What follows is an expanded version of a paper I presented at the 2011 Transitions conference entitled “The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman”. Aspects of this are touched on briefly in the paper, “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives“, which also provided more detailed context, but ‘Psychedelic Shaman’ goes into more detail about one specific type of posthuman body found in superhero comics, which I am calling the ‘Cosmic Body’.
A printable version with illustrations can be found here.
The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman
This paper begins with a brief outline of what is meant by ‘posthumanism’ and how the concept of the posthuman can be found in three overlapping discursive realms. A speculative/popular mode of posthumanism headed under the general term Transhumanism; a critical-philosophical stance dubbed Post/Humanism; and the Superhumanism found in science-fiction and superhero comics. The paper then goes on to suggest that superhero comics can be fruitfully read as a ‘posthuman body genre’. Read this way, superhero comics can serve as a plateau from which to undertake a cultural history of the posthuman. The focus on particular forms of posthuman body during particular comic book ages reveals interesting discursive shifts in particular historically situated perceptions of posthumanity. For context, this is briefly illustrated with reference to the Golden Age of Comics when particular attention was paid to what I ironically dub the “Perfect Body”, and how this particular construction of Superhumanism was linked both to the eugenics movement, seen retrospectively as an early Transhumanist science and a related philosophical Post/Humanism that drew on Nietzsche and evolutionary theory. This preceding discussion will be necessarily brief but further details can be found in my paper “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives”.
The bulk of the paper focuses on what I call the Posthuman Body Cosmic or Cosmic Body for short. Situating the superhero comics of the Silver Age within the context of the counterculture of that time and a particular vision of posthumanity that drew upon an eclectic mix science-fiction, Eastern spiritualities, psychedelic drugs use and the notion of ‘cosmic consciousness’. This vision of posthumanity could be found both within the superhero comics of the Silver Age-accidentally, or intuitively, in the particular cases of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, more deliberately in the later work of Jim Starlin and Steve Engelhart-and without. The psychedelic wing of the counterculture often ‘poached’ the figure of the superhero as a model for the transformative powers of the psychedelic experience. The paper then elaborates on how many scholars and commentators have found the Superhuman to be a mythic, archetypal, and often shamanic figure, emphasising the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison as continuing a tradition of the Cosmic Body in contemporary comics.
The paper then goes on to discuss how this vision of the Cosmic Body influenced Transhumanism by way of the Human Potential Movement, and how that movement itself was influenced by superhero comics. Furthermore, there are Gnostic and transcendent motifs in much Transhumanist writing that, despite its technological emphasis, betray its history as Cosmic Body. These points are illustrated by comic book examples of tech-gnosis, or transcendence through scientific means. The paper then goes on to discuss the importance, typical of the posthuman, of boundary dissolution to the Cosmic Body, with particular emphasis on overcoming the opposition between magic and science, or the sacred and the profane. This is illustrated through the ideas of scientist-shamans such as Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson and Terence McKenna, whose work forms a link in the chain of Western occultism that fuses magic and science in the same manner as the comic book Superhuman.
The paper then moves on to how the Cosmic Body manifested in critical-philosophical Post/Humanism. First it recognises how Post/Humanism was also inspired by a new reading of Nietzschean thought. Thus, Post/Humanism emphasised overcoming the notion of the rational, autonomous subject, emphasising instead a mode of cognition that has particular affinities with the discourse of the Cosmic Body. This section concludes by discussing the character of the Joker as one version of this type of posthuman consciousness and addressing the relation of Post/Humanism to shamanism, particularly Deleuze’s conception of the shaman as schizophrenic and Latour’s notion of the anthropological matrix. Like the scientist-shamans, these thinkers point towards an archaic revival, a fusion of the pre-modern and hyper-modern. A posthumanism that is pre-human.
The paper concludes with a short summary emphasising that the Cosmic Body despite, or rather because of, its transcendent aspects, is still a corporeal becoming; that such a transformation is dependent on bodily practices.
2. What is posthumanism?
This paper argues that it is helpful to think of the posthuman as comprised of three overlapping discursive realms. The first of these is a form of speculative or popular posthumanism usefully considered under the umbrella term Transhumanism.
The World Transhumanist Association defines itself as:
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. (World Transhumanist Association FAQ)
The emphasis on ‘applied reason’ here is telling. Transhumanist texts (and I include here those texts that may not identify themselves explicitly as part of the Transhumanist movement but espouse similar ideals), can be generally situated within a history of Enlightenment ideals of evolutionary progress and efficiency. What is more, such writing also displays a tendency, inherited from Humanism’s Cartesian legacy, to favour the mind over the body. This tendency is most clearly expressed in the Transhumanist dream of ‘uploading’ the human mind into cyberspace. However, Transhumanism, or the Humanism within it, has not been universally admired. As Simon puts it:
The revolutionary Enlightenment narratives that challenged an oppressive feudal order and re-envisioned ‘man’ as rational, autonomous, unique and free have been in turn challenged and deconstructed. The emancipatory impulse of liberal humanism has come to be understood as being unwittingly complicit in colonialist, patriarchal and capitalist structures (Simon, 2003: 4)
It is interesting here to note the problematic relationship of the poet-philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche to the Transhumanist project. The influence of his concept of the Ubermensch (or Overman, often mistranslated as the Superman) on Transhumanism remains a bone of contention (see Bostrom, 2005; Sorgner, 2009/2010; More, 2010). However, Nietzsche’s influence on the second discursive construction, called for ease of understanding Post/Humanism, is much clearer.
Post/Humanism represents the posthuman not as the desirable techno-scientific inevitability of Transhumanism but the posthuman as critical theory, a conceptual model that has clear affinities with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, his call for the transvaluation of all values, and his critique of Humanism and the tyranny of reason and conventional morality than the more seemingly utilitarian and linear outlook of the Transhumanists. The Nietzschean superman is content to avoid categorization, refuse to assign meaning to things and, instead, “…throw himself into the play of the world and dance with it” (Rivkin and Ryan, 1998:335). Nietzsche’s ‘subversion of the rationalist ideal of knowledge’ and positioned him as an inspiration for the nascent post-structuralist movement and its later mutant brethren/spawn post-humanism. It was the publication of Deleuze’s 1962 book Nietzsche and Philosophy that first highlighted what Rivkin and Ryan describe as Nietzsche’s
Hitherto ignored critique of the assumptions of Structuralism: the notion that knowable structures underlie empirical events, the assumption that that knowledge operates according to procedures that are axiomatic and not open to question, and the belief that reality is not radically contingent, not a play of forces without order or a series of accidents or events without meaning or logical sequence (Rivkin and Ryan, 1998:335)
For Deleuze, as for many post-structuralist thinkers, Nietzsche’s great value lay in his opposition to the rationalist tradition, opening the possibility of alternative styles of thinking (Perry, 1993:175). Poststructuralist thinkers inspired by Nietzsche’s refutation of humanism would later create their own concepts, such as Donna Haraway’s (1993) cyborg or Deleuze and Guattari’s (2004) ‘rhizome’ to articulate this playful indeterminacy and to facilitate just such alternative styles of thinking. If the Transhumanist conception of posthumanity presents it as a techno-scientific inevitability, Post/Humanism can be said to abandon a developmental view of history and of humanity’s progressive master of nature. While Post/Humanism is still engaged with questions of techno-science it remains engaged in a critique of Humanism.
For this reason this paper refers to critical-philosophical posthumanism as Post/Humanism. This conception of the ‘Post/Human’ is indebted to Graham (2002) who uses this term rather than the more common ‘posthuman’ (or even ‘post-human’) because it suggests, “…a questioning of both the inevitability of a successor species and of there being a consensus surrounding the effects of technologies on the future of humanity” and that the Post/Human is, “…that which both confounds but also holds up to scrutiny the terms on which the quintessentially human will be conceived” (2002:11). Badmington finds Derrida most useful in this regard, observing that:
Precisely because Western philosophy is steeped in humanist assumptions, he [Derrida] observed, the end of Man is bound to be written in the language ofMan.Each ‘transgressive gesture re-encloses us’ because very such gesture will have been unconsciously choreographed by humanism…Derrida’s work permits a rethinking of the anti-humanist position…[that] testifies to an endless opposition from within the traditional account of what it means to be human. Humanism never manages to constitute itself; it forever rewrites itself as posthumanism. This movement is always happening: humanism cannot escape its ‘post-‘.
The remaining vision of posthumanity is that of the science fiction Superhuman. From Frankenstein onwards science-fictional texts have presented a plethora of posthuman bodies and minds. As Badmington has written, although mass culture such as science fiction books, films and comics have generally been regarded as generically distinct from cultural theory both, “…shared a common concern with the end of human sovereignty” (ibid:8), and that posthumanism was born when they met.
