Isn’t History Marvelous?

Who is your favorite ‘big three’ Avenger? When I say big three I mean Ironman, Captain America or Thor. Without that I am sure we would all scream at the top of our lungs ‘Valkyrie!!’, or maybe that is just me. When you have decided on which muscle clad hero you choose, keep that in your mind.

Now let me ask: What historical narrative do you subscribe to? Harder question for sure, but you may have already answered it. What if I told you by picking a Marvel character you have subconsciously chosen an epistemological understanding of history? Too many questions? Well let me explain what I mean by history as a narrative, and the epistemology we use to craft such narratives.

History as we believe it is a factual representation of the past. What has happened is history. Yet history is a system of knowledge, and just like biology or anthropology that system has certain epistemological concerns.  More often than not how we envision the future demands a historical narrative that pushes, like a supernatural force, towards that future.

Let’s take politics as an example.  When a republican speaks of history they are reminiscing over a hallowed time. Ronald Reagan, who is a conservative saint, got started as an actor. He was especially known for westerns like Cattle Queen of Montana and Law & Order. The western motif romanticizes a past in which “men were men, and women were women”. The view of the past as “good old times” is a narrative.

Compare a more leftward actor. Arnold Swarchennager, another Californian governor and actor. He is mainly known for the Terminator movies. A look at a future in which technology takes over. The Terminator travelled back in time, to avoid a horrible future. This is just a quick example of what history means to different groups. Of course many republicans love terminators and many democrats enjoy westerns. 

Whether or not you buy that history is narratively driven can depend on your place in it. As a kid growing up in Canada I was taught that Africa had tribes and then slavery happened. Africa does have tribes and slavery did happen, but how accurate is that statement? When Europeans came to Africa they met tribes like the Maasai, a mostly nomadic group with little in the way of political centralization or systems of civilization Europeans could understand. They also came to Benin, a centralized and prosperous empire. The city of Benin held the largest earthworks pre mechanical age in the world, as well as a level of mathematics in urban planning known as ‘fractal design’ that Europe had not even known about. This history was not only lost in education but purposely burnt down by Europeans. What we would call a ‘lie of omission’ is an effort of a historical narrative. In this case the narrative is that of white supremacy, but there exists multiple narratives within and between different societies. 

Very broadly we can consider three different narratives: the ancient, cyclical notion of time, the Christian conception of meaningful time, or the enlightenment view of history. According to historian Ari Helo ‘narrative is by definition temporal, it may play with the linear conception of time, given that the end determines the actual meaning of the whole story’. Each narrative, like each avenger is pushed by a goal that ultimately is dedicated to an endgame (yes!). So let us consider each avenger and see if your pick lines up with your narrative structure.

The Ancient

It is 1300s India and you are a Shudra within the Indian caste system. What that means is that you are a laborer in your society by birth. The acceptance of these roles, even today, is based on dharma and samsara. By following dharma, a guide towards fulfilling your purpose in life, you will rise in the caste system in your next life. The process of reincarnation is samsara. With both in tow, Indian society achieves cohesion by tying personal destiny to divinity. The goal of life then becomes to virtuously serve your dharma in order to be accomplished in samsara. Many other philosophies, mainly ancient ones, follow some form of this cyclical reality as actions are taken in order to fulfill a purpose perpetuated within a cycle, like rebirth. But cyclical narratives are not lost on the west. Political theory deals cyclically. Think of terms like revolution. Cyclical understandings do not dismiss change for determinism, but like Cicero states ‘history is the teacher of the future”. 

For our favorite hammerer, he follows a cyclical pattern like many in the caste system. Much like the caste system Thor is trapped by birth into his roles. At a young age he is told he will be king, and not much else. As each movie goes by he is brought through ups and downs, each time furthering his ‘dharma’ towards kingship. Unlike Ironman or Captain America in each film (well not the second one) Thor is continually stripped of his powers, only to regain the same set of powers by the end. At each cycle Thor goes through little systematic change, unlike Ironman who continually updates his armour, morals and goals. At a certain point in Thor 3 he even states to Loki: 

‘I trust you, you betray me, round and round in circles we go. See Loki, life is about… It’s about growth, it’s about change, but you seem to just want to stay the same.’

In a cheeky self reflection Thor encapsulates what seems to be a purposeful narrative choice. When Ragnarök comes to Asgard Thor takes his place on the throne. Much like Hinduisms’ samsara, Thor has fulfilled his ‘dharma’ as the prince of Asgard and replaces his father as King. For Thor this is the end of suffering. Ragnarök, even in mythology is meant to bring a new beginning, and a new peace after the destruction. Yet as we know MCU Thor would then face his greatest test in Thanos. Like those in the early days of the French Revolution, we never know how bad or good things will get. The stages in any revolution can only be seen with hindsight.

