Thursday, November 29, 2007

America Ate My Brain (Part Two)

There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky
Since I found out, I know I can cry
- John Lennon

'Nuff Said

Even when there's nothing funny about it, satire's a funny thing. The better it's executed, the fewer people you can expect will get it. This affords satire a particular value under tyranny as a vehicle for dissent, when dissent can endanger life or livelihood if the wrong people get it.

Even when those who can read the intended meaning remain few, there can be a much larger crowd who are merely entertained by its dressing of transgressions. ("Swift says we should eat Irish babies." - "Duuude!") This can make satire commercially viable, because its narrow purpose is compensated by mass appeal, which also disseminates subversion far more broadly.

I think this is what's going on with Robert Kirkman's Marvel Zombies. Marvel, the corporation, may care only about the bottom line (a hard cover compilation has sold out an unprecedented four printings), and major advertiser the US Army may be simply happy to reach a young male readership with an appetite for destruction. They may not even give a thought to the text, let alone the subtext, but we should pay attention to both.

Since 2005 the zombie story arc has ranged over several comics titles but remains quite simple to summarize: a zombie virus is carried to New York, which quickly infects the superheroes of the Marvel universe, who methodically devour all life on Earth. When they've exhausted the planet, they take to space and extinguish life there as well. The End. Though the end hasn't been written, there can be no coming back from that.

It's supposedly set in an "alternate reality," though that doesn't spare us or the familiar heroes the degradation of say, Spiderman feasting on Aunt May or the Hulk snapping off the head of the Silver Surfer. And to many readers of American politics, the last seven years feel very much as well like an alternate reality, so that disclaimer doesn't carry much comfort anymore.

There is a lot of unredacted horror here. Hank Pym, Giant Man, keeping his uninfected friend the Black Panther alive so he can cut away fresh meat when the urge strikes. ("You want to know something really scary?" he confesses. "I like the way flesh tastes. Really, I do. If I were to somehow find a cure for whatever's going on with us - if things went back to the way they were - or as close as they could get...I think I'd still eat people.") Spiderman, tormented as ever, agonizing in the moments his head clears after a feed. ("I ate my wife - my aunt! - Why?! Why did I do that?!") Call them "alternates," but there can be no looking at these characters the same way. And honest to God, it's about time.

Publishing success stories are rare in comics these days, and while Marvel Zombies is one it also has its detractors. ("There comes a point where death isn’t funny anymore," says a reader. "I cannot trust in a hero anymore!" says another.) And here I think is the subtext: your heroes are dead. Or worse: undead.

There are a lot of monstrous metaphors available to describe America's descent from pulp fiction superhero to real world arch-villain, but perhaps the most apt is the zombie. There's the relentless and insatiable consumption of goods, fuel and lives which devours entire nations without thought or apology - Iraq's genetic future may be "for the most part destroyed" - and threatens even the viability of life on the planet. It even eats brains. Consider the occupation's targeted slaughter of Iraqi intellectuals.

A vampire would be preferable. I could see trying to talk things out with one. Probably not successfully, but there's at least the vain hope. A zombie? First of all, it's already dead. And last, I'm only food. Do you explain yourself to your breakfast?

There's no coming back from Iraq. There's no homecoming for Captain America. And don't wait for a hero, because he's only going to eat you.

Friday, November 16, 2007

America Ate My Brain (Part One)

Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in? - Bob Dylan

Face Front, True Believers

So it's 1966, and I'm six years old, and I buy my first comic book: X-Men number 21. And I can remember 41 years later because I've long since catalogued it, sealed it with a cardboard backing and filed it by title and number in an oblong archive box.

I'd explain, to anyone who couldn't understand, or to whom I'd embarrassed myself trying to be understood, that they were "investments." But only people as foolish with money would fall for that, and they probably had comparable indefensible collections themselves. The stories were always for reading, even after I could read between them.

But I couldn't yet, in 1967, when I became a paid-up member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. The flexi-disc still plays, and if I ever write a letter again I still have the stationary. I wanted to be a hero too, and so I wished I'd been born an American. I told my mother, and she never tired of reminding me.

Steve Ditko appointed my adolescence with fantasies of vigilantes and loners above the law: the Übermensch who was also everyman. I didn't know, and it wouldn't have meant anything to me if I had, that Ditko was devoted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which he explored and evangelized in his comic titles. In Alan Moore's Watchmen, Moore took Ditko's "Mister A" - "an absolute insane fascist but done absolutely straight" - to his mad end with the character Rorschach. Ditko didn't get it. ("Oh yes - he's the one who's like Mister A, except Rorschach is insane.")

