Typological Field of the Heroic

  • Version 1.0
  • published 21 September 2022

1. Definition

The typological field of the heroic is proposed herein as a model that captures the web of interrelation in which ⟶heroes, perpetrators and victims encounter one another at the level of collective memory. The basis of the assumption of a typological field is the idea that these protagonists, on the one hand, are ascribed the same significance in the construction of collective identities and, on the other hand, are interconnected in relationships of dependence and dynamic exchange. The question of their being labelled as heroes, perpetrators or victims is therefore contextual and can shift in the remembrance process. There are two basic assumptions central to the conflation of the protagonists, who are labelled as such through processes of attribution, or even archetypal ⟶prefigurations: first, as figures of boundary work, the remembered agents are essential to defining the construction of collective identities since discourses on norm and value systems of specific communities are concentrated in them. As liminal figures, they point to the sacred dimensions of collective identities via the profane domain of the everyday. Since – second – the aforementioned agents themselves must be understood as constructs of the collective identities that they represent, the position of historical figures within the typological field of the heroic is not fixed, but dependent upon collective memory and associated processes of attribution. Victims can for example be exalted to martyrs through ⟶heroization processes; tragic figures can be remembered with heroizing terminology; previously heroized agents can be reinterpreted as perpetrators through demonisation processes. The concept of a typological field of the heroic is thus particularly suited to render the phenomenon of heroic reversible figures theoretically comprehensible.

2. Explanation

With the construction of a typological field of the heroic as a theoretical model the web of interrelation between heroes, perpetrators and victims at the level of memory can be made comprehensible. This, however, requires first a number of fundamental considerations regarding the construction of collective identities and the functions that are assigned to heroic figures in that process. In this article, these considerations follow to a great extent sociologist Bernhard Giesen’s exposition.

2.1. Theoretical basis

The idea of a typological field of the heroic originates with Bernhard Giesen’s 2004 work Triumph and Trauma1Giesen, Bernhard: Triumph and Trauma. Boulder, Colorado 2004: Paradigm.. In his book on the collective memory of communities, Giesen examines the liminal figures that he observed marked the boundary between the profane domain of social coexistence and the domain of the exceptional that extends above it. He differentiates between the remembrance of triumphant heroes, tragic heroes, victims and perpetrators that he understands to be cultural imaginations of collective identities.2Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 1. In this context, Giesen finds that these historical agents, firstly, are assigned the same function in the construction of collective identities and, secondly, that their significance is merely a question of remembrance and thus a product of the collective memory of communities.

2.1.1. Giesen’s matrix of the ‘ideal typological field’

To make these liminal figures sociologically productive, Giesen inserts into the discussion the term ‘ideal typological field’, on which the term introduced here, i.e. typological field of the heroic, is based:

“The distinction between the archetypes of victorious heroes and tragic heroes, perpetrators and victims, can be considered as an ideal typological field. The positions of historical persons within this field are not fixed and immutable – triumphant heroes can become tragic ones, heroes can be turned into perpetrators, and victims can, later on, get the sacral aura that before was the mark of heroes.”3Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 7.

Bernhard Giesen has therefore conceptualised a matrix that is to be understood as ideal-typical. In it, triumphant heroes, tragic heroes, victims and perpetrators, who themselves are presented as archetypical, are ascribed the same significance for the construction of collective identities. To distinguish between these ideal-types, he asks the questions, firstly, to what extent are the historical agents ascribed agency at the level of memory and, secondly, whether they are remembered as subjects of history. Thus, he arrives at the following matrix4Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 6.:

Mastering the worldAdversity of the world
Subjectivity preservedTriumphant HeroTragic Hero
Subjectivity damagedPerpetratorVictim
Tab. 1: The ‘ideal typological field’ according to Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004.