Badmington cites Haraway’s cyborg theory and the work of Baudrillard as examples of where, “…the boundaries between theory and fiction has been breached beyond repair” (ibid), giving birth to a new genre of what Badmington terms ‘fictive theory’. This postmodern blurring of theory and fictions is indicative of the way in which, as Miah puts it, “…the philosophical and the cultural are interwoven within the history of posthumanism” (Miah, 2007:9). Science-fiction becomes considered less an entertainment genre and more as what Cscisery-Ronay (1991) calls “a mode of awareness” (cited in Carsten, 2005:13). That is, a form of cognition that incorporates scientific speculation, cultural theory, philosophy and unfettered imagination. Critical posthumanists and producers of science-fiction can all be seen as attempting to create new conceptual spaces and metaphors adequate to our current technologised and information-rich society.
McCracken summarises why the cyborg metaphor is useful to the study of popular culture and its difference from earlier approaches to the study of mass culture, noting:
A tendency in mass culture theory to conceive of the subject as powerless in the face of a great wave of pap. It denies the crucial role of fantasy in the formation of critical subjectivity…the transformative metaphors of the cyborg permits a different, more complex understanding of the relationship between reader and text than that provided by mass culture theory (McCracken, 1997:297-298)
He goes on to suggest that cyborg fictions actually provide, “…the kinds of transformative metaphors through which…cultural conflicts…are mediated”, and that, “it is through such forms that new kinds of consciousness (both empowering and disempowering) arise” (ibid: 289). Klugman makes a similar point when he suggests that cyborg fictions, “…motivate the reader to consider the social and ethical implications of new technologies” (2001:40). It is sometimes the case, as is typical of posthumanism’s celebration and ease with hybridity, that these works are interdisciplinary in focus. Just as Haraway fused Science and Technology Studies, with Feminism, Foucault and science-fiction, scholars such as Hayles (1999) weave the history of cybernetics with its imaginative expression in science fiction to critique a vision of consciousness as disembodied information presented in Transhumanist discourse. Coming from the opposite philosophical direction but utilizing the same methodology, Haney (2006) marries consciousness studies, literary theory, Derrida, Eastern mystical tradition to argue for a disembodied ‘pure consciousness’ and uses science fiction as a way of analyzing his theory.
In this context, superhero narratives, which deal almost exclusively with images and stories of posthuman figures, ought to be a fertile site for posthumanist theorizing. If, as McCracken puts it, “…Science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy are useful models…because their subject is the point at which the boundaries between what is ‘real’ and what is possible are drawn” (1997:292), then the fictional meta-narratives of Marvel and DC comics ought to provide a wealth of “ways of theorizing and narrating boundaries” (ibid). My thesis suggests that the corpus of superhero narratives provides many such avenues for investigation. As Locke writes, “…Super-hero comics deal with questions about the social and cultural meaning of science that are constituted out of the same basic stuff as academic concern-that is, available cultural resources that provide the means of thinking (2005:26). It is certainly inviting to consider superhero comics through the lens of posthumanism.
3. Superheroes as Posthuman Body Genre
Oehlert (2000) marks an early move in this direction in his attempt to categorize the cyborg types in superhero comics. Transhumanist Max More (2005) delivers a more prosaic version of this in his elaboration of how many of the X-Men’s abilities may be made available if Transhuman technologies continue to be developed. Moreover, the comics themselves have engaged with the concept enough to designate the superpowered beings that populate their fictional universes the appropriate terminology. Meaning that the characters of the Marvel Universe are defined variously as either ‘Mutant’ (if their powers derive from evolutionary sources or more generally ‘Superhuman’. In DC Comics such characters are referred to as Metahumans, while the now defunct Wildstorm Universe settled on Posthuman.
In my thesis I argue that transformations that separate the comic book Superhuman from the merely human are always corporeal; always written on the body. In this respect superhero comics can be read as a ‘posthuman body genre’ in which are found a wide variety of posthuman constitutions, including the Grotesque Bodies of the X-Men or The Thing; Artificial Bodies such as the android Vision; Abject Bodies like the re-animated cybernetic corpse of Deathlok; or the Military-Industrial Bodies of Captain America and Wolverine. It is important to remember that these are not discretely bounded categories. Deathlok for instance is both Abject and Military-Industrial. But these categories serve as useful models for considering how superhero comics reflect the concerns of their social-historical context, or more specifically, how the discourse of posthumanism has developed over the last century in line with these social and historical shifts.
3.1 The Golden Age of Superheroes and the Perfect Body
Take as an example the Golden Age of Comics. This period, which coincided with the Second World War, began with the debut of Superman in Action Comics issue one in 1938. Following this comic books were flooded with superheroes. This period, it can be argued, is marked by a vision of the posthuman that rests on a concept of the ‘perfect body’.
In terms of philosophical Post/Humanism, this vision of the Perfect Body manifested itself as a philosophy that drew upon both evolutionary theory and Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch, from which Superman takes his name. Though it remains the case that this philosophical concept of the ‘superior’ man was flawed in its understanding of both evolution and Nietzsche, it was a robust enough concept to bolster what can be seen as the Transhuman take on the Perfect Body. The culture of physical fitness and widespread interest in eugenics during this period can be seen as a nascent form of Transhumanism-the application of science (however questionable) and technology (however crude) to human bodies with the aim of creating superior beings. Of course, the Nazi vision of just such a Master Race, and the discovery the German concentration camps at the close of the Second World War revealed the inhuman potential within such posthuman visions. In this respect it is intriguing to note the rapid diminishing of popularity for superhero comics following their Golden Age boom, almost as if the notion of the Superhuman itself had become unpalatable.
This introductory discussion has been somewhat brief and the issues raised are discussed in more detail in the paper “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives”. The main focus of this paper lies on the concept of what I call the Cosmic Body. This particular form of posthuman was most clearly in evidence during what had become known as the Silver Age of Comics.
4. Silver Age Comics and Cosmic Bodies
To understand the emergence of the posthuman Cosmic Body a certain amount of context is needed. It has been noted that ‘the movement’ of the 1960s was comprised of several, often contradictory wings, finding expression in popular music (exemplified by the artistic trajectory of The Beatles), literature (Burroughs, Ginsberg), radical or anti-psychiatry (Laing, Schatz), psychedelic philosophers (Leary, Kesey) and proponents of Eastern philosophies and religion (Anderson, 1990:47) and added to this cultural mélange was a, “…more recognizably political wing”(ibid) manifesting itself in the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and growing protest against the Vietnam War. Nor was this movement confined solely to theUKand theUS. The events of May 1968 inParistestify to the Francophone variant, whileBrazilproduced its own psychedelic counterculture dubbed ‘Tropicalismo’, and bootlegged rock and roll albums and black market drugs fuelled an underground revolution on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall (Sirius, 2004). These strands, though each with their own particular biases were often overlapping and international in scope. See, for instance, Black Panther leader Huey Newton harbouring a then fugitive psychedelic proselytiser Timothy Leary in Algiers (Higgs, 2006), or the 1967 London conference that brought together beat poet Allen Ginsberg and radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing and Black power activist Stokely Carmicheal (Hewison, 1986). For Andersen, what each of these disparate strands shared, was a common
Idea of reality, of worldviews, of something in the realm of thought that could be
changed. Even the political revolutionaries, for all their contempt of Leary andWatts, considered themselves to be at war against a “false consciousness” that propped up unjust political structures (Andersen, 1990: 47)
One result of this, to use an example most indicative of this chapter’s concerns, was that ‘acid-heads’, post-structuralists and popularisers of Eastern mysticism all agree (albeit for wildly different reasons) on the illusory and mutable nature of both the self and society. It was but a small step then to see the ‘human’ as equally illusory and mutable. Unlike the patriotic and obedient version of posthumanity represented by the Perfect Body, the vision of the Cosmic Body was formed from a loose bricolage of cultural resources. Pilfering from Eastern spiritualities, science fiction paperbacks and the Western esoteric tradition, the youth counterculture stitched together a version of the posthuman that rested on an evolutionary mutation of consciousness-and a realignment of humanity’s relationship with the universe. This vision was both compounded and, for many, facilitated by the counterculture’s adoption of psychedelic drugs, which had re-emerged as a source of intellectual and psychiatric interest in the forties and fifties.
It became increasingly common to adopt terms from science-fiction to articulate the emergence of this new youth consciousness. In 1967 the San Francisco Oracle published its ‘Manifesto for Mutants’ for example, stating:
Mutants! Know that you exist!
They have hid you in cities
And clothed you in fools clothes.
Know that you are free.
(Quoted in Lachman, 2001:30)
Unsurprisingly, superheroes provided another source of metaphor and inspiration.
4.1 Textual Poaching and the Cosmic Body
Many writers have highlighted how the Silver Age of Comics coincided, and chimed with, the birth and concerns of the 1960s counterculture (Wright, 2008; Davis, 1998). Steven’s (1998) history of LSD in America, meanwhile, notes how the psychedelic movement embraced the comic book visions of posthumanity, suggesting that for the ‘baby-boomers’, “…encoded within these lurid pamphlets was another version of the evolution myth that saw mankind transforming itself upward” (1998:78). Novelist Ken Kesey had found fame with the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1962), a book whose story and themes exemplify many of the ideas raised by this paper-the liberatory potential of madness versus the despotism of reason- was particularly keen on interpreting superhero comics as ‘Nietzschean parables’ (ibid; 178), and said that, “a single Batman comic is more honest than a whole volume of Time magazine” (ibid).
