How Gwenpool Knows the Unknowable (And Can We Do the Same?)
When someone “transcends” something, they seem to understand that thing on a heightened level, and come to view it as something distinct from themselves. You couldn’t transcend time and space, for example, while simultaneously existing within time and space – after all, in order to get the heightened understanding that comes with transcendence, you’d have to be outside time and space. In other words, understanding something objectively, from without, is inextricably tied to transcendence, for transcendence is characterized by a distanced position in relation to that which has been transcended. If the transcendent state allows one to understand time and space from an objective stance, then transcendence must situate one on a plane that is altogether distinct from time and space.
Makes sense? Good. Now that that’s all cleared up, let’s talk comics. In this piece, I’ll explore how The Marvel character “Gwenpool” transcends the reality of the Marvel Universe (i.e., its time, space, and materiality) by removing herself from it – and then I’ll discuss how (or if) we are able to the same.
Gwenpool understands the Marvel Universe (MU) on a deeply meta level. Specifically, she understands that the MU is a narrative that is beyond or apart from herself, and thus she is able to look reflexively at it, from an objective position. As a self-proclaimed “subversive, self aware commentary on cape-comics” 1 (who knows she lives within the confines of said comics), Gwenpool is able to remove herself from the pages that constitute her reality: she navigates her way through gutter space (the space between panels), jumps forward and backward through time, and acts against the authority of her authors. Her ability to transcend the MU’s time, space, and authorship is contingent on her knowledge of the MU, knowledge she attained as a Marvel fan in our “real” world. Gwendolyn Poole was, at one point, a resident of “our” universe; however, after becoming transported into the MU, she finds herself faced with the challenge of surviving in a world she knows to exist within a comic book. As a fan of the genre, she knows that “extras” – anyone who is not a costumed hero or villain – is nonexistent as a character. They occupy the background of a panel here and there, but because they have no story lines, they do not exist beyond these inconsequential appearances. Therefore, in order to stake a place for herself within the MU, to survive and exist within a world of fiction, she must don a costume and adopt a moniker befit for a “major” player in the MU with her own series: “Gwenpool.”
Using the narrative and concrete rules of the comic book world to her advantage, Gwenpool becomes what is essentially an omniscient character – her objective knowledge of the MU effectively translates to her transcendence of the MU. But how is this knowledge attained and/or constructed? In order to transcend reality, one must appreciate the universe as an enclosed system of time, space, matter, and energy that can be observed from without, as one might observe a text. To what extent is this possible for us, here in the “real” word? How can we separate ourselves from the reality in which we exist, as Gwenpool does with the MU? Is there a space outside ourselves or outside reality from which we can observe the universe objectively?
Historical Understandings of Transcendence
Behind the discussions that circulate philosophical, rhetorical, and literary discourses, lurking in the background, are the ever-present issues of “what is reality? Is it constructed internally or does it exist objectively/externally? If external, how can we access ‘reality’ (or ‘truth’) and subsequently articulate/describe it?” Either consciously or unconsciously, these debates surrounding the nature of “reality” engage with the issue of the human condition – i.e., how our subjectivity, or sense of self, determines our experience of the world, and how we understand that which exists beyond our capabilities of perception. Transcendence composes the fabric of these discussions because at their heart lies the issue of human capability, the question of what defines the human subject’s relationship with the universe. Implicit in trying to understand and articulate what reality is, and how it is perceived/constructed within the human subject, is the question of what the limits of the human condition are, and if/how they can be transcended. Can we perceive truth or reality in such a way that supersedes our natural (i.e., biologically determined) capability? What is the extent of our capabilities in the first place?
In 1842, American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson published “The Transcendentalist,” a lecture that aligned transcendence with idealism. Framing his lecture within the antimony between materialists and idealists, Emerson argues that the question of transcendence is a question of viewpoint: idealists, unlike materialists, do not understand the world in terms of the sensory information humans can interpret, but rather appreciate that the material world as we empirically experience it is mediated by processes of sensory perception. In Emerson’s antimony between the idealist from the materialist, the former is treated as a superior perceiver of reality because they appreciate it as something beyond what it appears to be. This level of perception is contingent on the idealist subject becoming distanced from their material world, to the point that they perceive said material world from a position that is not entrenched within it.
