My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In my review of Boris Groys’s In the Flow, I somehow failed to note the thesis in art history for which Groys became famous: his main claim was that, as the avant-garde’s dream before the Russian Revolution was the total transformation, along artistic lines, of their entire society, then the “official” Socialist Realist art of Soviet Russia was in fact the legitimate successor and fulfillment of the avant-garde since it inherited the function of aesthetically recomposing the social. The avant-garde totalizes art to the level of the polis, whereas realistic or romantic art before the avant-garde just decorated or illustrated a polis otherwise designed by priests, aristocrats, or money-men. This is why the avant-garde had to discredit the characteristic artwork of the modern period before the 20th century—the figurative painting, the realist novel, the expressive lyric—in all its monadic powerlessness, its timid refusal of the crucial becoming-Stalin task of the total artwork. Artists in the avant-garde utopia replace priests, aristocrats, and money-men and become important social authorities in turn. Like much supposed anarchism, then, avant-gardism may be a fascism in disguise—there being but a few short psychological steps from “I should be able to do anything I want” to “Everyone should do anything I want.”
So much for Stalin’s Russia, but what about the avant-garde in western capitalist society? It is well known by now that at midcentury avant-garde art, most notoriously Abstract Expressionism (which Nelson Rockefeller called “free enterprise painting”), was in part a front for US/UK intelligence services meant to work as propaganda against Communism and for apolitical art and American individualism. But this rather lurid fact can distract us from the bigger picture: in capitalist society it is popular culture, not government propaganda, that takes up the avant-garde ambition and function of the aesthetic reorganization of the polis. Fashion, design, and architecture are the obvious examples: the MacBook Air on which I now type owes its sleek minimalism to Bauhaus and related aesthetics while the Starbucks in which I now type boasts some kind of Frank Lloyd Wright atmosphere (faux artisanal—medievalist, localist, etc.—resistance to mass production is the original avant-garde style going back to the Pre-Raphaelites).
All of which brings me around at last to Grant Morrison’s classic run on DC Comics’s Doom Patrol from 1989-1993. The Doom Patrol was created by Arnold Drake and his collaborators; a Silver Age superhero team of “super-powered misfits, whose ‘gifts’ caused them alienation and trauma,” to quote Wikipedia, they may have illicitly inspired Stan Lee in the creation of the X-Men. By the late ’80s, the X-Men under writer Chris Claremont were the super-hero team, and Claremont’s approach set the generic standard: a liberal political allegory (mutants as oppressed minorities, primarily queer) wedded to soap operatic plotting and a passionately (or painfully) earnest literary style. Grant Morrison, a working-class Glaswegian punk magus from a left-wing family who began work with DC as part of comics’s celebrated British Invasion, sought to subvert all that.
Avowedly wanting to overturn Claremont’s aesthetic, Morrison not only pushes the outsiderdom of superheroes past the bounds of Reagan-era liberal respectability—two of members of the Doom Patrol, Rebis and Danny the Street, are gender nonconforming; another one, Kay Challis AKA Crazy Jane, is a childhood abuse survivor living with dissociative identity disorder—but confronts them with villains like The Brotherhood of Dada, who wish to “let unreason reign” (and whom most of the team eventually does not even want to fight), and the Shadowy Mr. Evans, who releases a sexual apocalypse until he is stopped by the Sex Men, a repressive parody of conventional superheroes. This vein of genre parody runs through the whole series, from Morrison’s first-page allusion to the opening of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns to episodes mocking Alan Moore, Rob Liefeld, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—as if to highlight the inherent absurdity of superheroes “in the name of Duchamp and Tzara and Breton,” to quote Mr. Nobody, leader of The Brotherhood of Dada.
The series undoes the superhero’s normalizing function, liberates the suppressed energy abjected by mainstream society as madness. This is shown most clearly in the series’s most memorable character, Crazy Jane, whom Morrison based on Truddi Chase, author of the bestseller When Rabbit Howls, wherein she claims to have multiple personalities as a result of dissociation brought on by childhood sexual abuse. I’ve never read Chase’s book, but it was ubiquitous in its time—I remember it around the house when I was a child—and I certainly saw her on Oprah; her story and the Crazy Jane character coincide with the wave of repressed memories as well as the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse that were prevalent in the ’80s. Which is not necessarily to say that Chase was lying, only that Morrison, with an extraordinary eye for trends, was cashing in on one. The Jane character is underdeveloped, though, and Morrison does not always handle her situation very sensitively, tricking it out with heavy-handed metaphors and obvious Sylvia Plath allusions. She is given Morrison’s concluding chapter, and her rescue from a repressive and abusive male psychologist, narrated through the eyes of a lesbian psychologist beginning to believe Jane/Kay’s stories about the Doom Patrol, provides one of the most moving conclusions to a superhero story I’ve ever read.
