I’m the only one who can rescue this messed-up universe. I’m the only one who knows how to make it right. I will be its greatest hero! When you’re gone… I will be Superman!
̶ Superboy-Prime, Final Crisis
In his two famous works: State of Exception and Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben introduced his formulation of sovereign power and the suspension of the protections to life by the State. Law, as a normative domain that permeates every other area and strata of society, has the power to determine what is “bare life”, or life without political identity and what is qualified life, that which has political identity and is part of the social order. Agamben’s examination of the possible abuses of political power highlights an inherent and threatening possibility in any instance where an individual or group is given the authority to indefinitely suspend the legal status of whole populations, an authority to eliminate the right to exist. In the case of modern political regimes, the right to suspend citizenship — thus the protection to life provided by law — has the potential to reach terrifying extremes. The last 70 years of existence on Earth in the presence of nuclear weapons has made the discussion about state authority and the absolute power over life recurrent within academic and political circles. The possibility for abuses of power by oligarchs, coupled with the near infinite capacity to decimate life across the planet, has created an existential crisis for all of humanity. The ubiquitous sense of fear that accompanies this existence even has the power to influence popular culture.
One recurrent thematic device written into the stories of modern superhero comic books is the archetype of the “evil Superman”. The “evil Superman” archetype is the literary use of the DC Comics character Superman or a similarly all-powerful superhero as the antagonist instead of the hero. A god-like being with the absolute power to determine the life and death of everyone on Earth is one of the most frightening scenarios conceived of in comics. The antagonist of the comic book Irredeemable, the Plutonian, is a character similar to Superman that has become disgusted with the human race and begins a campaign of mass murder, killing individuals and whole populations alike. While I do not want to reduce Agamben’s whole arguments to the insights here, playing out such an extreme scenario within a fictional story gives the reader a chance to think about the possible deleterious ends of absolute power, be it superhero or state superpower. Irredeemable is a story about an entire world trapped within a state of exception.
“One recurrent thematic device written into the stories of modern superhero comic books is the archetype of the “evil Superman”. …While I do not want to reduce Agamben’s whole arguments to the insights here, playing out such an extreme scenario within a fictional story gives the reader a chance to think about the possible deleterious ends of absolute power, be it superhero or state superpower. Irredeemable is a story about an entire world trapped within a state of exception.”
I will first discuss some of the features of Agamben’s theories of sovereign power and “bare life” relevant to the character of the Plutonian. Second, I will examine the relationship of the Plutonian to the fictional world portrayed in Irredeemable by looking at some of his worst acts of violence and surveillance through the perspective of the state of exception (Agamben 1998).
State of Exception
The state of exception in the sense understood here, based on Agamben’s philosophical work in Homo Sacer and State of Exception, refers to the authority of a sovereign power to create a ”zone of indistinction” where stable relationships between categories such as enemy/citizen, human/animal, legal/illegal do not exist. This interim space is characterized by an anarchic lawlessness, where principally there are no fixed standards or norms to adhere to. Modern States have the power to articulate a distinctive space whereby individuals and whole populations can be categorized as uncategorizable, and subsequently without the human security and guarantee of life that membership within society affords. Agamben defines the camp as “the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule” (Agamben 1998, pg. 96). Another example provided by Agamben illustrates aspects of this in-between space within the internal dynamics of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. At Guantanamo Bay, prisoners are held indefinitely outside of United States jurisdiction, though obviously not beyond its physical authority. At the same time, prisoners are not bound by international legal protections either. Agamben depicts the detention as “indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely from the law and from juridical oversight” (Agamben 2008). In the story Irredeemable, the Plutonian’s expansive power and authority create a “space” which has virtually no boundaries, a global camp (material zone of indistinction).
In order to illustrate a more extreme case embedded within the conceptual paradigm of the state of exception, Agamben also examined Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The prisoners, accused of no juridically definable crime, were held indefinitely, or unto death, without any recognition of their basic human rights or even treated as human subjects. Their national status was erased presenting a legal exception, while the sub-human treatment and extermination of life presents a ‘living’ exception. The separation of human beings from the rule of law that guides and defines individuals in a politically organized environment, such as the concentration camp, leaves people without the authority to speak or act on their own behalf. Therefore the state of exception is a social milieu of pure fatalism. This creates a permanent situation where not only is life beyond the pale of juridical description, but death is also arbitrarily administered by the State. The absence of the guarantee of life makes the fear of death ubiquitous. People fixed within a state of exception do not have the guarantee of life afforded by State power, and thus they are subject to the violent acts of the powerful without the possibility for appeal. The elimination of the guarantee of life and the arbitrariness of death are the principle defining characteristics of the concept of state of exception used here.
