Mystery Machines: Trash Culture, Cargo Cults, and the Escape from Participation Mystique
Epilogue: The Blue Surf
It’s religion, isn’t it?
So: here it is.
And now we can digest our food. As previously mentioned, religion and science share both an origin, and a functionality: i.e. each is meant to reveal order in the patterns of the world. Now, religion gets a very bad rap these days, and so it should…but that’s largely because so many of its practitioners are so fiendishly corrupt in their own persons, rather than something morally cancerous being integral to the system. Neither is the contextual structure of religion, any more than that of science, simply a machine made to establish social control and nothing more! But instead religion — in broad terms — is at least as rational as any other kind of human intellectual activity, and indeed it bestows some specific conceptual competencies that science can’t match. Look at Moore and Morrison’s comics work, and you’ll see that every particle of it is animated by a religious understanding, a scheme of education designed to appeal in rational terms to alienated adults and near-adults. What do their protagonists fight for, and what forces do they fight against? They fight for freedom within the meshing gears of symbolic inevitabilities, by setting themselves against the totalist character of other peoples’ explanatory programmes…and especially with regard to the history of the field they’re working in, their heroic stories are all possibilizing rather than conciliatory in tone. Which makes an interesting contrast with most of the other major drivers of the four-colour morality play these days, Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis being only the most name-branded of these: whose work is similarly religious in tone, but resolutely non-ecstatic in intent. Return, return, but never to the source…only to the gallery that overlooks it.
It is, perhaps, the cargo-cult mistake in a nutshell: what are we to do with these forms that have fallen to us, these many Mystery Machines that have washed up on our shore? Essentially we have two options: treat them as we would messages, or treat them as we would messengers. Are they iconic, or are they informational? Are they artifacts, or are they invitations?
Is there a wider world without, or isn’t there?
To the Polynesian islanders, as to the inhabitants of Attabar Teru, the question would likely have been ill-formed on its face: surely if there is any anxiety distinctly Western in tone, it’s the anxiety of Being vs. Becoming! But for Westerners this anxiety is so overmastering that it comes to be seen everywhere, is warped up to universality, and so the Islanders’ independent faces are quite easily reconstructed as masks that modernity can wear in its own re-enactment, in the performance of its own values and controversies to itself. Gods, maybe; animal-spirits and icons, the ghosts of a conjectural past. Forces, from the world of the Forms.
Kirby certainly played with it, in the early days of storytelling subversion: finding no mythological being or setting that wouldn’t benefit from a little alien technology…
…And Morrison plays so much with it today he often resembles a kid splashing in a mud-puddle: throw off the mask and there’s another mask underneath it, throw off that one and there’s yet another mask…! Muddy hands draw warpaint on a muddy face, that shows a beatific grin: Pakistani Eternals, prehistoric King Arthurs, a little shit from Liverpool who’s never seen the holy name of Ixat glowing in the night…Batman and Superman, the sun and the moon, Frankenstein at the End of Time…
And where else should we expect to find him?
And meanwhile Alan Moore wonders what the pulps would’ve looked like if their guiding principle had been compassion. But it’s all masks, of course: that’s the precondition, that’s the deal. Because in the Western world, every belief is a mask…
But not every mask is a belief. Our friend Jonathan asked me, in the early comments to Blue Box #3, if the superhero comic used to be a sort of rehearsal for waking action in the same way that (I suggested) dreams are…and if it’s that still. And the answer is that, for the most part, I don’t think it is. Stories amounting to little more than Superhero Introspection, of which there are many, teach nothing but that the characters are ideally to be held in high regard by their readers…worth their dollars and cents simply because they are extant…and the matter of the intersection of fantasy and reality is acknowledged only in a desultory way where it intrudes at all. So to my mind, this definitely constitutes alter-education going off the rails at last: there’s very little you can take home from such stories. There’s little to fascinate, there. “Batman always wins”…it takes hard work to make that proof rather than precept, whether you’re a writer or a reader, and most people (it seems) are not particularly interested in spending the effort. So these aren’t the days of scientific education, nor literary education neither, but they’re the days of instruction in teleology…
As in: where the heck is this all going, anyway?