Stan Lee was always a bit seedy and very much a huckster, but he knew that he was and worked it, and to a kid raised on Silver Age comics he seemed on our side, and the comics industry seemed as disconnected from the real powers of this world as its readers. Neither was true, long before the scandal of his former partner in Stan Lee Enterprises, Peter Paul. He now styles himself a "whistleblower," and panders to the American right and its Clinton fixations, and accompanying blindspot to the bigger picture and the Clintons place within it. But by the time he'd turned 27 Paul was the President of the Miami World Trade Center, had been employed by four major intelligence agencies and "was recruited by operatives of our government for a plan to embarrass Castro" by defrauding Cuba of millions of dollars worth of coffee. He pled guilty on a charge of conspiracy, and served time for cocaine trafficking and trying to enter Canada on a false identity. In 2000 Paul was the largest contributor to Hillary Clinton's Senatorial bid, and he threw her a Hollywood gala reputed to have cost nearly $2 million. Two days later, the Washington Post reported Paul's criminal past and Clinton denied even knowing him.

There's a video online of Lee in Paul's office, shot by Paul, of the two meeting with Stanley Myatt., who has been variously described in the press as "a CIA assassin, a consort of Italian and Russian mafiosi, a Wall Street scam artist, a loan shark, and an informant for the FBI and the DEA." In Paul's memorandum of 2005, he says he was introduced to Myatt

in 1978 at the direction of the FBI in order to obtain Paul’s assistance in resolving an anti-Castro effort involving an international coffee deal for which the government through Myatt in the end induced Mr. Paul to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to send wire messages in furtherance of the scheme perpetrated by others to defraud the Cuban government. (Exhibit A). Since then, Myatt has been the root cause of Mr. Paul’s entire "criminal" history from 1978 to 1983 and is responsible for his guilty pleas to three separate felonies arising out of government/Myatt sponsored anti-Castro, anti-Communist covert operations. At all times since 1978 Myatt has been enabled and encouraged by the government to abuse the authority of the FBI, ATF, DEA, Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Parole Office, and Treasury Department.

Once a Marvel reader came to political consciousness, it didn't take a decoder ring to know that Lee's own leaned grievously to the right; far enough to make a costumed hero of a military industrialist, and to make his costume iron, as though his enfleshment was a weakness to be overcome, and then give him a sidekick called "War Machine." In the movie adaptation of Iron Man to be released next Spring, his origin has been updated to include a kidnapping by jihadists. Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors and a Global Hawk make supporting appearances, which "shows they really went out of their way for us"; or so director John Favreau tells it on this Youtube posting of the Air Force News Agency.

Eventually, the Nick Fury-wannabes of this universe saw the upside in recruiting Lee's original, and making the comic universe another front in the war on adolescent imagination. As though admitted an arrested development to their own fighting force, in 2005 the Department of Defense partnered with Marvel to launch a custom imprint for troops deployed to the Middle East. The event at the Pentagon "coincided with 'Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,' so plenty of youngsters were on hand to get the first copies of the special comics":

"That's really cool. They said that they're trying to help all the people [in the military]," said 11-year-old Kaitlin Lee, who was visiting the Pentagon with her younger brother and sister and their soldier dad. Kaitlin explained that it's good for the superheroes to show support for the troops because some kids want to be like their favorite superheroes.

She used her 6-year-old brother, Josh - who was holding tight to his own "Spidey" - as an example. "Like Josh here," she said. "He wants to be like Spiderman and [Spiderman] wants to help out [the troops]. So it's just kind of showing that we would like to help out too and we want to show [the troops] that we care."

The bracketed additions "for sense" are the Army's own.

The fifth issue, released last month to soldiers serving with Centcom, depicts Captain America striking an iconic pose with Avengers assembling behind him, overshadowed by and armed and masked enemy. And at a glance, through the menacing figure's eye slits, he's obviously depicted with a complexion by which Centcom identifies the enemy.

Marvel's privileged relationship with the Pentagon, as tacit incubator and explicit feedlot for its slaughterhouse, makes its latest phenomenal success of particular grim interest.

And in the second part, I'll get to the point.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Unnameable

"There are things all around. Things you never see because you don't have the words, you don't have the names. you only learned the 26-letter alphabet.

"Here are some names for things...." - Grant Morrison,
The Invisibles

Speaking the World

There are only, maybe, 350 members of the Pirahã tribe, but its language is confounding linguists for all that it lacks. There are no subordinate clauses and no past tense; no words for colours and hardly any for time. The language contains no numbers.

The debate amongst linguists about the absence of all numbers in the Pirahã language broke out after Peter Gordon, a psycholinguist at New York's Columbia University, visited the Pirahãs and tested their mathematical abilities. For example, they were asked to repeat patterns created with between one and 10 small batteries. Or they were to remember whether Gordon had placed three or eight nuts in a can.

The results, published in Science magazine, were astonishing. The Pirahãs simply don't get the concept of numbers. His study, Gordon says, shows that "a people without terms for numbers doesn't develop the ability to determine exact numbers."

Gordon's work revived interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism: that our language sculpts the way we think about the world, and that without a word for something, we can't think of it. This is the premise of Orwell's Newspeak: to greatly reduce the vocabulary by stripping it of words and constructs which could describe rebellion and even an alternative to Big Brother, in order that it become impossible to even think of such things.