“Almighty Enemy”, or the Evil Superman Archetype
The character Superman represents the ultimate “good” in the world and, relative to human beings, has the physical powers of a god. This has become an acknowledged problem when trying to write a Superman story. Marvel Comics icon and creator Stan Lee has publically stated that, in his opinion, Superman’s superiority over any possible threats he may encounter is precisely what makes him a boring character to write. One interesting way of utilizing Superman’s god-like powers in a story is to have him turn against humanity, essentially creating a fictional representation of the vengeful God of the Old Testament. The “evil Superman” figure that most represents this configuration of God and omnicidal villain is the Plutonian, the antagonist and main character in the comic book Irredeemable. The story of the Plutonian perfectly illustrates the Superman problem by focusing on a character that has all of Superman’s power but none of his admiration and affection for humanity.
Like Superman, the Plutonian was once the world’s greatest superhero tasked with the protection of the entire planet. Over the course of the story it is revealed that the Plutonian had slowly stopped considering humans worthy of protection and eventually turned against them, essentially becoming a god of vengeance. From the perspective provided by Agamben, the Plutonian has stopped granting protections to the world’s populations, and therefore categorically reclassified everyone on the level of species (homo sapiens), or non-citizens. There is simply no higher authority to appeal to, making the Plutonian the sole authority over the fate of humanity. The protection and recognition toward human rights provided by the Plutonian is comparable to those protections provided by authoritarian States. Absolute authority is granted by the protectorate in exchange for the promise of relative freedom and security by the State. The prior relationship of protectorship has been replaced, not by authoritarian or totalitarian violence, but by no form of governance at all. The Plutonian, acting out of self interest and hatred for the human race, creates a worldwide existence of permanent fear, helplessness, and arbitrary death. In this section, I will look at some examples where the character the Plutonian demonstrates control over the lives of individuals and populations within the categorical binary of ruler/ruled.
The first scene I want to examine portrays leaders of the world in council to decide how to respond to the Plutonian’s violence. Several of the delegates want to offer him absolute sovereignty over their countries. The Plutonian points to one delegate and asks for his offer. The man identifying himself as the delegate from Singapore replies that his country is grateful for all of the Plutonian’s work. The Plutonian perceiving this as a lie, proceeds to sink the country of Singapore into the ocean. This exchange and subsequent over-reaction illustrates the inability of those within a zone of indistinction to appeal on their own behalf through politics. In the next scene, one superhero begs the Plutonian to not kill the people of Singapore, in which the Plutonian replies “pick ten.” Though he kills the ten people in a different, but similarly horrific manner, the Plutonian demonstrates the use of arbitrary numbers. Whether ten was his favorite number or just one that came to mind, it was chosen to demonstrate the lack of interest he holds for the actual individuals being killed. The Plutonian is demonstrating his lack of discrimination and thus lacks a perceivable motive for his actions. In this sense as well, Singapore could have been China, Japan, Kenya, or any other country attempting to communicate politically to the Plutonian’s unstable authority. The role of arbitrary categorization and the use indiscriminant perpetual fear demonstrated above work to give the state of exception presented here the overall goal of psychological and existential dehumanization. The whole population shares the same fear that the Plutonian will hear any communication or see any gesture that they make. This has an equalizing effect on the population as a whole, causing most people to conform to a logic of self regulation and self control. The strategic effect of self monitoring and regulation is that it reinforces the power of the sovereign, while it also disestablishes outside modes of resistance. The violent acts of the Plutonian do not have a uniform logic or rationale. The intensity, while always extreme, is never the same from one incident to another. Whether or not he would inflict pain, kill, or do nothing at all was unpredictable, adding to the sense of arbitrariness and worthlessness given to life.
The role of arbitrary categorization and the use indiscriminant perpetual fear demonstrated above work to give the state of exception presented here the overall goal of psychological and existential dehumanization. The whole population shares the same fear that the Plutonian will hear any communication or see any gesture that they make. This has an equalizing effect on the population as a whole, causing most people to conform to a logic of self regulation and self control. The strategic effect of self monitoring and regulation is that it reinforces the power of the sovereign, while it also disestablishes outside modes of resistance.