Abraham Maslow (writing in 1971) adopts a similar rhetorical strategy when enumerating the various meanings of transcendence, such as that of ego, time, culture, etc. 2 To Maslow, the premise of transcendence involves a deviation from our “typical” or subjective understandings of these constructs. That is, the transcendent state enables the subject to perceive that which has been transcended from an alternative viewpoint, a viewpoint from which some aspect of life that is typically perceived in a limited capacity becomes appreciated in terms of new meaning and from alternative perspectives. When Maslow describes transcending time, he describes seeing the tradition of academia “stretched way, way out into the future… [and] stretching out behind [him] into a dim, hazy infinity” (56); and thus in this transcendent experience, time stands “outside [his] own skin” (57). In this way, Maslow rhetorically lifts his subjective self from its place among the flow of time, transcending his individual moment in this temporal flow and appreciating it in its totality.
Emerson and Maslow engage the concept of transcendence at the nexus of what it means to understand things from a perspective that is distinct from the typical understandings of these things. They treat transcendence as an alternative position of rhetorical subjectivity: the transcendent subject is able to regard that which they have transcended from a position that is more etic than emic – or in other words, a position from which time, the senses, or the self can be perceived from outside the confines of time, sensory perception, or the self.
Gwenpool’s Brand of Transcendence
Gwenpool takes the concept of “removed subjectivity” or “objective subjectivity” and translates it to a level of meta-cognition. She does not take reality at face value – like Emerson, she “perceives that the senses are not final,” 3 – and thus she is able to externalize time and space into constructs that exist outside herself. Gwenpool is not confined to a “normal” perception of time and space because she can separate her subjectivity from these constructs and appreciate objectively how they function as narrative tools in the MU. She understands that the MU is the product of writers and artists, printed in comic books, and because she knows this, she transcends the spatial and temporal rules of the medium. Jumping out of panels, into gutter space, and between pages enables her to navigate both space and time in the MU with an omniscient level of agency. Gwenpool’s brand of transcendence, therefore, entails a complete separation of her own subjectivity from the universe in which she operates.
As important as what type of transcendence Gwenpool achieves, however, is how she is able to so. The methods of transcendence that are most pertinent to this discussion concern knowledge construction. Knowledge shapes reality, and therefore the ways in which knowledge is constructed determine the ways in which reality is perceived. In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, writers Chris Salter et al. examine the ways in which creativity, improvisation, and aesthetics function as “crucial epistemic tools,” arguing that purely scientific discourse cannot fully articulate the construction of knowledge. Like Emerson, they engage the issue of how empirical data is always mediated, contextualized, and framed within the human realm of thought, emotion, and narrative.
When Gwenpool finds herself trapped within a series of Marvel comics, she does not accept it as her reality at face value as the other inhabitants of the MU do (with the exception of Deadpool). Rather, she uses her knowledge of the fact that she exists within a narrative to separate herself from that narrative (which Deadpool cannot do). That is, she is aware of the comic books that contain and comprise her reality, and is consequently able to “see” them from a meta-position of God-like omniscience. Gwen’s form of transcendence, understood as a separation or detachment from the world in which she resides, is afforded by her knowledge of said world. But her knowledge of the MU is not constructed through scientific inquiry: she doesn’t observe, measure or interpret the empirical data of the MU, because she knows this information is inconsequential compared to the knowledge of who or what it is that makes and controls the MU. In other words, rather than try and understand what she sees, she seeks to understand why it is that she sees what she does. Gwen’s knowledge of the MU is constructed by narrative means, by stepping outside her reality to read it as a story – a material collection of comics that are written and drawn into existence by external agents. As one who once held the same position of externality, she shares the same knowledge of the MU as do its creators.
Because Gwenpool knows how the world of comic book fiction operates, she is able to “hack” its material and narrative structure. Time operates through space within the pages of a comic book, with future lying in pages to come and the past residing in pages prior. At one point in her story, Gwenpool encounters her future self, who tells her,“You’ve read the comics, and that means you know the whole story.” 4 Like all narratives, her plot – her world – advances with each turn of the page; and, appreciating this fact, Gwen traverses the temporal structure of MU as one might flip through the pages of a book. The fact that she appreciates her reality in terms of its narrative structure means that she is able to position her subjectivity outside this structure. That is, when she “steps out” of the panels, per se, and views the entirety of the MU as a spanning arc of pages past and pages to come, she occupies a viewpoint outside of space and time. In her “gutter-space world,” Gwen is completely removed from the fabric of the MU on every dimensional level – and it is this distinction of her subjectivity from her reality that allows the former to transcend the latter.
