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Human Enhancement in Theory, Practice and Superhero Comics 2: Nanotechnology

ironmanextremis

Welcome to the second in this series of posts about Transhuman technologies in theory, practice and in comic books. Part One, all about human head transplants is here. This time round: nanotechnology.

A brief history of nanotechnology

Perhaps more than any other nanotechnology is the most diverse and may prove the most central to achieving some of Transhumanism’s most far out aims.

The term “nano-technology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, though it was not widely known until it was popularised by Eric Drexler’s book  Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986). The theoretical groundwork however, was laid in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman in his talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, in which he described the possibility of  the direct manipulation of atoms. Inspired by these ideas, Drexler would introduce the concept of nanoscale ‘assemblers’, which would be able to build copies of themselves and other items through the manipulating material at an atomic level.

Though atomic-level self-replicating robots appears the stuff of the wildest speculative fiction the 1980s witnessed two major break-troughs.

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1981’s invention of the scanning tunneling microscope allowed unprecedented visualization of individual atoms and bonds, and in 1989 it was successfully used to manipulate individual atoms. Second, the discovery of Fullerenes in 1985 pointed towards new potential application for nanaoscale devices and electronics. Though the buckyball, (named for Buckminster Fuller) was not originally descroibed as nanotechnology, research into the fullerene family of carbon structures has fallen under the umbrella of nanotechnological research, playing a major part in related work with carbon nanotubes.

Governments began fund research into nanotechnology, beginning in the U.S. with the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was announced under President Clinton in a 2000 White House press release entitled “Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution”. As Schummer puts it, “the visionary powerbox has largely been reduced to economic promises”. nanotechnological research moved towards more practical and commercial applications. In 2001, Toyota started using nanocomposites to make a bumper 60% lighter and twice as resistant to denting and scratching; Khakis that use nanoparticles as stain-repellant; suncreams containing nanoparticulate zinc oxide; nanaoclays and nanocomposites used to make me beer bottles lighter and thinner; and carbon nanotubes are currently being used in wind-turbines, surfboards, bicycle components and even as scaffolding for growing bone (see here for more current applications). The use of nanaotechnology has also been of great interest in the world of medicine with ongoing research into the use of anoparticles to deliver drugs, heat or light directly to cells, nanosponges that absorb toxins to remove them from the bloodstream, and there is much talk of one day using nano-bots to repair damaged cells (more medical applications here).

Despite these advances we still seem some way away from the more dramatic implications of this technology. For now there are no nanobots,no assemblers, no molecular-scale machines diligently scraping the cholesterol from your arteries or networking between the nervous system and computer so that you can experience virtual reality as a truly physical one. No instantaneous bodily mutation based purely on whim. No ‘grey goo‘. For now anyway.

Nanotechnology in Comic Books

Given that the discourse around nanotechnology has been premised on the Amazing Transformations To Come rather than the more prosaic Eventually After We Figure Out All This Really Technical Shit, it is little wonder that most works utilising nanotechnology use it in a way that emphasizes the former rather than the latter. Just as in the 1950s and ’60s radiation was to blame for all manner of mutants and giant insects, so too the portrayal of nanotechnology in popular culture (what Johansson calls ‘nanoculture‘) has produced many works where Nano is “competing and sometimes replacing radiation as the prime explainer and transformer in many popular contexts”. For example, in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, Bruce Banner’s transformation is due to both the traditional gamma radiation AND nanomaccines, though this is not elaborated upon in any way. Nano simply becomes a shorthand for ‘crazy science stuff’.

According to the Encyclopedia of Nanosicence and Society, explicit language relating to nanotechnology only began to appear in comic books in the 1990s, although the ability to manipulate matter at a molecular level has been a recurring power throughout the history of superhero comics (e.g. the tellingly named Molecule Man). As a general rule the use of nanotechnology in comics follows the same schema outlined by Johanssen, as a catch-all modern technological explanation for a character’s super-powers. The most recent iteration of DC Comics’ Mr Terrific, for example, has nanotechnology woven into his costume and mask.

