Who are 21st century heroes?
BV: As Prima Vista’s theme this year is Game Limits – what is your favourite game and what kind of player Repeater Books would be in it? What is your least favourite game and what kind of player would Repeater Books be in that?
TG: My favorite game is football and I would put Repeater in goal as the necessary but often uncelebrated last line of defense… My least favorite game is Tennis and I would least like to see Repeater in the role of the ball.
CN: I don’t play games generally and I don’t really participate in sports, this is largely because I’m just not very or at all competitive. I realised as a child, through being obliged to play in teams and join the larger competitive endeavour of schooling that I took no satisfaction in beating someone, quite the opposite, I was happy to cede victory when I could see that winning was important to them and that they would be perturbed by defeat, even if it were possible for me to win. Where I do take pleasure in another’s defeat is in the arena of politics, which we could characterize as a game of sorts, but this is one in which the existential stakes are broad and high. I think Repeater books is a player in that arena and a fairly effective one, we have attempted to pull culture round in a more critical direction and have partly created and partly addressed the underlying interest in books that area,
My least favourite game/sport is football both as a player and a spectator. I maintain a certain stubborn ideological prejudice against it from having grown up in a Northern industrial town in the 1970s and the 1980s when it had few intelligent advocates and I spent my time trying not to get beaten up by footie lads. Lots of Repeater writers however love and make an excellent case for it so I think we could also put together a pretty good five a side team.
BV: The rhetoric in much of The Repeater Book of Heroism (as in other Repeater publications) still seems to concur with the „left/right“ divide in politics even though it has also widely been called into question. In which ways is it still relevant for you?
TG: The Left and Right distinction may often fall apart in practise but acknowledging its existence is still more useful than pretending it does not exist at all, particularly if you want to avoid the traps inherent in an unthinking embrace of the orthodoxies of either tendency.
CN: Personally, I am interested in the economic question, how should we organise the economy to optimize the well being of all and I think broadly over the past-thirty years this question has been obfuscated in a number of ways. Firstly, through its putatively having been answered (neoliberalism), then when that answer looked to be on shaky foundations submerged into questions of culture (the culture war) and much of the current approach on the populist/nationalist right is to play off the tensions in the culturally conservative but economically “progressive” elements of the working class. To me the question of how wealth is created and distributed is still fundamental and left and heterodox approaches to that question are still key concerns.
BV: Even though The Repeater Book Of Heroism seeks to reincite the search for heroes, hardly any of the case studies are heroes in the epic, superhuman, unattainable sense (some entries are overtly critical of or distanced from that kind of heroism). Most contributions celebrate „everyday“ heroes and largely come across as reflections on self, as testimonials of becoming more at one with self by highlighting common humane values and virtues in someone else close by (including your own heroes of choice). Do you agree with this reading and what general conclusions could be drawn?
TG: You’re entirely correct. Given the popularity of superhero franchises and ubiquity of certain historical figures that frequently crop up in lists of heroes, Gandhi, Churchill, Mandela etc, we did want to encourage those examples of heroism drawn from the lives, and enthusiasms of our contributors, rather than simply recycling the conventional tropes and names common to the subject.
CN: Well, I guess that the heroism of the everyday, universality and the ways in which we are deeply shaped by social forces and their interplay is the perspective that the Left would generally broadly bring and I think to some extent many of the contributions do only partly respond to the book’s challenge which is to reclaim the monuments and statues, the larger than life for a kind of new iconography of the left. We are definitely in iconoclastic times and the question is I suppose do we merely kick over the statues or do we put up new ones in their place, are those potentially new statues going to be to larger historical actors and abstractions (the Worker) or concrete historical figures? Neither have a great history and so (though this anticipates your later question) I think the book sets up and illuminates a certain key problematic within and exposes the current limits to a certain psychological disposition on the left.
BV: Meanwhile, in the recent years there’s been a resurgence of larger-than-life, notably quite unexpected global hero figures (Greta Thunberg, Volodymyr Zelensky) or hero types (the pandemic-era medical worker). Does that imply that Repeater’s search for real heroes comes in a bit too late or has the book arrived just in time?