What Agency Does Transcendence Afford?
Gwenpool’s significance as a character and as a concept lies not only in the fact that she is aware of the narrative rules of the MU, but also that she uses this awareness to reshape her reality. Her view of the “cosmology” of the MU (i.e., its ontological rules a work of narrative fiction) would be insignificant if it did not result in a radical shift of her agency within that universe. In addition manipulating time and space, Gwen is able to engage her writers and artists directly in a battle for control over her destiny. She can come face to face with her creators – her writers, editors, and artists. For instance, in issue 20, Gwenpool faces a future version of herself that has become a major villain in the MU.She confronts this version of herself in the gutter space, wherein they both regard the spanning road of comics that contain their future. As they contemplate this spatio-temporal vista, the following dialogue takes place:
EVIL GWEN: If you keep going against what this universe wants for you, it’s going to give up, and it’s going to discard you… If you want to survive, then you play the villain. And look. You get to do it for a long time.
CURRENT GWEN: That’s my future?! That road of comics? … I will never do anything you did on those future pages. Do you understand? They will not happen.(Hastings, The Unbelievable Gwenpool, iss. 20)
In the next volume, when Gwen faces cancellation – because her series is not renewed – a wiser, future version of herself (not to be confused with the evil version of herself from the previous volume) descends through the gutter spaces of her final issue to offer words of comfort:
YOUNG GWEN: Someone is writing this, controlling it!
FUTURE GWEN: Not quite. Gwen, you were supposed to be a joke. Sell some comics, have a laugh and then be forgotten. But you hung around, and… people started to realize you and your powers were actually kind of a dangerous concept. You should be a villain. But you kept having a life of your own. You’re more in control then you realize … When you refused to turn [evil], you knew you were giving up your future. And you knew it in a real and concrete way that other heroes never get the opportunity to. You came here with the belief that none of the people here mattered because they weren’t real, and you’ve come all the way to giving up everything not to hurt them. You did become a hero, Gwen.(Hastings, The Unbelievable Gwenpool, iss. 25).
The fact that Gwen can separate herself from her reality allows her to navigate spacetime in the MU on an omniscient plane, and this position puts her in dialogue with the shapers of her destiny. That is, because she can see her future in the form of the pages of Gwenpool comics yet to come, she is able to question her destiny, and even act against it.
Be it through her ability to navigate time and space in the MU through “page hacks,” or her ability to speak against the authorial agency of her writers, Gwenpool explores the implications, consequences, affordances of transcending reality. In this way, she demonstrates the fact that “a cosmological shift is not just about knowing more, or knowing differently. It’s composed of a set of factors that… hold within it consequences that intersect with a larger tapestry of thought and life” (Reed, n. pag.). The acquisition of new knowledge not only reframes her understanding of her world, but also changes the agency she has over that world. Her transcendent perception of the MU affects her actions, her destiny, and ultimately her identity.
What Can We Learn From Gwenpool?
Many discussants of transcendence such as Emerson and Maslow suggest that the removal of one’s own subjectivity from his or her reality can be done only as a thought experiment. In contrast, Gwen does this literally: she is able to physically transcend fabric of the MU and actually see both her comic world and her place within that world from a removed position. Shifting her position of subjectivity within the MU to an objective view of the MU, she is able to understand its structures and thereby exploit them for her benefit, and take control of the direction her arc takes.
But now it is now time to ask whether or not there is any way we, in the “real” world, can observe, navigate, or defy the universe in the same way as Gwenpool observes, navigates, and defies hers. For those of us in this “real” world, our position of subjectivity is trapped within the reality in which it resides: we cannot regard our universe from a position outside the universe. After all, from where would one observe the universe in such an objective manner as Gwen observes hers? Is there a space outside space itself in which a subject might observe said space? For Gwen, it is the gutters of comics that provide such a “space outside space.” The “gutter world” is a realm outside the narrative stream of the MU, and is entirely distinct from this narrative’s spatio-temporal rules.
In our case, while it is theoretically possible to see the future or past through time dilation or relativity, and see/travel to other locations in space via wormholes, 5 these manipulations of time and space are not the same as Gwen’s, for she does not apply any scientific method to her world-bending methods. She is able to accomplish the feats she does because she understands her universe to a heightened degree, by engaging with it as a narrative rather than an assortment of measurable phenomena or sensory stimuli. The key to her manipulation of the materiality of her world is seeing it from her unique, outsider perspective. Her only “power” is that she knows she is in a comic book, in a story – but this knowledge is what affords her the opportunity to see her universe for what it is: a series of glossy pages with ink on them.