For a good part of the sixties Kesey travelledAmericawith his band of ‘merry pranksters’ in a bus (whose stated destination was ‘further’) driven by Neal Cassady, a key figure of the Beat movement that had preceded (or pre-seeded), the movement of the 1960s. Kesey and the pranksters would stop on their travels to stage ‘happenings’; free concerts and such like where attendees were invited to pass the ‘acid-test’ via a glass of free punch spiked with LSD (Wolfe,1989). Stevens notes that while early proponents of psychedelics like Huxley and Leary might utilize the iconography of the Buddha to guide their ‘trips’, Kesey opted for Fawcett Comic’s Captain Marvel (as in the acid-test poster above). Despite their different inspirations though, “…in a sense, this was the same teleological yearning for a transformed man” (Stevens, 1998:178). Kesey was not alone. In a different register theProcessChurchof the Final Judgment, a sci-fi infused religion that competed with Scientology during the 60s in terms of adherents and international breadth, was not afraid to incorporate Marvel heroes like Thor and the Hulk into its propaganda (Lachman, 2001:270).
Captain Marvel shows that the aspects that ‘define’ the Cosmic Body-magic, mysticism, occult tinges, were already apparent in the Golden Age. Characters like The Specter, and Dr. Occult from Superman creator Jerry Siegel gained their powers from metaphysical rather than scientific forces. As will be discussed below, all superheroes display aspects of the Cosmic Body to some extent, in as much as science presented in them is, “…at most only superficially plausible, often less so, and the prevailing mood is mystical rather than rational” (Reynolds, 1992:16). First, however, it is worth highlighting that the comics of the Silver Age chimed with more than just the psychedelic wing of the counterculture
4.2 Marvel Comics and the Counterculture
DC Comics may kicked off the Silver Age of Superheroes when the pilfered a character name form the Golden Age to reimagine The Flash in 1956 but, the Silver Age of comics was, in many respects, the Marvel Age of Comics. The Silver Age innovations of Marvel Comics had made superheroes, especially Marvel superheroes, into the stuff of countercultural fantasy. What distinguished Marvel comics was characterisation. While DC’s superheroes remained to some extent stuck in the Golden Age and more clearly noble and unquestioningly heroic, Marvel characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and the X-Men were flawed human characters, prone to neurosis, insecurity and bickering. Their powers were a curse and a burden as much as a gift.
Marvel’s comic books became popular on American college campuses and writer-editor Stan Lee began to get invited to speak on the modern mythology of superheroes. In 1965, a poll taken by Esquire magazine, “…revealed that student radials ranked Spider-man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their revolutionary icons” (Wright, 2003:223). Comic book art was appropriated by practitioners of the Pop Art movement like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol (see above), while Marvel repaid the favour by briefly branding their comics as ‘Marvel Pop Art productions’. Stan Lee found courted by the leading lights of the European cinema such as Alain Resnais and Fellini (Ro, 2005; Rapheal and Spurgeon, 2004. It hardly seems coincidental that in 1968’s Easy Rider, the first film by and for the counterculture (Biskind, 1998), and itself influenced by European Art cinema, should name a central character after Marvel’s CaptainAmerica.
5. Silver Age Creators: Steve Ditko
If Marvel spoke to the aesthetic and political leanings of the counterculture it also chimed with its psychedelic wing. The key Marvel creators of the time, alongside writer Stan Lee, were artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Dr. Strange was the co-creation of Ditko and Lee, and Ditko’s depictions of on-Euclidean mystical realms held great appeal for users of psychedelics in the 1960s. That Strange answered to an ascended Tibetan master known as the Ancient One and entered immaterial realms by projecting his astral form while his meditating body lay prone in his Greenwich Village apartment (or Sanctum Sanctorum) could only consolidate his appeal for a movement already primed by imported eastern mysticism and altered states of consciousness. It was not unknown for trippers to use the pages of Dr. Strange as a guide for their experience. It is testament to Dr. Strange’s unique appeal that the Wiccan priestess and underground comic artist and publisher Catherine Yronwode, in a supreme act of what Fiske (1992) calls ‘textual productivity’, compiled and self-published a version of Strange’s fictional grimoire The Lesser Book of the Vishanti (1977) by compiling the various incantations, spells and references to demons and other realms that Strange made in the comic books (the text is available online). At the simpler level of semiotic productivity (ibid), October 1965 saw the rock bandJefferson airplane and others put on an evening of music entitled “A Tribute to Dr Strange” (Lachman, 2001).
As well as having a quite literal Cosmic Body in his astral form (see above right), Strange also encountered super villains quite unlike an seen in comics before; literal embodiments of abstract concepts, such as Eternity (above left). This idea was arguably perfected in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman with its family of the Endless: Death, Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Despair, Delirium and the Sandman himself, Dream, who at one point is referred to by his sister Death as the most, “…appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on THIS or any other plane!” (Gaiman et al. 1991).
5.1 Silver Age Creators: Jack Kirby
While Ditko co-created Spider-man and Dr. Strange, Jack Kirby helped lay the groundwork for the entire Marvel Universe. Alongside Stan Lee the two men had a period of extraordinary productivity in the 1960s, creating the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, Thor and a multitude of complex super villains for them. Kirby took the evolutionary concerns of the Perfect Body’ and put them in a cosmological context. Kirby’s Silver Age comics introduced a cosmic scope to their narratives that implied unimaginable vistas of evolutionary development that made humans seem a transient and insignificant stage by comparison. So it is that when faced with the planet devouring Galactus the Human Torch plunges into existential anguish; “we’re like ants. Just ants-ants!!”(Lee and Kirby, 2005: 165) Even as seemingly earthbound a character as Captain America found his nemesis the Red Skull wielding the Cosmic Cube, a kind of philosopher’s stone whose properties would allow him to enforce his fascist ideology not just on Earth but across the entire universe.
Kirby’s work also fused science and magic in interesting ways. As Bainbridge says, “…the premodern, the sacred, the mythological are replaced with science and technology…in images like the Cosmic Cube, ego the Living planet, the scientific mythology of Asgard and the towering figure of Galactus” (2009:74). This fusion or blurring of science and magic, as will be seen, is central to understanding the figure of the cosmic posthuman and it is a theme Kirby continued developing throughout his career.
5.2 Silver Age Creators: Steve Engelhart
While Kirby and Ditko were apparently working on instinct in their psychedelic imaginings, by the late sixties and early seventies a new breed of writers joined Marvel Comics, young enough to be influenced by both Kirby and Ditko and the counterculture. This trend is especially evident in the work of Jim Starlin and Steve Engelhart. Engelhart was a student of esotericism managed to sneak some alternative history into Marvel comics by taking Dr Strange through an occult history of America(Knowles, 2007). One of his most famous stories, A Separate Reality (pictured above) takes its name from the book by anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, which claimed to describe his experiences with a Yaqui Indian shaman Don Juan Matus, and whose books remain a fixture of countercultural libraries (Lachman, 2001).
5.3 Silver Age Creators: Jim Starlin
Starlin’s lauded runs with the characters Adam Warlock and Captain Marvel plunged both characters into frequent battles with their own demons and mirror selves. The major villain in these stories is the alien-god Thanos, whose threat was not one of financial gain, property damage or even physical violence, but an ontological assault on the nature of reality itself. Under Starlin’s guidance Captain Marvel even underwent a quasi-shamanic death-rebirth experience, developing ‘cosmic consciousnesses’ in the process (see illustration above). Starlin, who wrote and illustrated these stories, presents them in a way that chimes with descriptions of the psychedelic experience. Wolk (2007) describes the book as ‘very druggy’ while Grant Morrison (2011:137) has called Starlin’s vision of Captain Marvel an, “out and out Psychedelic superhero” .
6. The Legacy of the Cosmic Body
Like the psychedelic counterculture itself, the cosmic posthuman became less pronounced as the seventies wore on, although both the Marvel and DC universes both contain numerous characters of this type. The DC Universe even recognises them as a specific type of metahuman-Homo Magi. Whether they are magicians, mystics, demons, angels, gods or the personifications of abstract concepts, each of these Cosmic Bodies shares space with technological or evolutionary marvels that are in many respects just as ‘magical’. Magic and science/technology are effectively indistinguishable as sources of power, (more on the conflation of science and magic below). The paper now turns to the idea of superheroes as a modern mythology to show that through the concept of the Cosmic Body the designation of mythology becomes more than a matter o simply intellectual and historical curiosity. At this juncture it should be noted that although it remains true that several authors find the concept of the superhero as myth troubling (e.g. Eco, 1972; Wolf-Meyer, 2003) that is a topic dealt with in more detail in a separate paper (Fans and Fiction Networks: A Rhizomatic Approach To Superhero Comics and Their Readers) and as such will not be addressed here.
