Sep 23, 2015

On the Run: Mark Waid’s The Flash - Part 3 - Ghost Story

If you’ll forgive the appropriation, in the era we’re considering, there is a spectre haunting the DC Universe—the spectre of Barry Allen.

I’m going to be a little more academic this time around than in the last couple of articles, and probably more so than in any of the ones that will follow. I suggested in my first Flash article that Barry Allen is a nostalgically-relevant character. Derrida calls it, in Spectres of Marx, “this first paternal character, as powerful as it is unreal, a hallucination or simulacrum that is virtually more actual than what is so blithely called a living presence.” There’s a lot to unpack there. The use of the term “simulacrum” immediately calls to mind Baudrillard and his musings on the postmodern, but I’m not sure that’s a line of questioning that is necessarily fruitful in thinking Barry Allen as spectre. Derrida notes, early in the text, that he makes a mistake in calling on the “spectres” of Marx, in the plural, as the first line of The Communist Manifesto, which I borrowed to open this piece, invokes a spectre in the singular. But this mistake is propitious, in that there are varied spectres of Marx, those that haunt his ideological children and those that haunt his ideological opposites. He calls this the “haunting obsession that seems…to organize the dominant influence on discourse today,” that “no disavowal [of Socialist thought] has managed to rid itself of all of Marx’s ghosts.” From this perspective, Marx, or his spectre, haunts the neo-liberal organizings of society and culture, haunts the hegemonic and the repressive. In some ways, too, this spectre haunts the Marxists, the Socialists, of the world. Derrida calls the “Marxist inheritance…absolutely and thoroughly determinate…We live in a world, some would say a culture, that still bears…the mark of this inheritance.” What Marx (and Engels, to be fair) have to say to us is still being said to us, still fundamentally describes a situation within which we all exist, regardless of whether we celebrate that situation or not.
But let’s move on from that. The notion of this haunting, of hauntology, is taken up in popular culture by thinkers of electronic music. Mark Fisher restates some of Derrida’s more impenetrable prose by describing hauntology as the “restatement of the key deconstructive claim that ‘being’ is not equivalent to presence.” By this point, if you’re still reading, you’re wondering what this has to do with the Flash. It’s this: Flash is a comic that is haunted by Barry Allen. Fisher phrases it thus, while discussing the hiss and crackle of a phonograph recording being redeployed in a contemporary piece of electronic music: “The surface noise of the sample unsettles the illusion of presence in at least two ways: first, temporally, by alerting us to the fact that what we are listening to is a phonographic revenant; and second, ontologically, by introducing the technical frame, the material pre-condition of the recording, on the level of content.” What I’ll argue here is that the costume that Wally wears is the equivalent of this crackle. We see Wally/Flash as present, as a character in and of himself. This is just not true, however.  Even Wally himself admits that he lives in the shadow of Barry Allen, that Barry Allen taught him everything, made him everything that he is. The costume is evidence. As with the crackle, it unsettles our illusion of presence by temporally constantly hearkening back to Barry Allen. Yes, there are slight variations, whether due to artistic license or to the active changing by Wally of the costume, but it is still fundamentally the costume that Barry Allen wore in comics for 30 years. As such, though we read a comic set, ostensibly, in the present, the costume is the crackle that reminds us that what we are reading is in some ways a “visual revenant.” From an ontological stance, what we might consider as the metatextual level of the costume’s unsettling nature, the “material condition” of the artwork, the concealment beneath the crimson cowl of an individual makes that individual virtually indistinguishable from any other piece of art featuring that character, past, present, or future. (For the record, later into the title’s publication history, Bart Allen dons the scarlet costume and, again, becomes indistinguishable from Barry or Wally.) Fisher says of this crackle effect “[w]e are suddenly made aware again of what the first listeners to phonograph recordings were acutely conscious: that we are witnessing a captured slice of the past irrupting into the present.” And is this not what we are seeing each and every time Wally puts on his Flash costume, a captured slice of the past irrupting, at high speed, into the present?
