wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: essaying

twitter thoughts, change thoughts.

We don’t choose who changes the world.

We only get to decide: Is it me?

Epistemic status warning: I haven’t been sleeping well, I lost the thread partway through and grabbed a different one and who knows whether anything holds together, these are preliminary thoughts, yes this is what my preliminary thoughts come out sounding like, no I’m not so attached to any of this shit that I don’t wanna hear intelligent disputation about it I’m just pompous you see, everyone says so. –wgh

Like a lot of people (within a narrow demographic band) I’ve been thinking a lot about Twitter. Over the last decade it’s eaten more of my time than any other meaningless distraction. It looms large in my daily experience, for bad reasons. It also was instrumental in getting me the 33-1/3 gig, and introduced me to a bunch of people I consider ‘online friends’ — a weird category and worth unpacking some other time. It entertained me. It destroyed my attention span.

I’m happy to see it go.

Everything good about Twitter was intimately bound up in everything bad about it — crucially, Twitter was not a ‘social’ network in a meaningful sense. Facebook is a ‘social’ network of sorts: you log in and have brief text conversations with your Facebook friends. They’re probably not your real friends, but your Facebook connections theoretically map onto real connections, and if Facebook usage tends to devolve into grandpas-sharing-memes, well, some of us are old enough to remember when commercial email was new and rare (and expensive) and email usage devolved readily to grandpas-sharing-chain-emails. Facebook in practice is a bad version of something good, owned by a cruel idiot, surveilled and manipulated into paranoid stupidity, monetized out of any real value — but under its shambling corpse is an older model of online sociality that might, in an alternate universe, have been something good for our species.

Twitter was never that. It was designed to be bad.

Most Twitter use worked on the ad-supported broadcast model, with ‘social’ interactions having even less importance or usefulness than the infamous blog comments sections you weren’t supposed to read. No one is under any illusions about this except ‘knowledge workers’ who got their only taste of status and visibility through Twitter: journalists, academics, political-media figures, et al. Facebook destroyed the economics of journalism, but Twitter hollowed out journalistic work itself; CNN is the cancer that ate American politics but Twitter represents its metastasis; online life has degraded over 25 years to a long game of hotornot.com but Twitter was built around that model. A lot of mistakes and bad intentions went into Twitter: thumbs-up without thumbs-down is profoundly stupid design that did great harm, the ‘you might like this…’ algorithm is clever but evil (i.e. ad-centric), engagement-only metrics are merely stupid/evil — Twitter was never a successful business and won’t be now, but its managers behaved in ordinary business-predator ways, iteratively ruining not only the one good thing about the site (its initial proposition: an RSS feed of your friends’ group text messages in reverse-chronological order) but everything superficially attractive about it. Prior to Elon Musk’s takeover of the service, Twitter was a shitshow, a ‘social’ service where it was impossible to have a sane conversation except by calving off an invite-only space (at which point you were almost certainly better off in an IRC channel or near-equivalent, e.g. a Slack/Discord instance).

The most popular Twitter accounts were pure publicity feeds: Obama, Musk, Bieber, Ronaldo, Taylor Swift, Modi(!), and for some reason the official Youtube account(??). The only remotely real human being in the top 50 accounts of all time is Musk himself. (For mental-health reasons he should have had his account taken away, but what can you do.) Interacting with humans was possible, but once a Twitter feed reaches a certain size it’s almost impossible to control what you’re seeing, at which point normal/healthyish people defocus and stop interacting almost entirely — making it very difficult to actually get the attention of any big account unless you were (1) big yourself or (2) a dedicated status-chaser, in which case (1) was your goal anyway. The network was built around status, attention, ‘engagement,’ which is why both malicious users’ unceasing river of bullshit and the company’s constant clumsy censorship (including well-documented shadowbanning) were inevitable. ‘Advertisers don’t want to be on “free speech” Twitter’ is a common observation among pseuds now, but the primacy of branding on Twitter was always the problem — ask anyone who made the mistake of looking to Twitter for political ‘news,’ and found nothing but court stenographers’ self-promotion…

Twitter was designed to be bad because it never had a way of making money except selling ads, and it predictably deformed around its revenue source. Pay-to-play networks can’t be ‘social’ in any meaningful sense.