6.1 Superhero as archetype/mythology
Carl Jung’s notion of the archetype as, “…an idea or image that has been central to human existence and inherited psychically from the species by the individual” (Creed, 1998:2) has obvious application for the superhero, which has been put forward as a ‘modern mythology’ (Reynolds, 1992). Indeed, many proponents of structural mythology, share,
Jung’s understanding that just as the psyche is fundamental to the human organism so too are the experiences of the psyche shared commonly among all members of the species. Though it may subsequently speak in tongues and symbols specific to diverse cultures at one level, at the level of the unconscious, the psyche projects these diverse expressions onto underlying patterns of experience that belong to the unconscious material of all humanity and that are then inflated locally (Sheppeard, 2009: 208)
Hence Joseph Campbell (1973), no stranger to Jung’s ideas, wrote of a universal monomyth, a basic story pattern found in many tales throughout the world that forCampbellindicates a unity of human consciousness. Actually, the tripartite structure ofCampbell’s monomyth- seperation from society, transitional period, incorporation back into society- mirrors that of many tribal and shamanic initiation rituals. The transitional period being a ‘liminal state’, “…a chaotic but creative condition…defined by paradox, ambiguity and bivalency… [a] magical place ‘in between’, neither here nor there, where transformation is effected through ritual actions designed to break down one’s previous identity in order to form it into something new and more adequate to the demands and mystery of life” (Kripal, 2006:131). Such a state clearly echoes the psychedelic experience, unsurprisingly, given their common use in initiation rituals. But it also informs the aims of Transhumanism, the philosophical goals of posthumanism, as well as being a neat précis of the typical superhero origin story.
Perhaps this explains why some authors have recognised a genealogy that links the superhero comic with the history of magic and religion. Kripal (2010) and Knowles (2007) have drawn attention to the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to, “…the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). But for some writers this is not just a structuralist argument about repeated mythic patterns, of interest for merely intellectual reasons. Often the recurrence of these mythic patterns is taken as evidence of a more fundamentally magical or at least spiritual lineage. To takeDavisas an example:
With their animal and elemental powers, parallel worlds and surreal cosmologies, superhero comic books are clearly the mythology of the twentieth Century…[and while narrowly conceived, comics are only a century old…if you tweak your definition a bit, a whole world of visionary precursors arises: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan stellae, alchemical diagrams, stain-glass windows…And while many have suggested that the Tarot is not a deck of cards but a kind of book, perhaps its more accurate to say that it’s a kind of comic book (1994:no pagination)
Wright (2007) has suggested that the supernatural feats of the shaman can be understood as superheroic feats, and that, “…the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). Wright argues that epic narratives of the classical world, and by extension modern mythologies, contain vestiges of shamanic themes of death, rebirth, initiation and transformation. Comic book writer and tarot card designer/interpreter Rachel Pollack also argues that the superhero comes from shamanism, stating, “…all these people with animal powers traveling to mysterious other worlds. That’s straight shamanism” (inDavis, 1994). For Wright
There are at least two important features of a superhero that are shared with the shaman: Both have unusual powers, which they employ in a purifying and healing role in their communities (often at great cost to themselves); and both use science or magic (which are usually conflated) (Wright, 2007: 132)
Meanwhile, Carstens has linked the figure of the shaman with the figure of the posthuman more generally:
In our techno-confused world, no figure could be better suited to the task of gaining a new technological terra-infirma than the ancient arbiter of the sacred and master (and mistress) of communicative ecstasy, the shaman…the hybrid and science-fictional intersection between the cyborg, the new flesh of posthumanism…has its origins in the ecstatic transformations of the alchemist and the shamans (2005:3-4)
Both are involved in the creation of new articulations, new discourses; new narratives of becoming or ‘permanent possibility’ (ibid: 11). The Cosmic Body emphasises transformation and the unlocking of potential and power, Perhaps the writers most influenced by this tradition though are Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
6.3 Superhero as shaman, creator as magician, reality as text
Both Moore and Morrison have introduced magical themes, characters and ideas in their superhero (and creator-owned) comics. Interestingly, both writers are practicing magicians who have also actively created works designed to work as magic. Moore’s Promethea begins as a Wonder Woman-type superhero comic before making a u-turn intoMoore’s personal cosmology whereby the narrative effectively stops as the lead character becomes au fait with the symbolism of the tarot and kabbalah. In issue fifteenMoore uses the comic to question the ontological status of the readers reality compared to that on the page. Speaking with the archetypal form of the god Hermes the lead character Sophie Bangs is confused by his claims that, “it’s all a story isn’t it? It’s all fiction, all language…it can change like quick-silver”. Sophie replies, “But…this isn’t fiction. This is our real life”. Hermes laughs and tells her (and the reader), “Real life. Now there’s a fiction for you!” A few panels later Hermes looks over his shoulder, out of the frame, directly to the reader and says, “I’m saying some fictions might have a real god hiding beneath the surface of the page. I’m saying some fictions might be alive”. (Moore and Williams III, 2001:17).
Like Moore, Morrison also uses his work to trouble the distinction between fantasy and reality. The occult anarchist sci-fi thriller The Invisibles (1994-2000) is an obvious example but even his superhero work has been used this way. His Marvel Boy (2001) was designed to be an invocation of Horus, the conquering child of the notorious magician Alisteir Crowley’s new aeon, representative of a, “…youthful, ruthless and revolutionary current that would sweep through human affairs” (Morrison, 2011:315. Animal Man (2003), Superman Beyond (collected in Final Crisis, 2009) and Seven Soldiers all feature scenes of characters reaching out of the page to the reader, effectively transcending their two-dimensional space. Superman Beyond even came with 3-D glasses to literalise this visual metaphor. This is not a process unique to Morrison, comics have longed displayed self-reflexive breakings of the fourth wall, and Morrison’s trick of appearing in his own fictions was pioneered long before in 1965 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee being turned away for the wedding of Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl in Fantastic Four Annual 3 (Lee and Kirby, 2005). But Morrison has perhaps displayed the keenest awareness of the philosophical and metaphysical implications of such games.
Morrison’s oeuvre engages in an investigation of reality-the reality of the DCU and ours. As Pedler astutely observes, “…Morrison’s mission… [is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264). The rhizome structure of continuity plays an important part in this mission. Morrison himself explained in an interview that the theory of Hypertime:
Allowed every comic story you ever read to be part of larger-scale mega-continuity, which also include other comic book ‘universes’ as well as the ‘real world’ we live in and dimension beyond our own…it was also about how the world of fiction relates literally and geometrically to the world of ‘reality’…We all live in Hypertime-in our 3-Dimensional level of hypertime, which can be seen as CUBE TIME in relation to the DCU’s LINE TIME, we can pick up comics and leaf through them, flipping in any direction-‘time travelling’ back and forward through the ‘continuity’ like some new Doctor Who! (quoted in Ndalianis, 2009: 281)
The implication of course is that our reality might similarly be a form of entertainment for some hypothetical higher dimensional beings. In both his work and his life (Morrison, 2011), Morrison has consistently developed this notion in a way that suggests, as Pedler puts it, not, “…. that nothing is real…[but] that everything might be” (Pedler, 2009:264). An attempted deterritorialization of reality itself. These issues are dealt with in more detail in the paper Fans and Fiction Networks: A RhizomaticApproach to Superhero Comics and Their Readers.
The reader is free to make what they will of the above. At any rate, whatever one’s views on the efficacy of using comics to effect magical changes in reality, it is interesting to note that on a smaller scale the superhero archetype seems to have been invoked or utilized successfully by various therapists. Rubin and Livesay (2006) and Haen and Brannon (2002) have attested to the efficacy of utilising the superhero archetype in child therapy. Burte has written of using superheroes in hypnotherapy, calling them, “…an incredible resource for fostering self-examination, change and growth” (2006). The superhero archetype seems to have been invoked or utilized successfully by Jungian therapists, finding that, “…superhero archetypes are images that represented what is known as the transcendent function, a process that operate as bridge between the opposites, therefore providing unification in the psyche, restoring energy and promoting healing” (Egolf, 2007:141). These sources perhaps suggest some empirical validity to the notion of superheroes as contemporary manifestations of archetypal forms or mythic patterns. Or what Morrison describes as, “a radical enchantment of the mundane” (Morrison, 2011:48). In short, shamanic fictions.
6.4 Human Potential Movement and the beginnings of Transhumanism
If superhero comics can be considered shamanic fictions then it should come as little surprise to find the superhero narrative linked with the emergence in the 1960s of a ‘human potential ethic’ which, though long present in modern Western societies, and particularly among occultists and esoteric groups, “…only became popular in the 1960s when, amongst other factors [the increasing use of psychedelics being one], the development of latent abilities was popularized” (Possamai, 2006: 60). The author Aldous Huxley who helped to encourage the re-emergence of psychedelic interest in the 1950s is also credited with coining the term ‘human potential’. At a 1962 symposium of scientists drawn together to discuss the threats of overpopulation and atomic warfare, Huxley spoke for the group when he said that, “…The challenge is man’s obvious imperfection as a psychosocial being; both individually and collectively, he is sadly in need of improvement, yet clearly improvable (in Weising, 2009:17). The eugenic echo (see the Perfect Body) here is inevitable, but Huxley’s words also exhibit a science-cum-shamanistic inflection typical of the discourse of the Cosmic Body being addressed by this paper.
