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Doom Patrols
Steven Shaviro
Serpent's Tail Press
London, 1997
Paperback (187 pages) - US $16.00

Sheldon Robert Walcher


NOTHING DID MORE TO secure and codify Modernist conceptions of authorship than the establishment of international copyright law beginning in the late nineteenth century. The right of authors to claim ownership over what they produce, their entitlement to just compensation for their artistic labor, and their right to license the selling of their work as intellectual property are all relatively recent developments in western intellectual history and literature. Indeed, the signing of the first reciprocal international copyright act between the United States and Great Britain in July of 1891, which effectively ended centuries of cross-Atlantic pirating and radically raised the cost of most books, came about only after decades of fervent political and economic debate. U.S. opponents of such legislation claimed that the pirating of books kept them affordable to the burgeoning numbers of literate Americans. The enforcement of copyright, they argued, would not only undermine the democratic principles of public school education-by once again limiting access to literary works to the wealthiest Americans-but would strike an irreparable blow to American free enterprise, driving out of business the hundreds of small presses that could not afford to bid competitively on international copyrights.
One of the most ardent and eloquent advocates for adoption of the act, however, was the novelist Henry James. Residing in London for most of his career, James lost considerable sums in royalties when first American, and then later British publications of his work were pirated. James' involvement with the American Copyright League actually began after Ward, Lock and Company pirated and sold his second novel, The Americans, at a fraction of its worth in British train stations in 1879. Over the next decade and a half, James wrote dozens of public letters and attended numerous hearings in New York and London to champion the rights of all authors to be protected under law. That the intersection of the political and market forces seeking to legally codify authorship should manifest itself in the figure of Henry James is actually quite fitting. For both in this public role as a professional writer, and in his artistic vision of the writerly enterprise (as articulated in the prefaces to his multi-volumed New York Edition), James came to embody what has largely become our cultural image of authorship in the twentieth century: the solitary artist, toiling ceaselessly in the perfection of his craft, completely devoted to the rendering of new subjects through the mastery of language.
Steven Shaviro's book Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism challenges the notions of "ownership" and "mastery" that have come to typify modern conceptions of authorship in this century. Published in 1997 by Serpent's Tale Press under its High Risk Books imprint, Shaviro first began posting chapters of the book for 'fair use' on the internet as early as 1992. Thus, while Serpent's Tale markets the print version of the book in book stores throughout the U.S. and U.K., the complete electronic edition remains available for downloading through Shaviro's home-page at the University of Washington. In fact, the promotions page of the Serpent's Tail Press website has a direct link to this electronic edition. While Shaviro retains copyright over his work-all work originally appearing on the internet is theoretically covered by current U.S. and international copyright statutes-the dual states of the work's existence leads to an unusual statement in place of the standard copyright citation in the print edition: "The right of Steven Shaviro to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act of 1988." Composing and distributing one's work through an electronic medium grants it a kind of permanently ephemeral status. That is, the originality and authenticity of a text somehow become suspect once it has been put on the internet. Unregulated distribution of and access to a work seem to make its "authorship" no longer objectively verifiable, but a question of subjective assertion and faith.
If the approach Shaviro and Serpent's Tail Press have taken in marketing and distributing this "book" appears counter-productive to the financial aims of modern publishing, it is because as a work on postmodernism, Doom Patrols can only approach its "subject" through performitivity. Or as Shaviro states in his preface: "Postmodernism isn't a theoretical option or a stylistic choice; it is the very air we breathe. We are postmodern whether we like it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not. For this very reason, the word postmodernism isn't explicitly defined anywhere in my text. Its meaning is its use: or better, its multiple and contradictory uses, as these emerge gradually in the course of the book." Thus, if one aspect of postmodernism is that we live in a highly technological society where words and images are constantly being recycled, being "borrowed" from television, the internet, books, magazines, films and CDs, being reproduced, scanned, downloaded, photocopied, recombined, distorted and redistributed privately and publicly, then Doom Patrols must make itself subject to these same "plagiaristic" forces if it is to discuss postmodernism accurately. Marshall McLuhan says that the medium is the message; if we take him seriously, then any work attempting to "study" the messages of contemporary culture must necessarily come to resemble the media which proliferate and perpetuate that culture.
Shaviro elaborates this idea further in "Grant Morrison," the first of the book's seventeen chapters, each named after a media personality or artist. Writer of the DC comic book DOOM PATROL from 1989 to 1992, Grant Morrison and his work actually become emblematic of Shaviro's whole enterprise. For like most graphic novels in the 1990s, DOOM PATROL is actually a reinterpretation of a comic book that originally appeared in the late 1960s. Indeed, the 1960 version written by Arnold Drake featured the same group of genetic and social misfits who put their strangeness to use by becoming superheroes. Yet Morrison appropriates from diverse and often idiosyncratic sources- ranging from chaos theory to literature, philosophy to alternative music-to infuse the 90s version with a mixture of cultural cynicism and camp utterly lacking in Drake's original.