That’s why I won’t miss Twitter. ‘Friends share SMS status messages to coordinate get-togethers at SXSW’ is a fine weekend web-dev project. ‘Tens of millions of people wake up and mindlessly scroll through broadcasts from strangers’ is obviously nothing but a distraction engine which is why status-seekers and advertisers liked it and everyone else routinely derided it as a stupid time-suck to which they were addicted and for which they’d consequently make every excuse in the book.

Hence the the current wave of melodramatic, performative Twitter nostalgia, a combination of resistance to change, justification for what everyone sane has long understood to be a destructive addiction — and branding, branding, branding. Twitter’s weird approach to virtual identity has had corrosive effects, and we’re seeing predictable celebrations from the people who’ve adopted it, ‘benefited’ from it, and now face the horrifying prospect of turning back into people.

the bird that could’ve flown

We don’t choose who changes the world.

Musk is a terrible human being, but he’s the only person with both the means to take Twitter private and the lack of impulse control to try it. And since Twitter is bullshit for a host of reasons which boil down to it being a publicly traded corporation chasing after ad money, this means that Elon Musk is the only person alive in a position to fix Twitter. He will fail, he is publicly failing right before our eyes even as I type — but think about what he could have offered to the world:

An open invitation, backed by $50,000,000,000 of funding, to take Twitter’s massive, frankly astounding network infrastructure and build something new on top of it.

Imagine having the keys to Twitter. What would you do? What would you pay hundreds or thousands of engineers to build? If you didn’t have to answer to shareholders or anyone else, if you had an effectively unlimited amount of money and a readymade infrastructure and the attention of the entire online world, with billions of users waiting to see what you’d do next, and if you could (for a minute) have had your pick of nearly any software developer on earth — if you actually cared about implementing the dream of an ‘Internet town square’ and could skip the entire startup-bootstrapping process and present your idea full-grown to the rest of our species — can you imagine what you’d do?

If you had more money than God and were deluded enough to think of yourself as an excellent tech-corp CEO instead of a lucky conscription-dodging legacy admit with a fake résumé, and someone handed you the keys, would you pass up that opportunity?

Musk just bought the right to deploy literally any software project he wants at Twitter scale. imagine what he could do. He’s making bad choices because he’s stupid, but what if he weren’t? If someone told you tomorrow, ‘You now own NASA. Do what you want,’ would you hesitate for even a second before putting people on Mars or something? I bet you would, and honestly that’s probably good. But Elon Musk, a dipshit conman so insecure he lies about his bachelors degree, demonstrably wouldn’t hesitate. He keeps actually doing insane things, his money protects him, and some of them — like brute-forcing the launch of the entire electric-car sector — will change and indeed improve human life to a degree we can’t yet fully comprehend.

We don’t get to choose who changes the world. We only get to choose to try it ourselves, or not. No one reading this, I imagine, will ever be in a position to effect change at Twitter-scale. But one reason for that is simple: no one reading this is actually committed to even trying for that goal.

Musk looked at Twitter, like so many of us, and thought: What else could this be? Because of his limitations, he came up with dumb answers and is tripping over himself to implement them in the dumbest, most destructive possible ways. He’s going to destroy Twitter by accident — and then one of the worst, most influential business executives in history will own billions and billions of dollars of digital infrastructure, with which he can do whatever the hell he wants… Tell me, if that guy offered you $200K/yr to build something else using Twitter’s tech and reach and userbase, would you take it?

Wouldn’t you?

elf-actualization

A ‘self-actualized’ person is someone who lives intentionally, no longer in denial about her nature, her plans and impulses and desires aligned, or at least resolved. Unlike most people she’s…really here, not denying or escaping or sublimating but actually struggling with this moment, this world-in-progress as it actually is. You can ‘skip ahead’ to something that superficially resembles self-actualization by being a Musk/Trump-style piece of shit, having so much money and so few actual friends that you lose connection to humanity, but real self-actualization is peace, which isn’t the absence of conflict but rather the presence (or rather, the process) of harmony and resolution. Musk obviously isn’t a peaceful man, but he’s now in a position to act with almost total impunity, to honour his full self (if he had one). This is capitalism’s shitty simulacrum of peace, the glittering lure: it’s a bad thing that does good things by accident. Musk is late capitalism is human form, a trust-fund baby who uses his money solely to make increasingly large bets on a future that can’t be built any other way, not because they’ll help you and me but because that’s the way his ego is deformed, and everything good that comes of Musk’s predation and exploitation is a side effect.

