©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro
Seattle, 1992. Don't believe the hype. I find myself stranded in this obsessively health-minded, puritanical, routinized, and relentlessly cheerful city, lifelines cut, lost without my vital supply of counteracting stimulants. Yes, some of the bands are still great, despite the insidious pressures of fame: Nirvana, Mudhoney, Seven-Year Bitch. And yes, more cartoonists are moving here every day. But otherwise, nothing. I strain to hear an echo of Burroughs' silent scream: "What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: the word." Say it again and again. But does anybody even remember? These prefabricated combinations of words, these carefully crafted HWP bodies, are all I can find, perhaps all there is. Don't smoke, don't do drugs, don't put up posters on utility poles, and don't sit on the sidewalk. Smile as often as possible. Above all, watch your mouth and be polite. As Kathy Acker writes of her female Don Quixote: "Being dead, [she] could no longer speak. Being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. All she could do was read male texts which weren't hers." It all comes from somewhere else. Affectless extraterrestrial zombies are in control; that's why we have a Space Needle. Living here is like perpetually scanning a set of boring personals ads. Everybody wants the same cozy evenings by the fireside, the same long walks on the beach. But it's all a facade. Organicism is a myth. Our bodies are never ourselves, our words and texts are never really our own. They aren't "us," but the forces that crush us, the norms to which we've been subjected.
As Burroughs knows, there's no getting around it: "To speak is to lie--to live is to collaborate." The only way out is the same way we came in. With postmodernism, as with drugs and pornography, the only way to get anywhere is to immerse yourself in it as much as possible, as mindlessly and as abjectly as possible, and then just sit back and enjoy it. One fix after another, one purchase after another, one orgasm after another; for there is no end to the accumulation: "the lonely hour of the 'last instance' never arrives" (Althusser). All we can do with words and images is appropriate them, distort them, turn them against themselves. All we can do is borrow them and waste them: spend what we haven't earned, and what we don't even possess. That's my definition of postmodern culture, but it's also Citibank's definition of a healthy economy, Jacques Lacan's definition of love, and J. G. Ballard's definition of life in the postindustrial ruins. It's a relief to realize that culture is after all empty, that its imposing edifices are just ruins or sound stage facades, that bodies are extremely plastic, that facial expressions are masks, that words in fact have nothing to express. For bodies and words are merely exchange-value: commodities or money. If postmodernism is indeed, as Fredric Jameson argues, "the cultural logic of late capitalism," then it is perhaps most accurately regarded as a frenzy of delirious shopping--or better still, of shoplifting. We engage in orgies of endless consumption, forever postponing the moment when the bills come due. The party never ends: S & L scams for the rich, Visa and Master Card financing for the middle class, and even occasional riots and looting for the poor. (As I write these lines, unpaid credit card debts come to more than 33% of my yearly salary; but since I don't expect ever to be able to pay these cards off, it feels as if I'm getting everything for free). It's all a whirl of extendible lines of credit, substitution of goods, and metamorphoses of capital. The postmodern economy unfolds in an eternal present. We aren't interested in duration or preservation; we devour and squander at a frantic pace, latching on to one thing only to throw it aside in favor of something else the very next moment. Everything is negotiable, everything is available for exchange. So let yourself go. Don't be a good citizen. Don't produce, expend. Be a parasite. Consume images and be consumed by them. Live off your Visa card, and scavenge in the debris.
Case in point: DOOM PATROL. Every month I run to the comic book store and grab the latest issue of this DC superhero comic. It's been written since 1989 (and up to the end of 1992) by Grant Morrison, with visual layouts usually by Richard Case, and ink finishes, coloring, and lettering by various others. Like most commercial comics, it is produced in accordance with a strict division of labor. DC Comics, a division of Warner Brothers, a Time Warner Entertainment Company, owns the rights to DOOM PATROL and everything inside it: "All characters featured in this issue, the distinctive likenesses thereof, and all related indicia are trademarks of DC Comics." I refer to the comic here only in accordance with the official legal guidelines for "fair use." After all, you can always go check it out for yourself: a new monthly issue is only $1.75. But then again, maybe not: if you haven't already seen last year's run, you probably never will. You see, these comic books aren't made to last. They are cheap commodities, printed in limited quantities on low-grade paper, designed for rapid turnover and almost instantaneous obsolescence. Comic book stores do not keep a large back stock: they order only the number of copies of a given issue that they think they'll be able to sell in the course of the month. Of course, if you have money to spare, you can always rummage through the used bins. Some people buy new comics and encase them in plastic without even reading them; they hope to sell them later for an enormous profit. The scarcity of old issues sometimes turns them into collectors' items that command high prices; a second circuit of speculation and exchange thus grafts itself onto the first one. The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it's precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists' renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are "a highly participational form of expression." It's all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does "readers." The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content.
