“TKO’d By The Decision”: Irresolution & Dependence in Squadron Supreme

“TKO’d By The Decision”:
Irresolution & Dependence in Squadron Supreme

I’m proud of this paper! I had to cut it down quite a bit in order to maintain a clear narrative line–to the point where there’s no theological content left at all. It’s pretty much all about Decisionism in the text–and I realize that this might bore a lot of people… When it comes to seminar papers, you really “had to be there”… But if you do happen make it all the way through, please let me know what you think! Obviously, there’s a lot more to be said about this series… Also–there’s a fair-sized chunk of Stieglerian french text down there, and I’d love to hear what babelfish thinks it all means!

Okay, we all get the picture that things are rotten. Now what are we gonna do about it?

Golden Archer, Squadron Supreme #1

Well, this curbing of power policy hasn’t worked.

Hyperion, Squadron Supreme #1

Every reformer is a magician, or at least desires to become one.

–Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Squadron Supreme opens in ferment: the eponymous metahumans, in their dual capacity as agents of the American government and an alien mesmerist known as “the Overmind”, have reduced the nation-state system to impotence, and the world is ripe for revolution–or reformation. It is a classic staging of what Carl Schmitt would call “The Exception”, on a global scale, and there is no mistaking, in this extremity, where de facto sovereignty resides. The Squadron, as the only agglomeration of power still operating at full strength, must decide–and the terms of “The Decision” are equally clear: will they press forward with a plan for “reconstruction”, or will they decide against themselves and disband? The series dramatizes the “undecidability” of this fundamental question.

Jacques Derrida would undoubtedly look upon this situation and exclaim: “the time is out of joint!” (when is it not?); and, indeed, the problem of time (or, perhaps, more accurately, timetables) is central to an understanding of Squadron Supreme. Of equal importance is the matter of technological innovation and its relationship to the eschatological. Together, these questions set the parameters for each of the secondary decisions that the actors in this drama are forced to make, and conspire to frustrate the unthinkable dream of a “final decision”.

In the book’s initial tableau, Hyperion struggles to prevent the Squadron’s space-borne ivory tower, badly damaged during the catastrophic backstory, from hurtling earthward and exacerbating an already dire situation. Upon completing his mission (by redirecting the unstoppable object’s trajectory of descent toward a designated “splashpoint” in the middle of the ocean) he declares:

There it is. The finest man-made object earth ever put into the sky… the satellite headquarters of the Squadron Supreme… Now a dilapidated hulk… Maybe it was meant to come crashing down on our heads…(SS #1, 4)

The satellite’s demise very quickly assumes symbolic importance for his teammates as well–it is roundly interpreted as a sign that the Squadron’s wonted method of “heroism” has done little to make the world a better place, and may in fact be the root cause of the current devastation. Golden Archer sums up the group’s concerns, when the members convene at their subterranean replacement headquarters: “Okay, we all get the picture that things are rotten. Now what are we gonna do about it?” (SS #1, 18).

This question prompts Power Princess to embark upon an encomium to her native isle of Utopia, a community which “knew no poverty, injustice, sexual discrimination, or crime” (SS #1, 19). (Power Princess is an analog of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman–just as each of the other Squadron members have counterparts in that corporate universe’s Justice League of America series–and it is refreshing that this version of the character is not an “Amazon” from an essentialist-feminist paradise, but a proponent of a non-gendered human capacity for “more perfect” social unions). Her monologue, which is destined to provide the foundation for what the group will call their “Utopia Plan”, is worth examining in detail:

Defeatist talk will get us nowhere Kyle! It is deeds not words that will restore our credibility, and save the world in the process… As you all know, I am from Utopia Isle, a small island in the Southern Sea whose civilization has remained isolated from humanity since its inception… We Utopians believe ourselves to be the result of genetic experimentation conducted upon the human species long ago by beings we know of only as the Kree. While the rest of humanity was making flint spearheads, we developed a culture based on peace, fellowship, and the acquisition of knowledge… Within our small island community, we knew no poverty, injustice, sexual discrimination, war, or crime. We truly created a Utopia. When the outside world developed the atom bomb, my people believed their way of life–their existence–was in jeopardy. Building a starcraft, the Utopians left this world to find a new home among the stars. I chose to remain behind as their emissary to the outside world, a role I had assumed some years before. I had believed it possible to spread the Utopian philosophy among greater humanity. But in decades past, first alongside the Golden Agency and then with the Squadron, it was all I could do to combat crime. I could never make anyone–not even you–believe that Utopia was attainable. Maybe now, in the wake of this mass chaos, people will want to believe (SS#1, 18-19).

Her plea speaks directly to the concerns of recent theorists, such as Slavoj Zizek and Bernard Stiegler, who strive to understand the relationship between scientific innovation and the social.

Zizek, a sort of Lacanian-Marxist, treats the technological marvels of the age as threats to the human which must be confronted and tamed:

The digitalization of our daily lives, in effect, makes possible a Big Brother control in comparison with which the old Communist secret police cannot but look like primitive child’s play. Here, therefore, more than ever, one should insist that the proper answer to this threat is not to retreat into islands of privacy, but an even stronger socialization of cyberspace. One should summon up the visionary strength to discern the emancipatory potential of cyberspace in what we (mis)perceive today as its “totalitarian” threat (Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?, 256).

The relevance of this Zizekian choice to Power Princess’ speech is apparent in the opposition between Utopia (where the reign of harmony is made possible by a commitment to the “acquisition of knowledge” for social purposes) and the rest of the world (where the the murderously anti-social trajectory of the sciences culminates in the development of nuclear technology). Zarda, like Zizek, maintains that the transformation of these threatening “lords of life” into social boons can be achieved through an act of public will.

However, this “faith-based” solution is undermined by Power Princess’ own admission that her people are themselves most likely the products of “genetic experimentation” by the Kree. This begs the question: did they make a Utopia, or were they made Utopians? Did they ever have a choice? Here we find ourselves in territory that Bernard Stiegler explores, with fruitful results, in La technique et le temps:

L’invention de l’homme: sans qui’il faille s’y complaire, l’ambiguïté génitive indique une question qui se dédouble” Qui ou quoi invente? Qui ou quoi est inventé? L’ambiguité du sujet, et du meme coup l’ambiguïte de l’objet du verbe (invente), ne traduit rien d’autre que l’ambiguïté du sens meme de ce verbe… Le rapport liant le qui et le quoi est l’invention. Apparemment, le qui et le quoi se nomment respectivement: l’homme, la technique. Pourtant, l’ambiguïté génitive impose au moins que l’on se demande: et si le qui etait la technique? et si le quoi etait l’homme? Ou bien faut-il s’acheminer en deça ou au-dela de toute différence entre un qui et un quoi? (145)

Is our understanding of what is humanly–and socially–possible so intimately bound up (in what Stiegler establishes as a “strange relationship”) with technics that it becomes impossible to take the Zizekian hope seriously? Can the engine of society take an unprecedented course without first being refitted with the proper human parts? And if not–where does the impetus for change come from? From humans? Or from technology itself? There may not be any answers to these last questions–certainly, there are none in Squadron Supreme, although they are constantly in play.

The debate leading up to the referendum on Power Princess’ call for the implementation of Utopia centers precisely upon the question of the imperative to act. Earlier in the issue, during a rescue mission, Tom Thumb–in many ways the key member of the team, and the focal point of the book–remarks that “anythin’ broken can be fixed” (SS #1, 9). His flight-companions, Golden Archer and Lady Lark, embellish upon the thought with the following exchange:

Archer: Says you Thumb!

Lark: Tom Thumb’s right. Things can be fixed, given time.