In their ultimate reference points, the four ideal types in Giesen’s ‘ideal typological field’ mark the ‘hero’ as the bearer of subjectivity and the ‘victim’, who is degraded to an object, and therefore constitute representations of the human constitution that are manifested in memory: “Heroic figures should thus be regarded as embodying their culture and as figures through which fundamental social and sometimes anthropological boundary experiences (like birth and death) are addressed and processed.”5Schlechtriemen, Tobias: “The Hero as an Effect. Boundary Work in Heroization Processes”. In: helden. heroes. héros. E-Journal zu Kulturen des Heroischen, Special Issue 5 (2019): Analyzing Processes of Heroization, 17-26, 18. DOI: 10.6094/helden.heroes.heros./2019/APH/03. At the same time, the matrix adequately takes into account the observation that between the perfect and masterful subjectivity of the hero, who can create a new order, and the victim, who is dehumanised and treated as an object, further archetypes must be conceptualised that are marked by the historical ‘success’ of their actions being assessed, meaning that perpetrators and tragic heroes also find their place in the matrix. The focus, however, is on the comparison between the hero (not the perpetrator!) and the victim when Giesen states:

“Both the hero as well as the victim are represented as ultimate reference points for the human constitution and both are located beyond the profane and mundane everyday activities of the regular social reality. In this respect, the distinction between the subjects and objects is closely associated with the distinction between the sacred and the profane.”6Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 6.

2.1.2. The construction of collective identities and the sacred

The theoretical basis for the construction of such a matrix in the tradition of Max Weber’s theory on ideal-types traces back to Giesen’s considerations regarding the construction of collective identities that he undertook together with Shmuel Eisenstadt. In their exposition on the concept of collective identities, Eisenstadt and Giesen argue that social collectives must evoke egality among the members of a community.7Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. / Giesen, Bernhard: “The Construction of Collective Identity”. In: European Journal of Sociology 36 (1995), 72-102, 74. In referencing the classic sociological theories of Weber and Émile Durkheim8Eisenstadt / Giesen: “The Construction of Collective Identity”, 1995, 73: “The theoretical approach is macro constructivist and tries to combine the Weberian tradition with structuralist elements of the Durkheimian heritage. In both authors the sociology of religion provides a paradigmic orientation for a theory of collective identity: Weber’s sociology of religion focused on different symbolic ways to solve the problem of salvation and related world-views to the life-world of particular social groups. Durkheim explained symbolic systems as classificatory grids bridging the gap between society and nature and presented religion as a model of coping with the requirements of social integration.”, they find that collective identities are in fact not natural, but produced on the basis of latent social demarcation processes that help to distinguish the same as defined by the collective identity from the different. Collective identities are therefore constructs created via social demarcation processes: “These boundaries […] establish a demarcation between the inside and outside, strangers and familiars, kin and akin, friends and foes, culture and nature, enlightenment and superstition, civilisation and barbary.”9Eisenstadt / Giesen: “The Construction of Collective Identity”, 1995, 74.

Social demarcation processes thus mark the area in which members of a community can perceive themselves as the same to a certain degree. This experience of sameness must be understood as a key requirement for the consolidation of collective identities. Simultaneously, the setting of such boundaries must, on the one hand, undergo continuous confirmation. On the other hand, the underlying processes must be kept latent as collective identities would lose their function in that moment in which the circumstances of their constructedness become apparent.10Eisenstadt / Giesen: “The Construction of Collective Identity”, 1995, 73. The latency of social demarcation processes can be maintained by dissociating them from the area of usual life and instead evoking a connection to the area of the sacred.11Giesen, Bernhard: “Tales of Transcendence: Imagining the Sacred in Politics”. In: Giesen, Bernhard / Šuber, Daniel (Eds.): Religion and Politics. Cultural Perspectives. Leiden / Boston 2005: Brill, 93-137, 101; see also ibid., 96: “The thesis that all politics relies upon a hidden transcendental reference can point to well-known philosophical arguments, ranging from German Idealism to more recent varieties of social philosophy: perception of reality presupposes a categorical frame (Kant); the order of objects is constituted by a transcendental subject (Hegel); the exception is constitutive for the rule (Wittgenstein); the profane exists only in distinction to its opposite, the sacred (Durkheim); social order has to be contrasted to some liminal reference (Turner); action cannot be conceived of without reference to an autonomous source of agency (Parsons); constitutions are set by a sovereign (Schmitt); and so forth. All these arguments converge in supporting the idea that social reality is constituted by referring to something that transcends the sheer positivism of the ordinary world of everyday life.” Eisenstadt and Giesen therefore classify the mindscapes of collective communities following Émile Durkheim’s fundamental dualistic model of order, which posits the separation of the world into two areas: the profane and the sacred.12Durkheim, Émile: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. A New Translation by Carol Cosman, New York 2008: Oxford University Press, 36. Durkheim first states in respect of the religious phenomenon that

“[…] it always assumes a binary division of the known and knowable universe into two genera that include all that exists but radically exclude each other. Sacred things are those protected and isolated by prohibitions; profane things are those things to which such prohibitions apply and which must keep their distance from what is sacred.”13Durkheim: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 2008, 40.