The Human Potential Movement proper entered full bloom in the 1970s when in places such as the Esalen Institute, “…eastern disciplines were adapted to western settings, and this movement developed its emphasis on transpersonal and spiritual experience” (Possamai, 2010:89). The Human Potential Movement, viewed the development of latent abilities as an ‘inner adventure’:
Not necessarily that of searching to become a god or a superhuman, but it can be understood as the realisation of a ‘higher self’. By understanding one’s body/mind/spirit, by operating on the self through mediation, preventative healing, or other practices, it is possible to develop one’s self (ibid)
Even this most explicitly spiritual take on posthuman development ultimately rest within the body. In his weighty tome the Future of the Body: explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (1992) Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy examines over 3,000 ancient and modern sources from medical sciences, anthropology, comparative religious studies, sports and more for evidence of ‘metanormal’ human functioning. By seeking to identify those activities and practices that give rise to these capacities, Murphy aims to assemble a coherent methodology of transformative practice. As Kripal summarises:
Murphy’s notion of the human potential…insists on the [embodied] human referent of all religious phenomena but reads human being in a way that affirms both the basic unity of the species and the rich ontological possibilities that the history of religions gives witness to… [Murphy’s is] essentially an evolutionary mysticism that argues, in effect, that it is biological evolution that drives these mutations (Kripal, 2006:150)
In other words, that becoming-cosmic remains a material transformation to be brought about by embodied practices. The transcendental and the sacred are manifested by, and exist as potential within, the material and profane.
Unsurprisingly, Murphy cites Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “…intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213), much as Jules Verne anticipated atomic power in 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.G. Wells’ placement of The First Men on the Moon. Murphy wonders if such images, “…might prefigure luminous knowings and powers…that can be realized by the human race”. Possamai too has posited that, “…superheroes contributed to the creation of an imaginary doxa of becoming a ‘super’ self” (Possamai, 2006:60). Kripal (2002) finds it an interesting synchronicity that the foundation of the Esalen Institute-a think tank come retreat set up to investigate human development and informed by the same “evolutionary mysticism” discussed throughout this chapter- and the introduction of the “evolutionary mythology” of Marvel’s X-Men in 1963. Kripal muses that both cultural visions, “…Imagined an esoteric or alternative academy where the human potentialities of mystical and psychical experience could be projected, educated, disciplined, and eventually stabilized within a set of transformative practices” (Kripal, 2002:66). This constellation of ideas that formed the sixties visions of the Cosmic Body would wind themselves back into the comics themselves. A character in Animal Man flung forward in time from the 1960s wonders, “Did it happen? Did we all drop acid and become superheroes like Leary and Kesey said we would?” (Morrison and Troug, 2003).
It seems possible to suggest that what marks the posthuman body cosmic is its blurring of the distinction between science and magic; the fusion of archaic beliefs with hyper-modern technologies. The conceptions of the body in Antiquity as a microcosm of the universe, or the Medieval conception of the body as the apotheosis of God’s creation may appear more unambiguously ‘mystical’ than Modernity’s view of the body as machine-like, and as a secular, “….flawed result of chance evolutionary process” (Weising, 2008:13), but this ‘rational’ view of the body has facilitated mystical thinking as much as negated it. Weising adds that such a view actually made room for a broadening of theoretically conceived possibilities for, “…creative intervention in the structure of the machine” (ibid). The superhero genre depends as heavily on this reconfiguration of magic and the transcendental into ‘scientific’ and embodied terms as proponents of the Human Potential Movement.
6.5 The Scientist-Shaman
It has been suggested that the discourse of psychedelics can be considered in terms of discursive formations. Letcher (2007) performed a Foucauldian discourse analysis on the question of what happens to consciousness under the influence of psychedelic drugs finding three predominant socially legitimated answers; which he calls the (the pathological, psychological, and prohibition discourses. Letcher contrasts these with a series of resistive discourses (the recreational, psychedelic, entheogenic, and animistic discourses) that have been constructed in opposition, as a means of making sense of the subjective psychedelic experience. Elsewhere, working from Letcher’s typology, I have argued for a discourse of the “scientist-shaman” (Jeffery, 2009). Leary (1977: 15) best describes the stance of the scientist-shaman when he writes of his own “scientific, experimental, neurologic”:
Whereas the pre-scientific oriental philosophies and the western mystical off-shoots speak vaguely of the divinity within each person, we tried to operationally redefine the old teachings and to offer an experimental Neo-Platonism (ibid)
The discourse of the scientist-shaman represents a materialist approach to the shamanic experience; an “empirical, tangible meta-physics” (ibid). In fact, before their adoption by the counterculture psychedelics were the source of great intellectual and especially psychiatric interest. In The Doors of Perception (1954), a book that would become required reading for the counterculture, the author Aldous Huxley, outlines his experience with mescaline and wrote that such substance were of “inestimable interest for the intellectual”. Within the psychiatric community two models emerged for the use of such drugs. Psycholytic therapy involved a gradual exploration of deeper levels of consciousness and tended to work within a Freudian framework. By contrast Psychedelic therapy tended to work within a more Jungian paradigm and was closer to the traditional shamanic use of such drugs, involving a much larger dosage and creating the optimal environment for the patient to have, “…a profound experience of transcendental nature” (Groff, 1988:287) in which the archetypal forms of the ‘collective unconscious’ could be explored. Stanislav Groff, an early scientist-shaman in this field, identified what he called ‘transpersonal domains of consciousness’, accessible through the use of psychedelics. Noting the inherently mystical nature of such states of consciousness Groff argued that researching them would require models, “…far beyond the conceptual framework of traditional psychology and the philosophy of Western science” (ibid: 282). Perhaps the most (in)famous of these scientist-shamans was Dr. Timothy Leary, arguably the figure most closely associated with the popularization of LSD in the 1960s.
A renowned Harvard psychologist, Leary was involved at the beginning of the Western re-acquaintance with psychedelics during the 1950s. For Leary, despite early successes with psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, the faculty of Harvard became nervous about his methods, Following his dismissal he became the self-confessed ‘High Priest’ of the psychedelic movement. Leary’s work, alongside other scientist-shaman figures such as John C. Lilley and Terence McKenna represent an under-explored (outside f the counterculture) psychedelic discourse. There is a clear streak of posthumanism too, with psychedelics recast as evolutionary tools, or chemical technologies. Titles such as Info-Psychology: A Manual on the Use of the Human Nervous System According to the Manufacturers (Leary, 1987), and Programming the Human BioComputer (Lilly, 2004) offered a kind of avant-garde psychology that envisions the human mind in cybernetic terms; the brain is a ‘bio-computer’ and psychedelic drugs are considered as software that runs on it. Input affects output. Unlike much Transhumanism, these works posit a vision of the human self that is closer to critical posthumanism; a self that is not natural, fixed and eternal but multiple, fragmented and mutable.
By the same token, the contemporary human subject, and the social systems that support it and rely on it, are presented as robotic (i.e. ‘mechanical’ and ‘unconscious’) at best, stupid and dangerous at worst. Debates about nationality and ideology are referred to dismissively as “mammalian politics” and Leary takes particular delight in describing most human activity as “larval thinking”. In Leary’s 8-circuit model of consciousness (Leary, 1987; Wilson, 2000), humans have evolved four reognisably human ‘brain circuits’ that have developed for terrestrial survival, and four latent circuits-effectively posthuman circuits-for post-terrestrial life (although Leary shifted his focus later on from outer space to the cyberspace). Various spiritual disciplines could trigger the activation of these later circuits, but drugs were particularly efficient in this regard. For Leary, “…the person who can dial and tune the receptive, integrative, transmitting circuits of the nervous system is not just more intelligent, but can be said to operate at a higher and more complex level of evolution” (Leary, 1987:1). Leary’s Info-Psychology is dedicated to the occultists Aleister Crowley and G. I. Gurdjieff and describes them as ‘evolutionary agents’.
This move makes sense within the discourse of the scientist-shaman. Like Leary, Gurdjieff was fond of the idea that ‘man is a machine’. Gurdjieff argued that in our ordinary state of consciousness, “…We are just like motorcars or typewriters or gramophones-mechanically pushed and pulled by external chance or internal habits, never genuinely doing or realizing anything ourselves” (Davis, 1998:133). Only by recognizing our robotic state and “upgrading our ordinary, everyday awareness”,-learning, in Leary’s terminology, to tune and dial the human nervous system-could we hope to begin living consciously. In a reversal of Transhumanist thought, it is not integration with machines that brings about the posthuman, but instead recognizing our machine-like state. For Gurdjieff the soul was not innate, but made. True consciousness needed to be, “…shaped and transmuted by psychospiritual techne” (ibid:134). Leary’s dedication toCrowley is also telling. Probably the most famous occultist of the Twentieth Century,Crowley defined magick (the ‘k’ is to distinguish it from stage illusions) as consisting of the methods of science applied to the aims of religion.Crowley’s work applied the scientific method to study altered states of consciousness bought on by the performance of magickal rituals and mind-altering substances. In this wayCrowley and Gurdjieff can be seen as early scientist-shamans. In the discourse of the scientist shaman ritual and drugs becomes technologies. Seen through this lens the history of shamanism becomes a history of ‘low-tech cyborgs’ (Hess, 1995), Cosmic Body posthumans created through the effects of such technologies to the body.