This is capitalist ideology in a nutshell: your selfishness delivers benefits to us, greed increases freedom as a side effect (presentists and attention-dysregulated readers, cf. Sam Bankman-Fried and all of ‘effective altruism’ and indeed ‘rationalism’). ‘Trickle-down’ economics is just saying the quiet part of capitalism out loud, the rich need to get richer because ‘greed works,’ and it remains not just the social-ideological model of Silicon Valley but the psychological basis of the whole corporate world. That’s the deep-down justification — and note its reflection the current outbreak of Twitter-nostalgia, howls of longing for a world in which endless monologues into the void could take the place of the real (taxing, risky, slow, meaningful) communication that entities like Twitter have themselves destroyed, oh well…

Most people with delusions of grandeur accomplish nothing — but everyone who does anything grand will have, at moments, such delusions. Successful people tend not to get swept up in them, tend to avoid getting high on their own supply; peaceful people learn to avoid this trap entirely. But an awful lot of world-changing people are fucking nuts! And they get someplace legible and impactful to the rest of us by chasing their foolish notions and schemes and visions long past the point at which anyone else would have stopped. Do you think ‘Kim Kardashian’ is a good idea? Does anyone? Christ no. But even a product idea that bad can make a billion dollars if the people pimping it are clear-eyed about what they want and ruthless about pursuing it. That’s the ugly lesson that presumes the late-capitalist cult of accumulation, and it’s the weak vile analogue to the most beautiful idea, that no human is too far fallen to find peace through clarity, intention, and focus — right thinking right action etc., as somebody once said. We don’t get to choose who changes the world or how it’s changed, except that we get to choose (we must choose) to enact and embody that change ourselves. Which is the last thing the bosses like Musk want, and which is why the real questions to ask about Twitter — or about own your inexplicable and misguided decision to know and even care about the ‘Kim Kardashian’ line of near-human beings — are ‘What do I need?’ ‘What do I want?’ ‘What am I doing?’ Maybe you stay connected to the distraction-engine, sucking down toxic fumes and remaining in the fog of ‘Twitter brain’; maybe you turn off the TV when the Kardashian-family infomercial comes on; maybe we finish this goddamn manuscript; either way, the only healthy act is an intentional one, the thing Twitter was built and administered to take away from you, which can only come about through an alignment of means and ends and opportunity and luck (a superstitious nickname for ‘opportunity’).

There’s a universe, maybe not yet born, in which Twitter developed in accordance with a clear vision of a global ‘town square’ rather than an advertising platform trading in private user data. Elon Musk had the opportunity to bring it into being right here, right now, and he didn’t because he’s stupid and undisciplined.1 But he has some combination of traits which gave him that opportunity in the first place. And while we shouldn’t strive to emulate him — though I could live with being richer than Croesus — we might pay attention to the thing he superficially resembles, and take some lesson from his ongoing rise/fall.

And then stop paying attention to him altogether. Musk has stolen enough time from our species. He’s destroying Twitter, literally as I type, and it would take him and his several years to build something worthwhile on its ruins. To hell with them. Meanwhile an unexplored country is visible beyond. Maybe it’s easier to find peace in a new world outside the old. Maybe, with all the time that quitting Twitter is gonna free up, you’ll have a few minutes in which to try.

I’m @waxbanks@mstdn.social for the time being, waxbanks most places I’m found online, tell me something new.

addendum

I want to add: Yes, Musk wanted not to buy Twitter and tried to get out of it. He’s impulsive and seems to’ve backed himself into it. I don’t think that’s incompatible with him having delusions of grandeur about running the place, or even ideas about what it might be; I’m sure they intertwine nicely with his persecution complex as Twitter burns down.


  1. ‘Wait I thought he was a “hardcore” sleep-at-the-office type?’ No, you’re thinking of the people he pays to buttress his reputation. Musk explicitly announced his intention to hand the Twitter reins over to a more committed CEO after completing the acquisition — and he’s notoriously both an impulsive micromanager and an absentee landlord with no attention to detail. Have you ever actually ridden in a fucking Tesla? 
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On climax (excerpt).

