In my thesis I have made a distinction between the types of posthuman body found in comic books and how these relate to various other versions of posthumanity in philosophy and transhumanist texts. Of particular interest in terms of posthumanism and anarchy is what I call the posthuman Cosmic Body (more detail can be found by clicking on the link). This final post on Anarchy and Posthumanism (part 1 is here and part 2 is here) will consider how anarchism has been presented within superhero comics and note how these representations usually chime with this vision of the ‘Cosmic Posthuman’.
Unsurprisingly, given the strong reactions the concept evokes in most people, anarchism is a touch thin on the ground in mainstream popular culture. When anarchists do appear they are usually dangerous lunatics or even villains. Never the less there are several novelists who were involved in anarchist politics to some degree including James Joyce, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, and Aldous Huxley. Magpie Killjoy notes of Huxley, for instance, that:
I’d read Huxley in school, I wasn’t taught what he meant when he said that what the world needed was radical decentralization of a “Kropotkinesque and cooperative” sort in the introduction to the 1946 edition of Brave New World.
In her brief history of anarchist fiction Magpie Killjoy goes on to list several novels that, frankly, I haven’t read. But because I love the excitement of a new reading list I’ve included it here anyway (you’re welcome):
By far the most well-known anarchist novel then, that passes both of these tests, is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Other notable books to portray anarchist societies are Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, PM’s Bolo’Bolo, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy;), and M. Gilliland’s The Free. Anarchists have made it in as sympathetic (though often misguided or idealized) characters in any number of books, such as Rick Dakan’s Geek Mafia.. Black Hat Blues, Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Wu Ming’s 54… and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
Missing from that list is Robert Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy which I’ve expounded upon at interminable length elsehwhere (like this post here for example). And for those who are interested Wikipedia has a page on anarchism and the arts here.
Perhaps because comic books remain a smaller world (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) than film, television or books it is particularly striking that two of the most influential authors of modern comics, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, are self-proclaimed anarchists. I’ve written about Moore and Morrison’s form of ‘ontological anarchy’ and the influence of Robert Anton Wilson on their work here, and intend, at some point to do a comparison of their respective takes on anarchy (and magic) in the future. For now a more general overview of the comic book anarchist will have to do.
In an article in the journal Anarchist Studies entitled I’m not your boss: the paradox of the anarchist superhero, Josh Lukin considers the presentation of anarchist characters in comic books. Citing Moore’s V for Vendetta, Morrison’s Doom Patrol villain Mr. Nobody, as well as Destruction from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman as an example of “an antiauthoritarian hero” whose resignation of his own divine office “suggests that no one has a right to exercise authority over human beings“. V, Destruction and Mr. Nobody all exist at the margins of mainstream superhero comics but the Marvel and DC Universes are home to their own anarchists.
Marvel’s Flag Smasher was introduced in captain america 312 (December 1985). Unfortunately for this post Flag-Smasher’s brand of anarchism involves some old-school terrorism, what the more zealous early anarchists used to call the propaganda of the deed. Also a proponent of propaganda of the deed is the DC Comics character Anarky who first appeared in Batman and is the co-creation of artist Norm Breyfogle and long-time Judge Dredd writer Alan Grant (himself a card-carrying member of the British Anarchist Party). As with Flag-Smasher the character is used to debate the merits of anarchism but the presentation is more sympathetic than in Marvel. Margaret Killjoy has called the character ‘quite wonderful’, while the libertarian and professor of philosophy Robert T. Long has dedicated an entire page of his website to the character, writing that “Anarky is my favorite comic-book character”, and opening with a large quote from the first Anarky miniseries, some of which is reproduced below:
Everything you know is a lie. Cast your mind back to when you were a child. Remember how life shone out from within? How everything was new and full of golden hope?And then “they” got to you. The politicians – the priests – the philosophers – the parasites! This is politics: “Do what you’re told or we’ll punish you.“” This is religion: “Suffer misery now so you can be happy after death.” This is philosophy: “The universe came from nothing and will one day return to it.” None of these doctrines stands up to rational analysis. Since the birth of consciousness, hundreds of millions of human beings have been slaughtered by their fellows.Men – women – children … snuffed out as if their lives meant nothing. Why? Because we look to leaders and priests and gurus and “stars” to tell us what to do instead of relying on the powers of our own sovereign minds. They charge in blood for the privilege of ruling us (you can read the whole thing here)
Fairly stirring stuff for a character who first appeared in the pages of Batman, no? Even Batman admits that Anarky’s cause is just, despite, ironically for a vigilante who dresses as a bat, disagreeing with his methods. The Anarky mini-series in particular is full of such discourse. Artist Norm Breyfogle has noted that this resulted in Anarky only being popular with, “certain segments of the comic book industry…It has some diehard fans. But, DC doesn’t seem to want to do anything with him. Maybe it’s because of his anti-authoritarian philosophy” . On a similar note, in an interview with 200ADReview writer Alan Grant was asked:
2000ADReview: How did you feel taking the title in a slightly more esoteric direction, discussing the political philosophy of Anarchy, something which is reported very infrequently in the media, and never actually used in its actual sense, especially in comics? Did you think readers would get such obscure references as Scudder Klyce’s book Universe, of which only a few hundred copies ever existed?