Terrence McKenna is an entheobotanist and philosopher in the scientist-shaman mould who played a similar role in the rave culture of the early nineties as Leary did in the sixties. McKenna (1992) proposed the idea of psychedelics as an evolutionary trigger. His ‘stoned-ape’ theory suggests, in short, that Neanderthal humans evolved from apes when psilocybin (‘magic’) mushrooms became a regular part of the apes’ diet. The resulting psychedelic effects led to, among other things, increased capacity of imagination and cognitive ability. Speaking of the technological Singularity, a theoretical future point that marks a posthuman age much discussed in Transhumanism, McKenna describes it as:
Like a transition from a lower-dimensional world, say a world of two or three dimensions, to a world of four, five or six dimensions. This is what I believe actually happens to a human brain-mind system under the influence of psychedelics. So in a way, the best practice for the approaching Singularity is the repeated dissolving and reconstituting of one’s personality through the use of psychedelics…a microcosmic anticipation of a macrocosmic event in history. (TechnoCalyps, 2006)
If, as has been suggested, critical posthumanism, “…is a philosophical stance about what might be termed a perpetual becoming” (Miah, 2007:23) then McKenna can be seen as suggesting that the repeated use of psychedelics is its praxis.
6.6 Psychedelics in comics
When Stoddart (2006) performed a discourse analysis of 52 comic books and graphic novels he concluded that they reproduced a dominant discourse of negative rug use, mainly focused on hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. However, of the five texts which featured psychedelic drugs, the dominant discourse was one of spiritual drug use, pleasure, revelation and enlightenment. While Stoddart is keen to point out that these texts were marketed to mature readers and did not feature iconic superheroes, this does not mean that these texts take place outside of continuity. In fact, the texts that Stoddart cites- Saga of the Swamp Thing, Animal Man– take place in the DC Universe. Unsurprisingly, the also happen to have been written by Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.Moore’s Swamp Thing has crossed paths with Superman and Batman on more than one occasion, and Animal Man’s raison d’etre during Grant Morrison’s run as writer on that book was toying with questions of continuity. So while it remains the case that most mainstream superhero comics portray drug use as harmful, there remain parts of those universes where drug use is potentially positive. Animal Man’s use of peyote for instance leads to a visionary awakening where he is able to look out of the page and into the face of the reader (see illustration below).
Not that the visionary use of drugs need always depicted as benign. In Kraven’s Last Hunt (DeMatteis and Zeck, 2006), for example, Kraven the Hunter is depicted preparing for his final battle with Spider-Man by engaging in a bizarre pseudo-shamanic ritual- drinking a potion of undisclosed herbs before leaping into an oversized glass tank full of spiders, the better to his absorb his prey’s spirit. Moreover, if Stoddart were to widen his definition of drugs he would find that superhero comics depict many drugs, both fictional and real. Some of these, like the serum that grants Hourman sixty minutes of power are depicted as generally benign. Although in the alternate DC Universe of JSA:The Golden Age (Robinson and Smith, 1993) Hourman is depicted as heavily addicted to his serum and prone to mental instability. In New X-Men (Morrison, Quitely and Grant, 2005), the mutant drug Kick enhances the users’ mutant abilities while enacting deleterious effects upon the brain. That these instances of drug use enhance the users’ powers indicates that they may be taken metaphorically rather than literally. It is not the drug so much, but power (or the thirst for power) that corrupts. Without recourse to designations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drug use it can safely be said that what all these narratives share is a depiction of drug use as transformative.
6.7 The Cosmic Body in Transhumanism
The emergence of modern cyber-culture, particularly the growth ofSiliconeValley, can be traced back to the mystical-psychedelic movement of the 1960s (Sirius, 2004). Among the most outspoken of psychedelic advocates was Timothy Leary, whose presence and influence is noted in many accounts of the dawning of the ‘information age’ (Kreuger, 2005; Regis, 1992; Sirius, 2004; Slattery, 2008). Taking the development of Virtual Reality as but one example:
The link with LSD was established early on the history of virtual reality. It was, perhaps, inevitable given the interest of Leary. It certainly gave the idea news value for journalists, who at every opportunity tried to lure a very wary Leary…into describing VR as a new form of hallucinogen (Woolley, 1993:24)
As with the counterculture this psychedelic thread in Transhumanist discourse is accompanied by enchanted undercurrents. Graham (2002) describes Transhumanism as a ‘religion of technology’ partaking of, “…ancient and enduring modes of spirituality, such as altered states, transports of ecstasy and avenues of re-enchantment”. At least one leading advocate, Ray Kurtzweill (1999; 2005), theorises that our posthuman successors will eventually become so adept at the manipulation of energy and matter (which are, after all, the same thing) that they will be able to effectively redesign the universe, using the cosmos itself as an information processor. For Kurzweill this conscious and intelligent universe is “about as close to God” as he can imagine. This “essentially spiritual quest” has certain implications for the status of the body, involving as it does, “…the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form” (Zimmerman, 2009). Graham (2002) describes Transhumanism as a ‘religion of technology’ partaking of, “…ancient and enduring modes of spirituality, such as altered states, transports of ecstasy and avenues of re-enchantment”. The fixation of some Transhumanists on bodiless minds existing in virtual realities may not simply be a Cartesian humanistic division of body and mind but a more archaic Gnostic or Platonic view that regards the world of matter as an imperfect shadow of a higher realm of pure forms.
The debate about the Gnostic traces in Transhumanist thought is ongoing. For every Krueger (2005) who concludes that Trans/posthumanism is not Gnostic but utilitarian there appears to be a Zimmerman (2009) to argue that Gnosticism can be “…discerned in its negative attitude to the human body” and even a trace of the similarly archaic alchemy and Hermeticism, “…in its proclamation that humankind is destined to take control over and transform nature [and] mysticism in it’s belief that humankind will absorbed into God” in the form of the Singularity (Zimmerman, 2009:13). Zimmerman, provocatively, goes further than most in locating Gnostic inflections not just in posthumanism but as already present in Modernity’s project, and that, “…the goal of the Gnostic-inflected Western humankind is to become God through self-actualisation” (ibid;9). This sense of Gnosticism, as a kind of self-actualisation, can be found in Jung’s archetypal psychology and notion of individuation, as well as the human potential ethic that underlies the work of the Esalen Institute
Davis(1998) has attempted to capture the mutually influencing matrix of cyber-technologies, archaic and modern spiritualities, postmodern philosophy and fiction with the term ‘techgnosis’. Nor is Davis alone in observing that the growth of cyber-culture has facilitated the proliferation of, “…new religious movements untethered by ancient texts…synthesising multi-dimensional, real time rituals, neo-pagan cyborg ritualists play in the medium they inhabit” (Brasher, 1996:189). Ascot (2006), Larkin (2005), Slattery (2008),York(1995) and Tramacchi (2000, 2006) have each highlighted the weave of modern technology and cyber- or techno-shamanic practices
It comes as little surprise then to find that there are many variations of these Gnostic themes in superhero comics. Klock (2004) suggests that contemporary X-Men comics reflect what he calls a “Gnostic, or pessimistic, Post-humanism”. Klock argues that most versions of Gnosticism rest on a tripartite division of body, psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). The psyche is the mediator between the false reality of the body and the true reality of spirit, and represents what we would consider primarily the conscious ‘self’-our appetites, our tastes, loves, personality. As such, for the Gnostics, it could be considered no more real than the body, and like the body, the psyche was something to be overcome. Klock connects the Gnostic denial of the psyche with the process whereby an ordinary human becomes Superhuman. When the Ultimate X-Men’s Hank McCoy takes umbrage at his new code-name the Beast for instance, Professor Xavier points out to him “You’ve just been rebaptized as a Post-Human being. It’s … a name which describes your own skills and personality as opposed to those of a long dead ancestor.” For Klock this suggests, “…an identification of the post-human with the pneuma, the Gnostic spark, the antithetical self opposed to the world, the body and the psyche” (ibid:III). Other storylines display clear affinities with the Gnostic strain of Transhumanism.Transcendence through technology for instance is found in the 1977 Avengers storyline The Korvac Saga (Shooter et al. 2010).