Archer: But does America have that kind of time, Lark? (SS #1, 9)

In a very real sense, this is “the Decision” that the Squadron must make. Is the world running out of time? Or is this time of crisis a chaotic welter of possibilities whose liminal properties ought to be husbanded, rather than foreclosed upon? If it is the former, then clearly any program is better than none at all. However, if it is the latter, then the only goal that makes sense is the preservation of instability!

In the realm of superhero comics, the classic example of a team dedicated to the second proposition is Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, whose adventures in deconstruction invariably present them with the challenge of disabling aggressive epistemes and narrative structures. Their first mission is an assault upon the encroaching totality of Orqwith (Doom Patrol #19-22), a variation upon Borges’ Tlön, a figure of the perfect work of art qua work of art (or plan for social organization), which accounts for everything, stops time, and devours our communal reality in the process. According to Borges:

Contact with Tlön, the habit of Tlön, has disintegrated this world. Spellbound by Tlön’s rigor, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already Tlön’s (conjectural) primitive language has filtered into our schools; already the teaching of Tlön’s harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has obliterated the history that governed my own childhood; already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain–not even that it is false (Borges, 287)

The Squadron Supreme appear to choose against the Doom Patrol scenario by electing, without quite realizing it, to summon their own Tlön into existence. Their decision does most certainly pass through the realm of “undecidability”–after all, the random, telluric defense of neighborhood and planet against evil genius and space alien is the stock-in-trade of the American superhero–but, as Hyperion notes: “this curbing of power policy hasn’t worked” (SS #1, 20). The “Utopia Plan” represents an unprecedented departure for the group, which had hitherto always made it their policy to interfere in favor of the weaker term in asymmetrical power relationships between third parties. There is a certain logical continuity in this trajectory: the team’s evolution is analogous to the career of a “trust-buster” who decides that the only way to prosecute his/her mission is to deploy massive centralized power against her/his targets–becoming, in effect, an “anti-trust monopoly”.

Perhaps the most radical proposal to emerge from the meeting–and arguably the surest proof that we are indeed passing through “undecidability” in this scene–is Nighthawk’s implication that the Squadron ought to disband, which is couched in the observation: “the fate of the world–to be decided by a vote among the power elite. To think that it would come to this”(22). Is this a classic liberal attempt to evade the responsibilities of sovereignty, or is it a call for the use of the sovereign’s prerogative against itself? In view of the way Nighthawk’s subsequent actions contrast with Amphibian’s later abdication of responsibility (after committing a face-saving–but ineffective–act of sabotage, he retreats to an undersea realm populated by dolphins who “don’t understand” the affairs of the surface world), it seems clear that the ex-president does aspire to Decide, in a Schmittian sense. Upon decamping, he declares, simply: “you folks do as must do…and so will I” (SS #1, 23). This is an extremely important moment in the text, for if sovereignty is indivisible, and this series will eventually reveal itself to be the record of a struggle within the group-mind of the sovereign over precisely this question of implementation, then it could be argued that the Squadron Supreme never do Decide, because Squadron Supreme itself fails to emerge from the morass of the “Undecidable”.

Bearing this interpretation in mind, it is important to note that the surface triumphalism with which the first issue of the series concludes is haunted both by the rebel Nighthawk’s mere presence at the press conference (not to mention his inability to carry out his resolution to assassinate Hyperion) and the significant fact that, when the Squadron place their “Utopia Plan” into effect, it is revealed as a one-year plan (not coincidentally, the exact same duration as this limited comic book series). The very finitude of the measure undermines its total aspirations to such an extent that it begins to seem quite provisional indeed–more like a thought-experiment than a decisive act. Meanwhile, Nighthawk, with allusions to Lincoln fillingthe thought balloons above his head, is poised to play the role of John Wilkes Booth, vis-a-vis Hyperion.

