ISSUE #2: Mutagens of the Imagination by Luke Zeitlin

Grant Morrison The Invisibles comic, credit: Comics Alliance

“Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend most all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Normal science, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” Thomas Kuhn

While the ideas of Charles Darwin insure their own survival by successfully inseminating just about every possible academic and non-academic field, the extension of Kuhn’s model of scientific progress to anything outside of the hard sciences is sometimes met with scorn. This seems to be due to a disconnect between the methodological commitments of the sciences, and the moments of insight, imagination and creative thinking upon which they rely. Too little imagination and there is no progression, so we stagnate in the present paradigm, too much and functional rules are drowned in a phantasmagoric swamp of possibility.

We see this notion with the words of Elliot Carver, the techno-terrorist Bond villain: ‘The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.’ Killed by the very submarine-penetrating sea drill he devised, a victim of his own creative virility, our villain Carver ends up on the ‘insane’ side of his own measure, yet his point stands: Brilliance and madness share an origin in the other.

Tomorrow Never Dies film still

But where does this creative mutant fit into the modern sciences?

“Science is an unparalleled playground of the imagination, populated by unlikely characters with wonderful names (messenger RNA, black holes, quarks) and capable of performing the most amazing deeds: sub-atomic whirling dervishes that can be in several places, everywhere and nowhere, at the same time; molecular hoop-snakes biting their own tails; self-copying spiral staircases bearing coded instructions; miniature keys searching for the locks in which they fit, on floating odysseys in a trillion synaptic gulfs.” Daniel Dennett

For example: In genetics, a mutation is understood as a random, usually small, error that occurs in the chromosome as DNA self-replicates. If this error gives rise to less fit organism then it will vanish through natural selection, however, if this change is beneficial it will survive and contribute to the development of the species.

It has become acceptable to transpose this logic onto the social sphere; the vocabulary of genetics has itself mutated and found function as a descriptive tool for how we humans exchange ideas (or memes). This is useful, but not complete; the assumption that new ideas spring from errors in replication is counterintuitive to the experience of insight. The genetic analogy is not quite plastic enough to stretch around the abstract realm of insight, inspiration, realization, those ‘eureka’ moments.

However, it may be possible to look to another field, neuroscience, to provide a descriptive toolbox of terms for how we might think about thought. Common knowledge sustains that the left hemisphere of the brain deals with logic whereas the right hemisphere is in charge of creativity. Statements like this are usually followed with the qualifier that it is all, of course, rather more complicated than that, yet this image persists to shape our ideas of the creative left-hander as opposed to the rational right-hander. A coincidentia oppositorum of mutual benefit that Grant Morrison suggests is most accessible though the medium of graphic novels which, by means of both written words and images, ‘engages the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere of the brain simultaneously, so [the reader experiences] interesting holographic effects. Which allows comics to come alive in the way they do.’

While the physical differences in the hemispheres may be relatively minor, the symbolic difference between left and right becomes a tenacious idea. Thus the brain becomes, beyond it’s physical properties, a symbol of thought. As might be expected, studies show increased right hemisphere function during the process of insight, those ‘eureka’ moments. Increased activity in the superior temporal gyrus is also present. This is fascinating for our purposes, since this part of the brain deals with matching emotional responses to facial recognition, giving credence to at least the feeling that, upon solving a problem, the solution was not found ex nihilo, but recalled from a wider consciousness, waiting to be fit to the problem. This may account for phenomena like channelling, revelations and so forth. Morrison (the Scottish comic book writer of ‘The Invisibles’, practicing magician, alien abductee, etc.) has often espoused the theories of the psychologist Julian Jaynes, that development of the corpus callosum in early man caused broken communication between the hemispheres if the brain, this internal discussion was mistaken for messages from god. Here again, the science of the brain becomes fictionalized, turned into symbols for use in creative thought, a fantastical trope of such narrative gravity that it draws a plethora of ideas and archetypes into it’s orbit.

J.J. Kripal presents a list of these mythical tropes or ‘mythemes’ that, in a chronological reading, map the narrative development of current paradigms in SF and superhero comics. This mapping is, self-admittedly for Kripal, a fiction in itself, a ‘super-story’, yet it is a functional and pleasing one. It is a story of seven chapters: Divinisation & Demonization, Orientation, Alienation, Radiation, Mutation, Realization and finally Authorization.

A mutagen is ‘a substance which increases the spontaneous mutation rate’ of something like DNA’.