In this story the title character, Michael Korvac is a 31st century earthman who offers his skills as a computer technician to an invading alien race, the Badoon. Later the Badoon graft Korvac’s body onto a mobile computer module, turning him into a cyborg. Later events result in Korvac finding himself in the abandoned command base of Galactus, devourer of worlds. Korvac plugs his, “tri-pronged electronic probe into the station’s computer console:
Only to find that knowledge is, indeed, power-and that he had underestimated the impact of absorbing knowledge as boundless as infinity! But by then, it was too late! He had begun to change, to elevate-until at last he was neither man nor machine, but had become—A GOD! (Shooter, et al. 2010:177)
Korvac (above) achieves godhood, later doing battle on “every plane of existence”. Korvac’s transformation from man to man-machine to God, of gnosis through technology, clearly echoes Transhumanism’s Cosmic Body. Elsewhere, science, at least in the form of evolutionary theory, also results in transcendence. In New X-Men the telepathic mutant Quentin Quire undergoes a secondary mutation, apparently evolving into a being of pure light. Klock (2004) writes that the scene suggests, “Gnostic transcendence” and the attainment of post-humanity through the dissolution of the ego. In fact, the attainment of godhood via technological means, and the consequent joys and terrors that follow is not uncommon in superhero comics, albeit mostly the province of villains such as Marvel’s Thanos (assuming the form of Eternity in the illustration below) and the DC villain Libra.
As ever with posthumanism such representations of Cosmic Transhumanity and Superhumanity rest on the concept of the body. Kreuger argues that, “….in posthumanist visions, bodies do not disappear at all: what has to be overcome is the material, real, concrete biological human body while simultaneously a vast number of new body images were created” (2005:9). Zimmerman cites Nietzsche in this regard, pointing out that goals of immortality and cosmic mastery are not easily reconciled with Nietzsche’s vision of the Overman, who calls, “…for humanity to ‘remain faithful to the Earth’ and thus to human embodiment’ (2009:7). Returning to the relationship between the development of the Human Potential Movement and superhero narratives with this in mind highlights the wisdom in Kripal’s observation that whatever constitutes any ‘religious wisdom’ the mythology of superheroes can be said to possess lies in
Their implied insistence that the mystical and occult transformations of the human being are never simply matters of “the soul” or of “the spirit”. They are also and always matters of energy, which is another way of saying the body (Kripal, 2006:144)
7. Post/humanism and the Cosmic Body
In superhero comics then, as with Transhumanism, “science become enchanted, just as magic become ‘scientised’” (Locke, 2005:33). As has been seen throughout this paper the confluence of magic and science is central to understanding the Cosmic Body. Moreover, it is this hybridity that it most shares with critical Post/Humanism.
7.1 Post/Humanism, Cosmic bodies and quantum physics
Just as the Transhuman and Superhuman strain of Cosmic Body trouble the boundary between science and magic, posthumanist figurations of the subject like Haraway’s cyborg and models of thought like the Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming-schizophrenic’ (2000) and the ‘rhizome’ can be seen to share the same modus operandi. The ‘fictive theorising’ (Badmington, 2000) of critical Post/Humanism specifically seeks to trouble binary oppositions such as those between human and machine or indeed truth and fiction. There also exists a tendency to blur disciplinary distinctions. As such postmodernist thought in general has become somewhat infamous for its appropriation of scientific concepts, particularly theoretical physics, to bolster its arguments. Hayles, for instance, has linked the science of chaos theory to deconstruction:
Deconstruction shares with chaos theory the desire to breach the boundaries of classical systems by opening them to a new kind of analysis in which information is created rather than conserved. Delighting in the increased complexity that results from this “scientific” process, both discourses invert traditional priorities: chaos is deemed to be more fecund than order, uncertainty is privileged above predictability, and fragmentation is seen as the reality that arbitrary definitions of closure would deny (Hayles, quoted in Woolley, 1993:234)
Such poaching has not gone unnoticed by practitioners in the ‘hard’ sciences. Sokal and Bricmont (1998) notably take a veritable Who’s Who of postmodernist philosophers to task for their appropriation and perceived misuse of scientific concepts and their relativistic insistence that science is socially constructed. Many of those found guilty, such as Deleuze and Guattari and Baudrillard are central to the development of critical Post/Humanism.
Notably, this is a tendency Post/Humanism shares with Transhumanism. Ilya Prigorine’s mathematics of chaos and non-linear dynamics was appropriated by the Human Potential Movement. Prigogine’s mathematics deals with the spontaneous reorganization of systems into new wholes (Andersen, 1990:246). Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, a paradigmatic text of the New Age/Human Potential Movement claims that, this theory, “…is immediately relevant to everyday life-to people. It offers a scientific model of transformation at every level: molecular, biological, personal, cultural” (cited in ibid). For psychedelic philosopher Robert Anton Wilson (2000), Prigogine’s mathematics is evidence that “…in the intellectual conflict between Utopians and Dystopians, the mathematical odds actually are on the side of Utopians”, because.society has become so complex that it is almost certain to “collapse” into even higher coherence, not into chaos and self-destruction” (2000:259). Similarly Chaos Theory, mentioned above in relation to literary deconstruction quickly became, asDavisnoted in 1996, “…the science of choice for speculative acid ramblers and mystical pseudo-scientists everywhere”. Indeed, the modern magical practice known as Chaos Magic, of which Grant Morrison has been a practitioner (Morrison, 2011), has adopted the term specifically to describe its anarchic bricolage of modern physics, mathematics, spiritual disciplines, psychological models and new cosmologies (e.g. Carroll, 1992; Hine, 1993). Finally there is the figure of the scientist-shaman and the body of texts that describe how Eastern spiritualities such as Taoism or texts such as the Hindu Vedas prefigure the findings of quantum physics (e.g. Capra, 1975; Zukav, 1979; Talbot, 1991).
The Post/Humanist version of the Cosmic Body shares with and Trans- and Superhuman a magpie approach to scientific concepts and new technologies; taking them from their supposed ‘natural’ context in the world of science and transforming them into the building blocks of new philosophies. The aim of this process and the theme that runs through comic book depictions of becoming-cosmic is the creation of new forms of subjectivity, forms of Post/Human consciousness.
7.2 Post/Human consciousness
Lachman has mused that, “…while neither can be considered occult, Derrida’s critique of meaning and Foucault’s exploration of forbidden states share much with the irrationalism and ‘giving way to strange forces’ that characterized sixties occultism” (Lachman, 2001:395).There are several good reasons for taking seriously Lachman’s suggestion that what the continental philosophers sometimes known as anti-humanists or the Class of 1968 (Rivkin and Ryan,1998) had in common with their more psychedelic and mystically minded peers in the counterculture of the US and Britain was a willingness to follow novelist and countercultural figurehead William S. Burroughs injunction to “exterminate all rational thought”.
Foucault’s ideas also share (both direct and indirect) links with psychedelic discourse. His reading of the history of the penal system provides an obvious connection with the criminological aspects of drug use, but that does not concern us here. More interesting are his ideas about the history of psychiatry. The psychiatric uses of psychedelic drugs have already been discussed, particularly their use by members of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement, with whom Foucault’s ideas are often aligned. Merquoir memorably describes this movement as, “…a whole progeny of vindications of psychosis…all cast in a strong ‘counter-cultural’ mould” (Merquoir, 1985:25). To be brief, Foucault contends that there was once a ‘dialogue’ between insanity and reason. Merqouir summarises Foucault’s notion that, “…before the constitution of madness as an illness”, the inmates of mental institutions had:
Actually enjoyed more freedom than the modern therapies allow them, because ‘classical confinement’ treatment did not aim at changing consciousness. Their body was in chains but their mind had wings. Wings later clipped by the despotism of reason (ibid: 24)
Turning back to the comic book posthuman, contemporary depictions of Batman’s nemesis and shadow The Joker help to illustrate this point.
7.2 The Joker’s Post/Human Consciousness
Contemporary depictions of Batman’s nemesis The Joker present him as an evolutionary mutation, not insane but in fact possessed of a ‘higher disorder’ of sanity. In the Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum (Morrison and McKean, 2005), which draws heavily from Jung as well as occultist Alisteir Crowley and the symbolism of the tarot, a psychiatrist tells Batman she believes the Joker possesses, “…some kind of super-sanity…a brilliant new modification of human perception”. Having no actual ‘self’ the only way the Joker can cope with the chaotic barrage of input endemic in the post-modern, information society is to create a new identity each day, hence he is a mischievous prankster one day and a cold-blooded psychopath the next. Morrison’s annotated script for the 15th anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum contains this glorious footnote concerning The Joker’s diagnosis: “I used to have a problem with the idea of the Joker’s super-sanity until I developed my theory of Multiple Personality Disorder as the next step in evolutionary consciousness”, (a theme he would develop in the more explicitly magical The Invisibles). This notion was explored more fully in the character of Crazy Jane in Morrison’s Doom Patrol, each of whose personalities had its own superpower. The idea was explored, albeit with less subtlety with the X-Men character Legion who shared the same condition.
