According to the science fiction author John C. Wright, the term “superversive” was first coined by Tom Simon. The first mention of superversive that I could find on Simon’s blog was from all the way back in 2003. Then, in 2014, the word was used in the title of The Superversive Literary Movement.
Tom Simon, and others in the movement, recognized that fiction and storytelling has been increasingly used as propaganda to undermine virtue and traditional values. He asserts that a concept that he calls “superversion” is the solution to the problem.
Modern storytelling, whether it be in the form of songs, poems, television shows, movies, or books has been progressively tearing down our cultural foundations by trying to convince the audience that lies are truth, ugliness is beautiful, and evil is good. Superversion is the antidote to such societal decay.
What is Subversion?
To help us understand the meaning of Superversion, it is important to understand that it is used as an antonym to subversion. Therefore, we must understand how subversion is used in this context.
I really like how Tom Simon explains it. He writes:
To subvert a thing literally means ‘to turn from below’: to undermine. In olden days, men built their forts and castles on high ground, because high ground is easier to defend. A hilltop fortress can be made almost impregnable. But only almost: for a fortress can be undermined. The attacking army digs tunnels underneath the fortifications, scooping out the earth and rock until the walls cave in from their own unsupported weight. This is the original kind of subversion.
This kind of subversion isn’t talking about subverting expectations like when a story has a stunning plot twist. This isn’t describing a shocking reveal such as the protagonist being dead the whole time, or the villain being the hero’s father. This subversion is very different and very dangerous. This subversion undermines the foundational norms that societies rest on. If left unabated, subversion will spread causing people to stop respecting those essential norms and society will crumble.
Subversion is Widespread
My culture has been experiencing the onslaught from subversive art for a long time. Tom Simon recognized the grip that subversion had on the fantasy genre all the way back in 2003. He wrote:
Subversion is a popular word in literary criticism nowadays, and some persons have suggested that it is the principal function of fantasy. Not a function, which may perhaps be true, but the function, the sine qua non of imaginative literature. John Grant has gone so far as to propose that anything that is not subversive is therefore not fantasy at all, but a subliterary ersatz that he derisively dubs Generic Fantasy, ‘this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage — this loathsome mire’. In Mr Grant’s taxonomy, virtually everything derived from Tolkien, or showing his influence, is ‘garbage’ and ‘mire’.
I had not heard of John Grant before reading Simon’s article. But Simon points to him as evidence for the general subversive tendencies of fantasy authors and critics. My own anecdotal experience indicates that it isn’t just limited to fantasy, but extends to all forms of art and entertainment. Books, poems, comics, movies, television, and music have all embraced subversive themes.
Subversion Example: The Chicken by Bo Burnham
You might think I’m being overly dramatic. But, there are certain institutions, like the family, that are essential cornerstones holding up civilization. It’s not hard to see that the family is under attack from all sides. A very short example is a song by Bo Burnham called The Chicken. It’s honestly a beautiful sounding song. It’s a creative play on jokes about why chickens cross roads. He takes the simple theme and juxtaposes it with sophisticated and beautiful sounding music. The intersection of which is where absurdity lives―which breeds humor.
It’s very easy to hear the song and accept the new perspective and even walk away feeling smarter, but that’s the insidious nature of subversion. This song is not virtuous. It is not telling the truth. It’s not promoting goodness.
Here are the lyrics:
The chicken wakes up like she does every morning
To the sounds of her husband’s screams
Sat in the dark on the eggs she is warming
She closes her eyes and dreams of
Walking to Memphis, becoming a dentist
Anything but this
I mean, she likes her life as a mother and wife
But is that all she is?