Nighthawk’s relationship to his nineteenth century predecessor is crucial to an understanding of this scene. He memorializes Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator”; but Lincoln was also the great mobilizer, and the main beneficiary of the massive expansion of state power which occurred during the course of the Civil War. Perhaps the rebel’s failure to pull the trigger (like the Squadron’s failure to arrogate power to themselves for an indefinite period) signifies not a “lack of willpower”, but a desire to continue thinking through the ambiguities of this “Presidential différance” (the imperialist emancipator, who “forces the people to be free”), in dialogue with the other members of the sovereign Squadron, of which he remains a part, in spite of himself. In between the key scenes of the secret vote and the public decree, Hyperion remarks that “Kyle Richmond is an honorable man, his disagreements with us do not stem from vanity” (SS #1, 23), which does not explain why, if the debate is indeed concluded, he does nothing to prevent Nighthawk from “doing what he must”. It suggests, rather, that the conversation is just getting started, and that, moreover, it will be prosecuted, throughout the remaining eleven issues of the series, according to the conventions of a discourse proper to superhero comics–that is to say, in a “sign language” of hyperkinetic strife, punctuated by bombastic oaths.

Despite this instability at the heart of the Squadron (both the team and the series), the entity does present a united front to the world. Hyperion advances a will-based theory of “pure reform” that aspires to parallel Von Clausewitz’s description of “pure war”, a bogey-concept which the Prussian general ultimately fails to wrestle into the empirical arena:

…in the field of abstract thought the inquiring mind can never rest until it reaches the extreme, for here it is dealing with an extreme: a clash of forces freely operating and obedient to no law but their own. From a pure concept of war you might try to deduce absolute terms for the objective you should aim at and for the means of achieving it; but if you did so the continuous interaction would land you in extremes that represented nothing but a play of the imagination issuing from an almost invisible sequence of logical subtleties. If we were to think purely in absolute terms, we could avoid every difficulty by a stroke of the pen and proclaim with inflexible logic that, since the extreme must be the goal, the greatest effort must always be exerted(78).

This new commitment to “pure reform” (or at least to preserve the “perfect lab conditions” which would be essential to “pure reform”) manifests itself most impressively in the unprecedented vow that Hyperion makes to “hunt down and kill” (SS #2, 9) the Scarlet Centurion when he pops in for another of his ritualized invasions of the 20th century. Naturally, the stunned visitor retreats, grunting, “bah! you take all the pleasure out of conquest!” (10), and it is in this ideal space created by the liquidation of the supervillain from the superhero narrative that a phantasmagoric procession of “(techno)logical subtleties” issues from the mind of Tom Thumb. Proudhon wrote, somewhat disapprovingly, that “every reformer is a magician, or at least desires to become one” (What is Property?, 453), and this certainly describes the Squadron’s scientific wizard, whose twin quests to dispell the ills of the human body and the sources of social disharmony dominate the series from issue #2 to #9. (Proudhon’s own quest was founded upon the belief that humans could be persuaded, through the use of rational argument, to form “more perfect unions”. Clearly, the reform faction of the Squadron act upon a different assumption–i.e. that, in Stieglerian terms, human “species-being” is not a pure essence to be unearthed by a dialectician, but a dynamic thing that is, to a large–but not total–extent, determined by a “non-living” carapace of its own creation; a carapace which, moreover, must eternally be recreated, and embellished upon.)

Thumb’s efforts bring the problem of the relationship between time and technology into focus. The inventor’s fate is circumscribed by the mutually contradictory meanings of his maxim: “anythin’ is fixable”. Thumb seeks to “fix” (as in, to render operational–preferably optimally so–and, at least to some extent, autonomous; that is to say, powered by its own head of steam) the human condition, but every move he makes in this direction raises the specter of “fixing” (as in, to stop or render determinate, or, even, slangily, kill) this mercurial concept. His assault on the citadel of disease takes him on an errand into the future, where he eventually compromises his deontological value system by stealing the “panacea potion” from its owner, the Scarlet Centurion. This sacrifice, which pains Tom a great deal, ultimately comes to nothing, as he discovers that the potion has no effect upon twentieth century bodies. It is no “cure-all”, but rather a ceremonial balm that ratifies the impregnable constitutions of the Centurion’s fortieth century subjects. This suggests that, while techniques may indeed have the capacity to alter or extend human horizons, they must do so in time, and not by abrogating experienced duration, even in a world filled with time machines.