And in that question lies both a heaven and a hell, I think. In this real world of ours, according to the viewpoint of our scientific culture, teleological causes are out-of-bounds to the rational mind…and yet the belief in them still slips around the scientific barricade and joins the crowd, wearing all kinds of plausible disguises. The popular perception of “progress” is a teleological belief at heart, as is the popular understanding of “evolution”, and in these immediately pre- and post-millenial days those popular perceptions embody a constant conversation between science and magic. Will we have totems out of it, or travels? Are things sufficient to themselves, containing their own inevitable answers and outcomes, navel-gazing as the precepts of Ever-Winning Batman?
Or is there anything left to learn from this crazy superhero poetry?
Well…possibly. Because the world inside a superhero comic is rather resolutely teleological in a way the real world outside is not, being as how it’s all thought up by somebody…and yet these fabulously extended serial narratives are made of endless deferrals and course-changings too, discontinuities everywhere — catastrophes under every rock, and hiding behind every blade of grass. Pattern and paradox are endlessly mixed, and the superheroic discoverers inside the pages have to cope with that cosmological troubling in a serious way, even as their fancily-iconographic costumes announce the absurdity of asking such unserious beings to do so. And there’s a lot for us to find in such a dynamic, as the Blue Surf keeps rolling in…because we, too, are in just that same position. So the question becomes: is there something of the Real in this, or isn’t there? Are the superheroes figures of us, or are they simply figures for us? In Moore’s hands and Morrison’s, the quality of admiration located on or near these Mystery Machines is precisely what gets vexed and twisted along the road to answering that question, and so in the magic they manage to find a mirror…while for other artists that quality of admiration is such a given, such a superheroic Pole Star, that “mirrors” aren’t necessary. Why would mirrors be necessary, after all, when you already are being given something to look at? In many ways, the “bad” sort of modern superhero comic is more instructionally-oriented than ever before, because it conceals a deep vein of social prescriptiveness within it: here is what the world is like, here is what you must become to find your place in it. Here is what you must become if you do not find your place in it. It’s sometimes a cruel, sometimes a brutal system: offering comfort and belonging, but also violence and caprice. And how can Robin The Boy Wonder survive this juggernaut?
What have precocity, and then complexity, come to?
Only a fork in the road, perhaps. Along one path, the engagement with text becomes ever more monological in character: this is where this was all going, this is how the story ends! If you don’t like it too bad, we’re busy making sense here!
And along the other, a more difficult participation: escape and return and enlightenment all writ small, in gaudy clothes, and intersectional hopefulness. What is there to learn from these things, anymore? The more cogent question is what is there to teach, that they can help with. And it seems that the answer is “purpose” — more specifically, the problem of purpose. And part of the problem of purpose is:
Does it simply arise within ourselves? Or does it come from interaction with the larger world?
And if it’s the latter…then how do we find it? How do we get there?
How can we plausibly imagine its possibility into being?
Like I said: none of this is new. But the accent is new. The causal arbitrariness of the superhero’s world grows more pronounced every day, and the direction of its cosmic powers more vague and opaque; what little logic things do exhibit is borrowed from other sources, pasted in as comforting familiarity…and yet, still preserving a jarring alien quality that cannot quite be assimilated into pattern. Once, at each major company, the baroque adornments on the universe caused its ceiling to crash in…and each found an answer in the fact of the rubble, that answered the question of what they had been doing when they’d supposed they were doing something else. But now that their universes are reassembled, the problem is resurrected along with them — as supervillains always are, aren’t they?
And so what is the point of all this?
Well, in 2010…perhaps that is the point.
“Oh see ye not yon narrow road, so thick beset with thorns and briers? That is the path of righteousness, tho after it but few enquires.
And see ye not that braid braid road, that lies across that lily leven? That is the path of wickedness, tho some call it the road to heaven.
And see not ye that bonny road, that winds about the fernie brae? That is the road to fair Elfland, where you and I this night maun gae.”
Sure, you’ve heard it before. But then you’ve heard all of this before, eh? Everybody’s been talking about it for years, and they’re still talking about it.
Marking time ’til we see what sort of shore we land on.
I’m telling you, the wider world: it’s out there.