wax banks

second-best since Cantor

DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY (Douglas Adams, 1987).

Douglas Adams is my hero, and I loved this book (without quite getting it) when I first read it nearly 30 years ago.

I’ve just reread it for a workplace bookclub.

There are things to say.

Adams’s reputation rests on the first three Hitchhiker’s Guide books and particularly the first two, which are works of comedic genius on par with Wodehouse and Wilde. They’re dark books, but only in Life, the Universe, and Everything is darkness the primary colour. Not the least bit coincidentally, that was the first true novel Adams had written: the first two H2G2 books adapt (‘novelize’) his own landmark radio serials, and move between comic setpieces at sometimes frightening speed. Nothing in the first two books outstays its welcome — you want more of everything. They’re magical novels, both intellectually serious satire and perfectly pitched farce. But Life (not Liff), his best Proper Novel, needs not only to be hysterically funny but to work at a structural level the earlier books don’t even try for. And this wasn’t Adams’s strong suit. He only pulled it off the once.

Life is a sublime book. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is a good book that I’ve never, ever wanted to reread. Mostly Harmless is a lugubrious book, and reads like a suicide note; Adams all but disavowed it, and you can’t blame him.

Dirk Gently combines elements of Adams’s late-70s Doctor Who serial ‘Shada’ with a modern-London setting, and lands somewhere between the sometimes-laboured So Long and the leaden Mostly Harmless. Dirk himself isn’t yet fully formed — no wonder, as he only turns up halfway through the book — Richard is a crashing bore, the sf and ‘literary’ elements seem respectively halfhearted and half-finished (Adams himself acknowledged that the Coleridge ending makes little sense), and the whole thing feels like a short story’s worth of plot stretched to novel length.

Worst of all: it’s not particularly funny.

Dirk, like portions of Life and all of the suggestively titled So Long, feels like an attempt to off the mantle of ‘funny sf writer.’ The trouble is that the heady intellectualism and philosophical savagery of his early/best work would’ve been unbearable without his ensemble-comic release valve — I’ve written about the series’s carnival of horrors before. Adams’s early books are welcoming, they’re high spirited, but they’re not gentle or light; there’s just no time to weep because there’s a great joke every other sentence. Dirk Gently, on the other hand, spends pages at a time on dreary evocations of dreary landscapes populated by dreary characters; partly that feels like perversity, partly like Adams growing enamored of a story set in his own daily life-world rather than Wacky Sci-Fi, even of a satirical sort. Richard’s life isn’t remotely interesting, Gordon Way is barely a character at all, Susan feels like a portrait of someone in Adams’s life whom he can’t/won’t exaggerate into a figure with any comic juice…Adams binds himself to our world, and as So Long already demonstrated, he never quite thrived there. Unlike his parallel-writer Terry Pratchett, he couldn’t write warmly without getting bogged down — he was most at home in the vast cold emptiness of The Galaxy. And he obviously didn’t have Pratchett’s affection or knack for carefully plotted novels; his heart wasn’t in them.

So Dirk Gently isn’t a successful novel; it’s a middling novel written by a genius who’s stepping out of his comfort zone and isn’t quite sure what to do next. Halfway through the six-year span between So Long and his angry sad beautiful travelogue Last Chance to See — which he’d follow with Mostly Harmless, his last real book — Adams wrote about a milquetoast Englishman yoinked around by a charismatic asshole whose head contains stuff he’d rather not deal with, the old spaceship-flying eccentric who shows them what the universe is really like,1 the sensible woman who’s mostly in the background, and a robot with a serious emotional disorder. Perhaps the problem is that the book lacks its Ford Prefect: the character with a dramatic arc to follow…

I enjoyed reading Dirk — like I said, Adams is my hero, one of my favourite writers, and I intuitively understand his books’ emotional and intellectual spectra — but I fear I’d only recommend it to DNA completists.

Sidenote: Now I want to read one of Aleister Crowley’s ‘Simon Iff’ stories — or one of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’ stories. I do wonder whether they were direct influences on/inspirations for Dirk himself…


  1. Yes, I’ve just noticed Slartibartfast’s own resemblance to the Doctor. In my defense, I’m no Whovian. 

Sat or day.

One of those days. Vaccine dose #2, exhausted, all over the place emotionally, failing at everything I try, barely trying. Deleted all my old tweets. Deleted dozens of old Slack messages from the #random channel at work. Sick of overreacting. Sick of inanity. Sick of isolation. Sick of tinnitus and randomly assorted myalgia and a dry throat.

A bear of a summer to look forward to.

Steaks: low.

Lance Mannion died — real name Dave Reilly, was a well known figure in ‘left blogistan’ back when that phrase meant something, back when I used to post thousands of words a week to my own Typepad blog. He started his blog in 2004 and kept it up until his death. Respect.

