Return to Cinder: Supergods and the Apocalypse

Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.

As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.

In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.

The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylett described as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”

9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”

As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.

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My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:

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References:

Brummett, Barry. (1991). Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hiatt, Brian. (2011, August 22). Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics. Rolling Stone.

Morrison, Grant. (2011). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.

For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:

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If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).

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Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

Expanding Minds: Books on Hacking Your Head

Thinking about our own minds often seems so pataphysically impossible as to be useless and silly, but, to paraphrase Steven Johnson (again), trying to understand the brain is trying to understand ourselves. By contrast, trying to expand and enhance it seems much easier. You can expand your mind without really understanding how it happens. There are many ways to make your brain feel bigger, and these three new books provide many steps in that direction.

Upgrade your grey matter because one day it may matter.
— Deltron 3030

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level by Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans (Wiley, 2011), the “unofficial sequel” to Ron’s previous book, Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain (O’Reilly, 2006; which I mentioned previously). From the sublime to the silly, extensive lists of mental activities, experiments, and games comprise these books, and they’re as fun as they are fertile.

Many of the hacks here take advantage of the fact that the way you see your mind and your world are often radically related, if not often the same thing. What I mean is that a lot of these are not just mental exercises, but tricks for productivity, ways to communicate better, hacks for breaking bad habits, tips for time management, and creative ways to be more creative. It’s not just about the hacks though. Mindhacker is also stocked with other (re)sources: Relevant URLs, books, and articles are listed on every page, along with the stories of the hacks’ origins, and the book’s website has even more, including pieces of code as well as complete programs.

Speaking of programs, Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning (Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2008) tackles maximizing the mind from a programmer’s point of view, and it overlaps and complement’s the books mentioned above nicely. Maps, models, recipes, and other scripts and schedules are a part of Hunt’s push, but you don’t have to be code nerd to get plenty out of this book. It has helpful tips for everyone. Chapter four, “Get in Your Right Mind,” even suggests rock climbing, which I regularly use to clear my mind’s cache.

From the grounded to the grandiose, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark (Oxford University Press, 2011) stretches the mind in multiple manners, also blurring the line between the brain and the world. Clark’s extended mind thesis posits the mind beyond the body… Sometimes. That is, sometimes we perform a Dawkinsian flip, seeing the biosphere as an endless network of DNA regardless of organismal boundaries; sometimes our brains and the brains of others are emphatically embodied. It’s a simple but sizable distinction. Where we draw those lines changes everything about how we see the mind and the world.

Other than a few minor missteps (e.g., In his conclusion, Clark unfortunately defines the mind as a “mashup,” when really he just means that it’s extremely diverse, infinitely adaptable, and ultimately mysterious), Supersizing the Mind is one of the better books I’ve seen in the neurosciences in a while.

If you want a brain book that’s handy and fun, I definitely recommend Mindhacker and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. Those two, along with Dan Pink‘s book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2006), will get you a long way toward optimizing your cognitive output. If you want something a bit more theoretical, check out Supersizing the Mind. Either way, get to mining and minding your mind. It is still legal.

We No Longer Have Roots, We Have Aerials: Insect Media

With the recent finding that ants’ social networks are similar to our online social networks, “insect media” sounds like less of a metaphor and more of a direct analogy, but Jussi Parikka’s Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) is much more than either. He hedges from writing metaphorically preferring to show how the evolution of technology is a system of assemblages and flows, much like those found in the insect world. Conflating the two presents its own problems (see my own rather cavalier homology between dinosaurs and bicycles and how flight came about), but Parrika sidesteps them like so many ant legs.

Insects make me scream and shout
They don’t know what life’s about
They don’t have blood
They’ve got too many legs
They don’t have brains in their heads
They know they’ll rule the world some day
They bite and sting me anyway
— Oingo Boingo, “Insects”

At its core, Parikka’s is a systems view. Citing Georges Canguilhem (1992) against Marshall McLuhan (1964; as well as Ernst Kapp, Teilhard de Chardin, et al.), Parikka notes that when we compare media as the extensions of humans to media as the externalized world of insects, we run into severe problems when it comes to certain technologies, namely wheels and fire. He evokes Deleuze and Guattari, writing that we must stop thinking about bodies as closed systems and realize that they are open and constituted by their environment, what Maturana and Varela call “structural coupling” (1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2004). Our skin is not a boundary; it is a periphery: permeable, vulnerable, and fallibly open to external flows and forces.

[W]e do not so much have media as we are media and of media; media are brains that contract forces of the cosmos, cast a plane over the chaos (p. xxvii).

Even though our own media technology is killing insects in droves, Parikka proves that they provide a fertile space for thinking about the ways that we currently communicate with each other and mediate the spaces between ourselves and our world. And if you’re really into the bugs (as I have gotten since reading Parikka’s book), Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia (Vintage, 2010) is a brilliant survey of insect knowledge. Arranged alphabetically by subject (as any proper *pedia should be), Raffle’s book is a compendium of historical research, travel essays, sober meditations, brief vignettes, and in-depth stories about our diminutive planetary companions. It’s a crash education in entomology and a damn fun read.