But so what? Comics have always had, or at least for a very long time now have had, this generational aspect to them, so what does it matter to note that this costume reminds us of a character long dead? Well, it’s not just us who are reminded. As I’ve just said, Wally is constantly reminded, and reminding himself, of all that he owes to Barry Allen. This legacy, as Derrida notes for Marx, is absolute and determinate. Be a hero, help as many people as you can. Be good. Be like me. Barry does not have presence in the comic, but he has being, and it is a being, a set of expectations laid down not only by the character but by the writers who have invoked him after death, that Wally, but certainly not only Wally, constantly struggle to live up to. What we, and Wally, wait for is the moment of fulfillment, either of the failure to live up to the being of expectation, or of the achievement of those things that we perceive as the fundamentalities of that being. These are two of the spectres of Allen that haunt us. And they do haunt us. We read The Flash are we’re intrinsically aware that there is this paragon, ghostly but a paragon nonetheless, to which our focal character, and we by association, must live up to. Wally tries. So do we. But how can we live up to something that simply has being? Is not presence, actuality, fundamentally influenced and changed by existence in a material realm? Being can exist outside of time, outside of causality. Presence is the manifestation of being in time. And time changes all things. If we are truly to exist as presences in this actuality, we must, to a certain extent, and to a greater extent than Wally has to this point, lay this spectral being aside, or manifest it and see what changes.
So we come to the section of the series I’ve called a ghost story. I think of it this way because we get to witness, sort of, the coalescence of the being into presence. Barry Allen returns. Imagine, for a moment, the celebration the world over if somehow Marx emerged unscathed from the clutches of death. Imagine every Marxist clamouring to study with him, to sit at his feet and hear his wisdom. Imagine his disappointment in how it’s all turned out. This is exactly what happens when Barry Allen returns to Central City and is confronted by what Wally has become, and by what has become of the world he left behind. We have seen, repeatedly, that one of the impetuses of Wally West’s life, of his time as the Flash, is to live up to the lessons he was taught, to make the world a better, safer place, just like his uncle did. He reacts exactly as one might expect when told that his efforts have been in vain, that he has failed, that the ghost he has carried around with him for years is disappointed not only in his performance, but in his appropriation of the ghost’s identity. Again, imagine Marx returning and telling every Marxist on the planet that they weren’t Marxists, that he was the only true Marxist.  It is, unsurprisingly, devastating. Now, because this is a superhero comic, and because to sully the name of Barry Allen in the DC Universe is tantamount to heresy, it of course turns out to not be Barry Allen. Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash who plagued the younger version of Barry in the recent Flash television show, has travelled in time, taken on Barry’s appearance and persona, and is wreaking insane havoc on Central City. It’s up to Wally to stop him. But this is a Wally broken, a Wally who has been told that he has failed to live up to the being that has accompanied him throughout his superheroic career. There is only one way he can defeat this villain, and that is to understand that the ghost he carries is one of his own making, that the pressures of the spectre of Barry Allen are illusory and that Allen was never the paragon that Wally has made him into; all he ever was was a man. With this realization, Wally takes his first steps to becoming something more.
It may seem silly, even ridiculous, to try to apply this Derridean notion of the hauntological to a superhero comic. What’s important to take away from the theoretical base is the idea of the being versus the presence. The being, the ghost, is never what was the original, but what we carry with us as our perception of the original. What this part of The Flash allows us to theorize is the way in which the present, the “presencing” of the being demonstrates this fact. When Derrida read his book, the neo-liberal machine may well have feared the spectre of Marx, but it was a spectre of their own conception, not anything intrinsically linked to the man himself, much as the revered spectre of the Socialists and the Communists is a spectre of their own conception. What is important, then, what Wally’s experience teaches us, is that it is in our own best interests to acknowledge that the ghost we carry is the ghost we made, and is not the person whose presence creates a shell around the being.
There’s a good chance that none of that made even remotely any sense, and a blog post is not necessarily the best place to try to work out the ins and outs of Derridean hauntology and its application to the superhero comic. As I was writing up one of my 40 Years of Comics posts this week, it occurred to me that Charles Xavier is a haunting presence in the Age of Apocalypse storyline. I likened his presence to that of the “Third Man” than numerous explorers into isolated parts of our planet have reported, a presence that is both individual and gestalt, a companion and another self. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to get at with my contention of the hauntological in The Flash, that the being is a companion and another self, but that we often forget that it is another self, and gift it with autonomy. But a ghost can’t have autonomy, only nostalgia, only construction. A ghost is a memory, all in our heads.
Wally moves on next time. He comes back to the world, runs into old friends, old lovers, and old enemies. Waid has told us a big story here, one that has forced both the readers and the character to rethink everything they thought they knew. He tells us some little stories next, the small steps Wally needs to take to come back from the shock of Barry’s return, and to come out from beneath the shadow he has been casting upon himself.

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