Dery draws a parallel between the Joker’s ‘super-sanity’ and Deleuze and Guattari’s “…radical strategy for survival under capitalism” of ‘becoming-schizophrenic’ (Dery, 1999:85). The Joker shares the fragmented personality of the schizophrenic, refusing to be, “…the closed, centered subject required (and reproduced) by capitalist society” (ibid). As Deleuze and Guattari themselves put it:
The code of delirium…proves to have an extraordinary fluidity…it might be said that the schizophrenic passes from one code to the other, that he deliberately scrambles all the codes, by quickly shifting from one to another, according to the questions asked him, never giving the same explanation from one day to the next, never recording the same event in the same way (quoted in ibid)
In some respects however, this ‘super sanity’ or ‘higher disorder’ is not so much post-human as pre-human (in the Foucauldian sense, rather than evolutionary). Thus, as has been shown, even when the ideas being discussed here are not presented in evolutionary or psychological terms (that is, ‘scientized’) the comics often betray pre-modern mystical or shamanistic sensibilities.
7.2 The Post/Human as Psychedelic Shaman
It should not be difficult to see how psychedelic drugs, and the apparently irrational effects they produce (Deleuze and Guattari’s “higher disorder”) might be an affront to the ‘despotism of reason’. As Letcher notes in his analysis of the discourses around ‘magic mushrooms’, “…one reason why indigenous [shamanic] beliefs [about psychedelics] have been disallowed by colonial and post-colonial discourse” was because to, “…transgress the boundaries of normalcy set by psychological discourse is to be mad” (Letcher, 2007:91). It is interesting also to consider Foucault’s words to Deleuze on the subject of psychedelic drugs. Boothroyd relates how Foucault
Suggestively invoked [the psychedelic experience] as a model for representing, and as a potential means of upsetting, the machinery and conventions of Reason, the prevalence of which, says Foucault, maintains thought in a state of ‘catatonic rigidity’…both LSD and Delueze’s work… [Could be seen as ways] to disrupt this ‘catatonic rigidity’ of thought by virtue of the ‘difference’ they both give rise to (Boothroyd, 158-159)
Carstens (2005) writes that the kind of boundary dissolutions engendered by psychedelics constitutes for Deleuze and Guattari:
An example of the shaman’s tapping into and traversing of a “higher disorder” of nature…For Deleuze and Guattari the distinction between nature and culture is, in any event, redundant…only shamen and other “unnatural participants” (such as cyborgs), they argue, are able to perceive this (2005:9-10)
In other words, the shaman’s “unnatural participation” in the world understands that technology is as natural as earthquakes and whirlwinds, and that understanding this is necessary if we are to, “…engender new and potentially less devastating technological conceptions” (ibid). Deleuze and Guattari own description of the concept of ‘becoming’ could serve just as well as a description of the psychedelic experience:
To participate in a movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all significations, signifiers and signified, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of non-signifying signs” (quoted in Bruns, 2007:704)
Furthermore, as has been shown, techno-shamanic practices already exist, and for Green (2001) they are in keeping with the schizophrenic or rhizomatic models of thought offered by Deleuze and Guattari. Green argues that, “…the psyche underlying technoshamanic practice is rhizomatic and forms part of the attempt, alongside paganism, to resurrect the anthropological matrix in late modern society” (2001:9). The term ‘anthropological matrix’ is taken from Bruno Latour (1993) and refers to a pre-modern mode of cognition that wove everything from tools to songs to sex to animals to weather into an interconnected web:
In this matrix there were no purely cultural or purely natural artifacts, everything had cultural, natural, even supernatural significance. This web persisted until it became gradually eroded by the rationality and scientism of the Enlightenment…this heralded a split between a disenchanted culture and nature, its alien, bestial other (Green, 2001:8)
However, as society has become more densely connected, as our technologies extend our nervous systems outwards while simultaneously contracting space and time, it produces ever more cyborgian hybrids and the anthropological matrix reasserts itself as the sense that everything is connected once again becomes clearer. This return to a ‘pre-modern’ way of thinking is, Green suggests, interchangeable with Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thought; thinking beyond the human.
7.3 Post/Humanist approaches to posthumanism
Observing posthumanist approaches to culture will help to clarify this suggestion. O’Sullivan points out that Deleuze’s work, for instance, marks “…a rethinking of the effectiveness of art (and of the aesthetic), understood as no longer the promise of ‘another world’, but rather as an access point into their worlds” (O’Sullivan, 2002: 83n2). For Possamai (2006) and Graham (2002) these ‘access points’ open into a world of ‘re-enchantment’. Culture then, for Post/Humanists can be said, at its best, to serve a shamanic function; an opening up of new realities, new forms of becoming, new bodies and new minds. To map the history of the posthuman in its guise as the comic book Superhuman can of course be seen as simply a critical intervention. For as Graham writes, the wide spectrum of diverse responses to Transhumanist technologies generates,
An imperative to interrogate more deeply the values and interests that underpin any representation of the ‘posthuman condition’. What is at stake, supremely, in the debate about the implications of digital, genetic, cybernetic and biomedical technologies is precisely what (and who) will define authoritative notions of normative, exemplary, desirable humanity into the twenty-first century. (2002:11)
Graham’s warning is particularly pressing when one considers the posthuman Perfect Body and the way in which National Socialism, “…revolved around a cult of the ‘mindless body’ which was reflected in its art and derived from clearly articulated view of the desirable body” (Shilling, 1993:30). A politics and policy, in other words, geared towards the production of “perfect” bodies and the elimination of “imperfect” ones. But there is perhaps a more shamanic function for the Post/Humanist cultural critic than simply flagging up undesirable futures or ideological ghosts of the past. As O’ Sullivan puts it, “…if interpretation still has a role it is in this sense: to reactivate the frozen event; to unravel the virtual pasts and virtual future (the potentialities) of the sign-the latter understood as ‘meaningful’ but also as productive” (O’Sullivan, 2002: 91). What is at stake in these experimental mappings,
Is the accessing of other worlds. Not worlds ‘beyond’ this one (no transcendent, nor utopian principle) but worlds, ‘incorporeal universes’ as Guattari calls them, virtual and immanent in this one. (ibid:92)
Something close, perhaps, to how Pedler describes Morrison’s superhero comics; an attempt to, “… make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264). To choose what kind of posthuman future we want to create.
13. So now then…
This paper has argued that superhero comics can be considered a posthuman body genre. It focused on one particular form of the posthuman which was dubbed the Cosmic Body. The paper went on two demonstrate how this form of posthuman could be discerned in each of the discursive realms that make up posthumanism. In superhero comics there was the emphasis on the Superhuman as Cosmic Body. This version of the Superhuman was expressed intuitively by creators like Kirby and Ditko but later writers, such as Starlin and Engelhart in the seventies, made the affinities between the Cosmic Body of superhero comics and the Cosmic Body being articulated in countercultural discourse more explicit. Contemporary writers like Moore and Morrison have taken the philosophical and spiritual implications of the Cosmic Body still further. Both practicing magicians, they have produced texts explicitly designed to function as spells, as a shamanic transformation of (at least) the reader’s perception of reality. The paper pointed out that several commentators have made links between superhero comics and the history of magic and the psychedelic experience.
The paper also showed how the Cosmic Body is found even in the apparently more rationalist philosophy of Transhumanism, noting both its Gnostic motifs of transcending the material form but also its genealogical links to the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s. That same counterculture was seen to have given rise to earlier forms of Transhumanist thought. In the writings of the shaman-scientists like Leary and McKenna for example, which fused scientific paradigms with archaic thought and ritualised psychedelic practices, or in the way in which the rise of communication technologies has helped such hybrid spiritualities as techno-shamanism, chaos magick, and cyber-sorcery to proliferate. The paper also highlighted the Human Potential Movement as an early form of Transhumanism, itself influenced heavily by Eastern spiritualities and the psychedelic experience. For sixties luminaries such as Ken Kesey, or the founders of the Esalen Institute, superheroes constituted a modern mythology and a symbolic invocation of the experience of becoming Cosmic.
The paper wound down by presenting the evidence for a version of the Cosmic Body in critical Post/Humanism. Like the Cosmic Transhuman and Superhuman, Post/ Humanism was found to place an emphasis on the dissolution of subjectivity as a new form of consciousness that could move beyond thinking in terms of the Human. Furthermore, Post/Humanism was shown to draw inspiration from shamanism and other archaic modes of thought (Latour’s ‘anthropological matrix’) thought to be both a defense against subjectification in late capitalist society, as well as facilitated by it in the widespread use of communication technologies. This form of Post/human consciousness was explored through the figure of The Joker. The posthuman Cosmic Body, in whatever discursive realm we find it, blurs science and magic, reason and irrationality, fiction and reality, but in order to perform not just a critical/philosophical task but also a shamanic one- to alter our perception of reality and open up new spaces of being and becoming; the possibility of new forms, new bodies and new minds.
Although the Cosmic Body might appear to place less emphasis on corporeality than Perfect or Military-Industrial Bodies, in fact these transformations still based on bodily techniques. Such practices run the gamut from the ingestions of drugs-or the fusion of chemical technology with the human nervous system- to meditation and martial arts. While the specter of eugenics hangs over the development of Transhumanist technologies much as the posthuman figure of the superhero endlessly finds itself drawn back to the form of the ‘Perfect Body’, the Cosmic Body, or rather body-mind, of the psychedelic superhero offers a more profoundly transformative vision, and one in which blurs the categories between the material and the divine, the profane and the sacred, science and magic.
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