The Spoliation of Pop Culture
How America's creative past is repurposed by our contemporary conquerors
Since 1942, Superman’s motto has been “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” That’s no longer the case. In the newly-published Superman: Son of Kal-El #1, the new Superman has a new motto: “Truth, Justice, and a Better World”
The official update to Superman’s slogan was exuberantly reported by virtually every media outlet in existence, as if it were a radical departure for hidebound pop culture, a bold step in bringing progressive values into reactionary Hollywood.
The update to Superman’s motto is simply another act of spoliation by the winners of the culture war.
Spoliation means “incorporating art into a setting culturally or chronologically different from that of its creation.”1 The term derives from Classical Latin word spolium, a singular noun which literally means “the skin or hide stripped from an animal.” The plural, spolia, came into figurative use by Latin writers such as Cicero to refer to plunder, from which we derive the English phrase “the spoils of war.”2 Whenever the Romans conquered a nation, they brought back war trophies as proof of their victory; and so spolia came to designate “building materials and artworks brought from conquered provinces and exhibited in official triumphs.”3 Over time, these materials were reused by conquerors for their own purposes, and so the word spolia came to mean any reused artwork designed to evidence the conquest, triumph, and dominion by the spoliators over those whose art they appropriated.4
In contemporary usage, spoliation is “a practice consisting of a transference of power from the past through a taking over of its cultural expressions and incorporating them into one’s own. The purpose of appropriation [is] to convert the object of appropriation to one’s own purposes; it [is] preceded by finding the most valuable expressions from the past.”5 It is part of an “appropriative loop in which the qualities of the appropriated object are transferred to the appropriator.”6
Spoliation, then, works like this:
A conqueror defeats a rival.
The conqueror identifies the defeated rival’s most valuable cultural expressions (artwork, artifacts, buildings, monuments, stories, etc.).
The conqueror appropriates those expressions and reuses them in its own cultural expressions, thereby transferring power to itself.
Does that process seem familiar? It should.
The most successful spoliation in history took place in Late Antiquity, when the rising Christian culture appropriated many of the expressions of the pagan culture that they had culturally conquered. They did so deliberately, systematically, and effectively.
For instance, Augustine of Hippo openly urged the faithful to study the pagan liberal arts in order to employ them in a better function, “that of preaching the Gospel.”7 Gregory I, the 5th century Church father, was even more explicit in his call for spoliation of pagan culture, writing “the idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God.”8
In acknowledging Christianity’s past acts of spoliation, I do not seek to offend Christianity, or condemn our ancient forefathers. Who can blame them? If you were a Christian in the 5th century AD, it was the right thing to do! We live in the world they forged by their successful spoliation.
But let us stay in the present, where the second-most successful spoliation in history is taking place.
With near-total control of the arts, entertainment, education, and media industries, America’s progressives have won the culture war and begun to claim their spoils of war. They have identified every valuable expression of American culture and are busily repurposing these expressions for their own use. And, again, who can blame them? Spoliation is what conquerors do.
What does the modern-day spoliation entail? Certainly it entails replacing “the American Way” with “a better world,” and countless other thematic changes. It would take a book, not an essay, to detail it all. But perhaps the most visible example of today’s spoliation occurs when old characters are replaced with new counterparts operating under the same mantle or brand name. For instance, Clark Kent has been replaced with Jon Kent as Superman; Peter Parker with Miles Morales as Spiderman; Thor with Jane Foster as Thor; Tony Stark with Riri Williams as Iron Man; James “Logan” Howlett with Laura Kinney as Wolverine; James Bond with Nomi as 007; and on and on.
Whether you applaud or decry this, character replacement is proceeding at a breathtaking place, and the more it happens, the more it is cheered on. When Marvel artist Sean Izaakse tweeted that DC and Marvel should replace all their characters to “be accessible to new readers” “while still keeping the IP names going forward,” his call was immediately supported by SyFy’s Mike Avila, who wrote a feature article advocating that comics change:
Not by getting get rid of Superman — but by getting rid of Clark Kent;
By retiring Peter Parker, and creating a new alter-ego for Spider-Man;
By keeping Batman, and dumping Bruce Wayne.
