Ontology & Paranoia
Not too much time tonight–but there’s always time for stuff like this:
In a comment-thread from a couple of days ago, Rose asked:
I’m really interested in your argument about ontology, now that I can go back and really read what you said. There was a scene when Buddy and Grant are talking in which Grant, for no apparent reason, kicks a stone into the water, which gave me two impressions:
1. He’s being motivated by an external agent to do things. This action is a mimetic support to his argument, not that he needs to make a good argument when he literally ‘controls the discourse’ anyway.
2. He’s secretly saying, “I refute you thus!” I think it would be a good allusion under the circumstances, but in some sense Grant is contra Samuel Johnson, because he’s not kicking a real stone and so his action doesn’t prove anything at all. It proves, by loose analogy, that the world is not real at all.
How can I resist an invitation like that?
The incident in question occurs on page 9 of Animal Man #26… “Grant” doesn’t kick the rock, he throws it–but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about who made him do it! Unfortunately, this way, we don’t get as perfect a segue to Doctor Johnson, but since we’ve got the interpretive conch at the moment, what say we just pretend he kicked it, hunh Rose?
Alright then! Where is the ontological ground of “reality” in Animal Man? For my money, it’s in the lettercol… In issue #26, “Grant” tells Buddy: “Of course you’re real! We wouldn’t be here talking if you weren’t real. You existed long before I wrote about you and, if you’re lucky, you’ll still be young when I’m old and dead… You’re more real than I am.”
What does he mean by that? Well, presumably that Buddy’s continued existence is made possible by the readers. “Reality” is consensual… There is no first cause. If people stop caring, he’s gone! That’s a precarious situation, certainly–but what other options are there? When you’re alone (I don’t mean for a day or a week, I mean ALONE), you might as well be dead, no? That’s why we invented “God” in the first place. So you never have to be alone. It’s in all of the brochures…
But it’s not enough just to meet up with God. It doesn’t become “real” until you make the encounter known to others. Their belief ratifies your experience. That’s why the Puritans made such a big deal of their conversion narratives. Anyone can go off into the woods hopped up on zeal and have themselves a “Yahweh” old time! The hard part is convincing others that it actually happened–if you do, then it did…it’s as simple as that.
Of course, no one likes to be so dependent upon empirical Others, but it can’t be helped. And it’s no accident that those religions which place the greatest emphasis upon the individual’s personal knowledge of the Divine are also the most evangelically-inclined! Catholics can afford to be more chill about this stuff, because the faith is grounded upon baptismal certificates, not ravishment by Grace… in either case though, the principle is the same–if I believe you are a member of the true Church, then you win a trip to Heaven!
But even the minimal commitment to the idea of a Deity that Catholicism requires of its’ adherents has become unthinkable for most people in the modern world, and the search for a new organizing principle is on! Very few people seem to want to face the fact of their dependence upon each other so nakedly–it’s so much easier to proselytize than to relate! So now, instead of God, we’ve got conspiracy theories. The “Marxist-Feminists”, the phone company, the Masons, the “liberal-rationalists”, the “Media”, and, of course, that old reliable, the “military-industrial complex”. You just choose one that suits your animus, start ranting, make yourself a like-minded friend, and voila, you’ve established a little church for yourself–and the world has structure again. Sure, it’s an “evil” structure, but I’ll tell ya, I’ve read most of Jonathan Edwards’ theology, and his God was far nastier than any Masonic cabal ever dreamed of being…
This all goes back to Moby Dick, I think… That whale? A honcho in the Bavarian Illuminati–for sure! Ahab’s syndrome is a pandemic by now. We’re born flailing at the “pasteboard mask” of “false consciousness”…
Morrison has some fun with all of this in Animal Man, throwing a series of totalizing schemes at the protagonist. We get the yellow aliens–with their absolute dominion over the fabric of reality; we get the monstrous government plot against Buddy; all of which collapses into the idea that the world is merely a spectacle orchestrated by that arch-conspirator and puppet-master, Grant Morrison… Why does he throw the rock? I’d say he does it to produce those circles on the surface of the lake on the following page. You can send out your metaphysical sonar all you want, and “consciousness” might even “expand”, but those waves are never coming back, and those circles are never gonna harden into anything “real”–eventually, they just dissipate… If you’re looking for “feedback”, you’d better make do with what you get from other peoples’ sonar, and that’s where the lettercols come in! It’s an epistemological crossfire: in becoming an Object, the Subject is “grounded”–at least provisionally, which is all we have any right to expect, really…
The use of “vast conspiracies” as narrative scaffolding for entire comic book series was rampant in the eighties–in Watchmen, in Power of the Atom (a particularly unsuccessful example, I think) and Gruenwald’s Captain America (where the Red Skull’s activities, behind the scenes, in issues #307-350, rival Morrison’s in terms of sheer omnipotence, although the face-to-face showdown between Cap & R.S.–and they’ve got the same face!–doesn’t turn out so pleasantly as Buddy’s meeting with “Grant”, mainly because the Skull can’t let go of his desire to screen his pain on another, while “Grant” elects, finally, to ground the electrical charge of loss within himself, thus abandoning his role as a conductor, passing on the shock to his creations, and making possible one of the only truly satisfying endings that I know of in any work of art); later on, of course, The X-Files and The Matrix would make use of the same device, and, from what I’ve read of The Invisibles, it seems that Morrison himself lost the ability to live without faith in a grand scheme! Luckily, we’ve still got Animal Man–in which a man sustains a terrible loss, and that loss becomes real, because we care… nothing more, nothing less…
tomorrow: more on Ditko & The Comics Journal (you’re right JW, that Donald Phelps piece is great!!–In my rush to judgement yesterday, I somehow managed to skip over it!!!)
this weekend: The Dark Knight Returns
Good night friends!