This week I went home — my other home, I mean, the village where I grew up in Western New York. I say ‘village’ though my family actually lived in a hamlet (pop. 800) bordering the town (pop. 1,500) which contained the village (pop. 500 then, now down to 380), and my school was actually in the next town over (pop. 2,000). Well I went there anyway, handled some things, and one night in the hotel I thought that I’d forgotten how to sit down and just write. My daily leisure/work activity, one of my life’s loves. No idea. It comes and goes, I guess. What was missing was wanting: I couldn’t write because I didn’t know how because I didn’t want to, really, though I wanted to want.

Wanted in other words to believe myself whole. I’m tough to convince.

All through spring and summer I worked on the tarot book. It’s a ‘book,’ did I tell you? I printed a couple copies just to get a feel for it in the hand, see if the pages were page-sized, if I could stomach the ‘style’ and ‘personality’ and ‘dubious fact-claims’ of the thing. My first response:

… And was shocked to find that the early chapters, on the ‘earthly’ trumps, are much better than I’d given them credit for, while the later chapters just tired me out. … Anyhow I’m proud of myself for having written it, and proud of having faced my ambivalence to read and discover and be surprised. Proud of giving myself the opportunity to be proud.

Well, it’s a book. Next question is is it a good one, and no I think no I won’t no — it’s maybe a good something but prolly a middling book. Or else I’m being too hard on myself. Or else I just can’t tell it’s too close it’s too personal. Or else I can’t yet tell and need someone else to read it. But then once read it schrodingers into being for real and how can I back out? Who’m I obliged to at that point? On the other hand I had that shit novel from 2008 that I binned without great regret after a couple of people read it without great pleasure. Precedent: there is it.

You didn’t come for this sort of thing, we know. We sorry.

DECLARE by Tim Powers.

I just finished reading Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides, a lesser novel that shares some of Declare‘s unique strengths but all of its weaknesses. Here’s how I responded to rereading the better book earlier this year, the usual sorta first-draft message to myself:

The other day I was thinking about ‘secret history’ — of which Declare is said by some aficionados to be the premier example — as structurally akin to high modernist mythicization: sfnal (rationally extrapolated history) cousin to the fantastic (mythically interpolated psyche) playform which characterizes the literary domain of Graves, Joyce, Woolf, as well as the paraliterary domain of Freud and Jung. (Lovecraft used the tools of secret history to write fantasies of negative theophany.)

(Maybe interpolation and extrapolation should be inverted there, vis-à-vis sf/fantasy? Leave that aside, along with the controversy over whether Declare is sf at all. (It’s not.))

I’ve written too about conspiracism as a sort of degenerate secret history: the easy, anti-mysterious answer to all questions, vs the evocative/mysterious questions raised by seeing things clearly. This was too simple but hopefully retains value as a critical provision.

Tim Powers writes secret histories in which conspiracy features prominently. This seems like the obvious/necessary approach to the genre; it’s hard to have a secret history without secret relationships, though in Declare Powers is working in Le Carré’s conspiracy-of-spies domain, which turns out to be the perfect genre-peg on which to hang the necessary infodumps and parallax-inductions. Declare is a secret history of the Great Game and the Cold War — and because it’s a specifically Catholic one, i.e. a story in which Catholic metaphysics are just physics and baptism confers very real magical qualities, there’s a built-in esoteric/exoteric theological boundary that perfectly mirrors the now-traditional spy-story shape (‘the further in you go, the deeper it gets’). This is a story perfectly suited to Powers’s strengths.

That said — and I want to get this part down well before the end of my response — Declare also highlights Powers’s weaknesses, especially his total inability to write women. Powers is considerably worse at women characters than Le Carré, whose ice-cold moralism enabled him to depict their compromises and amorality in terms consistent with The Lads; Powers’s women are all special cases, desire-objects, plucky and willful but ultimately differing in kind from the men in their natures. Declare is partly a love story, but the spy Elena is literally a prize to be won, her Communism an obstacle to overcome. It is the story of Andrew Hale’s love, and of the woman/symbol he loves — tellingly, it’s implied that by the end of the novel Hale hasn’t loved or indeed fucked anyone in decades because of his sentimental attachment to Elena…yet Powers writes, at book’s end, that Hale hasn’t allowed himself to think about Elena for more than a moment. This is ludicrous; indeed it’s a mistake. In a book where the spiritual nature of marriage ends up playing a geopolitical role, where the fate of empires hangs on the thwarted-transcendent love between two Catholics, it’s maddening and insulting that Powers appears to grant the Lady Love Interest no erotic agency or identity beyond the protagonist-circle — and appears, too, to cut off the erotic imagination of the hero at the same boundary.