Eisenstadt and Giesen apply Durkheim’s sociological considerations of religion, which at first only move the forbidden objects into a sacred space, to their discussion of collective identities via the observation that it is characteristic of the latency of the constructedness of collective identities that they also can be regarded as linguistic constructs protected by prohibitions just like sacred objects are in Durkheim’s postulations.14Cf. Paden, William E.: “Reappraising Durkheim for the Study and Teaching of Religion”. In: Clarke, Peter B. (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Oxford 2011: Oxford University Press, 31-47, 36: “This concept [of the sacred] has not lost its value, and continues to describe the signature formations of new and traditional groups – where ‘group’ here does not mean social environments in general, but rather the self-representations of specifically differentiated collective units or subunits. A group is a kind of linguistic construct that functions as an essentialized representation of aggregates of individuals, and thus comes to have the effect of a ‘thing’ or an objectivity.” In that context, the first – seemingly ideal-typical – exercise in the construction of collective identities is pointing to their primordiality and natural existence and virtually ontologically substantiating the logic of their constitution.15 Eisenstadt / Giesen: “The Construction of Collective Identity”, 1995, 77-78: “Primordial types of collective identity appear to be ‘objective’ and unquestionable; the boundaries cannot be moved, and crossing the boundaries seems to be extremely difficult.” Hence, based on the assumption that an identity appears absolutely certain to its bearer, but must simultaneously remain inviolable, unfathomable and non-transparent, Giesen argues that, analogously, humans also require a continuity of collective identities. This continuity is constructed with reference to the area of the sacred and must be represented.16Giesen, Bernhard: Zwischenlagen. Das Außerordentliche als Grund der sozialen Wirklichkeit. Weilerswist 2010: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 73: “German history is still our history, even if we were born later. In that context, we require a continuity and identity that include Kant and Goethe just as they do Auschwitz and Verdun, but that cannot be reduced to a finite number of representations, either. In the link between self-assurance and opacity, the indescriptness and incomprehensibility of the connection to the holy and the whole can be seen even in the case of collective identity. That is the very reason why it must be represented.” (Translation by Daniel Hefflebower; in the original: “Die deutsche Geschichte ist unsere Geschichte auch dann noch, wenn wir später geboren wurden. Wir setzen dabei eine Kontinuität und Identität voraus, die Kant und Goethe ebenso wie Auschwitz und Verdun einschließt, die sich aber auch nicht auf eine endliche Anzahl von Repräsentationen festlegen lässt. In der Verbindung von Selbstgewissheit und Intransparenz zeigt sich auch bei kollektiver Identität die Unanschaulichkeit und Unfassbarkeit des Bezuges auf das Heilige und Ganze. Gerade deswegen muss es repräsentiert werden.”) The figures placed in the typological field of the heroic are, on the one hand, such liminal intermediary figures between the profane and the sacred; on the other hand, they not only determine the boundary between the everyday and the exceptional, they also define the inside and the outside of communities. Giesen writes the following about heroes, perpetrators and victims, which he presents as cultural imaginations of identity:

“They mark the boundaries between the regular and ordinary social life and the realm of the extraordinary beyond it. Heroes, victims and perpetrators are liminal figures that can be imagined only from this side of the boundary, from the point of view of regular social life, from the point of view of a community. We have to refer to their position in the outlands if we want to understand our situation inside the boundary, our social order, our community and history. Changing social ties and crossing social boundaries affect the imagination of the land beyond the horizon – the contour begins to waver, heroes appear as perpetrators, victims as heroes. What is demonic terrorism for one community is revered as heroic martyrdom by another.”17Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 1.