Note: This is excerpted from a work in progress. –wa.

To loosely borrow terms from molecular biology: the climax is the egophilic end of the story, its region of attraction and attachment to the sensemaking, sense-craving world of selves. But the body of the story is egophobic, deranging and repelling the unitary ego-self, asserting an alternate order in which we the audience become disordered, dissolve. ‘Lost in the story.’ We bind to the story at its premise (‘on entry’) and come undone, and are put back together when we leave at the end. Maybe that’s what endings are for. They feel great — like letting go of something you’ve clung tightly to, and feeling blood rush back into your hands.

Anticlimax leaves you with an otherworldly feeling, which — in the terms, not solely allegorical or metaphorical, of the present work — marks the presence of an actual other world. Storyworld is real, we can live whole lives there. Anticlimax and ambivalence and insinuation leave open connections between day and night, dream and waking. Sometimes you want that. Sometimes you need it.

Taxonomizing, categorizing, hierarchizing, contrast-heightening judgment marks and enforces that grey blurry border between this world and others. It pushes story-stuff back into its cage. The poet is ‘unacknowledged legislator’; the critic is the hanging judge impressing the law upon once-free subjects. Making the lawmaker’s aspiration into his fiefdom.

To look into the closed system of meaning which is the poetic text, the living community, the human life, and pronounce judgment from without — to demand that it be made legible, communicable, meaningful, climactic — is to cut away that aspect of it which most resembles your own life, all life. This is fear. It is to choose order over disorder and so welcome destruction. It is to refuse to see beauty in the strange; it is to look at the nonsensical world, the impossible universe, to look into infinity, and demand that it do the only thing it can’t, to make sense. To you. You of all people, you of all nations. This is fear and fuck that.

Criticism is possible — e.g. this book exists — but you have to go inside to know. You have to know in vivo. What can you say about music you can’t hear?

Airborne toxic nonevent.

Wrote this December 11, never figured out where to put it. So I’m putting it here, two weeks later.

One of the governing paradoxes of the Covid-19 era is that the arrival of the virus is one of the biggest, most consequential events of the last half-century — temporarily hobbling the world economy, completely altering the culture of ‘knowledge work’ throughout the western world, crippling entire municipalities, driving previously sane leaders to paranoid imbecility — yet most Americans are forced to experience plaguetime as an absence of action, a numbing estrangement from the essential ordinary: a seeming nonevent. Covid-19 has brought one anticlimax after another.

Nearly a million Americans have died, with millions more dead worldwide (many uncounted). Yes, the dead have mostly been old or infirm — one hates to say ‘expendable,’ though you should understand that the Masters absolutely do talk that way. Yet where’s the event? Where’s the History we’re living through? The pandemic has manifested first as a rush of scary news stories, hysterical overreaction, and thereafter for nearly all people an endlessly protracted waiting for the other shoe to drop. Covid-19 is everywhere, most humans will end up contracting some variant of it, but as the second winter of plaguetime arrives in Cambridge what do we see? Masks, empty storefronts bought up by speculators. Shortened hours, canceled events. Immensely long lines for testing and vaccines, then behaviour largely unchanged except for its perceptible slump, its hopelessness. Children somehow adapting to a fatally broken school system’s pointless lessons taught in emotionally crippling circumstances. Reports of a Scary Omicron Variant and evidence that a slightly worse, lonelier life goes on.

Same shit jobs, new opportunistic restrictions. Same feckless local leaders, same interest groups, new justifications for old corruption.

And on the television, by which we mean Twitter and Facebook: EVERYTHING IS NEWLY HORRIBLE! THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION FACES ITS TOUGHEST LEGISLATIVE CHALLENGE YET! NAZIS MARCH! SHELVES ARE BARE! CHINA SUBVERTS DEMOCRACY! NEW FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION ARE DISCOVERED DAILY! EVERYTHING OUT OF YOUR MOUTH IS A HATE CRIME! THE NEW IPHONE HAS A GREAT CAMERA! THE CLIMATE IS IN CRISIS AND DEMOCRACY IS IN CRISIS AND THE SCHOOLS ARE STILL IN CRISIS AND YOUR (tax-deductible annually recurring) DONATION WILL HELP US STAY ANGRY ABOUT IT!

