Poised for action

by Ulrich Bröckling

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

Heroes must be talked about. No action and no death are heroic, unless someone labels them as such. The attribute "heroic" may refer to a person's character, to the morality of an action, or to the effort and danger it entails. But, the fact is, it is always attributed and it always needs a community to either praise or contest the label. For heroes are made through storytelling which makes it controversial who should be considered a hero. After all, one person's hero is another's rogue. Often the boundaries of being a hero blur with traits like genius, star, adventurer, leader, ruler, saint or martyr. Stage, film, or literary protagonists are heroes. One speaks metaphorically of heroic landscapes of painting and symphonies (such as Beethoven's "Eroica"), and in everyday parlance the attribute "heroic" frequently signifies little more than an appreciative pat on the back. The term has been emptied of meaning by the language of marketing: Often merchandise is supposed to transform its buyer into a hero or is itself dubbed a hero. So what is a hero?

Unleashed from the crowd

Hero stories revolve around real or fictional characters, who in some way tower over their surroundings or stand out from the crowd. That's why they are rare. There may be more than one, but if you dub too many people heroes, the term will lose its power. This extraordinariness applies to historic individuals such as Caesar or Napoleon, but also to the small heroes of everyday life. They too stand out from the rest, at least for one particular activity or for a brief moment. As size is relative, they need contrasting figures: Heroic narratives therefore also feature non-heroes who look up to the hero. Hero stories teach the humble to gaze upwards. However, they are not wholly remote from the human sphere: heroes often have superhuman powers but they are not gods. Unlike gods, heroes have to die, their death is often a prerequisite for being heroic. Heroes' claim to power derives from their exceptionality. Hero legends and attributes are part and parcel of the creation of a leader. It works in a self-affirming circle: When heroic leaders are summoned, the crowd should follow. Conversely, if you want to obey, you will seek reasons to follow someone and you will elevate that person to hero status. Heroic narratives do not deal in equality. Instead, they hinge on rankings and divide the world into the few and the many. Heroes must be believed in, and this belief cannot be prescribed.

Breaking the rules

Heroes are also extraordinary in breaking the boundaries of social order. Each hero contains a hard-to-control troublemaker. On the one hand, they stabilize the social fabric by embodying its rules and advocating self-sacrifice, in keeping with the model of the virtuous hero. On the other hand, they destabilize it if they don't adhere to the rules that apply to the rest, reflecting the hero as an outlaw. They prove themselves either by their wholehearted faithfulness to the law or by obeying no law other than their own.

Writing history

Heroes need action. Their greatness rests not least on them lending a decisive turn to any course of events. Any hero story is coloured by the myth of great men making history. From this perspective, history appears as a well-planned work involving actors, rather than a chaotic sequence of random events. In order to bundle the power of action in the hero, the shares of other actors and non-human influencing factors must be made invisible, or at least reduced. The hero's role is boosted by the obstacles put in his way. Heroic action requires resistance. Therefore, the opponents should not falter either. Other characters in the heroic ensemble - companions, mentors or lovers - play only supporting roles.

Accepting death

The significance of heroic agency manifests itself where it turns into its opposite: heroic deeds and heroic deaths serve to reinforce each other. Only dead heroes have proven their true willingness for sacrifice. The sheer force of such examples sparks more interest than a good cause would. It serves to persuade those born afterwards to suppress their own will to survive and to demonstrate the same whole-hearted commitment as their role model.

Tested in battle

Whatever heroes do - conquering lands, surviving adventures, saving lives, winning sports competitions, writing poems, making scientific discoveries - they have a fight. External and internal enemies must always be defeated and superhuman powers must be mobilized. Heroes' stories are about courage and self-sacrifice - and the victorious fight against oneself. This is their action-oriented power. Heroes' stories are characterized by a world that is inherently conflictive, they build on an understanding of the social as a competition. There is little room for cooperation and consensus. The preferred probation field for heroes and main scene of heroes stories is the war. Much of the history of the heroic overlaps with military history.

Myth of the big man

From Homer's time to the present day, men in particular have waged wars and fighting is generally associated with masculinity. That makes the heroic a primarily male domain. According to this rationality, men are viewed as fierce, competitive, violent-minded, willing to take risks, adventurous and occasionally excessive - all hero-compatible qualities. Women, on the other hand, are regarded as vulnerable, caring, empathetic, but also as seductive. They often end up as trophies and tend rather to mirror male narcissism than being autonomous actors. Rarely do heroic stories tell of female fighters, but more often show women who are being fought over and whose recovery or conquest proves male heroism. The heroic gender order is binary and leaves little room for nuances. In the traditional canon of heroic role models women, appear at best as self-sacrificing virtuous heroines. Gender inequality culminates with the concept of honour. While the honour of women means preserving their chastity and submitting to the control of their father, brother, or husband, men must defend the honour of women in the struggle against other men - and can qualify as heroes. Thus female honour is a passive possession while male honour needs to be proven. With the erosion of traditional gender images, heroines are increasingly appearing on the scene. But the figures of contemporary popular culture such as Wonder, Spider, Batwoman and Co. are rarely models of female self-empowerment. Mostly, these heroines remain a male fantasy.