She stares out the window
The very next morning, the chicken decides to
Makе her escape, gеt a taste of freedom
She runs out the coop that her life’s been confined to
Suddenly sees the thing she’s only dreamed of
Just up ahead, gophers run through a meadow
Deer graze, birds sing
Her future is waiting, right there for the taking
There’s just one thing
The chicken must first cross the road, the road
A sea of trees and green and moss
Waiting just across the road, the road
A life of brighter days, a width of road away
The road is gigantic, the chicken is little
She moves ahead left-right-left, right-left-right
All of a sudden, she stops in the middle
Frozen in place by a pair of headlights
It’s anyone’s guess what then happened next
But most think she died
But I think we ought to believe that she got to
The other side
So that’s why she did it
If I interpret the chicken character as a human, which I think is fair because there’s a fair bit of anthropomorphizing in the song, then the chicken selfishly pursues “happiness” (which is a foolish pursuit), abandons her kids, and essentially divorces her husband even though she “likes her life as a mother and wife.” I think those behaviors are evil, generally speaking. There’s a potential for a redeeming moment when the chicken almost received indirect consequences, though overly harsh. But the singer decides it’s good to believe the chicken succeeds, which nullifies what could have been a moral to this tragic story. Instead of lamenting the family’s pain for losing their wife and mother, this song celebrates behavior that results in a broken family. Broken families undermine the entire workings of society. This song is an example of subversion.
Once You Recognize Subversion, Move On
Don’t dwell on subversive art. It’s not good for you.
Many noble hearted people would say to shine a light on it. To draw attention to the subversion through critique and analysis. To them I say, “yes!” It is good to help people understand the danger that subversion poses. But, don’t get stuck in a loop of analyzing subversiveness. Recognizing the problem is certainly the first step, but then look away. Subversion can only undermine, it cannot build up. So subversion doesn’t need your constant attention to defeat it. The art will eventually collapse under the weight of it’s own evil, ugliness, and lies. Subversive art simply isn’t good art.
Do pay attention to enough criticism of subversive entertainment so that you can recognize the real world destructive effects of it. But, don’t consume so much that you fall into despair. All that subversion needs to work is attention. And even criticism is giving it attention. The subversion will work on you even though you recognize the evil. It’s almost like Medusa, if you gaze on her face for too long, you’ll be defeated.
Be like Perseus, who defeated Medusa. He had to look in order to fight her, but he limited his exposure by only viewing her reflection. In a similar way, keep subversion at a distance so it doesn’t overcome you.
Superversion is the Antidote to the Destruction
How do we address this problem? If our culture’s foundations are being undermined, how do we stop it?
Well, how should we respond when anything of value has been destroyed? We build it again. The antidote for destruction is to build. This is fundamentally what the word “superversive” means. L. Jagi Lamplighter describes it this way:
If subversion is changing something by undercutting it from below, superversion is change by inspiring from above.
We need to restore our societal norms, but how does that work?
Our norms come from our culture. Our culture comes from our art. Our art must be based on truth. Truth comes from God. This is how superversive works.
At it’s heart, superversive stories teach and inspire. They show what our culture should be. They build up our cultural foundations by sharing goodness, showing beauty, and speaking truth. The subversive lies will crumble on their own because they do nothing but undermine. A story that is built on the rock will withstand the onslaught. Simon pointed out that this principle, building on a solid foundation, is Biblical. It’s a principle that’s been told through parables.
Before the subversives dug their mines under the churches, there was a parable that used to be widely known. The gist of it was that a house built on rock will stand firm, but a house built on sand will soon fall down. High ground is usually rocky ground, and from that perspective, ideal for us to build on.
The actual passage reads like this:
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
In that verse, Jesus was talking about hearing and following the sermon that he just preached. His sermon was full of truth.
That’s not the only Biblical passage that can be applied to our situation today. In a war against evil (and that’s what subversion is, evil) the Bible describes weapons for us to use.
2 Corinthians 6:3-7
3 We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;
I also find Ephesians 6:11-20 to be relevant to the superversive effort.
11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
A story can’t be superversive unless it’s telling the truth. Truth does not get torn down, it can only be hidden. Art that is true can also be beautiful and good. It can inspire people. It builds our culture and by building our culture it counteracts subversion.