The figures introduced in Giesen’s matrix thus not only define the boundary to a community’s sacred area and thereby fulfil the latency function described above, i.e. they conceal the constructedness of social demarcation processes in order to sustain collective identities. They also fulfil the second central requirement in the construction of collective identities that Eisenstadt and Giesen describe as being necessary. Eisenstadt and Giesen assume that the community constructs itself by way of a civil code that relies on familiarity with implicit rules of conduct, traditions and routine social practices that define and mark the boundaries of communities and that are associated with the sacred: “This code […] links the constitutive difference between ‘us and them’ to the difference between the routine and the extraordinary.”18Eisenstadt / Giesen: “The Construction of Collective Identity”, 1995, 80. The figures placed in the typological field of the heroic can thus be understood as representatives of this code because, as figures of collective memory, they lend themselves to sacralizing the differentiations between inside and outside – since the figure ultimately does not specify who is remembered as a hero, perpetrator or victim, instead the community fills these roles to its liking. As liminal figures that convey the realm of the sacred into the everyday world, heroes, perpetrators and victims can thus be labelled figures of boundary work that “create communality and become the foil of collective identities”19Giesen: Zwischenlagen, 2010, 75. Translation by Daniel Hefflebower; in the original: “[…] Gemeinschaftlichkeit stiften und zur Folie kollektiver Identitäten werden.” since they define the boundaries of collective identities and function as representations of their norm and value systems.

2.1.3. The ideal types of ‘boundary work’

To begin with, Giesen presents in his matrix of the ideal typological field the figures of the triumphant hero, the victim, the tragic hero and the perpetrator, which are cultural constructions for representing the reference points of the two defining dualisms of his concept, i.e. the questions as to the conservation of the subjectivity of the agents, on the one hand, and those as to their agency in light of historical events, on the other. Accordingly, they are to be understood initially as ideal-types in the sense put forth by Weber and thus as exaggerated representations that do not occur in reality, but are designed to serve the purpose of academic analysis.20Schlechtriemen: “The Hero as an Effect”, 2019, 18. Consistent with this theory of ideal types and in drawing on his own considerations in Triumph and Trauma, Giesen can therefore present heroes, perpetrators and victims in his Zwischenlagen (2010) as figures of transcendence and purposefully state:

“Three of these concentrated cultural figures of transcendence are heroes, perpetrators and victims. The first conceptualises the exceptional as creative charisma and masterful establishment of order, i.e. as a figure of plenty and inconceivable abundance; the second assumes the legitimacy of a legal order and conceptualises liminality as deviance and wrongdoing, i.e. as a figure of disruption and dissent; the third seeks the link to transcendence through absolute aloneness and meaninglessness, i.e. as a figure of insufficiency.”21Giesen: Zwischenlagen, 2010, 75. Translation by Daniel Hefflebower; in the original: “Drei dieser verdichteten kulturellen Figuren der Transzendenz [sind] Helden, Täter und Opfer. Die erste imaginiert das Außerordentlich als schöpferisches Charisma und souveräne Setzung der Ordnung, also als eine Figur der Fülle und des unfassbaren Überflusses; die zweite geht aus von der Geltung einer rechtlichen Ordnung und imaginiert Liminalität als Devianz und Verbrechen, also als eine Figur der Störung und des Widerspruches; die dritte gewinnt den Bezug auf die Transzendenz durch das absolute Alleinsein und die Sinnleere, also als eine Figur des Mangels.”

However, Giesen formulates this notion of the corresponding ideal types as cultural constructs in a way that extends far beyond the presentation of the reference points of the matrix of his typological field, such that he develops four archetypes enriched with anthropological positings. The types of the triumphant hero and faceless victim are the two central reference points for the construction of collective identities and are therefore explained in further detail in this article. The triumphant hero

Bernhard Giesen describes heroes as the triumphant embodiment of a collective identity. As singular and individualised figures, they symbolise a community’s link to its sacred core and represent humans’ ability to rise above the banal concerns of the everyday and they themselves become part of the sacred order – and thereby immortal.22Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 17. In that context, the hero disregards the strict rules of the everyday, disdains routines and breaks with conventions: “Heroes represent the extraordinary and charismatic; they do not perform according to the rules, instead they constitute them.”23Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 18. This adage is to be understood less in reference to historical prototypes who succeeded in implementing a new order, but as a reference to the theoretical dimension of the hero: social order cannot be created without pointing to its opposite – the sacred – and a community cannot form any collective identity without imagining subjectivity. The hero embodies this subjectivity.