(Kim Philby, Declare‘s villain and history’s own, just loooooooves fuckin’. Encountering this tiresome moral schema in a story where the conservative Catholic Powers’s metaphysical beliefs are literally true — and where Catholicism itself is a life of noble suffering — one finds oneself prompted to unwanted, uncharitable thoughts about Powers himself.)

Along with Powers’s questionable command of character, however — or let’s grant him the large benefit of a small doubt and say questionable approach to it — comes a great consolation: a vivid (if at times abstract or impressionistic) sense of setting, and an extraordinary gift for drum-tight magical plots that relate organically to an impeccably researched real-world history. In his afterword to Declare, Powers describes its genesis in his reading about Philby and T.E. Lawrence; it’s actually an important part of the book. Powers’s attention to seemingly irrelevant weirdness — details that arose in actual history but which don’t feature in our consensual History-Tale, the shallow highlight reel which is our fading shared memory — is the core of his method and his books’ appeal. I’m reminded of GRR Martin, actually, whose fans point to his rendering of history as a series of paths-not-taken, mixed motivations, and unanswerable questions. (What were the many purposes of the great tourney at Harrenhall, an event almost entirely irrelevant to Martin’s present-time potboiler plot yet central to the two-generation historical narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire? That’s the sort of thing Martin-obsessives fret about.) Powers and Martin are willing/compelled to sacrifice certain literary comforts at the altar of a rigorous historical consciousness; both tell stories of locomotive force that sometimes have an unexpected anticlimactic quality, as story-elements reinsert themselves into history.

But Martin gets people, and Powers doesn’t seem to — which tilts Martin toward a grotty ‘realism’ and Powers toward archetypal horror. (I’d kill to read Powers’s take on Martin’s dragons; and we deserve Martin’s version of Elena.)

Declare isn’t fundamentally about the Great Game or fallen angels, it’s about a man born in a puzzle-box declaring for transcendent love against cynical materialist unlife; yet Powers (like Martin, unlike Martin’s TV adapters) is too committed to his magical storyworld to allow it to collapse into a simple stage-set. His story keeps (respects) history’s shape, and Declare‘s heroes feel like the game’s players rather than its purpose. Here, unlike in his other novels I’ve read, Powers’s history and metaphysics are perfectly aligned in narrative-mechanical terms. Hale’s decades-long hero-quest to find Elena and save her from the cruel Philby overflows, or rather interleaves with, the spy-story genre-frame; the war-in-heaven, the Great Game, and the love story share stakes — and asymmetry. Hale knows he serves the side of holy light, of God/England, and his willingness to die on history’s behalf marks him as heroic. (‘They also serve…’) One key element distinguishing Powers from Le Carré is that, in Powers’s telling, the West’s victory in the war against the Russians/Soviets is unproblematically As It Should Be; the Good guys do bad things, but that in no way compromises their Goodness. Powers’s politics are subsumed in his moral schema, which makes for bad historical analysis but great storytelling.

(The Russians serve a not-solely-metaphorical ghul after all, whose power is in a sense the essential meaning/nature of the Russian/Soviet Empire; and did I mention she takes the earthly form of an erotically intoxicating Arab woman? No? And here you thought Powers’s girl problems ended with actual girls…)

Is Declare a good book? It’s fucking great! Better than I remembered, better than I originally thought, as good as Ken Hite always said. But it’s narrowly great, so to speak.

Which might just be the cost of doing genuinely original work. Declare‘s weaknesses seem to be Powers’s own — the same ones that colour The Anubis Gates and Last Call and Three Days to Never and On Stranger Tides — and here he comes closest to surmounting them. Like its author, the story is perfectly itself. You and yours should be so lucky.

Duration.

15+ years ago my friend Farhad used the phrase ‘duration music’ and it stuck with me — under my craw in fact. In fact, enough that I’m thinking about it this morning.

I just listened to Loscil’s Triple Point while plowing the sidewalk slush. Hourlong album, sounds and feels like one song.

So:

Beyond the usual pop/rock/funk/whatever, my music listening often tends toward a mix of the ‘old-fashioned’ (jazz, classical), the psychedelic, the ambient-electronic. These have ‘duration’ in common. As a kid I’d throw on my mom’s Beethoven records and ride out for a half-hour and more on a single multipart composition; in college I’d listen to an hourlong continuous jam by Phish, then rewind the tape and listen again. They Might Be Giants write perfect 3-minute pop gems, but queue up three in a row and you’re essentially having a continuous TMBG experience, long talk in an alien language — how long does the music need to play before its character changes, or yours does, and the listening rather than the playing becomes the locus of temporal identity? Is a long listen to short tunes a thing in itself?

Trout Mask Replica and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts don’t sound much alike, but it seems to me they have a related psychotropic effect; is there a metagenre — of reception-posture rather than performance-form; perhaps we should speak of a ritual role — which they can be said to share?