Late capitalism has long been understood by people with expensive humanities degrees as the era of ‘permanent crisis’ — the neverending ‘Police Action,’ the manufactured consensus that a Strong Response Is Called For, the ever-looming Threat of Economic Something-or-Other which the state must take deadly unilateral action to Avert — but under the insectile sign of Covid-19 it’s felt like the Powers That Be aren’t even really trying anymore. This actually deadly pandemic immediately became flimsy pretense for every preplanned1 initiative to strip human beings of autonomy and dignity; the world has gotten much worse in familiar stupid ways.

I don’t even mean vaccines; as everyone numerate knows, the vaccines have worked shockingly well with almost no cost, and you’re a myopic fucking fool for complaining about them while taking your lifesaving MMR and Tdap and influenza and HPV and chickenpox shots entirely for granted.

Rather: work has lost its dignity, politics its veneer of comity; civic life has been wrested from the hands of citizens and given wholesale to international capital (effectively coterminous with government). Even the parking meters have been privatized. Trust in government has completely disappeared, as has even the aspiration to objective journalism, making it that much easier for billionaires and Capital consortia to buy up governments and journalists. HR departments2 have somehow replaced labour unions as Protectors in the eyes of infantile young employees who hate their jobs anyway. Cities have been sold wholesale to the same foreign kleptocrats whom the pious news media make a show of wanting out of ‘our’ elections. If you’ve read any halfway-sane criticism at all in the past 50 years, the only surprising thing is the speed with which the destruction of the modern world has been accomplished, not by Covid-19 but by the same vampires who’ve been sucking society’s blood all along.

Yet there’s been no event, no marker, no deadline. Throughout 2020 there was a sense, profitably encouraged by the ‘news’ media, that the coming election heralded some kind of Big Change, that things would start to improve thereafter. And of course they have, in ways directly pertaining to the pandemic itself: federal agencies are getting restocked with competent workers, international relations are being renormalized (to the extent possible during this extraordinary historical Asterisk) after the departure of the unprecedentedly incompetent Trump administration. But at a fundamental level, the 2020 election didn’t change much of anything, because the underlying dynamics that led to Trump’s catastrophic election haven’t changed — have in fact deepened and intensified. Workers are more alienated and downtrodden than they were five years ago, civic life is more tightly shut against ordinary people’s participation, real wages keep declining, labour power keeps shrinking, ‘social’ media networks are even more powerful and even more dangerous and demented. Journalists are worse at their jobs, houses are flimsier, movies and books are dumber, Epstein didn’t kill himself, nothing has been rethought or rebuilt at a structural level. American politics is somehow even more poisonous and dimwitted than it was when Trump ran, and as the Capitol insurrection has been revealed as an inside job, the Republican Party and its army of judicial saboteurs (starting with a stolen, corrupt, nakedly partisan Supreme Court) have taken every opportunity to accelerate the collapse of the national body — while the Democrats have happily folded in on themselves like a used napkin, entirely beholden to the whims of vicious imbeciles like Joe Manchin and pitifully grateful not to have to actually accomplish anything at all.

Which is to say: Capital has gone on doing what it’s always done, our complementary political parties have continued to be themselves, demographic shifts decades in the making have kept destabilizing existing societies in predictable ways. And the end of modern human life due to anthropogenic climate transformation has carried the fuck on killing us.

Out the window, the same evidence of thinning, hollowing out, slow exsanguination, casual betrayal, abandonment, surrender to entropy. The same atomization and rending of the social fabric, now with more explicit identitarianism but otherwise unchanged over decades. Here in the coffeeshop, only the masks and the sand in the hourglass meaningfully differentiate this world from that of five or ten years ago. The working class is still being ground to a paste; the middle class is still being medicated out of consciousness and guilted into compliance; the idiot rich still feast on everyone else. The planet is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by apes driving cars. Cambridge is still a better place to live than most other cities in the USA, but we’d rather be good guys than heroes — which is why the bad guys won ages ago.


