The Posthumanity of "The Son of Man": Heroes as Postmodern Apocalypse

Article excerpt

Apocalypse of the Posthuman

The concept of the "posthuman" has played an increasingly important part in both recent scholarly discourse (1) and many products of popular culture, such as comic books and TV shows. In this essay, I examine theological aspects of the recent television series, Heroes, (2) in relation to the biblical phrase "son of man." I argue that seen through the intertextual lens provided by Heroes, "son of man" connotes a posthuman being, for whom the inevitability of apocalypse must be continually disrupted and questioned.

The word "apocalypse" comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, an un-covering or revealing of something that has been hidden or previously unknown. It may refer to any sort of disclosure, from the most mundane to the most holy. However, the literature usually referred to as "apocalyptic" often features some cosmic cataclysm, often the end of the universe, in which the secret workings of things are made known and fundamental imbalances are put right. This literature offers escape from the frustrations and disappointments of the everyday world to some other world featuring a second or parallel, but richly allegorical, history in which supernatural powers of good and evil fight decisive battles. Here the marvellous world of gods and demons is often physically embodied, and boundaries between the natural and the supernatural disappear in bizarre imagery and symbolism.

Apocalyptic stories typically address a sense of social and historical chaos in an imperial civilization, and they substitute the importance of personal inwardness and individual hopes, sins, and judgment for more traditional communal goals and values. The world seems out of control and people lose any sense of order or meaning. In these apocalyptic narratives, the human world is divided between good guys (saints) and bad guys (sinners), and you're either one or the other: there is no moral ambiguity. The temptation has often been to treat such texts, no matter how ancient, as though they offer coded answers to our contemporary questions, simple-minded truths instead of even more difficult or obscure questions. As a result, these texts have often been used to justify the persecution and abuse of others, who are identified as the evil ones or enemies.

The Bible's apocalyptic writings emerge in relation to the Babylonian exile and the postexilic diaspora of the Jewish people. They respond to the failure of traditional prophetic hopes for repentance and divine forgiveness and the concomitant loss of confidence in a future for Israel's covenant with God (and for the Davidic kingdom) in the Greek and Roman empires. These texts are from the beginning writings that transform traditional, orally rooted language, as the technology of writing becomes increasingly indispensable to members of a diasporic culture. Biblical apocalypse first appears in the stretching and distortion of prophetic language in books such as Ezekiel and Zechariah and reaches its full flowering in the book of Daniel. Although biblical wisdom literature is often sharply distinguished from apocalyptic writings, the larger narrative frame and metaphorical excesses of Job have an apocalyptic quality, as does the cynicism of Qohelet, which in each case distorts and reshapes more traditional wisdom material.

In the New Testament, apocalyptic becomes prominent, most famously in the book of Revelation (a Christian afterlife of Daniel), but also running throughout the letters of Paul as the background against which he writes. Apocalyptic also plays a significant role in the "apocalyptic discourse(s)" and "son of man" sayings of the three Jesuses of the synoptic gospels. Throughout most of the Jewish scriptures, and in some of these latter sayings, "the son of man" connotes ordinary human beings, both men and women. The phrase is sometimes singular and sometimes plural. However, in Daniel 7:13-14, the phrase takes on a different connotation:

behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. …