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One of the earliest appearances of nanotech in comics was the Technovore from Iron Man 294 (July 1993). Because Technovore’s body is made entirely of nanobots it was able to disassemble itself into a stream of nanites, allowing it to squeeze into and travel through through extremely small spaces. Each nanite carries a copy of the entire viral personality, implying that the Technovore can reconstruct itself from a single unit. Moreover, the Technovore can assimilate technology into itself, as well as adapt its form to become immune to different types of weapons. In short, the Technovore is the most Dystopian possibilities offered by Drexler’s Engines of Creation writ large, its desire to assimilate everything around it a clear precursor to Drexler’s infamous ‘grey goo’ scenario, whereby self-replicating machines run out of control, building more of themselves by consuming all the matter around them until the entire Earth is destroyed.

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Nanotechnology made another notable appearance in Iron Man  during Warren Ellis’s Extremis story-line (which served as the basis for the third Iron Man movie). In this story the Extremis virus can be injected, giving users powers akin to Iron Man but with the technology contained within the body (as in the panel at the top of this post). Iron Man himself uses a modified version of the nanite virus to improve the neural interface between him and his armour, a conceit also found in recent iterations of DC’s Cyborg, whereby Victor Stone’s brain and nervous are linked by nanites to his robotic prosthetic grafts. This idea is not entirely absurd. The US Air Force is currently backing a project  “involving nanoparticles that can amplify optical-detection sensitivity by 10 to the 14th fold.”

More outlandish is another Ellis creation, The Engineer from The Authority. Angela Spica is, as he team captain describes it, “the woman who distilled an incalculable number of intelligent devices into nine pints of liquid machinery…and exchanged your blood for it“.  The nanoload works like blood for The Engineer while also covering her entire body, allowing it to morph into new shapes and weaponry. In one issue she is able to defeat a group of bad guys by “extruding the machinery out into a web of knives small enough to slip between atoms“, effectively slicing them into smithereens. Which is amazing and also deeply unsettling if you think about it. Elsewhere, the Engineer is able to use the nanites to survive on the surface of the moon, and to interface with the Authority’s sentient, dimension hopping vessel The Carrier.

Outwith the comic book page, the link between superheroes and nanotechnology has a fairly ignoble history. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded $50 million to a proposal submitted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). The proposal’s cover image, which featured a futuristic soldier in mechanical armour, presented, in visual shorthand, the scientific possibilities outlined in more technical detail within the proposal. The image was later removed from ISN websites when two comic book creators alleged that it was simply a reworked version of the cover image of their Radix issue one.

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For Milburn this is because both the discourse of nanotechnology and militaristic visions of the super soldier, “rely on cultural familiarity with comic book myths…to suggest that nanotechnology, in replicating or materializing these myths at the site of the soldier’s body, can create “real” superheroes”.The comic book image serves to create a gap between a written account of science yet-to-occur and the image of what a futuristic soldier might look like. What happens within this gap is the slow, complicated business of the science itself. It is worth noting that even prior to the introduction of nanotech to superhero comics, heroes such as The Atom, or regular jaunts to realms such as the Microverse, also played with issues of scale and molecular engineering. Are the actual mechanics technically any clearer in the bottom image from Yale Scientific than they are in the panels from the Atom or Supergirl?

 

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As Johanssen noted above, nanotechnology largely performs the same role any techno-scientific ‘explanation’ plays in comics- the ability to achieve the impossible; science as magic. And in some respects the scientific literature around nanotechnology, at least at the more speculative end of the spectrum, is engaged in that same kind of bombast as the superhero genre. What Milburn calls ‘nanowriting’- that genre of scientific text in which the already inevitable nanotech revolution can be glimpsed” is characterised by an ‘operatic excess’, whereby writers:

frame their scientific arguments with vivid tales of potential applications,which are firmly the stuff of the golden age of science fiction. Matter compilers, molecular surgeons, spaceships, space colonies,cryonics, smart utility fogs, extraterrestrial technological civilizations,
and utopias abound in these papers, borrowing unabashedly from the
repertoire of the twentieth-century science-fictional imagination

Of course, that does not mean the Transhuman dreams of nanotechnology may not someday be realised (though the process may be more laborious than some might like), but if the superhero comic book is playing into the nanotechnological imagination it is worth asking, “in what way?” For, on the one hand, the words of Edwin Thomas from MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies describing, “the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armour and endowed with superhuman capabilities” seem, to me at least, fairly terrifying and at odds with the real ethos of the superhero. Nice to know then that at least one Nano scientist has advocated a nanotech-ethics based on Spider-Man’s dictum, “with great power comes great responsibility”. After all, it’s not the technology that separates hero from villain, but how they choose to use it.

