Hello bright and shining stars (albeit encased within sticky, sweaty meat-sacks). Today’s Comics are Magic is a not particularly coherent and potentially unsatisfying round-up of some final thoughts about comic book continuity. For those just tuning in the following post builds on some of the concepts outlined in part 3 and part 4 (if you’re feeling particularly studious the archives are here).
We begin at the end with a consideration of the concept of the Global Brain. Here’s the simple version, bought to us by our dark overlords at Wikipedia:
The Global Brain is a metaphor for the worldwide intelligent network formed by people together with the information and communication technologies that connect them into an “organic” whole. As the Internet becomes faster, more intelligent, more ubiquitous and more encompassing, it increasingly ties us together in a single information processing system, that functions like a “brain” for the planet Earth.
A bit more detail is needed here before I can establish the link between this concept and comic book continuity. Francis Heylighen’s Conceptions of a Global Brain: an historical review gives a lucid introduction to the concept. Heylighen begins by suggesting that the internet is, “turning into a nervous system for humanity“, and writes that:
The “Global Brain” (GB) is a metaphor for this emerging, collectively intelligent network that is formed by the people of this planet together with the computers, knowledge bases, and communication links that connect them together.This network is an immensely complex, self-organizing system. It not only processes information, but increasingly can be seen to play the role of a brain: making decisions, solving problems, learning new connections, and discovering new ideas. No individual, organization or computer is in control of this system: its knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. They emerge from the collective interactions between all the human and machine subsystems.
But the idea of the Global Brain, while apparently very modern, has been conceived in various forms throughout history. Heylighen identifies three main categories for conceptualizing the Global Brain. In the Organicist model:
organizations or institutions play the role of organs, each performing its particular function in keeping the system alive. For example, industrial plants extract energy and building blocks from raw materials, just like the digestive system, while
roads, railways and waterways transport these products from one part of the system to another one, just like the arteries and veins. This metaphor can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle. In the 19th century, it was a major inspiration for the founding
fathers of sociology, such as Comte, Durkheim and particularly Spencer
In addition to these sociological thinkers the Organicist conception can also be discerned in ideas like the Gaia hypothesis, which sees Earth itself, and everything upon it, as a single living organism.
The second category Encyclopedism, envisages the Global Brain as universal knowledge network. Something like what H.G. Wells once imagined as a ‘world brain’. Heylighen quotes Wells at length on his idea of a ‘permanent world encyclopedia’:
As the core of such an institution would be a world synthesis of bibliography and documentation with the indexed archives of the world. A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date. …There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation … of a complete planetary memory… accessible to every individual. … [It] will supply the humanity of the days before us, with a common understanding and the conception of a common purpose and of a common wealth such as now we hardly dare dream of. And its creation is a way to world peace … dissolving
human conflict into unity
Implicit in many of the conceptions that fall under the Organicist and Encyclopedic models of the global brain is a spiritual aspect. Heylighen’s final category, Emergentism, focuses directly on this spiritual aspect, often alongside the former scientific or technological aspects. In common with many mystical traditions, the concept of the Global Brain:
points towards the achievement of a state of higherconsciousness (the Buddhist’s Nirvana), in which the individual loses its separate, subjective being and merges with humanity and perhaps even the world as a whole. Religious people might view this state of holistic consciousness as a union with God, the Tao, or what Emerson called the “Oversoul“. Humanists might see it as the creation, by humanity itself, of an entity with God-like powers of cognition
Perhaps the most famous proponent of the view was the Jesuit priest and paleontologist pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin:
combined his knowledge of evolution and theology into a mystical and poetic vision of future evolutionary integration . According to Teilhard’s law of complexity-consciousness, evolution is accompanied by increases in both complexity and consciousness, characterized by a growing number of connections between components. Thus, the human brain with its billions of neurons and synapses is the most complex and most conscious biological system. But evolution in the biosphere is followed by the emergence of the noosphere, the global network of thoughts, information and communication, and it is here that spiritual union will be
Having considered these three conceptions Heylighen offers a synthesis based on evolutionary cybernetics approach which “integrates the Darwinian logic of variation and selection with the cybernetic analysis of emergent level”. This approach rests on a concept of ” ‘metasystem transition’: the evolution of a higher level of control and cognition“. Analagous to the emergence of multicellular organisms, evolutionary cybernetics envisions a point where humans become integrated into a global superbeing, “communicating through the direct connection of their nervous systems“, an evolutionary process that “recursively generates higher levels of complexity, producing a planetary brain for the cybiont, or global cybernetic organism“. For more on the Global Brain see Heylighen’s other papers here and here.
The single most obvious, predictable question that springs to mind after all this talk of the Global Brain is, of course, what has this got to do with comics?
Consider the development of the Marvel and DC Universes, as discussed in part 3. Jason Todd Craft calls such constructions ‘large scale fiction networks’ and both he and Ros Kaveney have described these universe as ‘emergent structures’ where : “the initial parameters…-parallel and ongoing serial adventures, produced by a variety of writers and artists for hire-resulted, over time, in unpredicted behaviours, specifically intertextual connectivity and a slowly encroaching sense of narrative history”. What relationship has the ‘emergent’ character of comic book multiverses have with the Emergentist conception of the global brain cited above in which the emergence of such a structure marks the transition to a higher level of awareness or spiritual consciousness?
To understand this relationship we need to remember the conception of archetypal beings as higher-dimensional sentient idea-forms. You remember that right? If not, it’s here in part 4. To cut a long story short Alan Moore proposed an idea:
and this is just a mad, hippie, did-too-much-acid-in-the-’60s kind of theory but -if you could get an idea that was complex enough, self-referential enough, could it become aware? They say that awareness is an emergent property of complexity. Could that be true on a purely immaterial level, about ideas? If you had a complex enough idea form, could it become aware? Could you have things that were ideas but were alive? (read the interview at blather.net)
Elsewhere Moore described the concept to artist Eddie Campbell as:
self-referential idea clusters that, upon broaching a certain frontier of complexity, have become either aware or apparently aware…
Moore is describing individual idea-forms of course, but in the Emergentist conception of the Global Brain it is the increased connectivity of individuals which results in higher, collective consciousness. In parts 3 and 4 we discussed how the complexity of individual comics characters, having accrued so much continuity, might result in just such an awareness. An awareness, moreover, of their status as ‘fictional’ characters. I then drew a correlation between this fictional gnosis and the history of spiritual awakening in our own ‘true’ history of religious experience. We might wonder then if the very universes in which these individual idea forms play out their stories in spandex might reach the critical mass whereby so many of them achieve awareness that the very Marvel or DC Universe, or rather Multiverse, could become self-aware?
Just a thought.
So this is the way our consideration of comic book continuity ends, not with a bang but a whimper. No doubt it will be a subject we return to.
In part 6 I will be reviewing Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutant and Mystics: Science fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, a book I found both fascinating and problematic, but which presents a theory not a million miles away from the one I have been trying to articulate in this series of posts.
See you whenever that is.