Hence, heroes are to be understood as social constructs of specific communities. They are imaginings of the utmost individuality and collective projections of masterful subjectivity and of the sacred onto individual figures and their lives. Through the construction of heroes, a community overcomes not just the profane eventualities and coincidences of the everyday, but also the threat of death. The construction of heroes thus creates a social bond that transcends the limitations of individual life and prevailing logic.24Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 18. Elsewhere, Giesen states with regard to the hero’s function for boundary work:

“In [the] range of different modes of boundary construction, triumphant heroism occupies a special position: it connects the community to its sacred center by a person who is distant and close at the same time – distant because the hero is superhuman in his triumphant creativity and far out of reach for ordinary human beings, close because the hero results from the projection of the ideal self that is in the mind of the individual persons who admire the hero.”25Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 22. The victim

The victim is not just placed opposite the hero in Giesen’s matrix; there is also a direct relationship of dependence since the sacred must be concentrated in the person of the triumphant hero at the expense of desacralizing others. Hence, in the moment of their triumph, heroes can create victims.26Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 45: “Living heroes, in their attempt to rise above the ordinary, disregard mundane reasoning and disdain the voices of caution. Cruel and merciless, their deeds demand sacrifices also from their followers and can even entail the death of those who are not members of the charismatic community. The concentration of the sacred in the person of the triumphant hero comes at the price of desacralizating others. Thus heroes, in the moment of triumph, can, and frequently do, produce victims.” Being designated as a victim appears at first to be a self-evident classification that requires no further evaluation. To be presented as an ideal-type, however, a few requirements must be made of the figure of the victim: there are no natural victims. Victims can only arise in conflict with people that interfere in human life, change its course and ascribe, define and acknowledge victim status. The categorisation as victim therefore requires that the individual so labelled acquire this status as a result of a conflict with the intentional conduct of another individual – a conflict that should have taken another course. Victim status implies that the outcome of the conflict is considered wrong and that the decision of the acting individual to act as they did is regarded as an avoidable mistake.27Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 46. Thus, on the one hand, victim status requires an actor who is responsible for the victim’s misfortune and, on the other hand, the misfortune implies that the affected party is innocent.28Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 47.

These thoughts on victim status yield the conclusion, according to this logic, that the victim must stand as a cultural construct to which a specific function of boundary work must be assigned. Accordingly, the victim archetype thus conceptualised represents the faceless subject: “Victims […] have no face, no voice and no place. Even if they are still alive, they are numbed and muted, displaced and uprooted.”29Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 53. Where the hero functions as an intermediary figure with respect to the sacred core of the community, due to their lost or blurry subjectivity, victims are liminal figures at the dark fringe of human communities, where doubts can arise about the seemingly clear boundaries (represented by none other than radiant individuals), where subjects can be degraded suddenly to objects or where objects can receive a voice.30Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 53. Giesen therefore summarises the particular significance of the victim for the construction of collective identities as follows:

“In the construction of victimhood, a culture encapsulates the latent suspicion that boundaries between inside and outside could also be constructed otherwise, that the exclusion of an outside can never be perfectly justified, that there is a latent subjectivity even in the excluded outside of objects, the recognition of subjects as alike and the definition of objects as different rests on fragile foundations, that culture is based on the latency and even on the repression of claims of subjectivity.”31Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 53.

In addition, two further phenomena bear mentioning in connection with the construction of the victim: first, the acknowledgement and discussion of the victim’s damaged subjectivity is a central factor in order to emphasise the masterful subjectivity of the collective that remembers the victim. Second, Giesen points out that the faceless victim is more compatible with the impersonal and anonymous order of modernity than the hero is. For that reason, there is a profound affinity of modern societies with the construction of the victim.32Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 53-54: “[T]here is a deeply rooted elective affinity between the impersonal order of modern society and the construction of victims. If the basic principles that pattern law and public discourse, exchange of commodities and science disregard personal background and privilege in favor of an objective, standardized and accountable treatment of an issue, then the public embodiment of power and charisma in the figure of the hero risks being considered immoral, scandalous, or unjust. Heightened agency and sovereign trespassing of rules is under strong suspicion of being evil if it cannot be encapsulated in special arenas like art. Therefore, what was regarded as a hero before is converted to a perpetrator. In contrast, the figure of the victim who has no voice, no face, no place anymore is much more compatible with the impersonal and anonymous order of modern society. The victim is a case of a general category, an object devoid of a personal story, and as such the victim can be treated by the objectifying and impersonal institutions of modern society.”