 

 

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New posts are coming! (this isn’t it though)

Hello humans.

Nth Mind has been a bit quiet lately, but new posts are coming, I promise. A couple of fresh Comics are Magic entries are percolating nicely and some other stuff is ready to boil over, so stay tuned. In the meantime here are a bunch of things that have been dragging the Scott Jeffery Machine away from Nth Mind and into the meat-world. It’s been busy. Continue reading


Comics are Magic Part 8: Warren Ellis, Language as Code and Technology as Magic

Planetary Issue 7

It is little surprise that this Comics are Magic series has regularly returned to the works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, both being prominent and vocal practitioners of magic. In this installment and the next I want to focus on two other members of the “British Invasion“, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis, whose work often touches upon the subject of magic but without either creator claiming any explicitly magical intent. At first glance Warren Ellis might seem an odd choice for this series. His work most often displays a science-fiction bent, as in his epic Transmetropolitan, and even his superhero work is marked by hard sci-fi tendencies. Magic is not a prominent theme in his work, but nor, as we shall see, is it entirely absent either. One particularly interesting example is the short graphic novel Frankenstein’s Womb, in which Mary Shelley encounters her own creation (or her creation’s creation?) prior to her actually having written the book. This story presents an elegaic meditation on time , memory, art, science and magic that is arguably as close as Ellis has come to occupying a similar magic territory to Moore or Morrison, who generally allow their magic to “BE” magic. As a rule though, Ellis makes a point of repeatedly inverting Clarke’s Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. In Ellis’s work, instead, magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology. Continue reading


A Violence Called Love

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

It’s only fair that I warn you in advance that this post is going to get dark while I draw on several psychological and sociological studies to prove that everything good is bad for you. What follows is, hopefully, a persuasive, mostly reasonable argument that demonstrates how unfettered capitalism is a machine for producing human beings incapable of empathy or rational thought. In short, a world of sociopathic idiots. Evidence continues to accumulate proving that the capitalist system we live within not only makes humans unhappy (even, maybe especially, those who benefit most from it) but also crueller, more selfish and sociopathic (I’ve written more on what I call ‘psychopathonomics’ here and here). Them’s the facts, Jack! Or some of them anyway.

Let’s start with ‘happiness’. We’ll get to the mechanics of how we are told to get happiness later, but first of all we need to consider the effects of happiness and see if we can’t glimpse the skull beneath the grin.

I’m only half-joking. Though it is more difficult to discern whether Liverpool university’s Richard P Bentall (rhymes with ‘mental’) was joking in this abstract from his 1992 article A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder, published  in the Journal of Medical Ethics:

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains – that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

Whether or not Bentall was offering a Swiftian Modest Proposal. more recent studies suggest that he was likely correct about the potentially negative effects of happiness. Firstly, happiness makes people more stupid. Psychologist Joe Forgas has conducted a number of studies demonstrating that people who feel happy people are, as New Scientist puts it,  “less able to develop a persuasive argument, more gullible and worse at remembering objects in a shop window than their unhappy fellows“. Forgas explains that this may be because  rely more on their own thoughts and preferences when they are feeling happy, so pay less attention to the what is happening in the world around them.

More troubling is that in further experiments Forgas found that happiness could increase selfishness. Forgas suggests that “positive mood is in a sense an evolutionary signal, subconsciously informing people that the situation they face is safe and non-threatening”, encouraging people to focus on their own personal preferences. This tendency has been demonstrated on chemical level as well.  Oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone’, released when you cuddle a loved one, for instance, is not quite the cuddly, cheeky pheromone it’s been made out to be. In fact, rather than unconditionally support trust in others, it appears to simply enhance feelings of trust, affection and willingness to cooperate with those already known to us. For instance, Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin made people more cooperative in a social game, but only if they had met their partner beforehand. If they knew nothing about their partner in the game, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative. 

More dramatically, but in a logical progression from above, the University of Amsterdam’s Carsten de Dreu has demonstrated that Oxytocin makes us favour our own ethic and racial groups. Dr Dreu describes this as “a  “tend and defend” response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups.”

