1.8.14

The Invisibles

I just checked and it's been five years since I read the first volume of The Invisibles. I picked up the rest of the series recently and started without going back to the beginning, and relaxed into it a lot easier this time around. It's a book you learn how to read, and I mostly did so by learning to let go of the need to make sense of everything. Having finished the series, I only have a vague idea of how the plot all fits together, and more importantly, no great desire to expend the mental energy to work it out. Warren Ellis, in his blurb for the final book, describes the series as like pop music: "about everything and nothing". The meaning is in the moment, and doesn't last much beyond it.

The series is built on an everlasting battle between order and chaos, and its evident which side Grant Morrison is on. Not being the impressionable undergrad the series is (overtly, judging by the end of the penultimate issue) aiming for, I found the anarchist politics in the book unmoving. To borrow John Gray borrowing Isaiah Berlin, liberty and security (more mundane terms for chaos and order) are both precious but also both incommensurable. They clash frequently, and the balance between them is the job of politics (rather than philosophy) to resolve. None of that subtlety is present in The Invisibles, but then Morrison's anarchy is less about the political and more about the personal.

The series champions individualism more than anything – the ability to author your sense of self, frequently against the prevailing culture you find yourself in. Conformity is a burden to be liberated from. The evil Archons are "only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called me". This line could refer to the social norms cast off as you construct your subjectivity, but the representation of the Archons as Lovecraftian monsters adds a more interesting gloss. A self made without reference to the world around you ("don't believe nothing you hear, trust what you know") is in some way ungrounded, a void. And reality can come to bite you as a result.

These ambiguities are rarely dwelt on throughout the series. One of the most interesting developments is King Mob's growing discomfort with the way his strong character can dominate over others, undermining his anarchist principles. This is ripe territory for a book about anarchism to explore, since one of the basic criticisms of the idea is that human beings create informal hierarchies even when formal ones are stripped away – so that even radically equal communities often end up with the more vocal and assertive out on top. However, King Mob's struggles with this dilemma (and his dependence on violence) are only briefly dealt with.

Likewise, Ragged Robin's anarchist ideals are also shaken by her masochistic sexuality – the discovery that she enjoys being dominated by King Mob in bed. Again, this would have been fascinating to delve into. Is such a sexuality socially constructed by a patriarchal society and therefore to be repudiated, or is such repression incompatible with a liberated spirit? Can a moral defence of BDSM be developed (that it's about trust rather than power, for example) or is that unnecessary? Morrison chooses to deal with Robin's conflict through metaphor (a telepathic war with Mr Quimper) where much of the nuance of the issue is lost.

Morrison states at the end a conviction that "we made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone". The line rings truer for gods than for jailers, which underlines the way Morrison's liberty is personal rather than political. As an aside, good luck trying to explain the origin of justice with reference to human psychology, I think you'll always get different answers. Adam Smith for example thought it was linked to a sense of resentment. David Hume probably had the right idea all along in seeing justice as established by convention and as a result of its utility.

But if Morrison commits to renouncing the moral and political institutions that structure our lives as members of society, he also cleverly undercuts himself with the final pun on "sentence". His book is another exhortation, another imposition on the reader's sense of self. And the reader is free to spurn its sentence.

Which is exactly what I plan to do.

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