The Christian

In his Mount Rushmore speech Donald Trump gave what may be one of the scariest rants against what by now has been a sizable chunk of America. While it is important to understand the specific idiocy of this president, he is essentially speaking like Obama did, or Bush Jr, or Clinton etc. etc. All presidents call back to a glorious time. They all believe in history as static. It is not that things never change, but that our focus, our goals, lie in a past ideal. We see that in ‘Make America Great Again’ but also in ‘the Green New Deal’. Each uses a past to propose a future. 

The past as the goal is a Christian concept. Unlike other older religions the bible is concerned with ‘meaningful time’. The ideology is everywhere in the bible:

Ecclesiastes 1:9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 

In this, the bible has all the answers because nothing ever changes. If nothing new ever changes the problems we face are the same, the characters we face are similar so the solutions we need are in our history. This is not a specifically Chrisitan or American thing. Nation states are stuck into their history, enshrined in their past. Constitutions, laws and ordinances passed down for generations continue to guide our lives. As far as our nation’s documents work as a goal for our societies, we continue to make our worlds under a static narrative in effort to reclaim a past.

Almost perfectly we can look at Captain America, a character created during WWII as a Nazi puncher. Captain America is the epitome of American symbolism in a time. Open any old comic of his and words like patriot, freedom and justice blow through. He embodies such symbolism. The MCU, like with Thor, was able to update him, yet kept true to the character. Captain America does not change. How do I know? He says it. ‘People change, we don’t’. Consider his power set after the steroids cocktail. In a world of other worldly technology in Wakanda, T’Challa ,who could get him another suit or power gloves, gets him a rather mundane shield.

From fighting Nazis with his government, to fighting his government. MCU Captain America, as a man out of time, sticks to his timeless ideals. He doesn’t like bullies. His goal throughout his whole arc is to stop them, whether American or otherwise. Like his shield Cap may embody America, and even consider himself a patriot but as he states “‘I don’t believe in institutions I believe in people”. Just having ideals is nice, but when we live up to them, that is worth celebrating. Cap knows this, Frederick Douglas knew this. America does not. What makes Cap different? He comes from a maligned history. With dead parents, a poor artist lifestyle he saw the bad and good in everything. A history written by winners is not history, its propaganda. If we are to embrace history, as I believe we should, then history needs to involve the marginalised as well.

Progression

Thomas Jefferson, for everything he was, feared the past would haunt us. Jefferson thought the US constitution should be rewritten constantly, improving and changing to the needs of the time. He saw time changing circumstances. Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist wrote, rather famously liberal democracy was ‘the end of history’, to which Karl Marx would say communism is actually the end. What they all have in common is their envisioning of a future. Time as linear progression.

As far as the progress of time is Marxian, Tony Stark is a Marxist. The futurist, much of Tony from constant change. The horrible nightmares he has in IM II leads him to create Ultron, the fallout from that acquiesces him to the Sokovia Accords, all after being trapped in a cage forces him to realize his warmongering. Tony is constantly changing. I would argue Ironman’s progression is a Marxian synthesis. Going from evil capitalist to guy on the farm Tony struggles ideologically, as he leaves individuality for protecting and creating unions for the collective.

Tony’s powerset also gets successively better. Starting with a barebones cave suit by Endgame Tony is using nano technology. He is always trying to keep up with a future that hasn’t come. The process of building forward is identical to Jefferson calling for constant rewriting of the constitution. Both wanted to prepare for a future they may not see coming. Stark says it best. ‘Peace in our time’.

Along with Tony and Thomas, we can think of another progressive, one that like Jefferson is an asshole, and like Tony is a Disney property. Kylo Ren, from the Star Wars Universe presents a radical progressive. One that sees progress, void of history. Like a bad breakup you may just want to forget. We want the past to die, killing it if we have to. Tony has fallen to that sometimes, on his quest to future proof society.

I use the avengers to make my point because they deal with history in such different ways. It takes meetings with the past for all three of them to truly understand their goals. We can’t forget the past, as much as we can stop the future. So instead let it guide us, slowly. Not by copying it, but learning from it. Not only for ourselves, or for our children, but for our ancestors. We couldn’t save them, but I’ll be damned if we can’t still avenge them.

References

Ari Helo, « Letting Go of Narrative History: The Linearity of Time and the Art of Recounting the Past », European journal of American studies [Online], 11-2 | 2016, document 15, Online since 11 August 2016, connection on 14 July 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/11648 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.11648
Wisecrack (2019).How history defines the Avengers. . Access at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H_9ZwJg2_M&t=233s.

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