Animated shorts are circulating in which the president of the United States is represented as a superhero: ending the war in Iraq, fixing the economy, mending the relations between Jews and Arabs—in short, saving the US from the darkness in which it has landed. This figure of a single, sovereign and messianic political savior could not be any further, of course, from America’s political origins, which had to do, precisely, with a becoming independent from such aristocratic figures, and thus with the birth of the democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville would witness around 1831. One reason why the aristocratic figure might be returning today is because democracy no longer works. If democracy no longer works, aristocracy might very well be the next best thing.
The history of democracy begins with a famous debate about superheroes. Plato was for them: his Republic imagines an ideal city which would be ruled by a class of guardians, figures who are in all respects superior to the other inhabitants of the city. His student Aristotle responded to this vision in his Politics by defending government by the middle class. Both had their issues with democracy, but on the whole we can say that the history of democracy only really takes off with Aristotle, and with Aristotle’s repression of the superheroic tendencies in Plato’s Republic. (But the repressed, of course, never fails to return: as god, as reason, as the superman, and so on.)
Consider, from this perspective, the animation film The Incredibles. The film starts with a long introductory sequence in which Mr Incredible performs a number of superhero feats and saves the lives of hundreds of citizens. However, many of these citizens get hurt in the process, and—given that the action takes place in America—they end up suing the superhero for incurred damages. The trials cost the State millions, and the whole thing ends with superheroes being prevented from further using their powers. Of course, what the film offers is the return of the superhero: it’s the tale of a legally bound aristocracy freeing itself from those bounds and taking up its old power-position all over again.
Nothing makes this more clear than the evil guy in the film: Syndrome, the superheroic alter ego of Buddy, an ordinary human being who wants to be “like” Mr Incredible but who, for lack of any “real” powers, needs to rely on technical objects in order to become super. While he is perfecting his power, he is killing off real superheroes so as to ensure his monopoly; and once he is old and has had his fun, he will sell his inventions so that everyone can be super—which is another way of saying that no one will be. It is this “democratic” vision of the future that is presented as “evil” in the film, and that Mr Incredible and his family nip in the bud. And so aristocracy prevails once again (over democracy, and over technology, one might add, which is distinctly non-aristocratic).
References: Plato. Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1992; Aristotle. Politics. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1998; Bird, Brad. The Incredibles (Walt Disney, 2004). Image: Dan Davis An Aeon, scratchboard drawing in polished aluminium frame, A4, 2009.