TG: Obviously every publisher looks to chime with the Zeitgeist, and given the paucity of heroic figures in positions of political authority, it was inevitable that the next generation of names were going to take us (and perhaps themselves) by surprise, rather than be picked from the ranks of the global elite or self styled “strongmen”.
CN: I don’t think in a sense that the image of the hero has ever really left the larger culture (Jordan Peterson is a current hero to many), it has just withered on the left due to a shift toward horizontalism and an understandable squeamishness around the ways in which movements are often co-opted and the main from of prestige-gathering within leftist circles generally having been to deconstruct and problematize the production of heroes within the broader culture. This is a somewhat dare I say it “post-modern” approach and reflective of the broader impotence of the left. As I say I think to me at least the book seeks to pose the question of whether we can do more than deconstruct and if we can whether we can construct a consensus around particular hero/hero-type. Can we be productive rather than merely continually deconstructing and becoming more fragmentary in the process, is there a set of images/icons or narratives around which we can cohere?
BV: Marcus Barnett writes about Josep Almudéver Mateu, a hero of the (rather misleadingly titled) Spanish Civil War. Parrallels with the Russian war in Ukraine are now inevitable, including major Western countries being somewhat slow to catch up. Barnett does not sound vindictive however, but celebrates „one of the most powerful demonstrations of universal brotherhood in history“ while lamenting the passing of its spirit. From where you stand, has this „universal brotherhood“ been regained in the West with the ongoing war or are the divides growing deeper?
TG: The West has ideas and a history to unite around, but few contemporary leaders or examples that inspire anything other than embarrassment and sometimes revulsion. The invasion of Ukraine has bought that lack into sharp focus, questioning whether there is anything we would fight that hard for, while showing a collective subject (the Ukrainian people) that have rallied around an idea and notion of their own agency that has surprised us as much as it has the Russians.
CN: I think it’s too early to say. I suspect that brotherhood might be strengthened but it certainly won’t be universal. A strengthening of Atlanticism or pan-Europeanism, even a reassertion and expansion of the West is no doubt on the cards but the reluctance of some of the most populous countries of the BRICS to join in condemning and sanctioning means that we are perhaps more likely to have blocks and spheres of influence and so on than we were under the High Globalization of the 1990s and 2000s.
BV: Joe Kennedy remembers his hero Eric Cantona attacking a rude, jingoistic football fan; are there (non-war) situations for you where physical violence is not only justified but heroic?
TG: Always I am afraid, heroism without an element of physical or moral bravery is almost unthinkable. An irreducible aspect of any heroism must be to do something that is truly difficult for you to do, and near enough impossible for anyone else.
CN: I think the notion of violence has metastasized somewhat over the past twenty years. I think we increasingly eroded the previously firm distinction between violence as an unacceptable (except in self-defense) physical act to one which is also, if not primarily, psychic and emotional (trauma, which can be brought about in severe forms through non-physical acts). In a sense then the status of physical violence has been reduced somewhat, there’s been a leveling of a previously hard and fast distinction, that said, perhaps due to my age, I’m inclined to maintain that distinction, that physical violence is the paramount form of violence and that there aren’t any circumstances in which it’s justified.
BV: Will the rise of „proper heroes“ bring on the demise of Instagram/TikTok influencers as the vacuous makeshift heroes of anomic times?
TG: I hope so. It is a sad world that is need of such figures, and one ripe and vulnerable to the kind of nihilism that anti-heroes emerge from.
CN: Well, you’ll never remove the need for or the purchase of glamorous personae in the ways people, especially young people orient themselves and construct their own personas so I like to think that they’ll exist alongside each other rather than simply dominating the landscape as they do now.
BV: Finally, which contributions to the book surprised you the most?
TG: Every entry was as much a work of autobiography as it was hagiography, so to that extent, they were all revealing of their authors lives in a way that pleasantly surprised me.
CN: Probably Alex Niven’s whose choice was so surprising it initially looked a bit like the book equivalent of clickbait but turned out, as his writing invariably does to be a surprising, interesting and moving mediation on something else entirely.
Thanks, we’ll continue the talk at Prima Vista!