(This is the only piece I got to write for grinding.be: all I need add is that the fallout from various Middle Eastern conflicts continues to cause harm, Western governmental surveillance demands are increasing in both scope and sophistication, the radicals in both Islam and the Christian right wing make further gains, and the usual suspects still profit from it.)
The recent murder of a soldier by two men on the streets of London has produced a wave of shock and horror around the world. It has also produced a vicious backlash, both officially and otherwise: the British government has responded with increasing pressure for near-total internet surveillance to be put into law and also restricting the availability of certain ‘radical’ Muslim websites, while the thuggish forces of the neo-Nazi English Defence League have staged several highly-publicised (but poorly-attended — tens or hundreds at most) marches and riots.
At the same time, a heavily organized and well-planned series of non-violent actions (protests in dozens of cities across the world, with literally millions in attendance) against the Monsanto corporation were all but ignored in the popular press. Why is this?
I don’t think it’s as simple or as cynical as the old saying “if it bleeds, it leads”… though certainly, that’s a factor. What it makes me think about specifically is the theoretical work of writer John Robb on the subject of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW).
Robb, a former USAF special ops pilot and security consultant, discussed the concept of 4GW — effectively, the warfare conducted by small non-state actors against heavily militarized governments — at length in his blog Global Guerillas. One of his key concepts in why 4GW is so effective is that of the “return on investment” (RoI). From Robb’s book, Brave New War:
In the summer of 2004, Iraq’s global guerrillas attacked a southern section of the Iraqi oil pipeline infrastructure (Iraq has over 4,300 miles of pipelines). This attack cost the attackers an estimated $2,000 to produce. None of the attackers was caught. The effects of this attack were over $50 million in lost oil exports. The rate of return: 250,000 times the cost of the attack.
It’s clear that the return on investment for the Woolwich attack is considerable, probably on a level of millions to one — committing the UK government to millions, even billions of pounds in police, military and counter-intelligence spending for no more than a couple of hundred quid on some knives and axes and a rusty old revolver. (In fact; the cost is so low, the action having been performed by just two people, it makes the attack close to being what the writer Brainsturbator described in his Skilluminati blog as 5GW — warfare committed by “super-empowered individuals” — though in this case, the empowerment comes from their media use more than their actual tool set.
Yesterday, I put a mention of the RoI of the Woolwich murder on Twitter (which is what prompted the Grinding editorship to ask for this article). The main thing I didn’t get the space to expand upon there was the question of cui bono? — if there’s a return on investment for such a violent action, who actually profits from it?
A clue about this appeared on my Twitter stream not long after, in a conversation between Brainsturbator and Damien Williams of this parish: the subject of conversation was not terrorism, but a term from professional wrestling: Kayfabe.
Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called “a promotion”) sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which “breaks Kayfabe” is called “shooting” to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called “working”.
Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts. …What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery.
One of the consistent myths of pro wrestling is the concept of the “face” and the “heel” — the good guy and the bad guy. Within the consensus reality of the Kayfabe, these are mortal foes… right up to the point where one or the other makes a “heel-face turn”, the good guy becoming the bad or vice versa. (Like, say, the ‘heroic rebels’ of the CIA-sponsored Mujahideen becoming the post-9/11 enemy…) But in reality, they’re still just performers in a symbolic, mythical struggle. Whether they consciously co-operate or not, both sides need the struggle in order to continue their identity, to define their reality.
So, again — who profits?
Those invested — emotionally, financially — in the game, on both supposed sides. The extremists; the governments who seek any excuse to cow the populous, to keep every single person scared and surveilled; the radicals who want to tear down anything that doesn’t look exactly like their fantasy world (be it Dar-al-Islam or Rule Britannia or America, Fuck Yeah). The corporations that sell the weapons to them all or, like Monsanto, rely on the distraction to conceal their agenda. And, by pure coincidence, those who want to tame the internet, to stop those who don’t want to suffer for their gain from finding out more about the truth behind the spectacle. Anyone who wants to play another game, wants a future of co-operation not competition, strength for all instead of profit-and-loss… are just collateral damage for the drones and the thugs.
John Robb doesn’t write about 4GW directly that much, these days. In his consideration of precisely how one should defend against it, he came to understand the necessity of working towards the living conditions which are most effective in resisting terrorism in general and such cheap RoI attacks in particular — decentralized infrastructure, local and networked co-operation unlocked from hierarchy. People acting in groups sharing common goals, working towards long-term building of resilient communities rather than zero-sum enemies to be obliterated. A long-term solution that strives to bypass the reflexive tit-for-tat of this conflict, to benefit all.
As I wrote this, the EDL marched on Whitehall. Again, only a couple of hundred of them, faced with a similar number of anti-fascist protesters. Supposed patriots are giving Nazi salutes and fighting police in the very heart of British governance, claiming to be protecting England against the infidel. Another front in The Forever War opened these past few days… and for those who aren’t part of the kayfabe, who strive to break past the fourth wall of us-and-them, resilience is becoming that much harder.
We have to keep looking for the tools to grind our bodies, minds and tribes to be strong and flexible enough to endure the crushing pressures of these wrestling behemoths, to always remember that whoever appears to be the face or the heel… this should not, cannot be just a war.
You never forget the first one. The first time you’re swept along by a mythology, fall headlong into a set of beliefs and symbols, find a part of your very soul contained in the words and ideas of others.
