wax banks

second-best since Cantor


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.


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.


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.

Panoptic fable.

The state builds a prison in the shape of a Coke can with a tower in the middle. The guard sits in the tower and can see everyone. The prisoners are monitored all the time — they can see the guard scanning the crowd with a telescope. They know that they’ll be watched today, individually, but don’t know when. They live, justifiably, in fear.

The prison then puts in a system of mirrors that allows the guard to look at the prisoners (now called ‘guests’) without impolitely staring directly at them. The guests know they’re being looked at, but can’t know the routine, the cadence. They live, justifiably, in anxiety. On the other hand, they don’t have to watch the guard watch them anymore.

The prison then bricks up the tower. The ingenious mirror-device means the guard — a young woman named Anita — can monitor all the prisoners guests unseen, at her leisure. Leisure is important. The guests have no idea, at any given point, whether they’re being watched; they live, justifiably, in a state of paranoia. On the other hand, they don’t have to look at the guard at all.

Honestly, at a certain level it’s kind of a relief.

Anita is let go. Her internship — she’s a sociology student — was over anyway. The prison wants to cut costs, so instead of replacing Anita, it leaves the tower empty. No one is actually watching. The reduction in head count leads to improved profits, a tiny fraction of which are passed along to the guests in the form of less-wormy meals.

The guests, having had time to acclimate to not being able to see Anita, make no change in their behaviour. If anything, prison life has gotten a little boring.

In its year-end financial statement, the prison refers to the guests as ‘users,’ emphasizing their agency and humanity. It notes proudly that many of its users are ‘POC.’

One of the users, a young man named Vronsky imprisoned for cybercrime, actually took Literary Theory in college. He points out to the other users at dinner that the prison is what’s known as a ‘panopticon,’ and that — while they can’t be sure, since they haven’t been shown the year-end financial statement — it’s likely that no one’s even in the fucking guard tower. ‘What’s the matter with you sheeple?’ he yells one day while everyone’s working out.

One other user thinks about Vronsky’s claims and actually enjoys his hectoring, but doesn’t want to say anything in support without ‘reading the room’ first. Two more say ‘Hmmm’ but are absorbed in a game of Game of Thrones-branded chess (Danerys and Cersei are the queens; the pawns are little dragons and wights). The rest of the userbase, however, labels Vronsky a conspiracist crank — and they remind each other, in falsely confident voices, to behave so that whoever is in the tower (which, in private, they insist is probably nobody at all!) won’t come down hard on them.

The users who most loudly shame Vronsky are well thought of in the prison population as ‘influencers’ and, indeed, ‘gang leaders.’

At Christmas, Anita is confronted by her cousin Aurelio, whose parents have been in the USA longer and have more money than Anita’s parents. ‘How could you be part of that corrupt system?!’ he yells intemperately.

Cousin,‘ Anita responds, ‘it was the only internship I could get. And I didn’t punish anyone, I didn’t even talk to them. In fact, one time I told my boss not to punish someone — a Latino user, by the way — for a minor infraction, and they didn’t. I actually made a difference.’

Nonetheless guilt ridden, Anita starts watching Youtube videos about something called the ‘carceral state.’

Aurelio tweets from his anonymous ‘political’ account, ‘can’t believe my cousin people call prisoners “users” smh’

At the prison, Vronsky is knifed in the shower for reasons, it is said, unrelated to his anti-‘panopticon’ agitation. User churn is accounted for in the prison’s financial plan, so the decision is made not to punish anyone, though a ‘Report’ mechanism is temporarily installed in the lunchroom.

Anita becomes a ‘whistleblower,’ i.e. she publishes a Medium post about her experience as an unwitting tool of the prison-industrial complex. This makes her unemployable in that sector. She sets up a Patreon which does moderately well, and always cites her employment at the panopticon in her writing and podcast appearances.

The panopticon, which has recently IPO’ed, is listed prominently on Anita’s résumé; her Patreon is not. She eventually gets a job at a nonprofit that connects users with green-energy positions, on a short-term basis.

Aurelio works at his local independent coffee shop, and his income is supplemented by occasional checks from his parents.