The Centurion’s world also raises a vital question that relates to Thumb’s most important invention–the “behavior modification” (or “b-mod”) machine. Society in the fortieth century appears “fixed” in both senses of the word. It is operating at full capacity; and yet, in keeping with a fairly common tradition of sci-fi speculation, it lacks that vital “spark” of unpredictability which characterizes our world. Is this the Centurion’s true “gift” to his people? A panacea that bears a family resemblance to Huxley’s “soma”, which robs human beings of their agency? Thumb’s “b-mod” device, introduced in issue #4, obviously contains many of these same terminal possibilities, and threatens to repatriate the “end of history” from the fortieth century to the twentieth.

The series explores, with equal intensity, the effects of this device upon those who use it and those who are incensed by its use (while delving only tangentially into the problems encountered by those who are ill-used by it). In Hyperion/Tom Thumb’s group, we see the beginnings of the formation of a caste of “unmodded modifiers”, who live only to see their alchemical experiment flourish. Nighthawk’s group, on the other hand, could be said to take a hard Proudhonian stance–i.e. if reform cannot be effected without “magic”, then reform is not an option. Trapped between them is the increasingly large group of “modified” characters, who show no ill-effects, so long as the environment into which they are placed does not contradict the imperatives of their “retraining”. Of course, this environment is never “lab-perfect” to begin with, and only becomes less so, as the faction of doubters acquires more leverage to conduct their “dialectical-interrogation-through-other-means” of “pure reform”.

The text demonstrates that what is truly abhorrent in the “b-mod” process is not any violation of an “intrinsic” human nature (or, as in A Clockwork Orange, some notion of the human aspiration toward the sublime–as represented by Alex de Large’s “redeeming” obsession with “Ludwig Van”), but the fact that no “hard training” of this type can possibly equip a human being for the complexities of social and political life. The process suits “Shape”, a developmentally-challenged individual, perfectly, because, in any case, he is trapped by his own biology in a childlike world in which the need to make decisions and to form adult attachments does not arise. It may even be said to have been effective in the case of Quagmire, who is presented with a chance to act upon the categorical imperative of ultimate devotion to the welfare of the group, and seizes it (although the moral status of this “forced march to sainthood” is certainly called into question by the eruption of an overwhelming tide of “dark matter” from this puppet of virtue’s body in issue #10).

The text’s most scathing critique of “pure reform” is enacted by the figures of Ape-X and Lady Lark. In the former, the categorical imperative is revealed to have multiple (and irreconcilable) meanings, thus reducing the unfortunate character to a catatonic state, reminiscent of a “computer crash”. The latter’s case is even more damning, and plays back into the dilemma of the “unmodded modifier”. Golden Archer “retrains” Lady Lark to “love him and only him for the rest of her life”, and then finds himself unable to reap any benefit from this situation, which quickly assumes the aspect, in his mind, of a one-sided “role playing game” that never ends. She is certainly disturbed by the information, conveyed to her later on, that the feelings she is experiencing have been implanted in her mind, but their pathological development into dysfunction doesn’t set in until Wyatt disappears, robbing her of the only object that she is now capable of cathecting them upon. This conduces to a defensible (if certainly not indisputable) anthropological statement: i.e. knowing why we feel a certain thing will not tend to diminish these feelings in the least (although it may certainly help us to understand why we might not want to act upon them), but knowing why others act as they do does impact materially upon experience. A case like this, in which the “programming” becomes more apparent than its content, exposes the (always precarious) romantic quest for “intimacy with otherness” as an unsatisfying sham.