The youngest character mentioned above is 60 years old. We have mountains of stories depicting these guys… Who's to say that they must always be the people in the costumes and masks of our favorite heroes?
Who’s to say indeed? Avila is a prophet whose prediction has already come true. Just as the Christians of old kept the outside (the temple buildings) but changed the inside (the religion and its regalia) of what they conquered, the progressives today keep the outsides (the names and costumes) but change the insides (the characters and their beliefs).
The spoliators claim for their causes all of the power and majesty that accrues to the spolia, while denying the vanquished the value of what has been taken. When Superman becomes a champion of cosmopolitan globalism, Superman stops being a champion of American patriotism.
Contemporary spoliation is Sun Tzu’s maxim of supply as applied to intellectual property: “A wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy's provisions is equivalent to twenty of one's own.”
Woe to the vanquished and spoils to the victor. That has been the way of history.
But what if you are today a consumer, or — God forbid — an artist, writer, or other creator, who does not share the new values and new views that are appropriating and replacing the old? What if you want your truth and justice the American Way?
You have three choices. First, you can seek to enjoy the best of what is offered by the new, while ignoring the parts that offend you. You need not worship Ra to be impressed by the majesty of Great Pyramid; you need not embrace progressivism to enjoy The Boys. Even if you want to eschew Hollywood, a tremendous amount of foreign content is now available, which can offer escape from America’s culture war while still entertaining.
Second, you can find solace in the great works of the past. We are blessed (for now, at least) to have access to everything that has come before. Never has it been so easy to find a book, a comic, a game, a movie, or a show from any prior period. Have you read everything by Jack Vance? R.E. Howard? Jack Kirby? Have you watched the greatest movies of the 20th century? You’re missing out.
Third, you can create and/or consume new works made with the values of old. My own upcoming graphic novel, Ascendant: Star-Spangled Squadron, embraces truth, justice, and the American Way wholeheartedly and I will unabashedly recommend it to all of you when it’s ready. If you like comics in general, the Arkhaven platform offers an incredible selection by the likes of the legendary Chuck Dixon and Joe Bennett. If you like books, writers such as Misha Burnett, Nick Cole, Larry Correia, Jon Del Arroz, Alexander Hellene, Sarah Hoyt, Tom Kratman, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Jon Mollison, Brian Niemeier, Bradford Walker, John C. Wright, and others are producing new characters and stories of excellence, some in classic formats (such as PulpRev) and others in new formats (such as the Superversive Movement). We are, sadly, underfunded in the development of movies and TV shows, but perhaps if Gina Carano’s new film is a success that will change. Perhaps a billionaire will read this article and decide to fund a right-wing entertainment empire for the deplorables…
I hope so. Woe to the vanquished and spoils to the victory, that has been the way of history; and history repeats itself. But, perhaps if we are wise to it, perhaps we can recognize in its recurrence the opportunity to do things differently. The temples are again being taken as spoils; perhaps this time we could build new temples before the old ways are lost.
Kinney, Dale. “Instances of Appropriation in Late Roman and Early Christian Art,” Essays in Medieval Studies 28 (2012).
Hansen, Maria Fabricius. "The Eloquence of Appropriation: Prolegomena to an Understanding of Spolia in Early Christian Rome,” ANALECTA ROMANA INSTITUTI DANICI, SUPPL. XXXIII (2003).
Jevtić, Ivana. “Spolia Reincarnated: Afterlives of Objects, Materials, and Spaces in Anatolia from Antiquity to the Ottoman Era,” 10th International Anamed Annual Symposium (2018).
Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. by Leo Sherley-Price (New York: Barnes & Nobel Books, 1993)