Steven Shaviro - When you open your mouth-or your ass, or your cunt-there's no way of knowing what `foreign particles' will enter

Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism (Serpent's Tail, 1996)

"Doom Patrols is a rollercoaster ride through late-20th-century culture. Considering topics as diverse as Elvis worship, the erotics of cyberspace, fantasies of the millennium, multiple personality syndrome, and the molecular logic of insect DNA; ranging from William Burroughs to Dean Martin, from Michel Foucault to My Bloody Valentine, from Andy Warhol to Bill Gates, the essays in the collection take an idiosyncratic look at the forces and counter-forces currently transforming American and world culture."

"In Doom Patrols, Shaviro is out to prove that he is not just a nerdy literature-and-film professor, he is also a member of the hip-oisie who (gasp!) goes to rock concerts, reads comics and uses the word fuck. Through 17 loosely defined personal essays on subjects ranging from Bill Gates to Truddi Chase (of 92-personalities fame), Shaviro expounds on postmodernism. He applies the idea that essence is obsolete to examples from American culture (many already overanalyzed) including Kathy Acker and Cindy Sherman. Shaver's style is at times self-consciously smart ("This ability to deceive ourselves and to be sincere... is the defining characteristic of what it means to be American, or to be human") at other times embarrassingly confessional ("I needed your wound, but since that night you've withheld it from me"), always deliberately quotable ("war is menstruation envy"). Oddly, race has virtually no significance in his version of the postmodern universe. While Shaviro draws some interesting connections between the theory of natural selection and postmodernism, his book is still a party gathering the same tired, talked-out guests: Warhol, Burroughs, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Foucault. One gets the sense that Shaviro is trying way too hard to impress a readership of the converted-people who are easily wowed by ponderous statements such as: "When you open your mouth-or your ass, or your cunt-there's no way of knowing what `foreign particles' will enter." That may be true, but some of us have a pretty good idea." - Publishers Weekly

"Like those strange, fearsome fish that live in the ocean's deepest depths, Shaviro's prose and his ideas may thrive in their own confined milieu, but brought to the surface world where the rest of us live, they explode and die. Shaviro tries to conceal the basic unoriginality of his thought behind a dense patter of quotation, citation, and jargon. And so we are treated to the recycled thoughts of such postmodern sages as Baudrillard and Deleuze, as well as the usual, trite reflections on rock 'n' roll (it induces disorientation, the quintessential postmodern experience) and Disney World (where excess blurs the boundary between reality and unreality and the postmodern world's fetish of the object is fully realized). Shaviro also spends an inordinate amount of time analyzing the comic book series Doom Patrol, whose main virtue, apparently, is its deliberate engagement with postmodern themes. But the subject matter is really unimportant. With tautological criticism like this, subjects exist only to confirm a theory. Hence, postmodern critics adore such fabulistic novelists as Pynchon but almost never acknowledge the existence of such doughty realists as Mailer or Bellow. Shaviro jettisons such concepts as theme and coherence, rambling wherever whims and his borrowings take him, perhaps trying to demonstrate tautologically the confusions of a postmodern universe. In short, these essays aren't really about anything at all." - Kirkus Reviews

"This book is a theoretical fiction about postmodernism. Fiction because Shaviro exercises the novelist’s conceit of character and event in carving his preternatural discursions; Doom Patrols is not a declaration of narrative. Postmodern because: "Postmodernism is not a theoretical option or a stylistic choice; it is the very air we breathe."
Steven Shaviro’s gathering of dense, sometimes obtuse, occasionally electrifying essays should never have been published on paper. There is something awry (modernist; pre-modern even) about turning pages, submitting to the tyranny of left-to-right. We need a cerebral plug-in, intravenous disclosure; CD-ROM allows for Burroughsian cut-up (William Seward gets a chapter heading); or to at the very least restrict availability solely to the Internet. But chips like that are restricted to Jack Straw’s wet-dreams, and CD-ROM is never as good as (read Brian Eno - not a chapter heading, surprisingly). And besides, Serpent’s Tail have published it as a book, albeit after months of being available on Shaviro’s own web site.
Postmodernism: Let’s Go!
"To a postmodern sensibility, there’s no contradiction between cool and hot, irony and passion, playfulness and commitment, excitement and disgust, pleasure and anxiety, or camp distancing and involvement to the point of obsession." (from Chapter 1: Grant Morrison.)
"Sincerity is a postmodern malady." (from Chapter 2: Walt Disney.)
In his cover-shot, Shaviro - a teacher in literature and film - faces away but wrests his gaze for a brief glimpse of us. He recognises what he has written: Doom Patrols is a treatise that defies this very review. If there is no difference between cool or hot, camp and obsession, then how are we to accuse anything here of simple right or wrong, stupidity or perception to an nth degree? A mass of his dialogue is most likely bollocks; certainly much is almost impenetrable, compacted thought; mind-fucking inadequacy. And yet... and yet:
"It’s Bill Gates’s world; we just live in it... God, like Gates, has exactly the aggressiveness, the competitive drive, and the sense of entitlement you’d expect in a talented straight boy from a privileged WASP background."
If he builds it, we will come. Shaviro is good at that, lighthousing this ocean of punctuation, a beacon to pilot us through. And to the end is where we go, for no matter how annoying Doom Patrols gets ("detached from referential meaning; the mechanical piling up of fragments takes the place of organic completion or symbolic translation"), it remains compulsively readable. We have to find out who did it.
For every irritation (Chapter 7: Cindy Sherman, "all feminine coquetry and affectation"), there is real juice like the dissection of Twin Peaks in terms of child abuse (Chapter 14: Truddi Chase). Or the last and quite brilliant chapter on the enigma that was Dean Martin ("If Elvis ... is the triumphant product of processes of natural selection, then Dino is the anomalous, ephemeral, and sterile expression of an illicit counter-movement"). Tremendous stuff.
In the end the greatest trick Doom Patrols (the author’s world dissected in relation to the comic, not the celebrated POV-game) pulls is the very sobriquet postmodern itself; it is auto-reviewed. All Shaviro leaves with us are his own quotes. Pop will eat itself. We surrender." - Gerald Houghton

"...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." - Sheldon Robert Walcher

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