So happiness makes us stupid, but it also makes us selfish and racist. Stupid, selfish and racist. Sounds like a stereotypical right-wing jerk, huh? Of course I write that with my pheromones making me blindly and stupidly defend some imagined intelligent, broadly socialist, liberal (or better, anarchist) group from some moronic, evil Other, but still, there’s some truth to it. For example, Hodson and Busseri (2012) have found that lower intelligence and poor abstract reasoning in childhood is predictive of greater racist and homophobic attitudes in adulthood, an effect mediated through the adoption of right wing ideologies.

At this point it seems possible to make a suggestion, extrapolating from this wildly biased selection of data (it’s a blog post, not a research paper!). The desperate scrabbling for some form of happiness, recognised by our bodies as the release of oxytocin, leads us to believe that this mere chemical reaction is happiness itself. As with any addiction we keep pressing the button that triggers our high, and as with any addiction this habitual process takes its own toll. Our capacity for love actually diminishes, extending only so far as immediate family and friends, while the ‘other’, either embodied or as a more generalised fear of change to our current ‘happy’ circumstances, becomes the object of our suspicion, the shadow of our love; that which we come to hate. Which would be fine if we were able to examine, discuss and learn to control this process like rational, carbon-based beings. Except our happiness addiction is also diminishing our intelligence. This toxic mix of then manifests as conservative ideologies and world-views that promise to keep us safe from “the others” and keep our happiness circuits in a state of prolonged narcotic stimulation.

Maybe I’m overselling it, but you see what I’m getting at, right?

The story so far: We ‘have demonstrated that happiness, far from being the best thing ever, promotes stupidity, selfishness, and blind defence of one’s ‘in-group’ over ‘outsiders’. But what does our society believe is necessary for us to be happy? A good job, a nice house, and all that jazz. Capitalism, baby! Now luckily for us, despite promoting the notion that capital will make you happy, and happiness being, as we now know, extremely bad for you, capitalism also promotes intelligence, kindness, and trust in others.

Oh I’m sorry,that was worded incorrectly. I meant that capitalism makes an already dangerous psycho-chemical situation considerably worse.

The very nature of capitalism – the pursuit of profit – depends upon placing the economic realm above all other concerns. This is the reason that the corridors of big business are filled with high-functioning sociopaths and psychopaths. As I’ve written elsewhere on the blog capitalism involves a system of what I call ‘psychopathonomics’. but for now consider the rich have, in a variety of psychological studies, been shown to be more selfishfeel less empathy and find it more difficult to recognise emotions in others; display a higher propesnity for unethical behaviour; and more likely to reachh punitive jusgements about criminal behaviour based on essentialist notions of class position (i.e., that social class is founded in genetically based, biological differences).

Interestingly, there are studies that show the inverse to be true as well, so that, sombunall people from lower social classes felt more empathy than those from more privileged backgrounds. The irony of this is that the accumulation of goods and capital we are told will make us happy appears to be the very same process that will diminish our capacity for intelligence and empathy; in short, our capacity to fully experience love. Not just because the system requires and rewards sociopathy, but also because it diminishes the capacity to experience emotions fully in those lower down the social ladder, hence the increasing rates of depression in recent years (which, if they continue at their current pace, will, by 2020, make depression the second most disabling condition in the world behind heart disease).

So now then. The more money you have, the higher your social status and power the less your ability to feel empathy; the higher your stupidity and more increased your inclination to right-wing ideologies and prejudices. The less money you have the more possibility of experiencing empathy, except in a world increasingly run on sociopathic principles empathy becomes a drawback, necessitating a retreat into depression. Relief from this depression can be found in the love of one’s friends and family, causing a psycho-chemical reaction that diminishes intelligence and heightens fear of the other and change. Into this mire step charismatic, sociopathic leaders with social policies and ideologies that both encourage a sense of ‘love’ (of family, of country, of god, of money) while actually diminishing it.

After all, is it love to say “ever since you were born it’s been my dream to see you grow up into a wealthy, prejudiced moron”? Except we never say that. We say, “I just want you to be happy”, never stopping to consider the implications of that; the flimsy, morally bankrupt framework our contemporary, all-too limited vision of happiness is premised upon. As R. D. Laing once wrote:

Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love.


Happy Birthday Nth Mind!

So now then. Just got a message that this blog is officially three years old. Let’s take a moment of silence to honor this momentous, nay! paradigm-shattering, NAY! WORLD CHANGING! event.