"DOOM PATROL is just the fix I need," Shaviro writes, "It has exactly the right mix of ingredients. Everything is in pieces, everything is borrowed or stolen...Plagiarism, blank mimicry, parasitic borrowing, speaking in tongues: these are the tactics of exemplary postmodern works like DOOM PATROL." Just as traditional images of the superheros like Superman developed in the 1930s get subverted and transformed into "the world's most bizarre heroes" of the 1960s DOOM PATROL written by Arnold Drake, so Grant Morrison subverts and transforms the "naive earnestness" of this original into the "sly hipness" which characterizes the 1990s DOOM PATROL. Shaviro's subversion and transformation of the play on cultural and identity construction in Morrison's book into the "theoretical fiction" which makes up Doom Patrols, then, is merely one more rotation in an ongoing series. The writing and rewriting of DOOM PATROL as a text, thus serves not only to introduce many of the themes Shaviro wishes to discuss, but acts as a strategic statement of the methodology Doom Patrols will employ: "All we can do with words and images is appropriate them, distort them, turn them against themselves. All we can do is borrow and waste them: spend what we haven't earned, and what we don't even possess. That's my definition of postmodern culture, but it's also Citibank's definition of a healthy economy, Jacques Lacan's definition of love, and J.G. Ballard's definition of life in the postindustrial ruins."
With other chapters like "Andy Warhol," "William Burroughs," and "Bilinda Butcher," Doom Patrols appears initially like a series of meditations on the nature of celebrity culture. Yet as we can already begin to sense in a chapter like "Grant Morrison," Shaviro's goal is nothing less than to trouble our conceptions of "individual personhood," and "representation." Through what are both highly autobiographical and extremely theoretical discussions on topics ranging from Elvis Presley to the molecular logic of insect DNA, Shaviro calls attention to the essential fictiveness of "personality," and endeavors to trace out how notions of "reality" have been constructed. The chapter on "Walt Disney," then, is less concerned with our collective celluloid memories of good old uncle Walt than it is with trying to explicate American sincerity, with Shaviro claiming that, "a strange mutation arose in our hominid ancestors, probably less than two hundred thousand years ago. Call it the Reagan gene: the ability to deceive others by first of all deluding yourself."
For all the apparent glibness of this initial remark, Shaviro traces the idea of sincerity back to what Gerald Edelman calls 'higher order consciousness,' or the ability to know that one is merely playing a role, and doing so without this knowledge causing the performance to be any less heartfelt or 'authentic.' This category of 'realness,' Shaviro points out, is precisely what is most prized by drag queens and method actors: the triumph of simulating to perfection a gender or character whom one is not. It is precisely this same quality we admire in audioanimatrons (like the robotic Abe Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents at Disneyworld), creatures that cannot help but mean precisely what the say, and say exactly what they mean. Yet, Shaviro contends both Freud and Marx radically misunderstood the fetishism of the drag queen, and Americans in general, convinced as they were as Europeans that an obsession with surfaces and objects could only be a substitution for feelings of inadequacy, a means of concealing a lack. Yet, "if all you can say about a drag queen is that she's 'really' a man, or that her ostentation conceals a defect," Shaviro counters, "then you've missed the whole point of her performance...This ability to deceive ourselves and to be sincere-far more than language or sexuality-is the defining characteristic of what it means to be an American."
Yet Doom Patrols doesn't limit itself to what some might consider the "standard" postmodern concerns or positions. In "Michel Foucault," Shaviro begins with the wonderful anecdote about a woman who once wrote to Ann Landers asking her whether oral sex meant you 'just talk about it," and goes on to discuss how social constructions of human sexuality are actually much more rigid and intolerant of change than those in the biological world; he ends with an exploration into how electronic and information technologies invite us to imagine a different economy of bodies and pleasures not exclusively bound to reproduction. In "Truddi Chase," Shaviro locates in this case of Multiple Personality Disorder what is perhaps "the best paradigm...for postmodern consciousness," arguing against Freudian and Cartesian conceptions of a radically singular 'ego' in favor of demonology. He argues that we are continually and so powerfully transformed by visceral sensations and emotions as to make any philosophical claim to a fixed and stable 'I' entirely illusory. Shaviro explores in "Bill Gates" how the postmodern God might indeed resemble this brilliant and ferocious man-talented and competitive, an unreliable visionary not at all in control of the forces of liberation and mutation that drive the virulent evolution of cyberlife.
Much of the logic in Doom Patrols is admittedly tautological, and critics of postmodernism will undoubtedly claim that Shaviro's playful, meandering, meditative approach is indicative of an entire movement which is fundamentally anti-intellectual and lazy. I find it utterly impossible to counter such claims. If it seems difficult to weave discussions of the band My Bloody Valentine, tape-worms, Dean Martin, virtual reality, and language as a viral infection into a single, intellectually unified framework, the problem seems hardly to lie with these "objects" themselves as much as it does in the critical project. As Shaviro states in the preface, "I do not propose anything like a balanced and well grounded critique of postmodern culture. To do so would to assert my own separation from the phenomena under consideration." Instead we have a series of gestures, a frenzied dance through the fractured centers and along the dark peripheries of experience. Everything in this book is familiar. Every word is "autobiographical."
"Henry James" is not a chapter in Shaviro's book, but it very well could be. In it we might explore the fate of the printed page in the age of digital reproduction. Or better yet, we might trace out that all too human nostalgia certain humanist intellectuals feel for the peace and sanctity of old mausoleums. That melancholy of anxious critics, as Shaviro describes them, who find themselves unable to adapt to what McLuhan calls 'postliterate' culture. But no, Henry James is in need of no such chapter, for his work is alive and well. His image and excerpts from his books are available for downloading at numerous websites dedicated to his work on the net. His artistic visions and authorial intentions are discussed in electronic newsgroups at many of the major universities, and as soon as copyright expires on his printed works, they will undoubtedly be posted on the web beside those of Shakespeare and Milton. Indeed, Henry James as a virus will soon be free to replicate as never before.



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