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Political metaphors in New X-Men

Sources used in this post: Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. New York: Viking, 1998.

How common is the idea that the X-Men are a racism/race-relations metaphor? Because I notice people seem to say it a lot (e.g. here), and why do people say it so much? I don’t see it. OK, I see it, but it seems limiting to suppose the X-Men are merely a racial allegory. There’s the gay metaphor too. But there’s more. The most common criticism of the racism and gay metaphors I see is that gay people and Hispanics don’t have superpowers. Oh, but it’s a metaphor! It’s something inside that’s so powerful, so liberating but also uncontrollable, and once you let it out there’s no going back. It’s pride, black pride, gay pride, whatever. The X-Men are a fantasy of political activism. When you’ve been silenced and made invisible for whatever reason, and then you decide to take pride in whatever makes you an invisible and you stand up and make people notice you and your pride, people will, yes, hate and fear you. That’s what the X-Men are about. I don’t see any need to make it about any one kind of pride/activism.

Does this have anything to do with my analysis of New X-Men in terms of “creation of self through narrative?” I think it may. If you’ve read any stories by Jorge Luis Borges or the novel Vurt by Jeff Noon (I’m not quite changing the subject here), you’ll probably know what I’m talking about when I say both these authors (and many other authors, but I’m using these two as an example) write fantastic narratives in which the world is a text. I mean, there is no illusion (or the illusion is exploded) that the world of the stories is “real”—the world of, say, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is no more real than an encyclopedia, and in fact it ends up being superseded by a fantasy world described in a fictional encyclopedia article. (I have some essays on Borges’s and Noon’s work that go into more depth, I should put them on the blog at some point.) Noon especially writes a protagonist who is empowered by the realization that his world is a textual world.

Borges’s stories aren’t just clever but inconsequential metafictional games. They propose a way of looking at our own world:

Then years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – could spellbind and hypnotize mankind. How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: “inhuman laws”) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

Reality is not directly accessible to us, we may access it only through the mediation of manufactured systems. The labyrinths of Tlön, of dialectial materialism, of anti-Semitism, etc. What do we build our labyrinths out of? Language. Language is metaphor—the word “labyrinth” is a metaphor for “an intricate structure of interconnecting passages through which it is difficult to find one’s way; a maze” (according to, anyway). “Intricate structure of interconnecting passages” is a metaphor, too. You could define each of the terms in that definition of labyrinth, and that would be a metaphor. Words can refer only to other metaphors. We humans can’t refer to anything, can’t even think really, without using language (I’d love to discuss challenges to that statement), so we can refer only to metaphors. Never to the reality bedrock that lies beneath those metaphors. This is what Borges means in that quote above. What beast is at the center of Borges’s labyrinth? There is no center, and that is the beast.

I said above that Noon’s protagonist Scribble, in Vurt, is empowered by the realization that the world is a text. Now I’ll explain. We don’t have access to Objective Truth (Borges’s “divine laws”), right? Because we’re stuck in language. That can be a scary thought, but it can also be exciting and fun. We’re not limited by what is Right, so we’re free to make it up ourselves. The world we can deal with is created by us, so let’s go play and create.

New X-Men! Back to that. Remember the political metaphors in the X-Men I was talking about? I think they’re similar to a lot of stuff in Vurt, although much less metafictional. I think New X-Men especially is dealing explicitly with these themes. I readily admit I’ve read hardly any X-books other than New X-Men (I think much of hte X-canon is probably not worth reading, and I get the impression that much of it doesn’t deal very coherently with these themes that interest me), so I’d be interested to hear what more widely read people thinkg about all of this.

I think I’d better post more about Vurt soon.


  1. Rose says:

    I’ve been thinking more literalistically about metaphor in the X-Men (in general, not just NXM) and I think it’s important to take a meta- look at the superficial analyses, as I think they may have their roots in the rise of a geek pride culture. Since the early days, the X-Men have typically served as a metaphor for teenage alienation and low-level identity politics. As you pointed out, the mutant element does throw off a one-to-one reading that tries to associate mutants with any marginalized group. What I find interesting, though, is how this discourse has changed, though I don’t have any firm data to back up what I’m going to say.

    A common setup of race-based comparisons involves making some sort of Malcolm X/Magneto vs. Professor X/Martin Luther King binary opposition. I’m not saying this is not one potential mode of viewing their ideological differences, but what’s more interesting to me is that I’ve never seen anyone go back to the same historical period and talk about, say, feminism instead. See, Professor X is like the early NOW feminists who wanted to make women’s rights palatable to mainstream white America, forcing politically radical and queer feminists to the margins where some of them took on Magneto-like separatist views, including certain themes of female superiority. These both seem to be using the same aspects of the same metaphor, and yet one is accepted as X-Men gospel and the other I didn’t find at all in a quick internet search. I think this has to do with your thoughts on control of the narrative.

    What I meant about geek pride is that I see online in various places people who think that they are superior to “mundanes,” those odd, pedestrian folk who don’t roleplay or read comics or whatever the particular definition of geek is in the situation and that We The Geeks are somehow more openminded toward sexual experimentation and liberal democracies and enlightened child-rearing techniques or pretty much whatever the people talking want to make themselves feel good for thinking.

    Anyway, I’ve gotten sidetracked. What I mean to say is that I’m not sure why people make the arguments they do about metaphor, but that it’s probably because they have only a limited understanding of identity politics and have to put it into whatever terms they can find and handle. In my experience, the racial metaphor is considered passe and even “whoa, mutants are gay because they realize obviously when they’re teens and then they can hide it or tell their parents” is considered pretty banal analysis in most situations now. I’m not sure if there’s biographical criticism that X-Men is about Jewish assimilation, but I wouldn’t be surprised. At any rate, I find where people are saying this and how and to whom much more interesting than the content of their arguments, such as they are.

    Break is over, though, so my own thoughts and arguments, which go along the same lines as yours, will have to wait.

    — 6 January 2004 at 5:07 pm (Permalink)

  2. Long story; short pier says:

    Three simple rules for talking about comics.
    First, make like the Lady Montague: never complain, never explain. You’re in this for the hearts and minds, which are impossible to score if you’re always on the defensive. Especially if you’re representing a scrappy little medium tha…

    — 18 March 2004 at 6:35 pm (Permalink)

  3. tomtrinity8 says:

    Also, that the to-be-feared werewolves, witches, vampires, frankensteins of my youth have now been placed in cool matrix-like black suits and told that we are not to fear them. I know that this supports the moral ambiguity of a New World Order.

    — 21 April 2004 at 7:34 am (Permalink)