Alan Grant: It’s absolutely what I wanted to do. It wasn’t terribly popular in the States, although I received quite a few letters (especially from philosophy students) saying the comic had changed their entire mindset. But Anarky was very popular in South America, where people have had a long and painful taste of totalitarianism, in a way the US is just entering.
No, I didn’t expect many readers to check out the references. I’m pleased to say several did.
Lukin’s article on the anarchist superhero is concerned that “such comics have not supplemented their critique of social institutions with proposals as to how a reformed society might work” and worries about the increased conservatism in the comics field. This is not the place to fully address those critiques if for no other reason than they are taken from the abstract because you have to pay to read that particular article from the journal of Anarchist Studies. All intellectual property is theft! Even so I would argue that even when the characters are not explicitly designated as anarchists, superhero comics contain an implicit critique of social institutions. This is a point I make it in more detail in my paper Fans and Fiction Networks: A Rhizomatic Approach To Superhero Comics and Their Readers, but as that’s not up online yet I’ll simply highlight two points made by other comics scholars (that’s right, I called myself a ‘comics scholar’). For Jason Bainbridge the mainstream superhero comics of Marvel and DC have become not just superpowered tales of derring-do and the preservation of the social order but, “full-blown assaults on the nature of reality” (page 81). Bainbridge continues:
superheroes…challenge, as Nietzsche did, both notions of truth and the status quo, most obviously in subversive texts like Frank miller’s The Dark Knight Retuurns or Alan moore’s V for vendetta (both pitting individual “superheroes” against totalitarian governments) but also more subtly in the way the superhero challenges the rationality of modernioty by presenting a world founded on irrationality…Where us truth in a universe subject to the whims of Krona? or a multiverse of earth-Ones and earth twos? the superhero therefore becomes another way of suggesting that rationality is stifling-and limiting (page 81)
Bainbridge also points out in the notes to his essay that the superhero’s relationship to the law is like that of the hero in Jospeh Campbell’s universal monomyth, when Campbell writes that “it is not society that is to guide and save the hero, but precisely the reverse” (page 82, note 3). This may suggest an almost mythic, heroic quality to anarchism. Elsewhere, Robert M. Peaslee has also described the “relationship of the superhero to the social whole” as always being “one of alienation of one kind or another” (page 50) and that superheroes, “in their constant negotiation with the established mechanisms of society, consistently show these mechanisms to be faulty and inadequate” (page 50). I will write more about this at some point. For now the intent was merely to suggest that there is more going on in mainstream superhero comics than might first meets the eye.
Never the less, the most famous work of comic book anarchism is surely V for Vendetta and some brief words about that seem necessary here, especially because the V mask has emerged from the pages of the book to become a symbol for both the Occupy and Anonymous movements (more about that here– you ‘ll need to scroll down a bit though). First off, here is the inimitable (writing-wise anyway, he is of course enormous fun do an impression of) Alan Moore on anarchism in which he presents it as the most rational and moral form society.
V for Vendetta remains Moore’s most explicit exploration of anarchist themes and though it was written and published in the eighties it seems to have been popularised by the 2006 film. Moore, as he is wont to do, has publicly disowned the film. Compared to other adaptations of his work however it is a relatively faithful adaptation if a touch diluted. The comics’ presentation of V’s character and the ‘price’ of anarchy is far more complex and nuanced. In The comic V is an often frightening, morally ambiguous figure whose intent seems driven by a desire for revenge on his former captors as much as any politic ideology. Similarly the Leader of the fascists, while a complex character in his own right in the book, is reduced to simple villainy in the film, all the better to heighten V’s heroism for the film.
Moreover Mutantreviewers points out that these changes affect the central political theme:
The book was very clearly Anarchy versus Fascism, with both being represented as varying shades of grey. The movie is more like Liberalism versus neo-Conservatism, and is very much Good Guys versus Bad Guys. The big thing that Moore took issue with in the adaptation (which he demanded he not be credited for) was that the writers took what was a very British story and implanted a quite American set of views and beliefs on it. It’s not too tough to see parallels drawn against the Bush administration in the adapted story.
Never the less, the film does contain some powerful scenes and imagery and there is an undeniable kick to seeing parliament blown up at the end. Of course, I’m not advocating blowing shit up, being an anarcho-pacifist type myself, but as a cinematic spectacle and symbolic moment, this hits the sweet spot. Why not test your inner anarchist by seeing if you feel a thrill during the following scene?
On a personal note, there is one moments from the comic that permanently rewired my brain. Evey’s imprisonment and re-conditioning features a letter from a woman named Valerie that Evey finds secreted in the wall. In it, Valerie describes how she came to be imprisoned in that same cell prior to Evey. Her story begins by describing how she came out to her parents as lesbian:
My mother said I broke her heart.
But it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch we are free.