There, feels good, doesn’t it? Seriously though, as you may or may not know, when you have a blog like a future-person does you are able to see some of the stats and site traffic data. What re people reading on it? How did they find it? That sort of jazz. So in celebration of Nth Minds three years of existing as a thing, let’s pull back the curtain and see what the ten most popular posts of all time have been!

The first thing I learned was that  Nth mind has been viewed 14,681  times. 52 people actually subscribe to this thing (so a big thank-you guys!), and apparently the busiest ever day was Friday, April 6, 2012 when I got 120 views. That’s right, one hundred and twenty. So take that, [insert generic popular website here]! Obviously, in retrospect, its been all downhill from there.

The most popular search terms that bought people to Nth Mind make for interesting reading; or terrifying, depending on your tastes. These are my peoples.

  1. posthuman                                        65
  2. erotic experiences                         40
  3. posthumanism                                 37
  4. screaming mad george                  36
  5. nth mind                                                28
  6. mind expanding documentaries     25
  7. cosmic trigger                                         20
  8.  cosmic trigger art                                  19
  9. compare visions of kurzweil, hitler and nietzche   16
  10. batman stained glass       16

Among the lesser-searched for terms were, “trifurcated cervix (4)”, “sadomasochism is not conducive to the welfare of society”   (3), “tentacle erotica”  (3), and “infamous ‘corporate psychopaths’ (1)”. We can only imagine what the 2,780 unknown search terms were. Also, let’s spare a thought to the three poor bastards who were led to this blog out of concern for the impact of sadomasochism on the welfare of society. I can only hope that it opened their minds enough for them to open their other openings.

Anyways. The most viewed page, with 3,131 views is the Home page/Archives, but that doesn’t tell us anything, does it? So here are the top ten most popular posts

  1. Keeping the Cosmic Trigger Happy Part 3: RAW and the comix underground                     843
  2. Special Effects Auteurs (and the particular genius of Screaming Mad George)                     814
  3. Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives                             782
  4. Anarchy and Posthumanism Part 3: Anarchist Superhumans                                                     577
  5. Comics are Magic Part 1: Superman, archetypes and invocations                                             520
  6. Tales from the Sphinx: An Interview with John Thompson                                                           439
  7. Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex                                                                                         436
  8. Man, if only there were a list of Posthuman Documentaries…                                                      429
  9. The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman                                                                             398
  10. Comics are Magic 4-The Conscious Multiverse: Idea-space and entities                                  315

 

And now, the bottom five, or least popular posts:

5. new stand-up                                                                                                                       3

4. Transcendental style in film Part One: The Ascetic Aesthetic                        2

3. Live from the Edinburgh festival…                                                                             2

2. I finally uploaded a new stand up video. Ironically, it is very old…            2

1. Transcendental style in film Part Two: The Ecstatic Aesthetic                       2

So, two posts that were published today and three about my comedy. The lesson here, clearly, is that no-one who reads this blog gives a shit about my comedy. In fact even in the search terms no one ever searched for ‘Scott Jeffery, stand-up comedy’. I did, but that doesn’t count. Maybe some people do like the comedy but then they come here and its all tentacle erotica and anarchism and they get put off? Actually, that can’t be the case because tentacle erotica and anarchism are exactly the kind of things I would do jokes about anyway.

Birthday celebrations now officially over. Don’t let the self-congratulatory lack of content in this post deceive you! I’m not just reading water because I’ve run out of things to write about. Coming out of the screen and into your face-holes soon/eventually!: ‘everything good is bad for you’, on the Dialectics of Liberation congress; surrealism as politics; a new Comics are Magic exploring Warren Ellis’s approach to the subject; and more!

I’m going to write it anyway, with or without you. It’s a compulsion.

But I’m delighted to find that people have actually been reading it these past three years. So thank you readers, and here’s to three more years!

 


Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 2: Let the machines do the work

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

After a brief overview of robots and their form and history in Part One, this post consider the place of robots in industrial economies.  In many respects, the history of the robot is inextricably linked to questions of work and labour. The first use of the word robot was in RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 play by the Cheokslavkian Karel Capek . As Dennis G. Jerz points out, “the Czech word robota means “drudgery” or “servitude”; a robotnik is a peasant or serf.” This link between the robot as worker or labourer is also found in Fritz Lang’s  Metropolis (1927) in which the robot Maria serves as a catalyst for a proletariat revolution. The connection between machine and wage-slave is even implicit in Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist manifesto in which they warn that, “owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine“. There remains the possibility that industrial robots might one day gain sentience in which case the robot uprising will be less like The Terminator and more like Battleship Potemkin.