Prison records reveal that Vronsky was gay, and the prison releases a series of viral videos honouring Vronsky’s independent spirit. It then announces a fellowship — Vronsky’s spot in the prison will be reserved for queer artists working on hot-button political subjects.

The Biden campaign retweets one of the videos.

Cardboard crack.

First of all, a Reddit comment I recently made. The question on the table was: Why wasn’t Android: Netrunner more popular? My answer is mostly about Magic: The Gathering

Please forgive the scattered and testy nature of this long comment. I don’t have time to edit and organize.

There have been many, many, many customized-deck card games, ‘living’ and ‘trading’ and ‘collectible’ and so forth. Only a couple have ever done good business, even in the medium term, after the novelty/craze period. I think u/SyntaxLost is right: however it was designed as a game, ANR wasn’t designed to be the kind of corporate product line that M:TG is.

It’s said that ANR did reasonably well for a card game that isn’t one of the three popular beat-’em-ups (M:TG, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon), but at day’s end those are the only custom-deck games that’ve made decent money in years and years. Quick: name any of the other top-10 card games, if you can.

Of the big 3 I’ve played Pokemon, an execrable game, and M:TG, a good but hyperbolically overrated one. I believe they’re popular for reasons that have only a little to do with quality or depth or delicacy or nuance; Netrunner’s a better game, deeper, more thematically rich than the popular ones, but it lost the mindshare-game predictably. It’s not a meritocracy and the reasons aren’t really about game design — they’re about social experience.

Random packs appeal to people. Collectible cartoon art appeals to people. Japanese children’s fighting schlock appeals to people. Things already popular appeal to people. A couple years ago I’d be trawling my FLGS on a Friday night and it’d be full of teenagers. M:TG appeals to them because of, not despite, its grotesque (frankly unethical) blind-booster distro model. It’s quick to get into — it gamifies the act of buying a consumer good.

You’re having the ‘M:TG experience’ the instant you buy your first pack.

You can turn up at the FLGS, spend $10, and have an evening of M:TG or Pokemon. There’s value in that.

There was a good, interesting Star Wars LCG years ago — even that didn’t do well post-novelty. Star Wars! Card games come and (fail to constantly regenerate their playerbase and) go. The big 3 are entrenched; they are meaningful revenue streams; stores are committed to them. Target sells their products. And they don’t have hilariously self-limiting business plans.

(Think of the Netrunner sales pitch: ‘To make a real deck, first spend more than $100 to buy our introductory product three fucking times…’)

ANR does have a bunch of nonobvious (but clever and sensible) jargon that you have to learn — i.e. the terms ‘R&D’ and ‘HQ’ actually matter during the game — and offers more complex choices, on average, than the card-army games. ‘Onboarding’ is disastrous. Your first experience with ANR is worse, less satisfying in almost every way, than with the other games.

(Yet I just played my first game with my 10-year-old son, who got it and loved it.)

‘Session Zero’ matters.

Losing your first game of M:TG is fun. Playing MORE mana and BIGGER monsters is fun.

Losing your first game of ANR is not fun. There’s nonobvious stuff to manage. It feels like you have both too much freedom and too many requirements. It’s hard to intuit the nature of the ticking clock.

Well, so ANR is a complex card game and M:TG (+ilk) is a social pastime. No wonder they’ve suffered such different fates.

If the above comment is at all insightful, here’s the insight, conveniently boldfaced in the original:

You’re having the ‘M:TG experience’ the instant you buy your first pack.

People unacquainted with the once-massive, still shockingly big collectible card game (CCG) business may not realize this, so it’s worth elaborating on.

The core insight of the creator of Magic: The Gathering, master game designer Richard Garfield, was that arbitrarily complex custom card decks could compete under a relatively simple rules framework to generate a radically new mode of competitive gameplay. He made ‘deckbuilding’ a core element of card play — one of the two best gaming ideas of the 20th century.

(The other? ‘It’s like a wargame, only each figurine represents one guy, and instead of just fighting they can do anything. We’ll roll the dice to see what happens next in the adventure. And there are dragons.’)