Later she meets a woman:
We loved each other. We lived together and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses and oh God, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.
But soon her lover and then Margaret are rounded up by the fascists. Valerie writes:
It’s strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody.
I shall die here. Every last inch of me shall perish. Except one.
An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.
I don’t know who you are. Or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope that you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.
The full text of Valerie’s letter can be found here. Below is a video of the letter being read in the film version of V for Vendetta, although strangely it leaves out the final line “I wish I could kiss you“, as if the messy bodily desire of female sexuality would be a distraction from its manly, action packed good versus evil narrative structure rather than strengthen the story’s points about the disgust at difference, especially sexual difference, that lies at the heart of fascism. Still, it is quite moving in its own right.
Interestingly the film also avoids any discussion of the use of psychedelics. In the comic however we are informed that psychedelic drugs were among the techniques used when V was experimented upon in the concentration camps. When the detective pursuing v travels to the site of the camp he takes LSD as V was forced to and his hallucinations allow him to experience being imprisoned and free, granting him an intuitive understanding of V’s psychology. There seems to be an implication here that the use of psychedelic drugs somehow led to or enhanced V’s superhuman abilities (which are played up more for the Hollywood heroics of the film than they are in the book-see also the Watchmen adaptation). Anarky undergoes similar psychic changes, albeit of his own accord, using bio-feedback technology to teach himself new skills.
As I’ve pointed out in my thesis and the paper The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman this notion of psychedelics as a route to posthuman abilities is not unfamiliar. The thesis and paper also make clear that this vision of psychedelic posthumanism has affinities with the anti-humanist thinkers such as Foucault and Deleuze touched upon in part 2 of this series. As such, it is only natural that this type of posthumanity be drawn to anarchism also.
Further evidence for this notion can be seen by the way many historians have seen anarchist strains in the writings of certain Daoist scholars in pre-modern China or the emancipatory zeal of early Christianity. Anarchy’s romanticism demands a move beyond traditional politicking into a perhaps more ‘spritual’ realm (of which the psychedelic experience is but one manifestation). As such Taoism has been embraced by some anarchists as a source of anarchistic attitudes. The Taoist sage Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) developed a philosophy of “non-rule” in the Tao Te Ching and many Taoists in response lived an anarchist lifestyle.
Gnosticism also had an anarchistic streak, evidenced in its emphasis on the uniquely personal experience of Gnosis. In an interesting piece on posthumanism and gnosticism Geoff Klock quotes Father Irenaeus from the early church complaining about the radically free-thinking Gnostics of his day: “Every day one of them invents something new” (read the full essay here). More recently, relatively speaking, Alisteir Crowley’s Thelemic religioniand his injunction that Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law sits not uncomfortably with anarchism, as do the constellation of ideas of that fall under the umbrella term Chaos Magic (as the name implies). The theme has also been picked by Hakim Bey, a key exponent of ‘ontological anarchy‘ whose writings draw upon Sufi teachings and anarchist theory, among other sources. One final variation on the theme is Kerry Thornley’s notion of Zenarchy which he sums up like this:
ZEN is Meditation. ARCHY is Social Order. ZENARCHY is the Social Order which springs from Meditation.
As a doctrine, it holds Universal Enlightenment a prerequisite to abolition of the State, after which the State will inevitably vanish. Or – that failing – nobody will give a damn.
But if anarchism and ‘cosmic posthumanism’ are comfortable bedfellows, where does Transhumanism fit? Although there are certain transcendental leanings in much Transhumanist writings (neo-gnostic motifs of transcending the body for example) transhumanism is also deeply entwined with capitalism and current power structures. However, I think Transhumanism and Anarchism are a good fit. First of all, its worth remembering that anarchism is not simply some fringe philosophy but has been the province of some of the finest minds of their generations. Like Transhumanism, modern anarchism sprang from the secular or religious thought of the Enlightenment.
Clearly there are dangers and pitfalls if the development of Transhumanist technologies continues to develop within the current global power structure, some of which were addressed in an earlier post. Anarchism at least precludes those particular dangers. Furthermore, those same technologies are also capable of ushering in an anarchistic society in ways never possible before. Modern communications technology and social media have already been utilised to revolutionary effect in the Middle East and by the Occupy Movement for example. decisions can be made and voted upon simultaneously in theory. The hope that nanotechnology will create a post-scarcity economy also signals a move towards anarchism. What use are governments when food is freely available? Similarly, what use will manufacturers and corporations be when people can be equipped with 3-d printers and self-assembling machines? What use hierarchy when we are all watched over by machines of loving grace? Or, indeed, when we become those machines?
Arthur C. Clarke famously stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Much as the psychedelic posthuman is both an archaic and hyper-futuristic construct, so too the psychedelic posthuman society would function in a way that “primitive” societies were said to-egalitarian, without the need or notion of property, hierarchy, authority. The Transhumanist, whose body was now something to be modified, improved, developed, could only really be an artist. An artist whose body was their canvass, whose life was their masterpiece. As such I end this post with a quote from Oscar Wilde:
People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all