Setting the question of robots developing class-consciousness aside (its difficult, I know, but let’s try) we first need a better understanding of just how common the use of industrial robots has become.While we might still be startled to see a robot trundling down the street it is easy to forget the robots are everywhere, often out of sight, whirring away feverishly in factories and warehouses. As the roboticist and human friend Dr Tom Larkworthy once astutely noted, “most robots are just arms“.

A few decades ago this was pretty whizz-bang stuff, as in Hugh Hudson’s iconic ‘Hand Built by Robots‘ advert for the Fiat Strada in 1979:

What once inspired awe and fascination is now taken for granted, if considered at all, but since Hudson’s hymn to the workerless factory the use of industrial robots has increased significantly. In October 2000, the UN estimated there to be 742, 500 industrial robots in use; more than half of which were being used in Japan. By 2011, According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) study World Robotics 2012, there were at least 1,153,000 operational industrial robots and  estimated to reach 1,575,000 by the end of 2015. The annual turnover for robot systems was estimated to be US$25.5 billion in 2011.  (thanks wikipedia!) Continue reading


Dark, Deranged and Disney

What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From  Dorfman and Mattelart’€™s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971),  Henry Giroux’€™s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward€’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:

The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.

All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.

Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror.  Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released.  The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,

awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. 

In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the  “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes. Continue reading


Comics are Magic 6: Jodorowsky, Gurdjieff, Morrison and The Flash#54

Hello you.

Welcome to the sixth edition of Comics are Magic (click link for the archives). This is just a short one because its been a while. It concerns the magical influence of classic Silver Age story The Flash Stakes His Life On You! from The Flash#54 by way of two modern magicians and comics creators.

The first, Alejandro Jodorowsky is probably best known for his films, the alchemical allegories El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. For those unfamiliar with his work here’s the trailer for  his masterpiece The Holy Mountain. That’s subjective of course, and they are all stunning, mind-warping films, but The Holy Mountain is I think clearest in its alchemical intent.

Jodorowsky started out as in theatre, co-founding the Panic Movement in 1962 which drew on Antoin Artaud’s Theatre of  Cruelty and staged violent and surreal performance pieces. From wikipedia:

The movement’s violent theatrical events were designed to be shocking,[2] and to release destructive energies in search of peace and beauty. One four-hour performance known as Sacramental Melodrama was staged in May 1965 at the Paris Festival of Free Expression. The “happening” starred Jodorowsky dressed in motorcyclist leather and featured him slitting the throats of two geese, taping two snakes to his chest and having himself stripped and whipped. Other scenes included “naked women covered in honey, a crucified chicken, the staged murder of a rabbi, a giant vagina, the throwing of live turtles into the audience, and canned apricots.”

In his excellent memoir The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky he describes how he moved to Mexico to undergo initiation with a number of female shamans. Like Alan Moore, Jodorowsky views art and magic as inseparable. He later combined theatre, magic and psychotherapy in his practice of psychomagic where the patient’s personality and family tree are studied to come up with symbolic performances to be acted out, based on the principle that the unconscious mind accepts symbolic acts as fact. Here is one example of many from his book on the subject (page 132):

A young Chantal, at four years old, found herself placed in a school directed by the sister of the mother of her mother…The great-aunt sadistically tyrannized the child. In working with me, Chantal discovered all the hate she held towards to this woman. She could not forgive her, and she had no way to avenge her because the torturer was no longer in this world. So I advised her to go to the grave of this woman and, once there, give free rein to this hate: that she kick, scream, piss, and defecate on the tomb, but provided that she dedicate herself to paying close attention to her subsequent reactions to her demonstrations of vengeance. She followed my advice, and after letting off some steam atop the sepulcher, she felt a deep desire to clean it up and cover it with flowers. And, little by little, she couldn’t help but surrender to the evidence that she, in fact, felt love for her great-aunt.

A true polymath, Jodorowsky has also developed his own reconstruction of the Tarot of Marseilles, which he summarises in the video below:

Jodorowsky has worked regularly in the comics medium. His earliest comics work included the strip Fabulas Panicas, which debuted in 1967 (and ran to 1973) in the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo de México. Below is one of these strips. There are many, many more over at fabulaspanicas.blogspot.co.uk, dedicated entirely to reproducing the strip and well worth your time. Even if  like me you don’t speak Spanish.