Or does ‘duration’ relate to ‘enduring such repetition’? And what’s the point? By so enduring, what do you break through to?

The Loscil album — his first: minimalist ambient techno, pretty/empty — is an hour of almost undifferentiated drone-baths and bleeps and pressure-differentials (excuse me, ‘beats’), like a row of computers trying not to interrupt each other while taking the SAT. There’s not a single moment of the album that demands or even rewards attention, and while I’ve heard it enough to recognize the first two tracks, the rest of the hour has no identity at all. I want to say it’s ‘egoless’ music, in a sense, except that it takes some ego to think that such (any) music needs to be made and shared. Maybe not much.

And I’m glad it does exist. While Zero Point excites no passion in me at all, no emotion of any kind really, it forms an important part of an outer/inner experience that I do treasure. Like Stars of the Lid, And Their Refinement of the Decline — like Adderall, or so I hear — Zero Point grants access to a powerful realm of action.1

Even the action of sitting very still, of cultivated ‘inaction’; though of course not only that.

One of my favourite activities used to be going out on a late-night errand, ideally grocery shopping, with 88.1 FM on the radio, whether on the car stereo or in the headphones. MIT’s WMBR — Walker Memorial Basement Radio — is Boston’s best and most interesting station, and night they generally play a strange spacey mix of tunes, from goth-wave melodrama to psychedelic soundscapes to experimental improvised rock-noise to the usual electrobleep wallpaper-glitches that apparently substitute for womb sounds among helicopter-parented Gen Z kids. I love it; to me the whole mix signifies darkness-as-permission and I’ve been grateful for the WMBR DJs’ night-journeys since arriving in Boston nearly a quarter-century ago.

I wouldn’t call my night-listening ‘habitual’ now, not only because I’m not around the car radio much now. But it’s unquestionably a ritual headspace I return to occasionally at what I determine, according to some improvisatory whim, to be the right moment. It’s not solely curiosity that pushes me to WMBR at those times; I do occasionally wonder what’s on, but that wondering needn’t propel me to listen, necessarily. There’s plenty else on. Rather, it’s a kind of conscious openness that motivates me to tune in. From time to time, I’m ready/able to receive transmissions on a certain (metaphorical) frequency, and that readiness can manifest as listening to WMBR’s literal broadcast frequency…but less literally/simply, too, it means relaxing my grip enough that my continuity of experience is restored (to me). Is that ‘holism,’ is that entry to an altered state through ‘holistic’ practice?

Call it instead ‘psychedelic’ experience, which is absolutely (nondeterministically) linked to ‘duration,’ as to disjunction and a matrix of perceptual contrast-effects: continuity where ending should come, precession and peak and recession and then weird dissipative wobble where clean lines are customary, sad mad fluting out of a clear night, music coming in colours, backward speech, secret speech, angel-voices booming through the Heaviside layer on a clear channel, wisdom from a stone, a plant, a kiss. Psychedelia’s stylistic link to rainbows and spectra flows from the quality — not solely attributable to psychotropic chemicals — of a reconstituted continuity, the erosion and smoothing of sharp artificial edges between domains of experience, action, sense, feeling.

An imaginative posture of receptivity, or more precisely one of a range of such postures, marks the psychedelic experience as much any formal quality of text/place/act. And as with (say) performing a demanding series of yoga asanas, to enter into a state of psychedelic openness takes not just time but a long damn time. Not only that: while psychedelic experience is often the furthest thing from ‘relaxing,’ it does call for the mind-body complex enter into a sort of fluid flow state, grounded, corners rounded, different in kind from the ‘continuous partial attention’ (i.e. managerial disconnection) of ordinary time. In other words: acceptance of, or let’s say ‘authentic engagement with,’ the flow of things — even things that won’t flow. Psychedelia is about getting deep with it, whatever ‘it’ is.

Not to say, of course, that great psych-art can’t be discontinuous and disturbing and aggressively weird — there’s nothing rounded or flowy about Trout Mask Replica or Apollo 18 — but rather that you need to come to such art ready to ride out the experience. You’ve gotta commit. This is one reason corporate ‘mindfulness’ practices are so ugly and transparently fraudulent: they’re precisely and explicitly about ‘microdosing’ practices (e.g. breath meditation) which, sustained in their proper measure, would make consumers less susceptible to the motivating/dehumanizing anxieties of corporate anticulture. A one-minute break to breathe really is purely good for you, but the last thing your HR Team Lead actually wants is for you to attain inner peace, or even to pursue it.

That’s not what they pay you for.