Grant Morrison is acutely aware of this situation. In his hands, DOOM PATROL runs the gamut of pop culture possibilities, consuming words, images, and styles with a vengeance. "The idea of comics," Morrison says, "is like sitting in front of your TV with a channel changer... Perception is a cut-up." His run of DOOM PATROL is a second-order, self-reflexive comic: it perverts and reinterprets the original book (written by Arnold Drake and drawn by Bruno Premiani) that appeared from the mid-60s to the early 70s (in the so-called Silver Age of comics). The old book advertised itself as "the world's most bizarre heroes"; it concerned a group of social and genetic misfits who put their strangeness to use by becoming superheroes. Morrison picks up on the theme of refusing and resisting social norms, and gives it mind-blowingly kinky new twists. The changes are enormous: the old book's naive earnestness is replaced by the tongue-in-cheek provocations of a sly hipster. For instance, the Chief of the old DOOM PATROL is a brilliant idealist always pontificating that "the world is full of catastrophes to be checked, evil to be fought, people to be helped," etc.; his equivalent in the new series (ostensibly the same character) is a cold-blooded cynic inclined deliberately to provoke trauma and stress among the members of his group, just so that he can scientifically observe and record their reactions. The villains become a lot more interesting as well; the Brotherhood of Evil in the original series gives way to the Brotherhood of Dada, a group that stands beyond good and evil, "celebrates the total absurdity of life," and laudably strives to undermine consensus reality in favor of "liberation, laughs, and libido." The new DOOM PATROL makes the old one sort of ridiculous, but without ever exuding that smug superiority (based on a self-congratulatory distance) that is so often the fatal flaw of camp recycling. Morrison doesn't disavow the juvenile fun of earlier generations of comic books; rather, he presupposes and builds upon their enjoyments. He states that one reason he was drawn to DOOM PATROL, in particular, was that, even in its first incarnation, "there was a certain dark and not-altogether-healthy glamour about these four characters... [they] slouched into town like a pack of junkyard dogs with a grudge against mankind." The old comic provides ample fodder to be cannibalized and gleefully blasted into hyperspace. And so, in the new DOOM PATROL, self-conscious estrangement works as an intensifier. We get more dumb heroics, slam-bang fights, and melodramatic plot twists than we ever bargained for.
All in all, it's a long way from Krypton. In the pages of Morrison's DOOM PATROL, we meet hermaphroditic aliens and transvestite city streets, orgone cops and psychedelic pranksters, Gnostic terrorists and insect theologians and cultists who worship Jack the Ripper as God. DOOM PATROLis refreshingly unconcerned with the platitudes of "truth, justice, and the American way." Instead, it rightly depicts the Pentagon as headquarters of a bizarre supernatural conspiracy aiming to institute worldwide standardization and puritanical repression. We're continually meeting sinister forces like the Men From NOWHERE, "normalcy agents" whose mission is to "eradicate eccentricities, anomalies, and peculiarities wherever we find them." Stability, normality, conformity, and everyday boredom are always the real enemies; DOOM PATROL deploys against them its vision of crazed flux in a decentered, goofily hyperreal world. It provides an exhilarating mixture of kitschy nonchalance and schizoid exaggeration; it is multilinear, eclectic, and self-consciously absurdist. Of course, it is garishly illustrated, with aggressive outlines and high-contrast colors, in a style that ranges from the hallucinogenic to the Gothic. The book features a shifting cast of characters, and wildly proliferating plotlines; its tone swings between parody and horror, between extravagant silliness, wickedly barbed satire, mystical revelation, and apocalyptic dread. And through it all, DOOM PATROL shows a marked fondness for puns and wordplay, as well as for the consumption of psychedelic drugs.
