by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

William Burroughs writes: "in this life we have to take things as we find them as the torso murderer said when he discovered his victim was a quadruple amputee." Good advice for the anatomically deranged, like DOOM PATROL's Cliff Steele. Cliff has a problem with his body, you see. It happened like this. He used to be a daredevil racing car driver; he had a horrible wreck. Nearly all of him was burned to ashes, but they snatched his brain from the flames. And then they implanted that brain in a new prosthetic body, all shiny metal, ultra high tech, a veritable fighting machine. Now Cliff is the muscle of the DOOM PATROL, a brain turned into brawn. They expect him to be a macho bruiser, when actually he's quite sensitive underneath. And to add insult to injury, they call him Robotman--a name he violently hates. What would that do for your sense of self-esteem? The life of a superhero these days! Cliff thinks of himself as just a regular guy; Robocop fantasies are the last thing on his mind. But with a metallic casing like this, he can't exactly blend into the crowd. It's what Baudrillard calls hypervisibility, the postmodern condition par excellence. No chance of chilling out with a secret identity, like old Clark Kent used to do. All this metal is a clunky encumbrance, no matter how great its tensile strength. You know you're in bad shape when you bang your head against a wall, and you still don't feel a thing. At this point, Cliff doesn't even really know what his body can do. How good is all this cyber-tech stuff anyway? How accurate and detailed is sensory input? How fast is motor response? What unaccustomed relays and connections now trigger the pain and pleasure centers in Cliff's brain? Will he ever be able to taste and smell? Can he ever have sex again? What about getting drunk or stoned? "The only good thing about having a human brain in a robot body," Cliff remarks sardonically at one point, "is that it's easier to control brain chemistry." Just the touch of a button, and anxiety is dissipated, alertness is heightened, or memory is enhanced. But alas, this techno-manipulability has been wired to work only for utilitarian ends, not hedonistic ones.

"Our machines are disturbingly lively," Donna Haraway writes, "and we ourselves frighteningly inert." It might not be so bad, if only you could get used to the situation. After all, Descartes argued long ago that the body is a machine. It shouldn't matter all that much whether metal or flesh is the material. In either case, it's simply a matter of mastering the electro-chemical interface: regularizing chains of association, facilitating neural feedback patterns, reinforcing the appropriate reentrant connections. In short, a question of recognition and memory, of cultivating habits over the course of time. The problem is that Cliff's mechanical body never stays the same. He's continually being sent back to the shop for upgrades and repairs. Transistors burn out; programming errors and faulty couplings throw him off stride. He gets into fights, and enemies regularly mangle his metal to bits. And if that wasn't bad enough, Doc Magnus (who built and programmed his body in the first place) and Niles Caulder (the Chief of the DOOM PATROL) tend to use Cliff as a pawn in their ongoing professional rivalry. Neither of them is content to let well enough alone; they are both all too eager to retool Cliff in order to try out their latest cybernetic design ideas. And let's not even think about those insectoid aliens who at one point fit Cliff out in a new metal carapace with six legs. Life in a robot body, even if you're strong, is just one humiliation after another. The persistence of memory in the brain only makes things worse. Amputees typically feel phantom sensations in their lost limbs; poor Cliff has this problem multiplied many times over. He endlessly relives numerous episodes of mutilation and dismemberment. Neither Clint Eastwood nor Woody Allen--our two best-known icons of hetero-male angst--ever had to go through anything remotely like this.

The worst part, though, is the waiting. All these body modifications take time, just as it takes time to alter a dress or a pair of pants. Cliff's brain is disconnected meanwhile, and left in a vat of nutrient fluids. The experience isn't exactly like returning to the womb. You don't get some soothing "oceanic feeling"; rather, you freak out from sensory deprivation. The first stage is "boredom: hearing nothing, seeing nothing, experiencing nothing. Boredom and irritation and then panic." Panic, because the brain (like nature) abhors a vacuum. So that's when the hallucinations begin: "nightmares of sound and vision, grotesque sensory distortions." Cliff is overwhelmed by paranoid delusions of a world controlled by malevolent insects and soulless infernal machines. "The body becomes remote, robotic, disconnected," a symptom of the schizophrenic's "sense of being abstracted from the day-to-day physical world." But if this is the case with me, then what about other people? "Maybe I'm not the robot, and everyone else is." It doesn't help to realize that this is just a virtual world, and that your own brain is generating all these visions. If anything, such an awareness only makes things worse: your ontological insecurity is heightened, while the horrors you confront don't for all that become any less vivid and intense. If only I could attribute these appearances to a malevolent programmer, to somebody like Descartes' evil demon! Then at least I'd have the comfort of knowing that somebody else is out there, that I'm not absolutely alone. True hell for Cliff is the solipsistic universe of Bishop Berkeley, in which nothing exists except one's own inner perceptions: a closed circle from which there is no escape.