2.2. Criticism

The idea of the ‘ideal typological field’ initially offers a convincing heuristic for analysing the function of the figures placed in that field when collective identities are constructed. The incorporation of the ideal-typical considerations when simultaneously inserting anthropological positings, however, results in a double imbalance that complicates applying Giesen’s classification scheme to hero scholarship.

1) According to Ulrich Bröckling, “[t]ypologies are particularly suitable for the investigation of heroisms and heroization processes, because typification is part of the subject’s own logic: heroic semantics construct figures, whether based on reality or fictional, who have paradigmatic qualities.”33Bröckling, Ulrich: “Negations of the Heroic. A Typological Essay”. In: helden. heroes. héros. E-Journal zu Kulturen des Heroischen, Special Issue 5 (2019), 39-43, 43. DOI: 10.6094/helden.heroes.heros./2019/APH/05 In that context, typologies do not reflect reality, but “make comparisons between ideal types and therefore are heuristic in nature. They do not describe reality, but suggest how reality could be described and thus provide orientation for further research. They offer an organizational system for a particular field, and to this end they construct abstractions that leave aside the particular qualities of a concrete case.”34Bröckling, “Negations of the Heroic”, 2019, 42. Giesen’s archetypes, however, seem to have lost their ideal-typical character through numerous historical references and anthropological positings. For instance, Tobias Schlechtriemen notes that a reading of Giesen frequently conveys the impression that the types actually thought of as cultural constructs would be found ‘out there’.35Schlechtriemen: “The Hero as an Effect”, 2019, 18. Behind that impression seems to be the unease that Giesen’s typology might claim to reflect reality and not just offer an organisational system.

(2) The reciprocal effect of the ideal-typical perspective is more serious for the meaningfulness of Giesen’s archetypes with respect to the phenomenon of the heroic. By focussing on the four reference points of the ideal typological field matrix, a constriction naturally takes place that admittedly must underlie the nature of all typologies and can even be desired36Regarding the problems of typologies in historical scholarship, cf. Bröckling, “Negations of the Heroic”, 2019, 42-43.: “The usefulness of typologies for guiding research must grapple with a number of difficulties: firstly, typologies are ahistorical, and not capable of capturing historical transformations and processes of cultural translation. Secondly, typologies suggest a comprehensiveness and systematicity that does not do justice to the diversity of the historical material. There is a place for everything in the table, but only one place.” Cf. also Schlechtriemen: “The Hero as an Effect”, 2019, 19: “The difficulties presented by typological approaches consist in their synchronic ordering of semantic fields and their inability to capture historical processes. Laid out as a typological set, these approaches also suggest a sense of completeness that they cannot achieve due to their heuristic character. Furthermore, they imply a certain clarity that often does not do justice to the many simultaneous meanings of reality.”, but in the present case obstructs the view of precisely those phenomena that are to be made comprehensible using the matrix in the first place: by focussing on the matrix’s reference points and the archetypes that represent them, the ideal typological field according to Bernhard Giesen rejects ambiguous protagonists, tragic constellations, rebellious figures, nuances, the glistening and the rustling that are common to boundaries, regions of transcendence and demarcation processes.

This criticism can be illustrated for example in the figure of the martyr, in which discourses are concentrated that relate to all four reference points (hero, victim, tragic hero and perpetrator). The ambiguous social construction of the martyr finds no place in Bernhard Giesen’s matrix, although the construction can unquestionably claim the same liminal figure status at the level of memory as the triumphant hero. The same must apply to reversible figures, although the theory was formulated expressly in analysis of this phenomenon. Giesen himself states:

“As is not uncommon in the aftermath of war and defeat, those who had been praised as heroes before, were afterwards considered as victims whose self-sacrifice was devoid of any meaning, or they were regarded as perpetrators, as icons of evil, as embodiments of demonic madness. In death and defeat, heroism exhibits its ambivalences, the fragility of its foundations, the tension between trauma and triumph.”37Giesen: Triumph and Trauma, 2004, 15.