One reason psychedelic culture is so preoccupied with ‘ancient wisdom’ — one non-silly reason, that is, there being plenty of silly ones, as well as an assortment of particular social-historical contingencies which this essay is waaaaaaay too fucking broad-brush to be concerned with — is that sinking into psychedelic experience, drug-induced or not, calls for an imaginative flexibility (or even-temperedness, good nature, conscious embrace of contingency/paradox/uncertainty, etc.) to which bite-size fluorescent antiseptic analytical clocktick stutter-step stop-motion modern being(-barely)-in-the-world is not just incompatible but actively hostile. The least intrusive portion of our modern existence is night, when we’re least accessible to surveilling power, least jittery, least often interrupted and interfered with, restored to ourselves by depletion, drifting toward dream: i.e. least modern, most like our ancestors. Sleep is a thing they and we share, and dream. In the shadow-time inbetween days, between forced submissions to more and less obviously hostile systems of external control, the discretizing rationalizing systematizing abstracting intelligence which serves Good Order can recede and a different faculty assert itself, something deeper down, scarier — (dis)quiet connection, (dis)solution…an encounter, there, for which the human mind has always been equipped by evolutionary accident, and which calls forth not daybroken intelligence but nightlit wisdom…

So I put on this Loscil album, right? And if it’s the right depth of dark and I’m the right sort of ready (or ready to be ready), I go to a place that’s no place, an inner state in which I’m coolly attentive to the curve the music makes where/when I am, but without demanding that the music (or where, when, Self, cool, inside) submit to whatever of day’s rationalizing demands I might unthinkingly pass along — ‘transmit,’ to borrow the obvious epidemiological term. That state might not be relaxing in itself, but at some level you have to relax into it, to defocus and suspend perception of fine-grain topology in order to bring slower contours into your listening-consciousness; paradoxically this can be hard work, as any woman who’s given birth can tell you. It’s a standard drug-trick too but not only that. Various kooks and goofs will talk about ‘deeper awareness’ and respectable sorts will laugh, are trained to laugh — but why wouldn’t there be a cognitive equivalent to deep-tissue massage, and why wouldn’t it too involve slow strokes and sustained pressure?

Magical texts suggest two sets of techniques for inducing ekaggatā or single-point awareness: the inhibitory and the excitatory, respectively the quieting/collapsing of awareness and its intensifying/fracturing, both resulting in a posture of clarified, ego-suppressive awareness. This is magical consciousness — psychedelic experience — and common to both inward/outbound paths is time, which is to say devotion. One aspect of devotion is burning off enough fuel to get rid of jittery self-consciousness, accepting the nature of the thing itself, working hard enough that basic depth-maintenance isn’t such hard work anymore.

(Imagine your first swim teacher gently holding you at the water’s surface, encouraging you to relax and float; imagine somebody else yelling ‘Just relaaaax!’ from somewhere outside the magic circle.)

Our specific terms here are from Peter Carroll in Liber Null, but students of tantra, BDSM, Ritalin, video games, William James, any intellectual endeavour requiring multiple hours of sustained concentration, or music that goes so fast that it feels slow, will recognize thesis antithesis and synthesis. Indeed, Carroll’s work was explicitly agnostic as to method:

Certain forms of gnosis lend themselves more readily to some forms of magic than others. The initiate is encouraged to use his own ingenium in adapting the methods of exaltation to his own purposes.

‘Methods of exaltation’ sounds like Eliade’s ‘techniques of ecstasy,’ which is perhaps to say2 one measures a circle beginning anywhere.

And our point here — intentional or emergent — is that we might think of Loscil’s synth patches and Carroll’s magical trances and Fort’s adventurous-expectant circle and Eliade’s technicians, along with Sun Ra’s spaceship and William Gibson’s typewriter, as points or ranges within a shared domain of human (and indeed transhuman) experience. Or—

Or no, maybe our point is that ‘intentional’ and ’emergent’ aren’t opposites.

Cambridge MA : February / April 2021


  1. I wrote about And Their Refinement and its place in my ritual-listening for the 33-1/3 B-Sides anthology from Bloomsbury. 
  2. (after Charles Fort, but I hope you knew that already) 

In the dungeon, March 2021.

On weekends I run a D&D game for my son and a few of his friends. We use Zoom, ‘theater of the mind’ style (I’ll show them a dungeon map from time to time to orient them spatially). Last time out, the kids looted the treasure room of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, finding enough gold and jewels to set them up for a long journey, along with a slew of odd magic items.