  1. This is important, please tattoo this on the insides of your eyelids. Western capital-governments’ sickening opportunism in the face of Covid-19 DOES NOT MEAN that Covid-19 itself is some kind of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘hoax’ or even just ‘overblown.’ Millions of humans — of every age, in every nation it’s touched — are dead before their time because of this virus and the catastrophically bungled response to it, but the vaccines have worked; they’ve been shockingly safe and will save millions more down the line as the science behind them proves useful in other domains. Cranks claiming that vaccines are part of a ‘depopulation’ scheme can be disregarded because their silly claims have already been debunked; cranks claiming that Covid-19 ‘is just a flu’ should similarly be disregarded for the same reason. The fatal disruption of the USA medical system in 2020 really did happen, the Omicron variant really will similarly tax world hospital systems during the coming ‘third wave,’ and anti-vaccine hysteria should be treated with appropriate contempt. But none of this exculpates the cynics, sadists, and ordinary thieves who’ve used the pandemic as cover for their neverending predation. This essay is about our subjective experience of the pandemic, not epidemiology. 
  2. Every adult who is not thuddingly stupid understands that ‘Human Resources’ departments exist to protect the Money from the Workers; it’s interesting, by which we mean fucking nauseating, that so many 20/30somethings see ‘having my identity category be looked upon sympathetically by HR’ as the highest honour that can be accorded an employee rather than, I dunno, 401k matching or a sane workweek or just not having their real lives in the outside world held in obvious unrestrained contempt by the bosses. 

On rereading Harry Potter, volume 4 (the one with the tournament).

Think of the Harry Potter series as having two axes of growth: social/psychological and plotwise/’worldbuilding’ dimensions. The third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, is the inflection point for the series’s psychological and emotional growth. Its climactic scene in the Shrieking Shack, which draws Ron’s hapless comic-relief rat Scabbers into a tale of remembered trauma spanning decades and grounds Snape in the social world of the story’s erstwhile unblemished Good Guys, is the precise point at which the story stops being good times with the boy wizard and his friends and darkens into a generational story — a triumphant achievement for Rowling and her storyworld.

This fourth volume is the inflection point for Rowling’s overall ‘mytharc,’ the ‘metaplot,’ the multivolume series-story — here she transitions from tightly conceived books for kids to doorstopper volumes which have a harder time hitting their ostensible age targets, and her victory is more equivocal.

For one thing, it’s too fucking long.

There’s an enormous amount of faffing-about between events of the Triwizard Tournament, to the point where the quest for the Cup recedes uncomfortably into the background — but there isn’t really any other material to take its place. Harry hates his classes as usual, but it doesn’t matter because he’s inexplicably excused from final exams…and Ron and Hermione are somehow reduced in status by being mere students while Harry does hero-in-training stuff. Worse, the plot of the book is pure misdirection: Harry’s courage and moral uprightness are real, but he’s being helped through the tournament by the Bad Guys in order to bring Voldemort back, which is the book’s actual purpose. Here Rowling’s juggling act falters a bit — Voldemort is a threat but not a focus, the Tournament is central to the plot but irrelevant to the story, the petty jealousies (not solely romantic) and social tangles feel like distractions. And it’s too fucking long. I tore through the first three books and had the devil’s own time finishing this one, because it’s neither the high-spirited romp of the early books nor a 100% ‘mytharc’ serial like the latter books. Order of the Phoenix (volume 5) will be all about the looming threat of Voldemort, Half-Blood Prince will set up the climactic magical war, but the Triwizard Tourney isn’t as significant as all that; in the end it doesn’t matter at all, in fact.

Presumably there’s some symbol-play going on — after all, Goblet kicks off with the Quidditch World Cup, another bit of wiz-worldbuilding that was obviously a kick to write but raises more fridge-logic questions than it answers (where and how do all these goddamn wizards live, anyway?). The ultimate irrelevance of the Tournament is a neat countermelody to the ruin of the Quidditch tourney by Voldemort’s minions, another irruption of the Grownup World into the lives of the kids. Rowling can write! But it does (again) raise the question of how, exactly, wizard-children are supposed to exist — and reinforces the argument that while Rowling’s zest for worldbuilding and social portraiture is equaled by her love of single-volume mystery plotting, they’re somewhat let down by the seat-of-the-trousers looseness of her serial plotting. The Sorting Hat, the Ministry of Magic, the Death Eaters… It’s all lovely but it doesn’t really work, never quite coheres into a believable magical England. You can buy Hogwarts but not its relation to the Wizarding World; I’m there for the Quidditch World Cup but can’t imagine tens of thousands of superpowered spectators feeling threatened by the presence of a couple dozen rioters. And why is Voldemort’s return a merely local matter, for British magekind? Do the Beauxbatons gals even know who the hell he is? Why not?