Garfield was naive enough, nearly 30 years ago, to think that selling cards of varying rarity in blind random packs would be a neat distribution model — he famously intended for players to offer cards as ‘ante'(!) before each match, a notion that didn’t survive playtesting.

The core insight of Wizards of the Coast, the (now Hasbro-subsidiary) company that publishes Magic and owns the obscene and cynical patent on Garfield’s custom-deck design language, was this: M:TG is actually three overlapping games in one:

  1. The table game — play of the hand
  2. The home game — deckbuilding
  3. Gambling.

Plenty of Filthy Casuals love the table game, and for a certain sort of person, the home game is one of the most intellectually rewarding activities in all of gaming.

The gambling game is the sole reason Hasbro bothers with M:TG.

M:TG is a license to print money, a primary driver of Hasbro’s table-game revenue, but that moneymaking power depends on a grotesque business model, selling blind booster packs containing cards whose power levels (play value) are tied1 to their rarity (commodity value). Many M:TG players eagerly justify this to themselves — read any Magic forum for a taste of this low-grade Stockholm syndrome, with dull know-alls subjecting naïve n00bs to the ‘Case for Capitalism, Day One’ lecture that is the obvious limit of their own reading — while most wearily accept it as a condition of the Corporate Fun they’ve bought into. But facts remain facts: most M:TG cards are ‘filler’ destined to be sold to children by the case, competitive M:TG decks can run to a thousand bucks (vastly more for vintage formats), and M:TG’s set-rotation system means that playing in two different years means buying lots of Hasbro product.

The hidden structure of the M:TG experience isn’t complicated. WotC sells you the chance to ‘pull’ an exciting collector item from a plastic bag, and as a consolation prize you get to play a fairly casual high-variance card game, almost entirely removed from that played by the small cadre of high-level professional players that you are encouraged to dream of joining.

This structure remains hidden because players prefer it that way.

WotC has ‘gamified’ the act of buying playing cards. That isn’t a new concept (BUY POGS!), but this specific form — ‘deckbuilding’ that starts at the sales counter — was merely ugly when it was baseball cards, and is nauseating when it’s dressed up as a meritocratic-competitive activity. No one harbours illusions (anymore) that collecting baseball cards is a skillful activity. It’s more like subscribing to a cable TV service: you pay your monthly fee, sometimes something unusually good comes on, mostly you get a bite-sized predictable experience, and the money’s not coming back unless you’ve got something going on the side. The supplier is responsible for product, not the experience; play is your problem.

(A vanishing number of M:TG players make some of their money back. The ones who make a big profit are (1) very lucky and/or (2) predators.)

To be clear, Magic: The Gathering is a good card game when you get to the deckbuilding and table stages. At high levels it’s deep and rewarding; for beginners it’s fun and intriguing. But there are much better custom-deck games that don’t involve selling ‘cardboard crack’ — the community’s term, not mine, for the blind-booster gambling model — to kids. Strip away brand loyalty, sunk costs keeping players in, and the gambling (buying) game, and what’s left, really? Another card game? One popular enough to get a Friday night game among strangers at the FLGS. It sells because it sells, and because the selling per se is part of the thrill.

M:TG the game is a wonderful thing. M:TG the business is contemptible. You’d have to be pretty (willfully) stupid to believe that they’re two separate things.

  1. The relationship between rarity and power isn’t as simple in M:TG as it is in, say, the Pokémon game. But the difference is hair-splitting. 

On cranks (excerpt from mss in progress).