Hence, reversible figures are conceivable only as representations and phenomena of radical transformations. The former hero becomes an ‘icon of evil’ to be re-incorporated into the matrix, but now as a perpetrator. This ambiguity, however, per se rejects the idea of the extreme – except for the radical transformations that are the point of departure for Giesen’s theses. Such ambiguous figures resist being placed in the matrix, just as victims who have a face, martyrs and firefighters and all unknown soldiers, who are not to be seen as victims, but who have neither face nor voice.

This criticism seems easily met by pointing out that there is room enough for all of these examples and constellations between the reference points. Yet, Bröckling’s objection remains: typologies emphasise differences over relationships, hybrid formations and vagueness – and everything has only one place in the table.38Bröckling: “Negationen des Heroischen”, 2015, 13. In order to address such legitimate criticism while simultaneously appreciating the benefits of the theoretical reflections explained in this article, I have proposed the idea of an “imaginary field of the heroic” which reaches beyond the restraints of ideal-type thinking and leaves room for the inclusion of ambiguous figures in collective memory.39Gölz, Olmo: “The Imaginary Field of the Heroic: On the Contention between Heroes, Martyrs, Victims and Villains in Collective Memory”. In: helden. heroes. héros. E-Journal zu Kulturen des Heroischen, Special Issue 5 (2019): Analyzing Processes of Heroization. Theories, Methods, Histories, 27-38, 28. DOI: 10.6094/helden.heroes.heros./2019/APH/04.

3. References

4. Selected literature

  • Bröckling, Ulrich: “Negations of the Heroic. A Typological Essay”. In: helden. heroes. héros. E-Journal zu Kulturen des Heroischen, Special Issue 5 (2019), 39-43. DOI: 10.6094/helden.heroes.heros./2019/APH/05.
  • Durkheim, Émile: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. A New Translation by Carol Cosman, New York 2008: Oxford University Press.
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. / Giesen, Bernhard: “The Construction of Collective Identity”. In: European Journal of Sociology 36 (1995), 72-102.
  • Giesen, Bernhard: Triumph and Trauma. Boulder, Colorado 2004: Paradigm.
  • Giesen, Bernhard: „Tales of Transcendence. Imagining the Sacred in Politics“. In: Giesen, Bernhard / Šuber, Daniel (Eds.): Religion and Politics. Cultural Perspectives. Leiden/Boston 2005: Brill, 93-137.
  • Giesen, Bernhard: Zwischenlagen. Das Außerordentliche als Grund der sozialen Wirklichkeit. Weilerswist 2010: Velbrück Wissenschaft.
  • Gölz, Olmo: “The Imaginary Field of the Heroic: On the Contention between Heroes, Martyrs, Victims and Villains in Collective Memory.” In: helden. heroes. héros. E-Journal zu Kulturen des Heroischen, Special Issue 5 (2019): Analyzing Processes of Heroization. Theories, Methods, Histories, 27-38. DOI: 10.6094/helden.heroes.heros./2019/APH/04.
  • Paden, William E.: “Reappraising Durkheim for the Study and Teaching of Religion”. In: Clarke, Peter B. (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Oxford 2011: Oxford University Press, 31-47.
  • Schlechtriemen, Tobias: “The Hero as an Effect. Boundary Work in Heroization Processes”. In: helden. heroes. héros. E-Journal zu Kulturen des Heroischen, Special Issue 5 (2019): Analyzing Processes of Heroization, 17-26. DOI: 10.6094/helden.heroes.heros./2019/APH/03.

5. List of images

Teaser image: Jacques-Louis David: “Léonidas aux Thermopyles”, 1814, oil on canvas, 531 cm x 395 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Obj.-No. 3690.
Source: User:Alonso de Mendoza / Wikimedia Commons
Licence: Public Domain


Olmo Gölz: Typological Field of the Heroic. In: Compendium heroicum, ed. by Ronald G. Asch, Achim Aurnhammer, Georg Feitscher, Anna Schreurs-Morét, and Ralf von den Hoff, published by Sonderforschungsbereich 948, University of Freiburg, Freiburg 2022-09-21. DOI: 10.6094/heroicum/tfhe1.0.20220921