Rowling faces the same problems of scale-mismatch that coloured the earlier books…but where the first three books were about a school, its students, and their alumni parents, so you could easily put plotstuff aside and just float blissfully through Hogwarts and the little lives of these adorable little kids, Goblet of Fire is suddenly about an existential threat to a magical community that somehow exists all over Our Actual Existing Planet. And in those terms, it just doesn’t work.

I can only assume that the Harry books rely, in a sense, on British cultural memory of The War for some of their meaning and borrowed/assumed coherence. The felt sense of keeping calm and carrying on as apocalypse draws near…that’s not a familiar American dynamic; our home front has never been threatened. I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that Rowling is evoking something dear to the British imagination but distant from mine. The specific kind of social pathogen that Voldemort and the Death Eaters represent remains, for me, perilously abstract. And as a consequence, Goblet of Fire is left standing on its own, psychologically, without certain points of reference that perhaps it tacitly relies on.

That isn’t to say I dislike the book — for long stretches I loved it, as I love the story overall. Rowling’s story is so dear to me. Perhaps half of Goblet‘s pagecount is top-shelf Hogwarts stuff. But that pagecount approaches 800 pages, for God’s sake. Too fucking long. It feels repetitive, stitched-together, drawn out. And Rowling’s growing ambition outstrips, I must sadly admit, her planning and (‘meta’)plotting. The emotional arc of the stories, for the three beloved protagonists, is perfectly clear and beautiful. The plot-machinery is rickety and in places ridiculous. I was 20ish when I first read this novel and adored every single word of it; I’m 42 now, I’ve written books of my own, and Goblet of Fire is a 400-page novel that hangs around for 300+ pages extra.

Weirdly, I’m quite looking forward to Order of the Phoenix — inspired by the film, which was surprisingly engaging, I want to see Rowling fully integrate the sometimes disjoint worlds of the wiz-kids and the grownups whose unfinished business they’ll risk (and give) their lives to wrap up.

Sexual identity (politics).

Epistemic status: Thinking out loud, written months ago in what I can only assume was a real bad mood. I genuinely have no idea whether any of this holds up. I’ll note, though, that it’s the kind of old-fashioned blogpost I don’t write anymore, where I hit on a metaphor I like and try to pass it off as philosophy. Somebody give me tenure. –wa.

The funny thing about ‘I’m a sub’ — ‘I’m a queer nonbinary top’ — ‘I’m an asexual furry’ — is the way such declarations assume absolute fixity of sexual identity and ‘preference.’

Wait…fixity? Don’t you mean ‘fluidity,’ oldperson/fascist?

You’d think that, wouldn’t you.

Let’s talk about Magic: The Gathering for a second.

M:TG‘s best trick was to turn deckbuilding into a game activity, a subgame played away from the table. For millions of players over a quarter-century (though by no means all), creating a custom deck has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of M:TG play.

Deckbuilding is solitaire. It’s wonderful, but it’s purely self-centered. Indeed, deckbuilding-by-newsgroup is known as ‘theorycrafting,’ and is a hugely popular activity in the M:TG community — though ‘theorycrafting’ is an awfully elevated term for ‘talking about card combos with strangers.’

The ‘play of the hand,’ meanwhile, is all compromise and reaction and tactical maneuvering and plans not surviving contact with the enemy. What happens at the table is the game itself, and this is where ‘filthy casuals’ find their enjoyment — hence the increasing popularity of the grab’n’go fixed-deck distribution model, even for M:TG itself.

I’ll note here that the term ‘simultaneous solitaire’ is used derisively to talk about games where players choose strategies which are carried out by rote, independent of opponent interaction. Such plans are known as ‘degenerate strategies,’ and they’re major sources of the dreaded Negative Play Experience, because they take the play out of gameplay. They turn it into ‘a piece of business’ (cf. Rob Long’s magnificent book Conversations with my Agent).

