The Beast, the Sovereign, and The Superior Spider-Man

In a current Marvel Comics storyline written by Dan Slott, Spider-Man’s enemy Doctor Octopus has engineered to save himself from a terminal illness by swapping bodies with the superhero. In the usual running of this familiar sci-fi cliché, the identities are returned to the correct bodies before too much damage can be done. In this case, however, Slott has scandalously allowed the “real” Spider-Man’s mind to die with his enemy’s body, leaving Doctor Octopus free to assimilate himself into Spider-Man’s old life. Granted this second chance, Doctor Octopus has resolved to reform and continue Spider-Man’s good work, but to use his insider knowledge of crime and ruthless lack of sentimentality to do so even more effectively. Hence the title of Slott’s remarkable series: The Superior Spider-Man.

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The philosophy immediately suggested by all this is that of the Nazi political thinker, Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt, the smooth running of power is structurally dependent on what he calls the “the sovereign”: the real or imagined figure in whom all authority is located, but who operates outside its strictures. Every act of imposing law occurs in the midst of what Schmitt calls the “state of emergency”, because the very need for it implies the inadequacy of the state of things immediately prior. For Schmitt, the law is paradoxically transgressive, appearing almost arbitrarily and without stable license. While the theory has been influential for left-wing thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben who want to break with the model of political power it diagnoses, for Schmitt, it was only the groundswell of fascism in his time that had the courage to admit its absolute necessity. Doctor Octopus’s Superior Spider-Man reads like a figure of sovereignty in the true Schmittian sense: the upholder of law who, like the criminal he formerly was, regards himself as temporarily excepted from it.

We need hardly turn to political theory to realise that many of the fantasies embodied in superhero stories are uncomfortably right wing. The point has long been played on in the comics themselves: whether in Frank Miller’s hand-wringing liberals who object to the “social fascist” Batman brutalising criminals in The Dark Knight Returns, or the rather shop-worn superheroes in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, who range from paranoid sociopaths on good terms with the more reactionary tabloids, to billionaires who merchandise their own image in the form of action figures. But in this case, isn’t The Superior Spider-Man just a more literal example of an existing preoccupation with the affinity between law-making and law-breaking violence within the superhero genre?

In fact, the superiority of The Superior Spider-Man should be located in its surreptitious development of Schmitt’s argument along lines already articulated in the final seminars of the philosopher Jacques Derrida. In The Beast and the Sovereign (published 2011), Derrida argues that the heterogeneous tradition in political theory Schmitt initiated has overlooked the fact that the sovereign is not alone in inhabiting this special “exceptional” status as regards the law. Animals do this as well, and Derrida cites many instances from literature and philosophy where the proverbial stubbornness or stupidity of beasts makes them overlap with the way in which tyrants and leaders are often popularly imagined. For Derrida, this can be explained by the fact that the radical incompatibility of animals with any kind of structured law makes them weirdly reminiscent of the sovereign in Schmitt’s sense. “Sharing this common being-outside-the-law,” Derrida remarks, “beast, criminal, and sovereign have a troubling resemblance: they call on each other and recall each other, from one to the other; there is… a sort of obscure and fascinating complicity”.

Since 9/11, it has become common for the ordinary running of laws on international relations and – in the news most currently – personal privacy to be suspended in Schmittian fashion, the chief justification being that such compromises are necessary if we are to preserve supposedly transcendent Western human values. But the sovereign’s authority to perform this violence in defence of the “human” would become rather more dubious if we were to recognise that sovereignty’s own beast-like dimensions make it curiously under-qualified to defend its actions on the basis of a stable notion of “humanity” in this way. Whatever it is this beast-like sovereign can speak for, it can hardly be “the human” conventionally defined. Spider-Man’s enemies have, like him, always tended towards the animal – as well as Doctor Octopus this bestiary would include Vulture, Owl, Scorpion, Lizard, Chameleon, Hammerhead, Jackal and Rhino, and the also-relevant Man-Wolf, Venom, and Kraven the Hunter – and Slott has been careful to include several of these characters in his recent work. At the heart of The Superior Spider-Man however is a development of Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty that insists on uncovering its animal dimension in precisely this Derridean fashion. In its trade-off between the spider and the octopus, the enforcer and the transgressor of the law, a realisation of the pact between beast and sovereign, for so long only implicit in the superhero genre, is at last made beautifully clear.

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