Poets and cranks

James Merrill, one of the great 20th-century American poets, was probably a credulous fool who wrote at enormous length about the cosmic wisdom he and his partner gleaned from their homemade Ouija board — a crank, in other words; but hold on a second. Merrill’s modern epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, is a record of a twenty-year communion with spirits through the board, W.H. Auden and a Roman centurion among them; the climax of the poem is a visit to ‘God Biology,’ a kind of helpless, infinitely melancholy cosmic radio blasting out in the void of space:


In isolation that stream of text resembles automatic writing, the scribblings of an obsessive (a visionary/occultist alone, perhaps); and given the nature of the Ouija board as a tarot-like ‘divinatory’ tool, a scaffold for verbal improvisation, in a sense that’s what it is. (Merrill’s ‘friend’ (partner) David Jackson handled the homemade planchette most nights; much of the text of the poem transcribes his/their own improvisations verbatim, though Merrill’s framing verses and responses are the poem’s main ‘voice.’) Sandover is an intimate poem about an increasingly isolated gay couple who drove away friends like Truman Capote through the obsessive pursuit of occult knowledge; Merrill would die a few years later of complications from HIV, after pushing Jackson away. Taken in that context, the transmission of ‘God B’ is one of the purest, saddest bursts of poetic music I’ve ever encountered. Merrill’s self-consciousness, a strain of incredulity, grants his acceptance of the ‘reality’ of his paranormal experiences an unlikely emotional power; the poem’s ‘truth value’ is uncertain, and the reader’s provisional acceptance of Merrill’s account (as of any poetic-fictional account) as ‘true’ is more complicated than usual. The poem makes clear that Merrill believes both that something ‘supernatural’ or at least outside of the reach of his waking consciousness is occurring, and that there’s a perfectly satisfying ‘materialist’ explanation — he’s committed to what he’s seeing (imagining), the vision, but he knows how deceptive vision can be, not least when we ‘speak to the dead.’ That epistemological complexity, the uncertain imaginative footing beneath Sandover‘s reader/poet/poem contract, is characteristic of best eliptonic writing; I’d say it’s one of the main attractions of the stuff, what separates the actually-Weird from the conventionally reassuring.

So was Merrill a crank? Well: was Yeats? Dante? Blake? Philip K Dick? Decide for yourself whether it matters and act accordingly, knowing that the poem’s there for you regardless, merely itself. It has more to give than the ‘facts’ it delivers; you’ll take from it whatever you’re able. I mean ‘willing.’

Still, asking the question matters. A proper (improper) eliptonic reading of the poem holds that the question, the uncertain epistemology, the wondering, is the source of some of its power.

Reading Sandover against, say, The Montauk Project — a popular1 late-20C delirium variorum linking UFOs, MiB sex abuse, the Philadelphia Experiment, time travel, Aleister Crowley, parapsychological experiments, secret messages in radio waves, Jungian shadow-beasts, and more ‘synchronicity’ babble than average, written by two actual cranks, and believe me I’ll come back to it later in this book — you begin to make out a spectrum of credulity, from Merrill’s ironic-(ir)religious awe to Nichols & Moon’s voracious appetite for any and all paranormal wish-fulfillment. Real crank literature tends to grow in the telling, as conspiracy theories do, because as fiction it’s only responsible to itself; The Montauk Project was a surprise hit, and spawned an entire ‘Montauk mythos’ that fills a good portion of the RAW/Joseph Farrell shelf at my local esoteric bookstore. The formal constraints of Merrill’s poem, structured by the symbols of the Ouija board and bound like Dante’s Comedy by the desire-curves of literature written for other human beings, work against such endless extrapolation. Sandover does get less satisfying as it goes along, because Merrill leans more and more heavily on lightly-edited transcripts of the Ouija board’s output, which his partner David Jackson was primarily in charge of. (In a sane world Jackson would be credited as the poem’s coauthor and recognized as one of the great 20C monologists.) But it rises to an ecstatic narrative peak with its vision of God B, and ends on a complexly celebratory/melancholy note in a very modern register, as Merrill begins to recite Sandover itself for an audience of the dead — ending his epic with a reference to its first line: a semisincere apology for its poetic form.

