What Are You Tlön, Man?

(Soundtrack: Pixies–The Complete B Sides.)

I must say, I’m deeply grateful to Jess Nevins & Rose Curtin for urging me to pick up Borges, at long last. For now, I’ll stick to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and its relationship to “Crawling From the Wreckage”, but I’m sure I’ll get around to discussing the rest of the Collected Fictions, once I’m done with them, because it’s truly wonderful stuff!

And before I go any further, let me also direct your attention to this great piece on Morrison by Steven Shaviro, which contains, among other things, an anticipation of a key aspect of my projected dissertation:

The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.” It’s all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does “readers.” The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content.

I love it.

I do take issue, however, with Shaviro’s (approving) characterization of Morrison as “a sly hipster” bent upon replacing “the old book’s naive earnestness with [a series of] tongue-in-cheek provocations” aimed squarely at “stability, normality, conformity, and everyday boredom” (the real enemies, according to Shaviro)… Frankly, I don’t see it. I can’t address anything after Animal Man & Doom Patrol (this is a situation I plan to remedy over the course of the summer and fall), but the Morrison that I’m familiar with is no mere trickster. In fact, I would argue that he (perhaps along with Mark Gruenwald) is the most earnest person ever to have written a superhero comic. Morrison never deconstructs for deconstruction’s sake, nor does he take cynical pleasure in shocking “dull normals”. His work is strange, certainly, but not any stranger than it has to be in order to convey the genuinely eerie aspects of human existence. And no way is Morrison the kind of yay-saying postmodernist that agrees with this statement:

We aren’t interested in duration or preservation; we devour and squander at a frantic pace, latching on to one thing only to throw it aside in favor of something else the very next moment. Everything is negotiable, everything is available for exchange. So let yourself go. Don’t be a good citizen. Don’t produce, expend. Be a parasite. Consume images and be consumed by them.

Forget about the way the guy presents himself in interviews! The concept of the self may be an illusion in Morrison’s mind, however, precisely for this reason, relation, morality and “otherness” become even more important in his work. This is where postmodernity and radical protestantism meet. Perhaps I am projecting too much of myself onto the author of Animal Man & Doom Patrol, but I don’t think so…after all, I got to be this way largely because of him (along with Capra, Dickens, Hawthorne, and one very important ex-girlfriend).

I’m running out of time here, so I’d better make some kind of point quickly! Let’s begin with a very important difference between Borges’ Tlön & Morrison’s Orqwith, and then take it from there tomorrow.

Okay, here’s Borges’ take on expansionary metafiction:

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 wih 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.

Tlön is a totalitarian episteme, it literally forces everything to make sense. And the takeover is insidious.

Orqwith’s assault on the intersubjective realm is a tad more aggressive. Instead of bright shiny ideological trojan horse-artifacts infiltrating the landscape, we get a downpour of fish (makes you wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson read the DP, no?) and the Scissormen. This fictional construct doesn’t change you, it brains you. Borges posits an ideological war of all against all. Fiction abhors a vacuum. You could wind up living in Tlön and never know it. Something’s gotta give structure to the world, and there isn’t any way to step outside of that structure to criticize it. The best you can hope to do is draw up the plans for a successor-world and fool the next generation into migrating en masse across the state (of mind) line. But you can’t be present for it yourself, because you would see the fiction, and that would spoil things, see? Moses got (death)carded at the entrance to the Promised Land. And Christ had to evaporate before Christianity could live.

That’s Borges– at least, that’s what I’ve got on him so far, from the little I’ve read.

Morrison’s aesthetic is radically different. He takes a more grass roots approach to world-building. “Reality” is built up one person at a time. Whenever you meet someone you can believe in, your footing gets a little more secure, but the structural flaws are always visible to anyone who bothers to look, and all cosmologies are suspect! More importantly, people can do without them, and ought to do their best to smash up the ones which threaten to make life too easy for the lazier members of the human family…

That’s where the Doom Patrol comes in, you see! They’re a postmodern “Society of Friends”.

More tomorrow!

G’Night friends!


  1. Coincidentally, I’ve been looking at the little I have of DP myself, along with re-reading The Filth–I’m in one of my periodic “I like Morrison better than Alan Moore phases” and I completely agree with your assessment of Morrison as against Shaviro, whose essays I read a year or two ago. Later Morrison lends a lot of credence to your view. The end of The Invisibles, the Filth and New X-Men celebrate stability, normality and everyday boredom, largely because they permit the intersubjective relations you’re talking about. I think of Morrison as a kind of Dickensian/Joycean radical who thinks the most revoltuionary act possible would be to find people you love and love them. The Invisibles is a very long argument leading up to something like that point, while New X-Men and The Filth refine it. Now I must complete my Animal Man and DP collections! (Incidentally, have you opinion/experience of Peter Milligan? I think you’d like him, especially Enigma and Shade: The Changing Man (not that I’ve read all of that one either…)). Okay, have a good day! –John.

  2. I do think that Doom Patrol is mostly a provocation aimed at normality and conformity–well, that, and a text on alchemy–but the Morrison who wrote DP is not the Morrison who wrote Invisibles or Filth or New X-Men. That was ten years ago and more, and Morrison’s approach has certainly changed, if not his attitudes. Animal Man, for one, is certainly an aggressive, in-your-face provocation, while much of DP (as I pointed out in a letter which actually saw print in DP) is a satirization of normality and a paean to alternative sexualities. That Morrison, a decade older, now thinks that normality is not so bad doesn’t mean he thought so when he wrote DP.

    But you’ll see more of this in later issues.

    (I’ll be paying close attention to your comments when you reach the 50s of DP. In one of the letter pages I experienced one of my favorite fanboy moments ever–not as good as having Alan Moore compliment me, but close)

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