For Gwenpool, deriving “ultimate knowing” from a literary or storytelling framework – as opposed to a scientific one – is sufficient for attaining omniscient knowledge, for the “meaning” of the MU is based in the rules of storytelling. As literary critic David Herzberger states, “literature (storytelling) allows human beings to explore the essences of the world, but with the understanding that these essences are always transformed through the creation of new stories told from new perspectives” (n. pag.). Our understanding of the nature and meaning of the universe is represented through literary themes, archetypes, and symbols: elements of a greater narrative – or series of narratives – that is wont to change constantly given shifts in culture or science. All lines of inquiry concerning the nature of knowing and being (and the answers to which they lead) therefore fit into the premise of storytelling, for they are contextualized within the greater “narrative” of existence, a narrative we construct so as to better understand the universe as more than the sum of its parts, or more than what it appears to be at any given time to any given being. Gwenpool’s ability to recognize the MU as a narrative demonstrates “the capacity of stories to view the world from above and provide it with depth” (Herzberger, n.pag.). Here, “from above” is the crucial phrase: both Herzberger and I link the concept of detached subjectivity to a narrative-based perception of reality.
What can be taken from this is that knowledge (in the sense of what we know about the world), does not shape reality to same extent as does the way we see the world. I am not proposing that we should aspire to perceive our entire cosmos as a comic book; I am merely arguing that Gwenpool illustrates the fact that, given the right perspective, our subjectivity can be pushed as close as is possible to the asymptote of objectivity. If we understand the universe as a narrative that we can hold in our hands, as Gwenpool once held Marvel comic books in her hands, we can imagine ourselves as reading it as a text. We can look forward and back across time and space by analyzing patterns that manifest themselves over massive temporal scales.
Gwenpool’s meta nature highlights “the important difference between merely knowing and existing in what is known; an ‘existing in’ that entails working out how one navigates the world” (Reed, n.pag.). As we unravel more and more mysteries of the universe every day, we are faced with the philosophical task of understanding the implications of our discoveries – of deriving meaning from understanding. Gwenpool can help us with this task. For example, while she knows that she lives as a comic book character, she does not simply accept this fact: she explores how she can use this knowledge to navigate the MU, reclaim agency, and ensure her continuity.
As we discover more fundamental facts about our universe (such as pinpointing its exact time of origin 6), we must ask ourselves how we can use this knowledge to take a certain level of agency over the external world, or at least appreciate it in a more total or holistic way. For instance, as scientists hone in on the universe’s origins, unravel its composition, and identify its guiding forces, 7 we construct a narrative of existence, a narrative into which we must situate ourselves. Our knowledge of the universe contributes to an increasingly objective position relative to said universe, for increasingly “deep” understandings of the universe’s fabric and origins increases the scope of our viewpoint. With the awareness we are constructing everyday, we delimit our subjective position from our single moment in spacetime and begin to achieve a perspective that spans over all existence, from beginning to end.
Recall what Gwen’s future self says to her current self when the two come into conflict over the nature of her role in the MU (vis-à-vis hero or villain): “You’ve read the comics, and that means you know the whole story” (Hastings, The Unbelievable Gwenpool, no. 20). If we wish to understand the “whole story” of our universe, we must find a way to read the pages of this story, so to speak. Narrativizing our reality is one method by which we could attain such a distanced, objective look at our possible futures, and choose to act in such a way that will bring us to the one most desirable. More generally, such a narrativized view of reality affords the chance to imagine how the universe and all its time, space, matter, and energy will manifest themselves in the pages of existence that we are yet to experience.
- From Gwenpool Strikes Back, iss. 1 ↩
- From “The Various Meanings of Transcendence” ↩
- From The Transcendentalist, pg. 164 ↩
- From The Unbelievable Gwenpool, iss. 20.(NB: all quotations from Gwenpool retain original italics) ↩
- NB: I am by no means a theoretical physicist ↩
- See Evan Gough’s ScienceAlert.com article, “Astronomers Are Closing in on the Precise Moment The Universe Lit Up” (2019) ↩
- See Phoebe Southworth’s The Telegraph article, “Have Scientists Discovered a Fifth Force of Nature?” (2019) ↩
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