Contradictory feelings

Heroes' stories spark passions and challenge us to form opinions. Psychologically, hero figures embody a contradictory ideal version of oneself. On the one hand, heroes attract attention and admiration, on the other hand they serve as compensatory projections. In a way we want to be like them, but at the same time we are relieved not to be. By praising their adventures, the threat should be banished that emanates from this often violent, boundary-breaking being. There is also a sense of resentment: constant looking upwards causes neck stiffness. Maybe the little ones hope to get a little bigger by casting an admiring glance at the grown ups, but they have just as strong an impulse to knock the heroes from the pedestal and to revel in their fall.

Children as a role model

Children's literature is full of heroes. Their protagonists provide models of socially desirable behaviour and captivate through their adventures. With their zest for action and clear norms they show a way out of ambivalent conflicts. Heroes' courage helps children overcome their fears, their lack of boundaries nourishes an emergent desire for autonomy, their rebelliousness encourages rebellion against authorities, their combative nature and their strength compensates for their powerlessness. If one follows the psychoanalytic development theory, identification with heroes contributes significantly to mental maturity. The external ideal promotes the construction of an internal ideal. But heroes' stories also show how to divide the world into good and evil, to forcibly resolve conflicts, to make sacrifices, and to favour unconditional commitment to a good cause for a supposedly higher goal. One does not train for maturity. As identification objects, heroes either have to disappoint because their stories overstretch what is credible or because nobody can match their role model. At best, they are similar to transitional objects that you cling to for a while, but which then loose their emotional significance, only to be stowed away like other childhood treasures.

Are heroes outdated?

In Germany, as in other Western societies, after 1945 it became problematic to appeal to heroic virtues or to call oneself a hero. Above all, the wartime hero model has lost its legitimacy. Talk of a post-heroic era was first seen in political discourses on the future of the war. Western societies are no longer in a position to mobilize masses towards self-sacrifice and to accept long-term losses among their own troops. Therefore, they have waged asymmetric wars with high-tech weapon systems, making them vulnerable to opponents who compensated for technological inferiority by heroic scorn towards death. In contemporary memorial discourses, the position of the hero has become problematic because triumphs often, on closer inspection, turn out to be misdeeds. At the same time, innocent victims are moving into the center of collective memory. Memorials replace heroic monuments. Organization theorists speak of the benefits of participatory leadership. Problems are to be worked on and compromises are to be negotiated, instead of making bold gambles. It is not just the unravelling of Gordian knots that is needed, but the skillful use of networks. Psychological studies identify the contemporary social character of the "postheroic personality," which buys its flexibility with the need for perpetual self-moulding. The two main forms of hero selection, either being the chosen one or self-empowerment, are falling into disrepute. Democratic leaders are elected, not chosen; they do not seize power, it is transferred to them. Under the ideal of equality, the extraordinary loses its legitimacy and exemplary function. Glory, as the gold standard of social recognition, is being replaced by the far more volatile currencies of prestige and prominence.

Heroisms create a force field that aligns all who enter its sphere of influence. The idea of a post-heroic era, on the other hand, has not created an opposing force, but has simply weakened the heroic force field. Heroes may seem like relics of yesteryear, but the heroes' role has proven to be flexible enough not to disappear completely. Characters change, but the supply of heroes continues. Those who no longer serve us as role model take a leading role in our imagination. Revived and newly created hero figures populate comics, films and computer games, as well as competitive sports. Rescuers in disasters are also declared as heroes, as are civil rights activists and whistleblowers who have distinguished themselves through their moral courage. Pop-heroism and Post-heroism come together in peaceful coexistence.

So a categorical diagnosis of a hero-less age is unconvincing. One can rather assume that heroes are being spontaneously created and dismantled. The perceived dubiousness of heroic figures in the present day clashes with a continued hunger for heroes. As long as political or religious powers depend on a willingness to sacrifice oneself, as long as individuals constantly compete with each other to strike personal goals and as long as a sense of powerlessness encourages heroic phantasms, as long as strict everyday rules spark a longing to break free - the search for heroes will continue. And that shows that there are problems. Whether we can do without sacrificial cults and moral upgrading is uncertain. We are not postheroic, but maybe it would be a good idea to go that way. 

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