioning. If he could be so astute and make connections to his own experiences through certain comics, I wonder how many other individuals can find the commonalities of their lives through such narratives? Aaron provided a small insight into the matter when he told me about reading a Letter to the Editor passage in one X-Men issue:
“This guy talked about how when he read the comics he felt that they were addressing some of the very conflicts he experienced day to day, and that by reading them he understood other people in the world were feeling these things too so suddenly he wasn’t so alone anymore. When I read that I took it to my mom and told her, ‘this is exactly how I feel.’ And I think it helped us to connect a little better, because before it was really hard to express these things to her.”
Social justice advocates have been attempting to use fantasy fiction as an instrument for liberatory values and strategizing for some time. Indeed, writers like Chris Crass and Walida Imarisha have both made contributions to the dialogue pointing to the potential of fantasy liberation. Imarisha will be featured in an upcoming anthology of radical science fiction, of which she is also the co-editor, titled Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements published by AK Press.
This anthology will be one of many pieces coming out of the radical science fiction canon. Crass and Imarisha highlight the importance of reimagining the world in a way that explores strategies toward acquiring autonomy, and envisioning the processes and pains that come with organizing. Both recognize science fiction as an applied craft, one that forces writers and readers to engage with topical issues in order to imagine solutions or tactics toward changing the circumstances of our world. Aaron’s account of coping through comics lends to this notion of fantasy liberation, and when we take a closer look at the art form we find that the idea is not merely a far-fetched optimism.
“Reading these types of things gives you a way to think outside of reality. There are huge restrictions on what I can do in life, but if I could put myself somewhere else entirely— what would I do? Suddenly I have options.”
The world of comics and fantasy is limitless, and the characters that occupy these pages are both reflections of the experiences of marginality in our society, as well as symbols of empowerment and agency. As Aaron aptly states, suddenly there are options. When we try to employ the potential comics have as instruments for vision-making and social justice strategizing, we are tapping into a source that promises opportunities for those who engage with it. This is an experience that so often is robbed of us in our daily lives. Aaron’s method of coping with homophobia and discrimination illustrate the ways in which comics can have value in an unjust world.
We should not overlook the potential pitfalls of fantasy as well. For instance: what about the reinforcement of macho identity and violence? It cannot be ignored that at the heart of many of these stories is a glorification of the violence and aggression that so often is attached to systems of oppression that render us powerless. When discussing what I saw as problematic with Aaron, I pointed out that while certain stories were powerful commentaries on civil society, other elements of fantasy appear to only distract and encourage human disconnect. The sheer numbers alone of the fantasy empire speak to the potential for diverting people’s energies from real issues, while violence is a fundamental tenet of the genre that has become popular amongst a vast spectrum of audiences.
“If you’re not the kind of person that can interpret a story or has bad comprehension, it’s just a good action flick. Also, I think in a lot of ways it represents us accurately. Like, Captain America, he’s constantly struggling to catch up to the rest of the world, started out fighting communists but then in the 70s actually refused to support the Vietnam War. But, he doesn’t understand these things right away. He’s like my dad who’s happy with just watching TV, and always seems confused by the world around him.”
At the intersections of social commentary, violence, and mass consumption, the world of fantasy possesses an interesting tension. While it would be incumbent to recognize the tantalizing lure of fantasy’s empire of television, video games, comics, cinema, and more as potential impediments for social justice action; the lessons that can be cultivated through such fantasy should compel us to reassess our bag of liberatory tactics. In a society where so much of our individual and community autonomy has been stripped away and engendered feelings of overwhelming powerlessness, it’s no wonder that the fantasy medium has become so ubiquitous. Indeed, one must contemplate whether the popularity of fantasy is an illustration of our collective need for empowerment when we cannot locate it in our own social and political realities. Organizers should take advantage of this need for empowerment. Fantasy is being crafted for our purposes wonderfully by some of the individuals I’ve already mentioned and more—but it’s also poignantly found within the stories told by people like Aaron who found solace through connecting to the literary medium. As to my question of whether or not we’re engaging in myth-making for the purpose of laying a foundation for potential revolutionary action? I think the answer lies in the sentiment of the oft-uttered proclamation: “Another World is Possible.”