For expert M:TG (or Pokémon TCG) players, at-the-table gameplay itself is fun — they wouldn’t stick around otherwise — but high-level play is in dispiritingly large measure a quest to create perfectly predictable decks, removing contingency and guaranteeing the execution of a set gameplan. That’s where the ‘customizable’ in ‘customizable card games’ (CCG) comes from — though note, too, that it used to stand for the more honestly nauseating ‘collectible’…

Now, sex, or rather politics:

Sexual identitarianism — e.g. my opening list of taxonomic declarations — is sold to westerners now as a form of freedom. (Never mind that freedom cannot be sold.) Declare your allegiance, align yourself with a group, know your place (and declare it in your Twitter bio), and We will back up your claim. If you like, We’ll even join in deriding those people so uncool that they don’t yet have a paraphilia. ‘Marginal’ identity is seen as a source of virtue — or rather pity, but only fascists split hairs — and crucially you can opt in to such identity by declaring a marginal sexual preference. (Insert dark joke about ‘predictable endpoint of neoliberalism’ here.)

Sexual identitarianism is deckbuilding — no, it’s theorycrafting, simultaneous solitaire. The (let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘ideological’) purpose of saying ‘I’m an asexual furry’ isn’t to announce the kind of activities you like, it’s to create the conditions for enforceability, i.e. a justification for disconnecting from an uncomfortable situation. ‘Isn’t that a universal good?’ I suppose it would be, yes, if you assumed ‘uncomfortable’ meant ‘bad.’

The ‘play of the hand’ is where the action is, erotically speaking. The good part of sex is…sex, not theory. But sexual identitarianism’s core sleight-of-hand is to displace eroticism, which is all about bisociation and ambivalence and negotiation and suspense and longing (usually unfulfilled, in the aggregate) and vulnerability and story and posture and tension and fluidity and improvisation and performance and drama and imaginative freedom, in favour of what we might well call brand loyalty. In an identitarian-capitalist system, the outcome of the sexual/ludic/social interaction must be preordained, which means avoiding collective improvisation and negotiation to the extent possible, hence Tinder instead of clubbing and ‘I’m an XYZ’ instead of ‘Let’s find out.’ That’s the palliative point of such anxious preemptive categorization: to stave off unpalatable/unmarketable uncertainty in people accustomed to pleasure ‘on demand’ and by design, even if such preemption means chucking out the eroticism-baby with the uncertainty-bathwater.

Yes motherfucker, you just read the best metaphor in the history of metaphor.

(Hey did you know that collaborative board games — people against a rules-system, an AI, an no interpersonal competition to be found — are hugely popular nowadays? Indeed. I won’t say why.)

Deckbuilding is a fun solo activity but every ‘filthy casual’ — let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘vanilla’ — knows that the play is the game.

Back to where we started: today’s declarations of sexual identity assume absolute fixity of those identities and of sexual ‘preference’… by which I mean they assume the displacement of sexual desire from the realm of imagination — ambivalence, negotiation, play — to the realm of taxonomy and strategy, the business plan, the knowable, the saleable, the prepackaged, the reassuring, the generic. They manifest an ideology that turns bodies into types, into data points. They’re boring, which is not unconnected to why they’re popular.

Yet you must be able to fuck as you please, obviously, as long as you’re not harming anyone, yourself included. And no one should have to hide (from) their healthy sexuality.

So…what?

The next bit’s the hard bit, so I’ll defer (avoid) it by ending here.

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) 

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…

Panoptic fable.

A 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 grows a little boring.

In its year-end financial statement, the prison reports that instead of the paternalistic/colonial term ‘guests,’ inmates will henceforth be referred to 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; games cost them $1.99 apiece, charged to the users’ rooms). 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 Latinx user, by the way — for a minor infraction, and they didn’t. I’m actually making a difference.’

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

At the prison, Vronsky is knifed in the shower for reasons, it is said, unrelated to his anti-‘panopticon’ agitation. Because a certain rate of user churn is accounted for in the prison’s financial plan, the decision is made not to punish anyone for the stabbing. However, the prison administrators install a complaint box in the lunchroom where users can anonymously Report one another for various infractions.

More than a hundred Reports are generated in the first month, and an unpaid intern (the prison’s first nonbinary employee!) is brought on to dispose of the complaint cards.

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 gone public through a SPAC acquisition (NASDAQ: 0EYE), is listed prominently on Anita’s résumé; her Patreon is not. She eventually gets a job at a nonprofit that connects recently freed users with low-paying green-energy positions, on a temporary 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.