Both of these examples serve to focus book’s critique of the social admixture of the “modded” and the “unmodded”. In Power Princess’ literal island of Utopia, the putative founders (the Kree), set the society in motion and disappeared, like the Deist’s “clockmaker God”. The Scarlet Centurion, a figure cut from the same cloth, does elect to stay amongst the “creatures of his brain”, with the result that he is periodically driven, by sheer boredom, to seek out, in fits of lust, the “spark” of the incalculable in other times and places. This would appear to be the Overmind’s motivation as well, and with that association to guide us, we are given to understand that the Squadron, who were dupes of this lust in the past, are on a collision course with a more authentic form of servitude to it in the future. The respective fates of Lady Lark and Ape-X demonstrate that “b-modification” cannot work if applied to only a part of society. It must truly be all or nothing–it is a question of “metahuman momentum”–which leaves the “pure reform” faction of the Squadron no logical option but to “renovate” society and then leave it immediately. Ironically then, the team’s effort to reinscribe themselves into the common life of their world forces them ever further out of its orbit.

The only other thinkable option is for the entire team to “b-mod” themselves–and this is precisely what places Nighthawk’s faction on the battlefield of undecidability. The group’s involvement (rather than mere opposition to) in the sovereign decision is dramatized most effectively by the scene in which its leader is forced to confront the same choice (whether to “b-mod” a fellow Squadroner in the name of expediency, or not) that his nominal opponents must ultimately face. Nighthawk’s acquiescence to the tactical abrogation of incalculability in the name of the same signifies the emergence of a potentially irreconcilable antagonism between technology and time in this text. The mere existence of the “b-mod” device (an “atom bomb of the spirit”) threatens to write finis to the human enterprise, as an open-ended process; and the only possible defense against this final solution may be irresolution–or hope–itself.

In order to sustain the possibility of justice, the sovereign must hold a portion of its decisive power in reserve for use against itself. Full implementation of any plan is just as unthinkable as “radical refusal”. Every refusal must be a rejection of something, the elimination of which causes the refusal itself to evaporate. Likewise, the decision to enact a program depends upon a certain amount of opposition. It makes no sense to act upon perfectly malleable material–which, by definition, would always already be so constituted as to render any further shaping of it unnecessary. In the absence of this opposition, there is nothing to do, and thus no real decision. On the other hand, if it is the case that every decision is shadowed by its own counter-decision, can it truly be said that any decision is ever made? Squadron Supreme suggests not–and that, furthermore, this may be a good thing.
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Good Afternoon friends!

Dave

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5 comments

  1. Well, having read it once, I don’t feel terribly capable of really engaging you on it, but one thing that’s always bothered me: why couldn’t the Squadron b-mod Lady Lark *back*?

    Matt

  2. good, Ockham’s razorish question matt!

    apparently, it would destroy brain cells, or something… It’s silly sure, but an “atom bomb” of the spirit has to be irreversible, y’know!

    Dave

  3. Babel says things like this, alas:

    “L ambiguity of the subject, and the same blow l’ambiguïte of l’objet of the verb (invents), does not translate anything d’autre but l ambiguïty same direction of this verb…”

    And my schoolroom French isn’t enough to get me through.

    I had lots of interesting thoughts reading your essay, but nothing cohesive to feeback, sorry. Though everything you say on this book makes picking up Squadron Supreme seem more worthwhile. Let me say: I enjoy the type of essay it is. Some “cultural studies”-style essays use a text as a springboard, then jump off into the pool of their real interest, but everything Squadron Supreme seems to spark in you seems to also point out something else in the text for you.

  4. Dave, have you ever read the Arcadia storyline in The Invisibles? It’s collected in the first trade paperback. It’s Grant taking on the whole idea of trying to achieve Utopia (using the French Revolution as one example).

    -Ian Brill

  5. Great, man, it’ll get me thinking for months, now. I’m a Law student in Brazil, and that — power and decision — is the central issue of Law, society, and, by extension, in some senses, life itself… Thanks for the great ideas you presented me.

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