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Tag Archives: Grant Morrison

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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In der Nacht haben wir geträumt

People that know me know I’m prone to having exceptionally bizarre dreams. This doesn’t happen all the time, which is probably a plus (at least as far as the tattered remnants of my sanity is concerned), and as far as that goes I don’t usually recall my dreams, or am even aware of having experienced dreams. It’s just that when I do dream, I sometimes dream up some… interesting stuff. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of the more memorable nocturnal visitors from the last couple years.

In one particular dream I was hired to write a prequel comic to Killer Clowns from Outer Space. Admittedly not really all that bizarre when compared to what is on the way, but it stood out.

In another notable incident I dreamed I was part of a group of people who staged an intervention for Santa Claus. Yes, I said Santa Claus. Turns out that Santa has a cheerily red nose because he’s a bit of a booze hound. When confronted over his drunken ways, Santa tearfully confessed that he wouldn’t stop drinking. Santa has a dark secret; alcohol is the fuel that allows Santa to defy spacetime and deliver presents to all the children of the world in just one night. So no boozed up Santa means no Christmas.

Moving on, we come to a rather more recent entry in which a Holiday park sort of place had become infested with mysterious, people eating horrors, most of which took the form of faceless, shadowy entities. I, of course, had to get rid of these things. In a bid to help me do that, the Ultraterrestrials of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles manifested to help me… though rather than manifesting in some sort of psychedalic, shamanic initiation they showed up on a television in the form of Samuel L. Jackson. According to them, my mind wasn’t at a stage where it could comprehend a more direct manifestation of their presence.

Which brings up to the latest entrant. I spent a bit over two hours snapping in and out of iterations of this dream, and I still can’t really tell you what it was about, dear readers. It was about Wonderland, or the idea of Wonderland, but not really. There were dark doings in Wonderland, or should I say by Wonderland as it appeared to be a conscious entity, involving a plot to raise families of inbred, pedophilic families of nobility, while at the same time Wonderland was a trap to murder pedophiles. I don’t know if it’s because the dream was constantly interrupted, or if it was something else, but there wasn’t a narrative as such. Even the visual experience of the dream often broke down into a bizarre, fractal landscape accompanied by the experience of narration that was felt/thought more than heard.

Of course I say the dream was frequently interrupted, but that isn’t entirely true, as the dream didn’t really stop just because I was awake. In the half-awake periods before I would slip back under the dream made sense. My mind would go over each of the elements point by point, fitting them into a complex, yet comprehensible structure. My understanding would suddenly fray, leaving me with a powerful sense of dislocation, made more intense by feelings of physical discomfort my body was sending me. The only way I can explain it is as the experience of going mad, and of being painfully aware of my own descent into insanity. It was not a pleasant couple of hours.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a dream continue after waking, though it is the first to have this much of an effect on me. Hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations aren’t particularly uncommon, and (when accompanied by sleep paralysis) quite likely account for a number of alien abduction experiences (among other things). Yet when you get right down to it these are just dreams and hallucinations, aren’t they? None of this is meaningfully real, right? Right?

Sadly, the answer isn’t quite as simple as that. Which in other ways is good for me, because it means I can talk about these sort of things without it being simply a trip through the fractured landscape of my psyche; this is made even better since I won’t be talking about the nonsense that is Freudian psychoanalysis (or the even bigger nonsense that is Lacanian psychoanalysis – both of which are only useful for discovering what Freud and Lacan’s personal hangups were, and if you’re not familiar with their work I’ll spoil it for you; Freud was obsessed with mothers and dicks, Lacan was even more dick obsessed than Freud).

If we jump back in time and overcome our distaste that we might plumb the work of Descartes, we find he had a bit of an issue with dreams. I’ll trim off a good deal of fat and say that the problem, as far as Descartes was concerned, was that we experience sensory and emotional content in dreams. We also experience sensory and emotional content in what we regard as the “real,” waking world. How then, could he be sure of what was in fact real; to put it in philosophical terms, how could Descartes, and by extension the rest of us, distinguish reality acting in and of itself as distinct from sensory experience acting as reality?

In a similar vein, there’s a scene in The Matrix that occurs shortly after Neo has been made of the artificial nature of his life up to that point. I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but the essence of the scene is that our intrepid heroes are driving down the street, and Neo is reminiscing about how he ate at this place, or went to such and such, but none of it was “real.”