But fortunately this idealist delirium doesn't last forever; eventually the hallucinations subside. Virtual reality is a great leveller: "nothing can pass through without being broken down, disintegrated." And so Cliff finally reaches a sort of nirvana, "something I can't describe: the center of the cyclone, the room without doors." Now becoming grinds to a halt; time no longer passes, you have all the time in the world. Plenty of time to meditate upon the Smiths lyric that opens and closes one episode of DOOM PATROL: "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?" The question resonates in the emptiness like a Zen koan: ironic, unanswerable, absurd. Meditate long enough, and the inner self, the first person of the Cartesian cogito, drops out of the picture. You're left with the great postmodern discovery, anticipated alike by Hume and by the Buddhists: that personal identity is a fiction. The Cartesian subject disappears, together with all that it created. When I introspect deeply, I may come across all sorts of experiential contents and structures: feelings, desires, perceptions, memories, multiple personalities, and so on. But the one thing I am absolutely unable to find is myself.

The conundrum of the brain in a vat is an old philosophical slapstick routine, an updated postmodern version of Descartes' original Meditations. The question is always the same: how can I know for sure that these inner representations correspond to something out there,that what I experience is real? How can I be absolutely certain that I'm not just a disembodied mind dreaming the external world, or that it isn't all a computer simulation fed into my brain by direct innervation of the neuronal fibers? The comedy lies in this: that it's only my hysterical demand for certainty that first introduces the element of doubt. It's only by subjecting myself to the horrors of sensory deprivation that I approach the delirious limit at which the senses become questionable. Descartes does just that in his Third Meditation: "I will now shut my eyes, stop my ears, and withdraw all my senses..." Descartes "proves God," as Samuel Beckett puts it, "by exhaustion." As metaphysics goes, it's the oldest trick in the book: first you take something away, then you complain that it isn't there, and then you invent a theory grounded in--and compensating for--its very absence. Deleuze and Guattari call it the Theology of Lack. A seductive ruse, to be sure: once you accept the premises, you've already been suckered into the conclusions.

"If I only had a brain..." For as one character in DOOM PATROL remarks, "Descartes was nothing but a miserable git who never had a good time in his entire life!" Postmodern philosophers rightly reject the very logic that gets us into the dualist impasse. Descartes' methodical doubt is ultimately a distinction without a difference, since it has no pragmatic consequences whatsoever. For consider the alternatives. Either there's some telltale sign, which allows me to empirically determine whether or not I am just a brain kept in a vat: in which case the whole sorry mess is merely a question of fact, without any deeper epistemological import. Or else, there's no way of telling: but in this case, I have nothing to worry about, since my experience will remain the same one way or the other. "The mystery," as Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden says, "is that there is no mystery." Perhaps the evil demon posited by Descartes gets some private, masturbatory delectation out of fooling us like this; but that needn't be any concern of ours. For the evil demon can't do anything to us, can't harm us or change us or otherwise affect us, without thereby tipping his hand and revealing his existence. Descartes' dilemma is resolved without dualism,and without positing a transcendent self, simply by noting that appearances and simulacra are themselves perfectly real. The cogito is reduced to a third-person tautology: things are exactly as they are and what they are. In this postmodern life, "we have to take things as we find them."