My view of D&D magic is this: ‘magic’ entails ‘mystery,’ so I’m not interested in a fully knowable, ‘rational’ system — only a (largely) learnable one. Banshees don’t follow the same ‘rules’ as the PCs, but tomorrow’s banshee should be recognizably the same Kind of Thing as today’s. I don’t care what level spells Gandalf has access to, only that he feels like Gandalf. This fantasy-logic extends to the magic items the kids found in the vault, taken from a handful of OSR blogs:

  • magical gum that, when spat out, creates a homunculus of the chewer
  • a magic flute that calls money to it
  • a monocle that causes entropic collapse of whatever is seen through it — but this takes a long long time

The kids lucked into killing a basilisk, and in a moment of desperation the bard decided to stick its eyes into his own eye-socket, which was conveniently vacant because he was wearing a magic eye-removing ring he’d earlier found. My quick ruling: replicates the basilisk’s gaze, but only as a one-off effect, and starts to decay pretty fast inside the skull. Gross, rewarding, and now he’s got the other eye in his hat, in case they get into another tight spot. I consider this a big win all around: the bard had a clever, gross idea, and the world got both more knowable/manageable and stranger.

My son, meanwhile, decided he wanted a basilisk-scale cloak. Took the scales to a leatherworker in Bernt Arse. Then robbed the trading post in Bernt Arse along with the thief and the bard. Now he wants to head back into the village to retrieve the cloak — but of course the village watch is looking for them. I don’t wanna hit them with the double whammy of near-death and a useless cloak…so I think the basilisk scales give some kind of light magical protection, but they’re really heavy, interfering with stealth. This means chucking out my original Theory of the Basilisk, but I’m happy to roll with this new ruling as long as it creates interesting choices for the crew.

One of the kids has been crowned Goblin King.

On the ‘Hour of Slack’ (another excerpt from syllabus-mss in progress).

You know the drill. –wa.

Hour of Slack

Idiotic freeform radio show out of…Texas, I believe, now relegated to the Internet with the rest of the culture-corpses. For a time Ivan Stang’s radio bullshit was a beacon of performative insanity, audio nonsense as media critique, lashing out at the absolute hollowness of postwar consumer culture (rather a grand term; ‘shopper culture’ seems more appropriately derisive?) while functioning too as an actual-existing cynical cult — a meta-cult maybe. I mean you can still pay them, though I’m not sure you’d want to. Anti-heirs to the Discordians — neurotic not sociable, pissed off not agog, their sarcasm at the reader’s expense instead of the Man’s — the Subgenius represent(ed) a once-hyperlocal adolescent-male response to postwar conformity, religious and secular; their milieu was both millennarian and terminally late, both nervous about the coming millennial apocalypse and cynically certain it wouldn’t matter anyway since everything was bullshit. Their yetis and UFOs and false gods scan now as an expression of disappointment in the failure of late-20C fantastic to get the guys laid or at least deliver flying cars, poisoned too by uncertainty over whether the atomization which drove late-20C conspiracists/cults (crazy/nowhere) was their own fault. It’s not, not really, but you kind of want to blame them for it anyway, since they’re assholes. Funny ones.

And that’s baked right into the premise: Stang and his fellow (former?) stimulant addicts are at least smart enough to realize, here in late middle age if not before, that the ‘Bob’ pseudocult’s full of people who came within a hair’s breadth of an uglier life by picking up the Principia Discordia (or Penthouse) as teenagers instead of Atlas Shrugged. I think the unpleasantness of it all is accounted for; it must be. So then the melancholy self-consciousness I pick up from peak-era Subgenius stuff is probably bleeding through from High Weirdness by Mail, Stang’s sarcastic denigration/appreciation of hyperlocal 80s mail-order weirdo culture. That book’s a glorified listicle but really does possess a profound loneliness — the loneliness of the Max Fenig character on The X-Files, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (‘Meet me in Montauk’) — and the Subgenius’s whole borderline-Extropian ‘street corner prophet’ shtick has always sounded to me like the prelude to a nervous breakdown, which I’m guessing Stang would say is societal not personal (and HWBM gets entered as evidence either way). The sole recognizable human feeling in the Subgenius act is resentment, which is fun for a while, and the open wound that High Weirdness by Mail represents is probably the reason why. You can only live lonely for so long.

On POEE (excerpt from syllabus-mss in progress).

From the ‘syllabus’ section of the endlessly gestating manuscript in progress. –wa.

POEE

The Discordian Society is a perfect example of late-20C antirationalist cultural practice — a bong-hit spoof on (dis)organized religion as wise as any real one:

To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order, is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder. To accomplish this, one need only accept creative disorder along with, and equal to, creative order, and also willing to reject destructive order as an undesirable equal to destructive disorder.

The Curse of Greyface included the division of life into order/disorder as the essential positive/negative polarity, instead of building a game foundation with creative/destructive as the essential positive/negative. He has thereby caused man to endure the destructive aspects of order and has prevented man from effectively participating in the creative uses of disorder. Civilization reflects this unfortunate division… (from the Principia Discordia)

I’ve had a POEE membership card in my wallet since 1995, printed in the office of our church rectory and ‘laminated’ with scotch tape. I do not take this seriously or literally, but I’ll fight you over it. Or not — probably not, I dunno, that does seem like a lot.

