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  • If I Only Had a Brain
  • Steven Shaviro

Burroughs writes: “in this life we have to take things as we find them as the torso murderer said when he discovered his victim was a quadruple amputee.” Good advice for the anatomically deranged, like Cliff Steele. He’s a character in the DC/Vertigo comic book DOOM PATROL; I refer in particular to the issues written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Richard Case, between 1989 and 1992 (#s 19–63). Cliff has a problem with his body, you see. It happened like this. He used to be a daredevil racing car driver; he had a horrible wreck. Nearly all of him was burned to ashes, but they snatched his brain from the flames. And then they implanted that brain in a new prosthetic body, all shiny metal, ultra high tech, a veritable fighting machine. Now Cliff is the muscle of the DOOM PATROL, a brain turned into brawn. They expect him to be a macho bruiser, when actually he’s quite sensitive underneath. And to add insult to injury, they call him Robotman—a name he violently hates. What would that do for your sense of self-esteem? The life of a superhero these days! Cliff thinks of himself as just a regular guy; Robocop fantasies are the last thing on his mind. But with a metallic casing like this, he can’t exactly blend into the crowd. It’s what Baudrillard calls hyper-visibility, the postmodern condition par excellence. No chance of chilling out with a secret identity, like old Clark Kent used to do. All this metal is a clunky encumbrance, no matter how great its tensile strength. You know you’re in bad shape when you bang your head against a wall, and you still don’t feel a thing. At this point, Cliff doesn’t even really know what his body can do. How good is all this cyber-tech stuff anyway? How accurate and detailed is sensory input? How fast is motor response? What unaccustomed relays and connections now trigger the pain and pleasure centers in Cliff’s brain? Will he ever be able to taste and smell? Can he ever have sex again? What about getting drunk or stoned? “The only good thing about having a human brain in a robot body,” Cliff remarks sardonically at one point, “is that it’s easier to control brain chemistry.” Just the touch of a button, and anxiety is dissipated, alertness is heightened, or memory is enhanced. But alas, this techno-manipulation seems to work only for utilitarian ends, and not for hedonistic ones. “Our machines are disturbingly lively,” Donna Haraway writes, “and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” It might not be so bad, if only you could get used to the situation. After all, Descartes argued long ago that the body is a machine. It shouldn’t matter all that much whether metal or flesh is the medium. In either case, it’s simply a matter of mastering the electrochemical interface: regularizing chains of association, facilitating neural feedback patterns, reinforcing the appropriate re-entrant connections. In short, a question of recognition and memory, of cultivating habits over the course of time. The problem is that Cliff’s mechanical body never stays the same. He’s continually being sent back to the shop for upgrades and repairs. Transistors burn out; programming errors and faulty couplings throw him off stride. He gets into fights, and enemies regularly mangle his metal to bits. As if that weren’t bad enough, Doc Magnus (who built and programmed his body in the first place) and Niles Caulder (the Chief of the DOOM PATROL) tend to use Cliff as a pawn in their ongoing professional rivalry. Neither of them is content to let well enough alone; they are both all too eager to retool him in order to try out their latest cybernetic design ideas. And let’s not even think about those insectoid aliens who at one point fit Cliff out in a new metal carapace with six legs. Life in a robot body, even if you’re strong, is just one humiliation after another. The persistence of memory in the brain...