But such logic and such consolations are of little help to Cliff Steele, trapped as he is in all that heavy metal--except for the even worse times when his naked brain is actually left to stew and hallucinate in a vat. If modern Western rationality begins with Descartes' willfully self-mutilating gesture, perhaps it culminates in Cliff's absurd disembodiment. Cliff is the final, helpless, involuntary victim of a whole history of amputations. He is compelled literally to live out the disabling paradoxes of Cartesian dualism. He suffers every day from schizophrenic disjunctions between the real and the imaginary, between self and other, between vitalism and mechanism, between mind and body. The problem may be a false one philosophically, but it's still inscribed in our technology. Descartes' idle speculations are now as it were incised in Cliff's very flesh. Doc Magnus and the Chief mess with Cliff's head more insidiously than the evil demon ever could. Their operations give dualism a delirious new twist: for now it's Cliff's mind that is materially incarnated, while his corporeality is entirely notional, virtual, and simulacral. Such is our postmodern refinement of those old metaphysical endeavors to find the ultimate reality, to separate essence from accident. Descartes' cogito and Husserl's epoche were merely thought experiments; but now we can realize their equivalents in actual surgical procedures. Strip everything away that is not indubitably "Cliff Steele," that is not necessarily contained in the very notion of his essence; and what's left is precisely these three pounds of neuronal tissue, a fleshy lump "so full of water that it tends to slump like a blancmange if placed without support on a firm surface" (Anthony Smith, The Body). Since Cliff's only 'identity' is that of this actual, physical brain, you might say that his sole grounding certitude is that he is an extended thing--as against Descartes' claim to be a thinking thing. Just as you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs--as 60s revolutionaries used to say--so you can't get amputated unless you have a body.

The Chief claims that the operation was a success, that it's all turned out for Cliff's own greater good. The old Cliff Steele, he says, was "selfish, arrogant, overconfident, ill-educated... a loudmouthed, misogynistic boor"; it's only through the traumas of amputation and cyborgization that the new Cliff "learn[s] kindness and compassion and a selfless heroism." DOOM PATROL is quite different from the revisionist superhero comics that made a big splash in the mid to late 80s: Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley), and Grant Morrison's own Batman: Arkham Asylum (with Dave McKean). All these works 'deconstruct' our familiar images of comic book superheroes. They go behind the scenes to reveal what we should've suspected all along: that Batman and all those other patriotic, costumed crime-fighters are really violent sociopaths with fascist-cum-messianic leanings and a kinky underwear fetish. Everything gets played out for these sordid characters in the registers of secrecy, disguise, and paranoia: literally in the form of their jealous anxieties about maintaining a "secret identity," and more figuratively in terms of those notorious paradoxes of destroying the world in order to save it, or stepping outside of the law in order to enforce the law. As the elder Mayor Daley of Chicago once said, "the police are not there to create disorder; the police are there to preserve disorder." Miller's Batman and Moore's tormented antiheroes owe much to the creepy affectlessness and suppressed fury of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Indeed, their hoods and masks go Clint one better, when it comes to maintaining an unreadable, deadpan exterior. The crime-fighter's costume is a literal "character armor," rigidly neutralizing whatever may rage beneath--and thereby perpetuating the modernist fantasy that there is a "beneath," something like manhood or interiority or selfhood.

Most of these psychotic superheroes are still organically human; but it's only one more step to outright androids and cyborgs, like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator and Peter Weller's Robocop (in fact, Frank Miller worked on the scripts for Robocop II and III). And hasn't there always been something cyborg-like about Clint? In the cyborg fantasy films, in any case, the superhero's costume--I include Arnold's muscles in this category--no longer works as a disguise. Now it's a prosthetic organ of strength, a kind of supplemental, rebuilt manhood. Todd McFarlane's comic book Spawn (a series to which Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have both contributed) presents an even more fascinating case. Here, the protagonist's costume is not just an article of clothing, nor even a mechanical interface, but a living inhuman being in its own right: a sexually voracious, "constantly-evolving neural parasite" from Hell that brings Al Simmons back from the dead, heightens his metabolism, encases him in an unbreachable protective carapace, and takes command of his central nervous system. The image is definitely insect-like: hard armor on the outside, guarding some soft squishy stuff within. Al's body is nearly invulnerable; but this security only intensifies his hidden anguish. He wallows in the misery of living in back alleys with the homeless, while mourning the loss of his wife and child, to whom he can never return. And so Al gets to display his macho prowess, while at the same time laying claim to a deep inner sensitivity, a self-righteous feeling of vulnerability and victimization. Can Robert Bly and his "men's movement" be far behind? Again and again it's the same old story: a near-catatonic rigidity that is breached only in outbursts of extreme cathartic violence, whether by banging drums in the woods, or by blowing away the slavering hordes of sickos and scumbags with a .357 Magnum. At least Clint has a keen sense of irony about it all--which is more than you can say for Bly or McFarlane or Woody Allen. Some guys'll do anything to redeem their lonely, frustrated lives. And so they endow their experience with a certain self-aggrandizing pathos, by entertaining reactive, resentful fantasies of masculinity under siege. It feels so good to be a victim, because then you've got the perfect excuse to demand recompense, to make others pay like you've had to pay, to lash out at the bitch who started it all.