Merrill’s self-consciousness grounds his/Jackson’s visionary flights in the psychological metaphors then current with his high-literary audience, while the increasingly unmediated angel-voices of his otherworldly correspondents (which are, remember, essentially inspired ‘automatic speech’) invest the poem with what Harold Bloom, who was really in his wheelhouse with poetry in the Blake/Yeats visionary lineage, called a ‘daemonic force.’ The main difference between Merrill’s inspiration-via-Ouija and any other religious/spiritual poet’s own inspiration is that Merril’s candid about where the all-caps passages in his work come from. Merril remained agnostic about the ‘truth value’ of the Ouija board’s emanations, and (by a sort of transitive property) of the poem’s account itself:

As for the doctrine — or the belief — behind the poem, well, I’ve always tried to be of two minds, skeptical about what comes over the Ouija board; accepting of its metaphoric beauty and validity…

Nichols and Moon, meanwhile, embody a parallel strain. Without Merrill’s literary resources or refined artist’s temperament, they’re confronted, and in turn confront their readers, with something pure and simple: Nichols’s ‘memory’ of being sexually abused as part of a bizarre series of dimensional-travel experiments at a secret military facility on Montauk, and having his identity (not just documents and information but his memory of his authentic self) stolen from him by the government. While Merrill’s ‘dialogues’ veer for dozens of pages into didactic instruction — at times tediously so, though Merrill’s always ready with a leavening pun or startling inversion when the going gets tough — his goal is to entertain, and perhaps enlighten; Nichols and Moon are up to something else, and their specific aim is rarely entirely clear. The compulsive quality of so much eliptonic nonsense creeps into Merrill’s writing at times but it’s everywhere in Montauk; the writers’ need to convince their readers of their veracity, their realness, becomes a primary aesthetic feature of the series. It’s intensely sad.

Crank books tend to start out funny, because at first there’s always the possibility that it’s all a put-on. And when that possibility dries up and blows away, crank books can be the saddest things in the world. Laughing at a crank isn’t, I think, fun for kind people. Nor for me.

I feel a bit guilty linking Merrill’s splendid poem — aristocratic in bearing, though jazzily informal at times in speech — with the lurid illogic of the Montauk series. But it seems to me they share more than a general concern with ‘the occult’: they’re both attempts to work out the ramifications of a set of experiences (carefully shaped in Merrill/Jackson’s case, perhaps traumatically induced in Nichols’s), which seem to be understandable only in ‘magical’ terms. Nichols and Moon seem to ‘believe’ that something otherworldly happened in Montauk, the same way John Keel seems to’ve ‘believed’ in Indrid Cold; the scare quotes are there to draw attention to the difference between this belief and, say, your belief that the world is round. The tension generated by belief in a ‘crazy’ idea can produce high art, as it did for Merrill. But for eliptonists — ‘kooks,’ cranks — like Nichols and Moon, it can lead to a kind of compensatory terminal fixation on small thoughts, which build up like a katamari to a sort of mythic complex, driven by (subconscious) hope that a large enough accumulation of detail will make sense of the nonsense, though it always has the opposite effect. (See also: M. John Harrison’s heroically nasty characterization of SF/F ‘worldbuilding’ as ‘the clomping foot of nerdism.’)

Eliptonic nonsense gets bigger but not grander as it chases its own tale; the details are accumulated rather than uncovered. The experience is unshaped. But that’s enough for true believers.

  1. Popular, that is, among readers of self-published occult/paranormal nonsense, i.e. crank books. Unlike, say, Baigent/Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail Templar/Rosicrucian horseshit, the Montauk series isn’t written with enough brio to deserve a spot on the average reader’s bookshelf on its ‘literary’ merits, not that anybody actually applies those standards. But the Montauk books so neatly encapsulate all that’s unsettling about late-20C eliptonic Americana that I don’t hesitate to recommend at least the first one to anyone who, say, watched the X-Files episodes featuring depressive abductee Max Fenig and wondered if there were real people like him… 

D&D with the kids: First notes (sessions 0-4).

At the turn of the year I finally worked up the courage/energy to run a D&D game for my son and four (soon to be five) of his friends, all 10-11 years old, and we’ve been playing every Sunday since 3 January. I’ve wanted to run a game of old-school 80s D&D since the actual 80s, when it was the new school; normally the phrase ‘a dream come true’ is mere figure of speech, but here it’s literally true.

We’re using the Basic/Expert rules from 1981, in the form of the ‘retroclone’ Old-School Essentials.