DOOM PATROL is just the fix I need. It has exactly the right mix of ingredients. Everything is in pieces, everything is borrowed or stolen. Plagiarism "is democratic," Morrison says, "because everyone can plagiarize... The text takes on a whole other meaning when passed through a plagiarist." And so, in exemplary postmodern fashion, Morrison vandalizes, appropriates, and recycles the most diverse, incongruous sources. And not just old comics. Burroughs and Borges, for instance, are frequently in evidence. A single page of DOOM PATROL may also contain allusions and references to Gnostic heresies, pop music, and chaos theory, to Thomas De Quincey and Andy Warhol and Jack Kirby, to the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali and Mr. Ed, to X-Ray Spex and My Bloody Valentine and T. S. Eliot and Terence McKenna. The comic shows an amazing capacity for sucking up and regurgitating the detritus of Anglo-American (and world) culture. It annihilates categories of high and low, proper and improper, subjecting all distinctions to a continual play of absorption, mimicry, frantic accumulation, and prodigal display. It opposes the dreariness of standardized routine with its continual show of recombinant delirium.
Pastiche of this sort is a lot like dressing in drag: in both, it's a matter of piling up and juxtaposing stereotypical traits, thereby transforming them into eccentricities and quirks. Jameson somewhat misses the point, I think, when he argues that postmodern pastiche is "a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of... any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists." For the "blankness" of postmodern style in drag and pastiche is of course inspired precisely by our deep suspicion of "ulterior motives." The very notion of a "healthy... normality" is at the root of what oppresses us. We've heard this stuff about "normality" and "health" far too many times before. We're not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we're doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those "convictions" of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself. "Man could never do without blood, torture, and sacrifices when he felt the need to create a memory for himself" (Nietzsche). But forgetting myself, speaking in others' stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.
Plagiarism, blank mimicry, parasitic borrowing, speaking in tongues: these are the tactics of exemplary postmodern works like DOOM PATROL. Irresponsible freeplay is our best response to a cultural landscape supposedly composed of fragments and ruins. Critics who seek to rectify this situation are nothing but ventriloquists vainly casting their voices in the Potemkin villages of normality. A pervasive, and clinically paranoid, fantasy of much recent science fiction is the obsessive suspicion that nobody (not even oneself) is truly alive: everything is an illusion, a false facade, a machine. Cliff Steele, one of the key protagonists of DOOM PATROL, experiences just such a fantasy when the contents of his mind are downloaded into the virtual-reality matrix of a supercomputer. An emptying-out of the self answers the perception of a world in ruins. Organicism is dead, replaced by the atomization and routinization of bodily activity, and the increasing specialization and fragmentation of the objective world of science and culture. Now this fantasy is not a particularly new one, since it's already a staple of 19th- and 20th-century modernity: it's the delirium of that postmodernist before his time, Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber, as well as the "insignificant grouse against life" of the retro-modernist T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land. What may be new and different is the way in which we are now able to figure and respond to this situation.
Craig Owens and Celeste Olalquiaga, among others, suggest that Walter Benjamin's analysis of allegory is particularly appropriate to postmodern culture. In allegory, signs become materially insistent in their own right, detached from referential meaning; the mechanical piling up of fragments takes the place of organic completion or symbolic translation. The postmodern landscape is evoked by J. G. Ballard as a vista of garbage-strewn high-rise apartment buildings, shattered concrete littered with husks of burnt-out cars, snuff videos in incessant replay. Benjamin sees melancholia as a compulsive response to an intolerable situation: one in which everything seems to be fragments and ruins, in which we know that we are irrecuperably estranged from a supposed 'origin' to which we nonetheless continue compulsively to refer. Allegory "represents a continuous movement towards an unattainable origin, a movement marked by the awareness of a loss that it attempts to compensate with a baroque saturation and the obsessive reiteration of fragmented memories" (Olalquiaga). We imagine that these ruins once were whole, that these abandoned structures originally had a rational use, that these signs formerly had a sense, that we used to be organic bodies instead of robots. Dubious assumptions, to be sure; but as Nietzsche puts it, one has recourse to such fantasies and such arguments "when one has no other expedient." Anxious critics today, like Adorno and Eliot before them, feel cut off, with nowhere to turn; and so they shore up fragments against their ruin, seeking desperately to assuage their narcissistic wounds. But as Nietzsche knew, every proposed remedy to nihilism only increases the strength and depth of nihilism. We invent our lost objects posthumously. The more we brood over supposedly estranged origins, the more those origins take form retroactively, even as they recede from us. Melancholia is a recursive, self-replicating structure: it continually generates the very alienation of which it then complains. I want to suggest, therefore, that allegorical melancholy is less a mark of postmodernity per se, than it is a symptom of the desperation of traditional humanist intellectuals (whether of the Marxist or the conservative variety) who find themselves unable to adapt to what McLuhan calls "postliterate" culture. These people should get a life. In the postmodern world of DOOM PATROL, we couldn't care less about the decline of print literacy, of the nuclear family, of historical awareness, or of authentic class consciousness. We play gleefully in the rubble, for we know that such antiquated notions will never subvert anything; the grounds of contention and debate have long since shifted elsewhere.