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. You imagine your 'manhood' as something both strong and fragile, hard and tough and yet continually in peril. Like a penis that might go limp, or a mind weighted down with a body. But why even bother, why hold back? Why not just let yourself go? Why cling to this rigid exterior armor, why nurture this aggrieved inner self? Can Cartesian dignity mean that much to you? OK, OK, you'll say--together with Descartes and with Arnold--this body is only a machine, but there's still something inside that's really me. I had to destroy my cock in order to save it: I tore it apart and had it recast in hard, cutting metal--a strategy implicit in many of these comic books and films, and savagely literalized in Shinya Tsukamoto's Iron Man. Marshall McLuhan describes techno-hysteria as a defensive reaction to change, "a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism." But McLuhan also insists that there's no backing away from the dilemma: "there is, for example, no way of refusing to comply with the new sense ratios or sense 'closure' evoked by the TV image." It isn't a question of adapting ourselves to a new technological environment, but of realizing that this technology already is our adaptation. We must cultivate the new sensations offered to us by our new organs. And if masculinity can't keep up with the changes, then so much the worse for masculinity.

Grant Morrison understands these dynamics better than anyone. His Batman: Arkham Asylum pushes the revisionist superhero comic to a parodic point of no return. Batman's old enemies, now inmates of the asylum for the criminally insane, tauntingly invite him to join them. For isn't the 'virtual' freedom of madness more appealing than the tedium of life in the 'real' world, "confined to the Euclidean prison that is sanity"? Batman is all too receptive to such a seduction. He knows he's as crazy as any of them, what with his bizarre fixations and his hysterical rage for order. He senses that walking through the doors of Arkham Asylum will be "just like coming home." And indeed, once he arrives, the blood of self-mutilation flows unchecked. Virility crumbles in an onslaught of psychedelic dislocation. The Cartesian fiction of the mind as a faithful "mirror of nature" (as Richard Rorty calls it) is shattered and scattered into the multiple grotesque reflections of the Asylum's funhouse mirrors. The Joker captures Batman, but declines to unmask him and reveal his secret identity; for he knows that the Caped Crusader's mask already "is his real face." I've loved the Joker ever since I was a child, so I was thrilled by Morrison's reinvention of his character. The Joker may well be a gleefully sadistic mass murderer, but he's also an exemplary postmodern subject. For he "has no real personality; he creates himself each day. He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd." The Joker responds to the "chaotic barrage" of his overloaded senses--the postmodern information glut--in a radically new manner. Not by choosing and discriminating among his perceptions; and not by striving to maintain a fixed ego structure. But simply by "going with the flow"; he immerses himself in the postmodern flux and just lets it all happen. Unlike Batman, the Joker no longer needs the "protective buffers" that McLuhan feared were numbing us to change. He knows that the only way out is first of all a way in and through. His great adaptive innovation is to hold nothing back; he lives and enjoys the postmodern condition, this mutation of our sensibility into non-linear, non-Euclidean forms. Far from being mad, the Joker may in fact represent "some kind of super-sanity... a brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century."