I gave them randomly rolled-up 1st-level characters, they concocted a ‘We meet at a tavern’ scenario (the bard was performing, the elves were passing through, the thief was drinking her sorrows away with her small but vicious dog, the cleric was outside talking to his pet rock Josh), and we were off to the Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

Prior to our game, two in the group had no D&D experience but had played Skyrim or World of Warcraft, one (soon two) played a lot of 5e at Pandemonium in Central Square, and two had a couple sessions of table time under their belts.

I won’t run through the campaign in detail — perhaps another time — but I do want to share a couple of observations, by no means original.

  • The old-school saving throws are unintuitive at first, but they work. I’ve read enough about them — including the underrated AD&D 2e corebooks, which explain how the saving throw sieve works — that I figured I’d have no problem. But if you’re just starting, how do you adjudicate a trap that fires a magic beam down a dungeon hallway? What if it’s a paralyzing beam? What if it’s a spray of magic? ‘Use the first saving throw that applies’ still means a judgment call of sorts. (The answer in the first instance is ‘Save vs Wands’ by the way.) How do you save against a falling boulder? Finicky questions, but knowable — and they drive you toward a certain fiction-first intution about the gameworld. After a while the saving throws make perfect sense, and the wisdom/utility of class-based (vs 5th edition’s ability-based) saving throws becomes clear.
  • OLD-SCHOOL ESSENTIALS is the final form of Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert D&D. Aaron Allston’s beloved Rules Cyclopedia stretches the D&D rules across 36 levels and provides domain-rulership and mass-combat systems, as well as additional classes, monsters, treasures…but you don’t need that stuff for 90% of campaigns, and there are better tools available for free online if you do. Plus its layout is catastrophically bad in keeping with the house style. Gavin Norman’s OSE retroclone collects the original Moldvay/Cook rules, organizes them intuitively with a delightfully accessible layout, and judiciously includes the most common houserule (ascending Armour Class) as a built-in option. It is the perfect re-presentation of the original ruleset, nothing added. (Which, to be clear, means pure vanilla flavour; look elsewhere for magical evocation.)
  • You need (magic) items. I’ve learned this in the breach. In searching the dungeon, the kids have mostly found trinkets, coin, small-bore treasures — but they need useful items, not necessarily magical. The trick is to fire up their lateral problem-solving skills without simply erasing the dungeon’s challenges. Flash powder, spoons that refill magically with food, a wig, a blanket that smells of refuse, a coin that always matches the call, a leash that lets you hear a cat’s thoughts — these low-level items encourage low-stakes usage. The kids have found a ring that causes the wearer’s eyeball to pop out and roll around while retaining the power of sight, a perfect example of the kind. Disgusting, handy, and potentially extremely risky to the user. (I need to remind the kids that they have it.)
  • You need spells. Low-level PCs in B/X have only minimal access to magic — a spell a day, plus the houseruled cantrips I’m allowing. But a low-level party really benefits from the survivability boost that a single sleep spell grants. Alas, the kids blew theirs to give the dog a nap after a nasty fight.
  • Arguing is the best/worst part. In the first session the kids spent more than a half-hour joking, arguing, debating, improvising in character, and generally just being smart creative little fools while standing at a trapped door they weren’t sure how to get through. The consensus is that it was the best part of the adventure so far; I certainly thought so. This is why 1-on-1 D&D (which my son and I have played, at Thunderdelve) can’t come close to competing with a decent-sized party and a DM willing to let them faff about. That said, our one experienced player has been losing his mind over the mix of hesitation and impulsivity which is the group’s overall vibe. That’s the main downside of a big, relatively inexperienced party: an unstable power-balance between puzzlers, instigators, et al. We’re working it out quite sensitively, because it’s a bunch of kids from Cambridge+environs and that’s what the children of the bourgeoisie do. But it’s important to stay aware of the group dynamics and vary the approach at times. Sometimes you play tight changes, sometimes you play free, sometimes just keep a groove going. Kids like structure and they like freedom.

I’m loving this game, and while the prep makes me mildly anxious — what if I fail, and ruin my beloved son’s life? — and the play is totally exhausting, it’s been a highlight of my week, every week.

There will be more to say when there’s time to say it.