Postmodernism is distinguished, then, not by any tendency to meditate on ruins and to allegorize its own disappointments; but by a propensity to invent new organs of perception and action, as Burroughs, McLuhan, David Cronenberg, Michael Taussig, and Donna Haraway all in various ways recommend. The cyborg, Haraway says, is a monstrous hybrid, "resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity." Pragmatically, this means that the fragmentation that Eliot bemoaned in The Waste Land has come full circle. In works like DOOM PATROL, dispersion and fragmentation are positive, affirmative, and even entertaining conditions. "We live today in the age of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to bits, and leftovers. We no longer believe in the myth of the existence of fragments that, like pieces of an antique statue, are merely waiting for the last one to be turned up, so that they may all be glued back together to create a unity that is precisely the same as the original unity. We no longer believe in a primordial totality that once existed, or in a final totality that awaits us at some future date" (Deleuze and Guattari). In the postmodern world, fragments and ruins are no longer melancholy reminders of a vanished order. They've become instead the grotesque pieces of a hyperactive child's colossal erector set. And the party never ends: there's a standing invitation to mix and match the pieces as eclectically as we can. To a postmodern sensibility, there's no contradiction between cool and hot, irony and passion, playfulness and commitment, excitement and disgust, pleasure and anxiety, or camp distancing and involvement to the point of delirious obsession. I can read Kant in the morning, watch Wheel of Fortune over lunch, smoke a joint and cruise the mall in the afternoon, listen to Nirvana as I make dinner, use my Mac to download a program like Kant Generator Pro 1.2 (which generates endless streams of nonsensical text in the style of The Critique of Pure Reason) in the evening, and stimulate myself with a hot session of virtual sex on LambdaMOO just before going to bed. Postmodernity isn't just an option or a style or a particular stance. It is the very air we breathe, the viscous substance of our internal organs; "[it] is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire" (Borges). It is only within the confines of postmodern space that contestation and resistance can ever possibly take place. For culture is not a living tradition or an orderly progression or an organic whole. It is rather a replete, high-tech supermarket, whose shelves we may ransack at will.
In the postmodern world, where everything is borrowed and transitory, identity explodes to such a point that we can't even say that it has been lost. We experience not the morbid fixity of melancholia, but the accelerated dislocation of convulsive hysteria and full-blown paranoia. We don't project allegories upon the ruins, so much as we restlessly traverse the bifurcations of Borgesian labyrinths: the infinitely divisible straight line suggested at the end of "Death and the Compass," or the proliferating multiplicities of "The Garden of Forking Paths." Here "nothing is true, everything is permitted"; every alternative gives way to the next, with no ground for choice among them. The paranoid discovery that there is no solidity or consistency in the world, that nothing is truly my own, at least frees me from the burdens of indebtedness and guilt. How much worse it would be if "virtual reality" were to become entirely actual, if all things were to achieve the fixity of final form. The same traumatic excess that produces the excruciating pain of psychotic disintegration also provides us with the vicarious, carnivalesque thrill of watching social processes twisted and magnified, as in funhouse mirrors. Does this mean that we've now reached the stage, dreaded by Benjamin, when mankind "can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order"? Say rather that the King, the totalitarian Leader, loses his head when he is reflected in these delirious mazes. Andy Warhol made multiple portraits of Chairman Mao, just as he did of Marilyn and Elvis. Is there really any difference? What Taussig calls our culture's "mimetic excess" destabilizes all fixities of signification and power. The proliferation of Pop replicas, the paranoiacally elaborate plot twists of science fiction novels, the lurid colors of comic books: these cannot be dismissed merely as distorted adolescent representations, since their `distortions' make up the real itself. DOOM PATROL is less a surreal fantasy than it is a naturalistic rendering of our supersaturated cultural space. We never come to the end of simulation; there is no culminating moment (such as Jean Baudrillard melodramatically imagines) when everything has been captured, coded, and serialized. There's always the possibility, indeed the necessity, of once more upping the ante. The famous "extermination of the real," encountered in the form of a comic book apocalypse, turns out to be just a cheap plot device, a suspenseful (and ultimately ridiculous) twist designed to keep readers in a state of ungratified anticipation, the better to lead them to the next issue in the series. Don't produce, but waste and expend; for every destruction marks the birth of a yet realer real, of still another grotesque, outrageous, and irresponsible flowering of simulation.
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