The story starts with Divinisation & Demonization; ancient cultures’ understandings of nature through the lens of animism. The next step is Orientation, a term which Kripal clearly applies to time and place referencing the rise of colonization, globalisation and the pockets of otherness are rapidly diminished. Developments in geology, astronomy and biology pushed notions of the old gods onto ever smaller and more obscure mental islands. This stage is Alienation for speculative thought turned to the extra-terrestrial to fill the vacuum left by the lost deities. Kripal then posits Radiation as the next formative insight – ideas of matter being comprised of pure, powerful, potential energy which mankind harnessed for both production and destruction on huge scales. This leads to the next insight: Mutation, causing evolution, progress and development. These stages come together to cause two final steps in the creative mind – Realization that narratives have, to some extent, informed reality rather than exclusively vica verca, that we all exist within a collaborative fiction over which the individual has minimal control. This finally advances to Authorization – the understanding that this super-story can be shaped and rewritten by us.

The Radiation and Mutation mythemes can be conflated by use of the biological concept of a ‘mutagen’. A mutagen is ‘a substance which increases the spontaneous mutation rate’ of something like DNA. For example X-rays, which will verifiably increase the mutation rate in fruit fly populations. Also ionizing radiation, radioactive material, another materials may have this effect by damaging DNA molecules.

In the worlds of comic books superheroes are often subject to these effects, for example a radioactive spider bites Peter Parker before he becomes Spiderman. Other characters in the Marvel universe are affected by a fictional mutagen ‘Terrigen Mist’. This very physical idea of mutation opens up a realm of possibilities for the characters. There are even more compounded examples of this principle in graphic novel literature – for instance Alan Moore’s work Promethea. In Promethea the protagonist Sophie Bangs, must summon Promethea by means of imaginative activity such as writing poetry. In this way the mutagen of possibilities is itself an imaginative practice where creativity is the mutagen.

So far there has been significant focus on scientific paradigms in relation to the stimulation of new ideas. This is of course the most obvious type of paradigmatic development to consider inspired by science fiction and superhero comics, but by no means the only one. Political development is also subject to transformative ideas and new perspectives.

Anonymous group wear Alan Moore's V mask

Few writers from the world of graphic novels have had more influence than Alan Moore; his plots and characters have influenced modern politics, especially the occupy movement: the Guy Fawkes mask of his character V has become the face of facelessness, commonly worn by members of the online ‘hactivist’ group Anonymous. On the other side of the argument, fellow graphic novelist, creator of Sin City and Dark Knight, Frank Miller, bitterly condemned the ‘99%’ as ‘nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia’. Whether this was a jealous outburst, sincere belief, wirily attempt to villianize himself and dramatize the whole situation, or any combination of the above, it shows the preeminent voices of comic book creativity as being most vocal on both ends of the political spectrum.

Fredric Jameson, in discussing the fiction of Olaf Stapleton, observes that ‘the fundamental dynamic of [utopianism] will therefore always lie in the dialectic of Identity and Difference, to the degree to which such politics aims at imagining, and sometimes even realizing, a system radically different to our own.’ The sceptic may (rightly) challenge the impact of such utopian visions on society such as H. G. Wells Men Like Gods (2011) or Aldous Huxley’s The Island (1962), or argue that imaginings of better worlds do little to improve our own, but the value of these stories becomes clear with the realization that we exist within these narratives – be it communist, capitalist, anarchist or anything else, each ideology represents a buying into a story-arc of opinions of progress, justice, sense of timescale and acceptable moral edicts. If we, for the sake of argument, continue to buy into Kripal’s story-arc just once more, then we can expect this realization to lead to authorization.

This insight into the realisation that we are being written, matures into the even more stunning idea that we can do something about this, that we can write ourselves anew. We do not need to be puppets at the mercy of some neurological programmer. We can become our own authors. We can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons are us.” J. J.  Kripal

In an understanding of the above quote, Kripal, Morrison, Moore or any others mentioned can be denoted didactic, or even proselytising. Yet it’s not a revolutionary concept, in fact children’s literature if full of it – from J. M. Barrie to Hans Christian Andersen, many makers of fairy tales and fantasies have been captivated and/or sought to captivate audiences with this notion. In Madness and Civilization (1964) Michel Foucault envisages modern society as having lost the perceived value of those social outliers that bring strange insights, a value that had existed in Renaissance and pre- Renaissance Europe. He claims that ‘modern man no longer communicates with the madman… the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue… in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out.’ Perhaps there is some truth to this, but I would argue that a dialogue still exists within the creative media.

Luke Zeitlin studies Religions at SOAS where he perused areas of interest such as mysticism and cosmologies of various traditions.

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