The Joker's difference from Batman parallels McLuhan's distinction between hot and cool media. "A hot medium," McLuhan says, "is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.'" Its chief characteristics are "homogeneity, uniformity, and linear continuity." Hot media are imperious, unidirectional, even terroristic. They demand rapt contemplation or close, obsessive attentiveness. Your life at every second depends upon their dictates, and yet they leave you feeling strangely uninvolved. They keep you at a proper, 'alienated' distance, drawing you into a paranoid frenzy of endless interpretation. This is the culture of the Book: of fundamentalist Christians scrutinizing their Bibles, and of academics "reading" the insidious ideologies embedded in the seemingly innocuous practices of everyday life. Batman is a quintessentially hot figure, ever on the lookout for whatever minuscule clues will confirm his Manichean sense of the world's depravity. Cool media, on the other hand, are 'low-definition,' and for that very reason "high in participation or completion by the audience." Their sparse spaces welcome and envelop us. They are characterized by "pluralism, uniqueness, and discontinuity," and they solicit high levels of feedback and involvement. A cool medium, McLuhan says in a famous pun, offers you a massage rather than a message: a multi-textured, tactile and sensual experience, rather than the rational finality of a meaning to be decoded. There is nothing to interpret. Instead, cool media invite the kind of open reception that Michael Taussig, elaborating on Walter Benjamin, calls distraction: "a very different apperceptive mode, a type of flitting and barely conscious peripheral visual perception." This is the Joker's random drift, a delirious passivity brilliantly adapted to our state of continual technological shock. With innovation running at so fast a pace, alienation is out of date. It's no longer a case of me against the world. Contrary to the overwrought claims of high-minded media pundits, nobody's ever been brainwashed by watching TV. In fact, most people talk back to their sets. As Clark Humphrey puts it, "people who consume lots of media are very cynical about what they're consuming... A typical nonviewer may believe almost anything, [but] a typical TV viewer treats everything with (excess?) skepticism." Our cheerful postmodern skepticism--reacting as if everything were just "on TV," or always already in quotation marks--is poles apart from modernist angst or from Cartesian methodical doubt. You can't ever defeat the evil demon in open battle, but you can put him in his place once you realize that he has more in common with Chuck Barris and Maury Povich than he does with Satan or God.

You might say that when Cliff Steele lost everything except for his brain, he was thrust willy-nilly into this cool new postmodern world. With all his "protective buffers" gone, he was 'preadapted' to change. He had no choice but to be plugged directly into the "extension of the central nervous system" that electronic media have made of our planet. The Chief is right: something inside Cliff has been altered forever, so there's no point in even trying to recover what was lost. "We have to take things as we find them," amputations and all. This is "what it's like" to be a postmodern cyborg. Prosthetic surgery is painful, but it can powerfully renew our sense of involvement in the world. It's all a question of where you locate the information interface: how much you can stand to lop off, or just how far back you're willing to go. Daniel Dennett notes that the question of the interface is the fatal weak point of every mind/body dualism: how can something be wholly immaterial, and yet still have material effects? Descartes placed the transfer point in the pineal gland; phenomenologists extend it to the surface of the skin; spiritualists push it even further out, to the ectoplasmic aura that surrounds us like a crustacean carapace or a superhero's sheath. But for Cliff it no longer makes sense even to draw the line. Neurons and wires are much the same stuff. The electrochemical feedback loops that constitute Cliff's brain are of the same nature as those that are wired into his prosthetic body, or that course across the entirety of the postmodern "global village." Cliff's feelings, like the ashes of his former body, are scattered more or less everywhere. But there's no one single point at which the experiences become "his own."

So in this strange way, Cliff is the postmodern Everyman. He hasn't quite been 'feminized,' but at least he's no "misogynistic boor." It's true he suffers from a certain baffled frustration, from a perpetual sense of unfulfilled duty, from frequent bouts of self-pity, and from a chronic inability to relax. Nothing seems vital to Cliff any more; as his psychiatrist asks him at one point, "how must it feel to have saved a world you don't really believe is worth saving?" But unlike the old superheroes, Cliff doesn't feel any differently about the world than he does about himself. The distinction of inner and outer simply isn't relevant any more. That's why his pathos has nothing vengeful about it; it can't be seen as the reaction of a resentful masculine ego. This pathos is rather the very affect or quality of that ego's having been dispersed. It's the expression, not of Cliff's subjectivity, but precisely of his no longer being a "subject" in the old Cartesian/Freudian sense. It's the feeling of not having a center--but also of not even lacking one. A cool, prosthetic pathos, perfect for an age of television and computers. What is the ontological status of this "soul of a new machine," this deeply intimate, yet strangely unlocalizable, affect? Call it a secondary, sympathetic resonance; or an uneliminable redundancy; or an effect of multiple interference patterns; or an emergent property of information flows accelerated beyond a certain threshold. As Deleuze suggests, we need to replace the old phenomenological slogan ("all consciousness is consciousness of something") with a new, radically decentered one: "all consciousness is something." For this is what happens when your brain is plugged directly into the world's "mixing board" (Cronenberg); but also when it's isolated in a vat, or when its contents are downloaded into the VR matrix of a supercomputer. Round and round and round it goes; where it stops, nobody knows. "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don't know." No cogito, then; no ergo, and no sum. "I don't know if the world is better or worse than it has been"--as Kathy Acker writes in a different context--"I know the only anguish comes from running away."

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