Monthly Archives: January 2012

Robotman and the Posthuman Condition

The book I was reading last night and I had a disagreement. The book in question was A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files. It presented itself as being about cowboys and magic. I am down with the cowboys and magic. It was also about gay sex. Lots of gay sex. Repeated gay sex. That’s not really my bag, as they say, but I kept reading anyway, as other than a few small quibbles it was well written enough, and seemed an interesting enough story that I was willing to stick it out. Until the part where the straight man is seduced into magical gay cowboy sex that is awesome and the whole book started to read like fanfiction. Well-written fanfiction, comparatively speaking, but not so well done I was willing to continue reading. If gay cowboys, and straight cowboys magically being turned gay, is your thing, though, I suspect there are worse offerings out there.

That aside, I was left with a bit of a dilemma. I didn’t feel like (re)starting Morrison’s Supergods, and having forgotten what it was I had decided to read I opted to reread a bit of Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Robotman, he is a member of the Doom Patrol. His name is Cliff Steele. He used to race cars. He crashed and his body was reduced to a hideous, mangled, pulp. A chap by the name of Niles Caulder managed to salvage Cliff’s brain and stick it in a robot body. (If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like the Thing you wouldn’t be wrong, though generally I find Cliff is slightly less insufferable than Ben.)

While not dying is generally considered a plus, Cliff, particularly Cliff via Morrison, isn’t entirely happy with his robody. Sure, he’s alive, but having not been born a robot he is now alive in a way he is not equipped to experience. Those senses he does have, sight and hearing, are now radically different than they were when they were experience with human eyes and ears, while touch, taste, and smell are no longer part of Cliff’s experience of the world. The loss or radical redefinition of a sense has a profound effect on our lives. It is through our senses that our engagement with the world begins, thus it is our senses that shape our engagement with the world. A person who is born blind has a fundamentally different way of being in the world as a person who is born sighted. A person who loses the ability to see must relearn their way of being in the world.

For all it resembles that of a human on the surface, Cliff’s experience of the world is not the human experience of the world. While Morrison does give us some hints as to the effect this has of Cliff’s psyche I think this is an area where comics in general haven’t explored the possibilities inherent in the genre’s conceits.

Certainly, we get those characters who suddenly have power and decide that they are now beyond human conceits of morality. Yet this is really nothing different from a thug with a loaded gun and a cocaine-fueled hardon deciding that he’s a god. Because what moves these characters beyond human and into the realm of the posthuman isn’t their powers; it is how those powers alter their way of perceiving, and thus being in, the world.

I’ll be the first to admit that doing any kind of justice to this is a difficult task. We are, after all, limited to our human experience of the world. Yet that doesn’t stop us from imagining. What is Cliff’s experience of the world like? What is it like for Cliff, and for those like Cliff, who come to their powers after having lived a life fully human? What would it be like for a posthuman raised among humans versus a posthuman who comes to human society at a later point? Somehow, I think that we can find more possibilities than “genocidal sociopath” or “messiah” nestled in these ideas.

I still enjoy superhero comics. I’ve never made a secret of that. Yet for all that enjoyment, it would be nice to see someone step out and tackle some of the interesting possibilities of the medium beyond, and with the same level of exploration as, the various modes of deconstruction that some very talented folks have already given us various permutations on.

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Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Comics, Philosophy


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