In his essay “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature,” Gilles Deleuze praises writers who create “a true break,” “the line of flight…(even if one has to become animal, to become Negro or woman).” Doom Patrol can be seen as joining Deleuze in seeing female or black (or queer or trans) identity as identical to animality, as the abjected underside of western reason, functioning not so much as a metaphor but as a synecdoche for all that is repressed in the construction of the rational subject of the modern polity. But their seeming advocacy will almost certainly now read as offensive, if it was not so read then (see here): as women or black people or queer people claim their rights as subjects and their share of reason within the same polity, this synechdochic function of their identity, Deleuze’s or Morrison’s equating femaleness etc. with the irrational, seems absurd, patronizing, and dehumanizing. It is meant to be dehumanizing in the sense that the white male writer is trying to overthrow a monitory concept of “the human” by siding with all that was left out in its construction. To those who did not want to be left out in the first place, this gesture is downright threatening, and I am sure a lot of young people encountering Crazy Jane, Rebis, and Danny the Street today will take it as such. On the other hand, a charitable reading might say that Morrison’s or Deleuze’s indubitably “problematic” deployment of the trope of marginality may be a necessary stage in the becoming-subject of the marginalized, insofar as it brings the margin itself to a valorized position of cultural visibility it was not previously allowed. On the politics of these tropes, readers will understandably come to different conclusions.
From politics to aesthetics: one paradox the literary avant-garde has never quite solved, and which explains its pragmatic usurpation by Hollywood and pop culture, is that nothing more emancipates audiences from mundane reality than an absorbing linear narrative about relatable or likable characters, a reliably immersive and anti-quotidian cognitive enhancement; whereas the avant-garde’s destruction of story and sense, its Surrealist automatic writing or Futurist words-in-freedom or Burroughsian cut-ups, tend to bounce off retina and tympanum, to leave one stranded in the workaday world, staring out the window in search of superior entertainment. Too much of Morrison’s Doom Patrol fails to avoid this pitfall; a stream of clever nonsense, lacking in characterization (this latter frequently supplied by tediously symbolic dream sequences and hallucinations), the series is to my mind often unmemorable from page to page or after multiple readings. The best parts tend to come in the poetry of single panels—but then, I find this true of all Morrison’s work, including such crowd-pleasers as All-Star Superman. I have often thought that Morrison is a lyric writer more than a narrative one.
But Morrison works in narrative modes, and, after Doom Patrol, often in very popular and populist narrative modes construed as egregores or hypersigils in a traditionally avant-garde commitment, as expressed in a famous 2000 Disinfo speech, to aesthetically reorganizing western culture:
Let’s go in there and give them something they cannot digest. Something they cannot process. Something so toxic, so dangerous, so powerful…that it will breed, and destroy them utterly. Not destroy them—turn them into us. Because that’s what we want. We want everybody to be cool.
Groys could not have put the aspiration of avant-garde art better: “We want everybody to be cool.” But if revolutionary terror is the result of forcing people to be free, per Rousseau, then the avant-garde—whether in the statist form Groys discusses or in today’s commercial culture—may be guilty of forcing people to be cool. Hasn’t the avant-garde become just what it despised—tradition? Doesn’t Penguin Classics now publish Deleuze? Isn’t Doom Patrol itself hailed as a classic, its author garlanded with a Member of the Order of the British Empire? Cultural revolution becomes cultural tradition in the end: conservatives dislike this truth because it means that revolutions can be necessary to a living culture, while radicals evade it because it means that there is no ultimate subversion and that every successful revolution installs a new regime.
This paradox is allegorized in Doom Patrol during the team’s first fight against The Brotherhood of Dada, when the avantist villains swallow all of Paris into a painting that contains all modernist styles. But the painting also harbors inside it “the fifth Horseman,” a Norse-helmeted Wagnerian figure evocative of fascist art (in In the Flow, Groys offers Wagner’s theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk as one of the first avant-garde ambitions). The team ends up destroying the fascist horseman when Crazy Jane guides him into the Dada zone of the painting: “The rider requires ideas and meaning to give it power, but Dada is the anti-idea! Dada destroys meaning!” And so dissolves fascism. Yet the experience re-traumatizes Crazy Jane, and we understand why when we see her tormented by the word “Dada,” playing on the alternate meaning of “dada” or “daddy” or “dad” and evoking her father’s sexual abuse. This slippage between artistic anarchy and paternal authority in a single word shows the potential for the seemingly emancipatory signifier “Dada” to flip back over into the patriarchal force that had harmed Jane—the potential, that is, for anarchism to become fascism, because when all restraint is removed it is no longer possible to explain why might is not right. (I owe the point about the pun on “Dada” in this sequence to an essay I read on the Internet in about 1998, which I can no longer find and which probably no longer exists.)
Morrison’s warning is writ large in the overall arc of the Doom Patrol narrative when it is revealed that the team leader, Niles Caulder (a kind of Professor X figure), actually engineered the horrible and grotesque accidents that led most of the team to become superheroes:
You see, Cliff, ever since I was young, I have been driven by one blazing ambition. To create life. I remember watching old Frankenstein movies on television and, strangely, identifying not with the tragic monster but with his creator.
He creates life by creating catastrophe, better to make the world more interesting:
We need shocks in our lives. We need radical change and the new understanding it brings. Catastrophe forces us to think in new ways.
Like Morrison—like Breton and Marinetti—Caulder wants everyone to be cool, and it makes him a murderous villain. Doom Patrol, then, is more ambivalent about is own vision than it appears at first; it is honest about the trauma and the coercion that underlie its liberatory values at the other end of the avant-garde century. That vision and those values triumph at the conclusion, though, when the trans street Danny becomes a world (no fear of a queer planet here) and Kay Challis is reclaimed at the end for the heroism of saving weirdness. The series’s final words, unwittingly echoing the nearly contemporaneous anti-capitalist Zapatista slogan, say it best, and here I’ll end too: “There is another world. There is a better world. Well…there must be.”