Systemic Relevance as Hero Criterion
by Thomas Nehrlich
Courage, strength and honour have a time-out. The new hero criterion of the corona period is called system relevance. It is no longer the fastest, the strongest or the most virtuous who is currently in demand; who is heroic is without whom the system, the society, possibly civilization, cannot function. From the circle of these indispensable people suddenly people become heroes who were previously denied this status: the supermarket salesman who maintains the supply of food; the postwoman who delivers orders to the home office; the educator in emergency childcare; the bus driver who brings the system-relevant people to work; the student who does the shopping for elderly people; the street worker who cares for the homeless and drug addicts.
Admittedly, in addition to the idea of heroism through extraordinary achievement, there has long been the idea of the heroes of everyday life, who are not distinguished by being off the beaten track, high visibility and prestige, but rather by the arduous performance of their duties, often in secret and at low wages. But the label ‘everyday hero’ often seemed in reality to be a heroic consolation for those to whom our sympathy is directed, but not our amazement. Everyday heroes rarely played leading roles in heroic epics and Hollywood blockbusters.
In fact, the question arises as to what is heroic about the regular completion of agreed tasks according to the employment contract and job description. Under the conditions of the pandemic, however, an additional requirement for heroism has emerged that goes hand in hand with professional activity. Those who are currently most celebrated for their services in corona times have one thing in common: exposure. The mere fact that they cannot avoid contact with other people at work exposes them to an increased risk of infection. Defying the risk of contracting Covid-19 and continuing to pursue their usual occupation requires a quality that ranks among the classic heroic traits: the willingness to make sacrifices.
For no one among the systemically important corona heroes is this threat to their own health greater than for the medical staff. They are not only exposed, but surrounded by sick people. The strict precautions taken to protect against infection in the hurriedly set up corona isolation stations illustrate this danger. The hospital staff also visually approach old heroic images. The uniform clothing is reminiscent of uniforms, the protective suits of armour, the smocks of capes. The masks and hoods conceal the faces just as they do in the most visually powerful, medially successful heroic figures: the superheroes. Countless memes currently circulating in the social networks demonstrate this similarity. Banksy also picks it up in a new artwork (see illustration).
So, are the system-relevant heroes after all merely corona-induced reinterpretations of conventional notions of heroism? There are a number of decisive differences that speak against this: What has changed is the relationship between collective and individual. Hercules, Siegfried and Superman are individual, singular subjects. The new corona heroes, on the other hand, are entire professional groups. They don’t have names, they have function titles: cleaners, carriers, midwives. This shows that systemic relevance is not an individual achievement, not a heroic act, but a technical characteristic within social functional structures.
Another specific feature of corona heroes concerns their gender. As usually overlooked service professions and care work come into the spotlight – and with them the women who still perform them predominantly – the current image of heroes is female (see figure). This also applies to the medical sector. As long as no vaccine has been developed, no cure has been found, researchers and doctors play a secondary role; the stage belongs to the nurses. Where rescue is not possible, at least relief and accompaniment can be provided – if necessary, until the end. For once, the heroes of the pandemic are not the healers, but the nurses. The corona crisis therefore offers an opportunity to reflect on the gender gap and sexism in the health care system – and above all to question the way it is presented in journalistic reporting, which perpetuates traditional role clichés.
One final difference can be seen in our reaction as an audience: gratitude instead of admiration. We are not overwhelmed, but rather touched. Instead of wide open eyes and open mouths, the heroes of the pandemic are reaping applause. The reward for their efforts is not so much spontaneous as a joint appointment: at midday or in the evening on the balcony at 8 pm. Like other aspects of the corona crisis and its new hero criterion of systemic relevance, this agreement has something technocratic about it. And it risks not lasting long. Many cashiers, truck drivers and geriatric nurses would probably prefer higher salaries and better working conditions to temporary heroisation.
Female hospital staff as heroines
Thomas Nehrlich is a literary scholar and assistant at the Institute for Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Berne. His research interests include typography, visual rhetoric and superheroes. He is working on a book about heroes in post-heroism.