The kicker is that what happens when we sleep, or all those places Neo went while his mind was a prisoner in the Matrix, are all real in the meaningful sense of reality. Neo remembered going to those places, he remembers his experiences. Descartes felt emotions and experienced sensory input in his dreams, just like he did in waking life. For example, say I have a dream of going into a fine restaurant, and eating a steak of unimaginable perfection. I have sensory impressions of this steak, and of the experience as a whole, that persist upon waking. It is true that this experience would not, for example, keep from dying of starvation, yet the same is true if I were instead to “relive” a memory of a steak I had eaten in the waking world. That memory can no more keep me from starvation that could the experience of the dreamed steak, yet we draw ontological boxes around the two experiences and define one as real, and the other as false.

Where this starts to get interesting, at least within the purview of this particular blog, is in the context of the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Both of these men lay claim to the title of magician, and have written comicbooks that were themselves magical acts (Morrison with the hypersigil of Invisibles and Moore with Promethea). Admittedly they go about it different ways, and have sniped at each other about their respective views on magic (and nearly everything else), though a close look at what they are saying reveals that they are in truth saying remarkable similar things.

I wish I could go into a proper overview of ideas of “magic,” but I simply don’t have the space here. To put that in context I’ve spent 40 pages talking about magic and existential theories in the context of Moore’s Promethea, and that 40 pages still isn’t sufficient to cover things as well as they should be covered. However, if you come up to me claiming you can make someone fall in love with you solely by means of magic spell or by wishing it hard enough, or that you have psychic powers, I will raise the devestating eyebrow of skepticism at you, and point out that there’s a man willing to give you a million dollars if you can prove that. What we usually mean when we think of magic isn’t exactly what Moore and Morrison are talking about (mostly).

I’ll start with a quote from Aleister Crowley:

(Illustration: It is my Will to inform the World of certain facts within my knowledge. I     therefore take “magickal weapons”, pen, ink, and paper; I write “incantations”—these sentences—in the “magickal language” ie, that which is understood by the people I wish to instruct; I call forth “spirits”, such as printers, publishers, booksellers and so forth and constrain them to convey my message to those people. The composition and distribution     of this book is thus an act of Magick by which I cause Changes to take place in conformity with my Will.)
In one sense Magick may be defined as the name given to Science by the vulgar.

Here’s a rough paraphrase of some comments by Moore during an interview:

Magic is not capable of changing the physical rules of the universe; it creates changes in consciousness that can then affect change in the physical world. / Magic is the science of the world inside the mind.

While I don’t have any quotes by Morrison  handy, he mostly says things in line with the above ideas (about both magic and his “Katmandu experience”). Magic would then seem to be less about “spells” that alter the paradigm of metaphysical realism (the rules by which experienced reality operates, such as gravity, things continuing to happen whether or not we’re witnessing them or want them to continue happening etc.), and more about a paradigm shift in the way we perceive reality, which then alters reality, as the meaningful existence of reality exists only as our perception of it.

Yes, experienced reality has those rules on which it operates, but those rules are not what make experienced reality; they simply provide the backdrop. Think, just for a moment, about how you are able to read these words. You can read these words, because we have a concept we call language. Yet there is no metaphysical referent for these words; if there was there would be little to no ambiguity. Rather, language, any language, is a series of arbitrary symbols, yet for its arbitrariness we all, consciously or not, agree to abide by the concepts these symbols are assigned to represent. If we didn’t, we couldn’t communicate with each other. That’s because language, and reality as a whole, is, as I have mentioned before, an intersubjective phenomenon (and one that apparently requires the use of several commas to express).

We do not experience, or construct, reality in isolation, but as part of a complex web involving the people and things around us, including those things of an ephemeral nature. Even if we never share a word of what goes on behind our closed eyes with the rest of the world, we still carry with us the experiences of our dreams. They are a part of who we are, and are something we carry with us in our lives. Dreams are not only “real” in the sense that we do experience and remember them, but they are part of what shapes us, and our interactions, and as such are a part of what shapes reality. Dreams are much like mystical experience in this respect in that it doesn’t matter if the source the experience comes from is real as such, as we have undeniably experienced it (for the record, I have had a mystical experience, seen two ghosts, and encountered in the waking world one of the shadowy, faceless figures that the Ultraterrestrials were helping me to fight; for all that, I still do not believe in the transcendent reality of the Buddhists, life after death, or think that the aforementioned figure was real in a physical sense).

What does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China? Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man? In truth I have no idea. Right now I’m simply an entity who is 1,000 words over the normal limit he sets on these posts, and is badly in need of a nap.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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