One mechanism of control used in the detention or subjection of ‘bodies’ utilized by the Plutonian is the panopticon design of omnipresent surveillance. The panopticon is an architectural model designed to maximize the visibility of all people within an enclosure, while reducing the necessary number of watchers to one. It was designed so that one person could see everyone of the subjects under surveillance, while remaining themselves unseen. The panopticon was designed to work within various fields, most prominently in the design of prisons. One guard could be employed to watch an entire room from a centralized watch station. The panopticon concept, originally conceived of by British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and incorporated in to the genealogical work of Michel Foucault, is a powerful mechanism that can ensure the lasting endurance of a state of exception by reducing any resistance to it. The panopticon is distinct in its structure, organized “to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its action” (Foucault 1995, pg. 201). Those that are under surveillance never know when they are being watched, thus they assume they are always being watched. The Plutonian has adopted many of the aspects of the camp and total or near total surveillance is part of the structure of the camp. The Plutonian can naturally see and hear everything on Earth, demonstrated in one scene where he needs to fly beyond Earth’s atmosphere just to escape the sounds. In another scene, the Plutonian transmits a broadcast over every single television in the world, modified by a universal translator. He exploits the fears of everyone by first, revealing that he has been listening to the conversations of every single person on Earth and second, by tormenting various individuals by answering their privately uttered questions about him. Like the Plutonian’s utilization of arbitrary numbers, here he takes pleasure in demonstrating what Earth’s population already feared, his omnipresent surveillance of everybody, but had never witnessed as a personally invasive threat. The Plutonian adequately represents an agent with the authority to define a zone of indistinction and has the infinite capacity to control, monitor, regulate and kill the subjects within. There are no actual or even hypothetical boundaries to delimit the Plutonian’s panoptic gaze. He is the state of exception as it would be by an idealized authoritarian state with no possible limits.
The story centers on the personal journey of the Plutonian, and aspects of this were told from his point of view. The lack of any ‘manifesto’ or public explanation of his motivations adds to the irrationality of humanity’s predicament. Not only has politics proven to be ineffective in dealing with the Plutonian, but all rational and traditional means of dealing with large-scale disasters are interrupted. In this environment of totalized chaos, the media has no suggestions for public safety. The only possible role for the media in this scenario is to report incidents and speculate about motivations. In a strategic move to further disestablish any possibility of resistance or constructive action with the population of Earth, the Plutonian announces, via television, that in fact he does have a “secret identity” and that he could be anyone, anywhere. He noted that the television broadcast was pre-recorded, also adding that he could be someone standing next to you at that very moment. In the story, this had the effect of inciting a mass panic resulting in thousands of deaths as people took to the streets beating and killing anyone that even vaguely looked like the Plutonian. This demonstrates the use of information and media to exploit the destabilizing effect of the crisis.
Throughout the course of irredeemable, the public often frames the Plutonian’s actions with religious terminology. He is conceived of as an omnipresent and all-powerful God who has ‘forsaken’ humanity. What I found most interesting about the Plutonian was his strategic tactics (though lacking a concise motive), which are similar to mechanisms embedded in the structure of the concentration camp. The overlapping incorporation of technologies and/or logics of surveillance and extermination allows the audience to draw interesting parallels between the Plutonian and the possible abuses of state authority. Though this is an ideal and extreme example of a hypothetical crisis, it creatively illustrates the form of ban on the distinction of life and law that defines the state of exception.
While this analysis will inevitably fail to articulate the means by which the state of exception is formed, it does highlight the terrible ends that can accompany such a state. The story of the Plutonian can open our eyes to the ultimate threat of a world trapped within a state of exception.
The state of exception relies on the establishment of some zone of indistinction which, in this case is the authority to establish the rule by which humanity is to be protected, as well as how humanity is to be unprotected by a sovereign superpower. Agamben views the state of exception as a growing phenomenon that resides in the various dark corners of many modern nation-states. The zone of indistinction defined by the character the Plutonian has no limits and encompasses the entire world. While this analysis will inevitably fail to articulate the means by which the state of exception is formed, it does highlight the terrible ends that can accompany such a state. The story of the Plutonian can open our eyes to the ultimate threat of a world trapped within a state of exception. This analysis hopefully provides an interesting look at some aspects of the state of exception and terroristic rule in general.
About the Author
Bradley Williams is a graduate student beginning the PhD program in Sociology at George Mason University in Spring 2015. He researches social problems from perspectives within sociology, Islamic studies, and international relations.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College De France. Eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. New York: Picador.