Fabulas panicas

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Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages

Part One of this ‘thesis review’ introduced the philosophical and theoretical concepts that guided the research undertaken in my thesis. Part Two elaborated upon these ideas- paying particular attention to the concept of the rhizome-and suggested that the field of Comics Studies could be considered as rhizomatic. It then went on to demonstrate how approaches to studying superheroes that utilised structuralist theories and/or analysed the superhero comic in terms of representation and ideology could be understood as broadly humanist and based on an arboreal model of knowledge whereby the ‘meaning’ of the superhero could be reduced to a single explanatory trunk. It then went on to argue for a Post/Humanist approach to superhero comics that, rather than an arboreal model, adopted a rhizomatic approach. To aid this understanding a cultural history of the posthuman body in superhero comic was adopted. It was then demonstrated how this moves the analysis of the superhero away from ideology by understanding the development of the superhero through the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comic books in terms of historically situated assemblages.

 If the rhizomatic cultural history was suggested as a theoretical corrective to the limitations of ideological analyses then it was also important to address the implied reader at the mercy of ideology in these approaches. As such my thesis involved another strand in which I interviewed comic book readers about their views on the superhero and posthumanism more generally. This was seen as a methodological corrective to the problems outlined in Part Two.

In this section then I intend to familiarise the reader with historical approaches to the question of texts and reader/audiences. Having done this I next offer a model of text-reader relations that draws on the concept of assemblages outlined in Part One. Because of the ethical issues involved and the fact it’s not officially complete yet I will not be presenting the data from my interviews here on the blog at this time. Instead this review presents a brief history of audience studies, highlighting some of the dualities that have informed scholarly understanding of reader/text relations, and how these dualities follow on from the same historically established philosophical dualities that critical Post/Humanism is generally engaged in critiquing. As such I offer a model of reader-text relations as an assemblage, illustrated by a brief overview of historically situated comic-reader assemblages in the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comics. Continue reading


Special Effects Auteurs (and the particular genius of Screaming Mad George)

Freaked (1993)

Watching the documentary Fantastic Flesh The Art of Make-Up FX an idea came to me. When  auteur theory was being developed by film theorists and critics way back when in the 20th century its aim was to have film directors recognised as the true authors of a film even though film production was both a collective and industrial process. Despite these factors the true auteurs voice, style and thematic concerns could, so the argument went,  be discerned in any of their works. I had the idea that this article would present a complex theory of the special effects artist as auteur but on reflection thought it would be more fun to celebrate the work of Screaming Mad George, and watch a bunch of videos of cool special-effects on the way.

Some context wouldn’t hurt though. So it is interesting to consider which special effects artists have become more well-known to the public than others. Certainly other effects artists could recognise certain work. In  Fantastic Flesh Tom Savini (see below) describes going to see films featuring the work of favoured effects artists as, “the lastest exhibit from your favourite artist”. A potted history might start with Jack Pierce (featured in this 1933 issue of Modern Mechanics!). Pierce was in the fortunate position of being head of Universal’s make-up department when that studio inaugurated the first horror film boom of the 1930s. Counting Boris Karloff’s instantly iconic make-up as Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (both below) among his creations, Jack Pierce could arguably be said to be the granddaddy of special effects auteurs. In the Fanatstci Flesh documentary dire ctor Frank Darabont describes Pierce’s Frankenstein make-up as, “as iconic as the Empire State Building”. Difficult to argue with that really.

Jack Pierce working on his Wolfman

And working on the Monster

Here I’ve already muddied the waters though. Because Pierce was make-up artist on what perhaps remain the most famous iterations of these monsters, but does this make him a ‘special effects’ artist? Ought we to lump Pierce’s special make-up effects in the same category as, say,  Douglas Trumbull‘s effects for 2001: a Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind? And even if we broaden our definition whose Frankenstein are we really talking about? Jack Pierce’s because he designed it? Boris Karloff’s because he performed it? Or is James Whale our classic auteur by dint of directing it? If Pierce is not quite the special effects auteur we are looking for he still possessed the hallmarks of a true artist. According to Fantastic Flesh Pierce was fired from Universal for taking too long to perfect his work.

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