The Principia Discordia (first published in skeletal form 1963, greatly revised and expanded throughout the 60s) is, or at any rate should be, one of the key texts of the American counterculture. Its comic invocation of the Bavarian Illuminati links it to the late-20C conspiracist fringe, as do its odd connections to Jim Garrison and Lee Harvey Oswald. (Kerry Thornley, one of the original Discordians, was a buddy of Oswald’s, etc.) The book combines the vaguely ‘eastern’ wisdom and pop syncretism of the 60s occult revival with a loving/critical evocation of backpage mail-order weirdo culture, forming a bridge between a beatnik’s chaotic but largely harmless vision-quest and the (virtual) street-corner ranter figures of the Church of the SubGenius (whose messiah figure is a pipe-smoking 50s salesman-cartoon named JR ‘Bob’ Dobbs). There’s a juvenile sexual curiosity to the Principia, which after all is subtitled ‘How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her,’ but it’s genuine curiosity.

Mind you, the most important thing about Discordianism is that it’s funny — it’s a good time. The jokes don’t all work, but a lot of them do, and the best of them bring across stoned-intellectual insight, but the fact that a genuinely productive critique of religious piety can be so welcoming and lively is itself a decent critique of piety. There isn’t actually a system to Discordianism, of course, but of course that’s part of both the joke and the message; Erisian nonsense demonstrates that devotion to self-consciously antirational, anti-systematic weirdness can generate magical effects. (‘Chaos magic’ is a similarly inspired but at times disappointingly self-serious cultural sequel-strain.) Crucially, Discordianism ‘works’ even though everyone involved knows it’s a joke, indeed because everyone knows that; the idea that theophany is delayed or occluded by theology is intuitively obvious when you’re dancing (or playing SINK), and the quoted passage above — on the Curse of Greyface, i.e. the moralist-dualist trap — is an abstraction formulation of the Principia‘s bisociative principle. Taking Discordianism neither literally nor seriously, but with a sustained comical-imaginative intensity, opens up the ‘all-creative trip’ that was possible to imagine in the affluent 60s.

The Discordians embody a kind of serenely apolitical opting-out from the protest/countercultural politics of the 1960s, while the Church of the SubGenius (q.v.), like Peter Lamborn Wilson’s theory of the ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (q.v.), is the self-conscious response of a consumer-political subject to a constantly broadcasting/surveilling capitalism. Indeed, Ivan Stang’s church originally served as a media-damaged spoof of New Age woo, and Wilson’s politics are consciously linked to both anarchist and spiritual-mystical counterpolitical traditions. Mal-2 and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst had the luxury of consulting their pineal glands in relative isolation and comfort, if not quite innocence; Stang and Wilson simply take ideological corruption per se for granted, which is why the Principia opens up an apolitical pleasure and its successor-texts aren’t as good a time.

Of course, in the late 60s the Discordians themselves would participate in the explicitly political pranksterism of Operation Mindfuck, along with Robert Anton Wilson (q.v.), as documented/dramatized in the Illuminatus! trilogy (q.v.) — that project shares its subversive/performative lineage with the Situationists, the Merry Pranksters, the Diggers, Bread and Puppet Theatre…

As part of that cluster of groups, since we’re feeling pretentious, we might think of Discordianism as a kind of placeless meta-bohemianism — a (subconscious? conceptual? which might perhaps be to say, ‘magical’ or ‘fantastic’?) attempt to adapt the postures/gestures of bohemian community and culture to a dispersed, telecommunicative, telepresent condition. The Society is known primarily for publications not events, after all, and since its earliest days in Whittier CA it’s existed quite independent of geography. Discordians are, to borrow a phrase, ‘people of the book.’ This distinguishes them from the pamphleteering SubGenii with their ‘devival’ tents or the Situationists and their dérive. Perhaps it makes sense to link them to space-age American performative and textual nonconformisms — Devo, say, or the midwestern cargo-cult gaming subculture which Dave Arneson and (even more) Gary Gygax (q.v.) would turn into a lucrative and then massive business beginning in the mid-70s.

It’s worth noting, though, that the Discordian rap is largely an absurd synthesis of found materials — Chaos, Illuminati, Eris. Not mainstream elements but not private jokes either, which distinguishes Hill/Thornley from Stang’s ‘Slack’ and the endlessly elaborated SubGenius schtick. There’s an analogy here to the successor-relationship between the Grateful Dead (q.v.) and Phish, and more broadly to the way youthcult anti-traditions of the 60s beget private syntheses in the 70s beget isolated paracosmic fragments in the 80s, taking a certain atomized revelry for granted: the difference, maybe, between free shows at the park, sports-arena events, and inscrutable dancefloor rituals in the basement club…

Solve for ‘X’ (excerpt from mss in progress).

