wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: March, 2021

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.