Linguist Daniel Everett, who spent seven years living with the Pirahãs and says "their thinking isn't any slower than the average college freshman," devoted eight months trying to teach them simple Portuguese numbers used by Brazillians, but "in the end, not a single person could count to ten." In Gordon's Science article "Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence From Amazonia" he asks, "Is there any case where not having words for something doesn't allow you to think about it?" And then answers, "I think this is a case for just that."

Clifford Pickover in Sex, Drugs, Einstein, & Elves reflects upon vocabulary's role in shaping his world when he studied entomology, and learned insect orders and names for body parts:

When I had names for everything, I perceived insects so differently, remembered insects so differently, and communicated about insects so differently. The names helped focus and consolidate my attention in strikingly new ways. Certainly, before I knew the names, I could see that one bug had large wings and another did not, or one had a hypognathous jaw and another did not, but I doubt that my mind was tuned to manage, compartmentalize, and take note of this new information. Before I knew the words, did I wonder why the insects were different or did I just accept that a bug is a bug?

"Need to Know"

Boundary experiences are so-called in part because they transgress the boundary of our ability to describe them. They transcend concepts which can be accommodated by our language, and even introduce a new language that cannot be wholly translated back into our native tongues once the experience ends.

DMT may introduce "three dimensional 'glyphs' of pure meaning which defy my every attempt to describe them." Terence McKenna regarded these encountered objects as a "new dispensation of the logos. They are holding out the possibility that language need not be processed by the ears, that language can become, under certain radical situations of neurological perturbation, visible." And with some frequency, the DMT experience includes failed attempts at communication and instruction by encountered entities. ("The two beings seemed to be trying to attract my attention, and to communicate something to me, but I could not understand. It was as if they were trying to make me understand where I was.")

UFO contactees also often have difficulty finding words, post-encounter, to accurately describe experiences which occurred out of their familiar time and space and sometimes with no seeming reference to their own language. They may be shown texts of strange symbols, the meaning of which is evident in the moment but afterwords, attempting to reconstruct the event in their natural syntax, the symbols are entirely foreign and beyond translation.

Dr Mario Pazzaglini authored a 16-year study of "received" text entitled Symbolic Messages, He told Greg Bishop that the symbols "are so spatial that they transmit tremendous amounts of information at one blast":

And you may not always be able to relay that information back as a reported word, but as an internal experience, it's pretty rich. So if the symbols continue in that vein, they'll be very valuable. We are well built for that, because biologically we have this system called "entrainment." If you and I are talking, we just look at each other and there's tremendous amounts of information passed besides what's passed verbally. So you have some feelings about me, I may have some about you, and you may at some point visualize what you think I am, which will encode information about me (not necessarily what I look like) and all that stuff is going on. So that's what might be the value of these symbols - that they're not trying to communicate to us (if that's what they are doing) the particular thing that the symbol is supposed to be saying, but there's a whole downloading of experience and possibility that is going on that we're not even aware of yet. Certainly the culture is different for this phenomena existing.

"Almost overnight," just 50,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans began acting differently, by demonstrating abstract thought in the creation of art and religion. People were talking, not just communicating by gesture and intonation, and things had names. Categories were being defined and ideas were shaping words, filling our ancestors' heads and animating their lives. And now, 2,000 generations later, are our vocabularies rich enough to paint in abstract the real world? Or have we lost or abandoned concepts along the way, as Oldspeak, that could help us see that which may be all about us, but for which we have no meaningful words, and so can't see?

When Tim Russert attempted to dispatch the candidacy of Dennis Kucinich with a question regarding his close encounter, Kucinich replied "It was an Unidenfied Flying Object, okay? It's unidentified - I saw something." Except "UFO" is not a contentless placeholder. UFO is identified with little green men, ET and Mars Attacks. There is no meaningful way to speak about the subject in the English language without reference to its debased and comic acronym, and if language shapes our view of reality, then it may take an effort of will or a boundary experience of our own to see that there is more to the phenomenon than a punchline.

Having the wrong word may be even more a hindrance to our perception of reality than not having a word at all. And that misperception, about UFOs and much else, is almost certainly managed to some measure to keep our vision blurry.

Budd Hopkins shared a story in 2003 about the late UFOlogist Allen Hynek, who got to know Donald Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford. On one visit to Washington, Hynek met Rumsfeld in his office and said, "I have been in this for years looking at the UFO phenomena. I feel like at this point in my life I am in a position of 'need to know' what you know or what some agency might know that I don’t know. I have a 'need to know' I feel." Hopkins said that Hynek told him "Rumsfeld stood up and pointed a finger at him and said, "You have no 'need to know' and then sat down again. That was the end of it."

There are a lot of things we can't know with certainty about that story, not least of which is whether it actually even happened. But we can know that for some things we don't know their true names, and until we do we won't know them, or even see them.