A piece of a long-gestating chapter on The X-Files, masscult subversion, late-90s fringe culture on- and offline, and of course the sainted Charles Fort. I don’t want to spend my 40s picking at this book and must therefore radically alter certain habits of mind. I’ll let you know how that goes; in the meantime, here you are. –wa.

Ambivalence is (sort of) the point

One recurring motif of the present work is the way the pre-WWW Internet made possible a loose interconnection between atomized individuals and marginal late-20C subcultures. I generally regard those days, those connections, with a sort of fond nostalgia. But I want to avoid rose-tinted mistakes.

Ivan Stang’s essential High Weirdness by Mail was published in 1988, the year IRC debuted and the Prodigy service launched for IBM PCs; it maps an alter-America of geographically isolated fringe groups and individuals — paranoids, conspiracists, psychotronic experimenters, cults large and small, credulous believers, ironic skeptics, rubes, kooks, ufologists, forteans, ordinary lonely humans exchanging cassette tapes or pamphlets full of the Suppressed or the merely Interesting — whose primary mode of connection and visibility was the unjustly derided Postal Service. As the BBS era flowed into the college-/consumer-Internet era and email became (for a few short years) a drop-in substitute for ‘snail mail,’ the fringe culture(s) Stang celebrated and derided would flourish online, largely unnoticed by mainstream observers but accessible to anyone with inappropriate curiosity and a modem; the early/mid-90s efflorescence of weirdo culture (mainstream-audible but catastrophically misunderstood in talk of Waco and Ruby Ridge, carried by the limbaughvian-FM and artbellian-AM strains of talk radio) would serve as the static-hiss backdrop to The X-Files‘s mannerist-aspirational cool when it premiered in 1993.

Stang’s catalogue appeared right at the moment when the mail-order world in the back pages of the magazines — paper gateway to physical connection, to actual objects appearing on doorsteps in exchange for bank checks signed on actual paper — was permanently displaced by something more diffuse, eerily placeless, silent but omnipresent; this displacement was never to be compensated for, at enormous cost. The ‘end of history’ meant too the end of the US/them narrative frame which had, on one hand, forced fringe cultures into sublimation and dispersion, while on the other hand granting them a counternarrative coherence: a relatively orderly America-idea against which their meaning and identity/function could form. ‘Fringe’ identity is, after all, a contrast effect… The Internet’s elision of geographical, temporal, and identity divisions (email addresses are more alike than faces, domain names less distinct than cities; a 10-year-old text file looks as shiny as a new one when you open it in emacs) was sold as egalitarian leveling but has meant the opposite in practice. Online pseudonymity and anonymity strike against the neighbourly accountability that binds local cultures together, but the last 30 years have demonstrated that its supposedly compensating interconnectedness — Metcalfe’s Law of network value misread, or cynically misrepresented, as a political principle — simply does not manifest in improved social relations at Internet scale. Quite the contrary: as the weirdos found out in the premillennium heyday of online kook culture, internetwork connection amplifies the worst of individuals and groups ‘for free’ but boosts their best features largely by accident.

In other words, the early Internet enabled netizens to find each other and forge tentative connections, to see shapes through the fog…but it didn’t free them from isolation. They were permitted, encouraged even, to feel less alone — but wouldn’t ever be handed the means to be less alone. This is still America, after all. For ‘normie’ viewers, The X-Files is a tour of America’s ‘underbelly’ or something; it’s a good time, goofily preoccupied with political conspiracy but at its heart a sexy Twin Peaks/Outer Limits mashup. For the fringe figures, kooks, and lonely seekers whose marginalization and atomization The X-Files depicted with startling sympathy (startling even to the show’s creators, I suspect), Chris Carter’s show is centrally about betrayal and loneliness: the cost of seeing things as they are.

We as I were.

Over the last few evenings I reread Tim Powers’s Declare — it’s a great adventure novel! — and was motivated by reread my original review of it, from 2011. (Maybe I’ll post it, and a new take, sometime soon.) While poking the corpse of then-me I was struck by a few of its features bugs:

  • My review — 3,500 words or so, written in a sitting! Jesus! — started stiffly, warmed, boiled over, got nutty, and coughed to a halt. My writing used to go this way all the fucking time. Nowadays I skip everything past the ‘warmed’ part, indeed often skip that one too.
  • I had a way bigger beef with Catholicism a decade ago than I do now. Too big, too personal, too resentful. And not a big enough beef with Communism, I think.
  • I’d forgotten almost everything about the novel’s second half; that’s what happens when you’re reading while your infant child naps. Indeed I’d been wondering, this week, if I had ever actually finished the book a decade ago! Turns out I did, and just retained nothing at all from its second half. Interesting how that works. Did I say ‘interesting’? ‘Sad,’ I mean.
  • I was too confident at 32.