Next time you’re visited or intruded upon by one of our tiny neighbors, take a second to contemplate what they can teach us about our own ways. We’re more like them they we think. They’ll probably rule the world someday, but in the meantime — as these two books illustrate — they can teach us something anyway.

 

References:

Canguilhem, G. (1992). “Machine and Organism.” In J. Crary & S. Kwinter (eds.), Incorporations. New York: Zone Books.

Maturana, H. R. & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer Verlag.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Parikka, J. (2010). Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology. Cambridge, MA: University of Minnesota Press.

Raffles, H. (2010). Insectopedia. New York: Vintage.

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Apologies to Ken Wark for stealing his title for this post and to Ash Crawford for stealing Ken’s title for this post.

Guy Debord: When Poetry Ruled the Streets

Writer, filmmaker, instigator, and revolutionary, Guy Debord is probably best known for his involvement with the Situationist International (McKenzie Wark calls him their “secretary”) and their concepts of the dérive and détournement, the former of which is one of the core ideas of psychogeography, and the latter of which went on to define the culture jamming movement. Their slogans were the words on the walls during the May 1968 uprisings in France. They published the proto-Adbusters of the time, and their spirit hangs heavy over the work of Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Joey Skaggs, The Yes Men, Kembrew McLeod, and other postmodern-day culture jammers and media hackers alike. Greil Marcus (1989) puts them in the lineage of resistance movements: Dada, Surrealism, Situationists, punk rock. Wherever we attribute his influence, Debord lived and loved in line with the thoughts he wrote.

Guy Debord on the set of 'Critique of Separation', 1960

Debord’s best known and best selling book is The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994; originally published in 1967), and the “spectacle” concept it defined have remained a mainstay of media criticism ever since. Debord biographer Anselm Jappe (1999) wrote, “The spectacle does not reflect society overall; it organizes images in the interest of one portion of society only, and this cannot fail to affect the real social activity of those who merely contemplate these images” (p. 7). Debord (1994) himself wrote, “All that was once lived has become mere representation” (p. 12). Does that sound familiar? It should. He continues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 12). Defined as such, the spectacle sounds a bit like fellow French thinker Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, does it not? Debord clarifies, writing that the spectacle has two foundational attributes: “incessant technological renewal” and the “integration of State and economy” (1998, p. 11-12). Nonetheless, Debord’s work has yet to receive the widespread reverence it deserves.

One might be surprised that I implicitly seem to compare myself, here and there, on a point of detail, with some great mind of the past or simply with personalities who have been noted historically. One would be wrong. I do not claim to resemble any other person, and I believe that the present era is hardly comparable to the past. But many figures from the past, in all their extreme diversity, are still quite commonly known. They represent, in brief, a readily accessible index of human behaviour or propensities. Those who do not know who they were can easily find out; and the ability to make oneself understood is always a virtue in a writer.
— Guy Debord, Panegyric 1, p. 8.

One recent attempt to remedy Debord’s unsung unrest comes in the form of Vincent Kaufman’s biography Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (The University of Minnesota Press, 2006; now available in paperback). Kaufmann assumes the role of “unqualified reader,” as he claims no previous fascination or familiarity with Debord. This perspective gives him and his book a unique approach among books about the Situationists. Lacking an “ideological axe to grind” Kaufman sees as imperative to understanding Debord and his life of rebellion, fortunes, misfortunes, adventures, exploration, drifting. “Perhaps it is only by boat that we can really lose ourselves,” he writes, recalling Slavoj Zizek’s metaphor for postmodern rootlessness, and Debord’s persistent pursuit of authentic experience. Of the numerous biographies of Debord and books about Situationists, Kaufman’s is among the best, most thorough, and makes a great introduction to his work and their world.

“I wrote less than those who write,” Debord once said, “but I drank more than hose who drink.” The title of his sixth and final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), is a palindrome that he roughly translated to “we turn in the night and are consumed by fire.” If any one phrase could sum up the way the man felt about our media-mad, modern world, that one would do.

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When Poetry Ruled the Streets: This clip from Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) features Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt as two of the gang of four, and Hymie Samuelson as Guy Debord. [Quicktime clip. Click the image to play; runtime: 2:30]:

References:

Debord, G. (1994). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Debord, G. (1998). Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. New York: Verso.

Debord. G. (2004). Panegyric 1 & 2. New York: Verso.

Debord, G. (2009). Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957 – August 1960). Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Jappe, A. (1999). Guy Debord. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kaufmann, V. (2006). Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Linklater, R. (Writer/Director). (2001). Waking Life [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Marcus, G. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wark, M. (2008). 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. New York: FORuM/Princeton Architectural Press.

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Apologies to Andrew Feenberg and James Freedman for stealing the title of their book for this post. Here is a mini-documentary of Feenberg’s time in Paris in the late 1960s and his archive of posters therefrom. [runtime: 8:36]

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