My first one, when I was very young, was Star Trek.
From the first time I saw that sweeping opening, heard William Shatner say “Space — the final frontier…” I was in love. There just wasn’t anything else like that around on the telly then — hard to remember these days when science fiction TV and movies are so commonplace as to be nearly mainstream.
Star Trek and I are the same age — both of us were born in 1964 ce, just before the 1960’s kicked off big time. Indeed, Star Trek can be seen as one of the strongest surviving manifestations of the Sixties spirit. Nowhere is that spirit — the striving for tolerance and unity in the face of bigotry and fear, the optimism that those of differing race, colour, creed or whatever could strive together for a better future — more clearly expressed in the Star Trek canon than in the concept of IDIC.
IDIC stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. The concept — and its triangle-within-a-circle symbol — first appeared on 18 October 1968, in the third season episode “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” I guess I saw it a couple of years later on British TV reruns — and it had quite an impact.
IDIC as a philosophy is easy to state — and like all such philosophical perspectives, far harder to practice than describe. This quote from the end of the episode sums it up:
“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”
“And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”
This idea — that there was everything to gain in the consideration and embrace of alternate meanings and perspectives, that difference is a treasure not a threat — is one that stayed with me, as a geeky kid with very different perspectives from his family and peers. It grew even more significant when, a few years later, I encountered the work of Robert Anton Wilson (himself a devoted Star Trek fan), and especially his multi-model approach to philosophy. The longer I lived, the more suspicious I became of dualistic us-and-them, right-or-wrong narratives — Star Trek’s vision and Wilson’s work gave me a framework to examine them from. Dualism became to me, as Wilson puts it, an incomplete hypothesis — a weak, limited model to describe a complex world of countless viewpoints and beliefs.
I still try to work with that perspective. Though these days I would be more inclined to express the idea in the BDSM phrase “your kink is not my kink and that’s OK”, the basic idea of IDIC is something I, for want of a better term, believe in. So I figured that this proto-myth of mine would be worth revisiting here. This of course entailed rewatching the episode and doing some background research — it’s been years since I actually sat down to watch any classic Star Trek at all. The recent release of digitally remastered Blu-Ray versions of the episodes (with modern CGI replacing the now-dated SFX) provided a truly stunning print to watch… but it’s the story, of course, that matters.
This rewatch & research soon became an object lesson in the intersection of myth and memory — and, ironically, emphasised that, for all the non-zero-sum aspect of IDIC, it’s origins are steeped in dualistic assumptions and imbalances.
The actual episode “Is There In Truth…” is a near-textbook expression of the power and problems of dualism, expressed in archetypal Star Trek style. The USS Enterprise is playing host to an alien ambassador, Kollos of the Medusans, a non-corporeal race described as highly intelligent and spiritually advanced, but so unbearably ugly to look at that they drive humans insane on sight. Kollos (encased in a travelling box!) is escorted by a Vulcan-trained human telepath, Dr. Miranda Jones, who has two characteristics of note — she is stunningly beautiful, and poisonously jealous of Mr Spock’s skill at telepathically joining minds with aliens. (Actually there’s a third trait of note regarding Miranda, but this isn’t revealed until later.) Kollos and Miranda (along with engineer Larry Marvick, whose long-standing crush on Miranda has unfortunate consequences) are working towards the integration of Medusans — superb instinctive space navigators — into Federation ships. Conveniently for the plot, Kollos is both the cause of, and remedy for, a life-or-death problem that only his abilities can rescue the crew from.
As is apparently the way with such events in the 23rd Century, Miranda and Larry are fêted at a formal dinner with the senior crew. It’s in this scene that we first see the IDIC symbol — and the sheer depth of dualism, along with the (by modern standards) preposterously sexist behaviour displayed there, provide quite a contrast to its message. Basically, the dinner entirely consists of Kirk, McCoy and Scotty hitting on Miranda while she snipes at Spock, and Larry The Engineer grows increasingly defensive about her…
After the dinner is over Larry declares his love for Miranda in her cabin, forcing a kiss on her — when she rejects him, he storms out to try and kill Kollos. Inevitably he goes mad in the attempt as soon as he opens the box and sees Kollos, commandeering the Engineering deck & sending the Enterprise to ‘the edge of the galaxy’, leaving them trapped with no hope of rescue. Unless, of course Kollos can navigate them away… which means Spock has to mind-meld with him, let Kollos ride him (almost loa-like) to save the ship.
This does not go well… mostly due to Miranda. However powerful a telepath she is, she can’t fly the Enterprise, Kollos or no — because she is blind. (She gets around as well as a sighted person due to a neat sensor-web worn over her frock, which everyone but McCoy thought was just decoration. He was keeping her secret out of doctor-patient confidentiality. Thanks, Bones!)
Spock’s only able to survive looking at Kollos outside his box while wearing a protective visor, and taking a very strong mental grip on his human half while doing so. When Spock-possessed-by-Kollos has finished steering the ship back to normal space and Spock goes to put the ambassador’s consciousness back in its box, Miranda nudges Spock mentally to forget his visor… and seconds later, an insane Spock is attacking the bridge crew.
Once subdued, it’s clear Spock is dying. And only Miranda can save him. Cue a classic James T. Kirk ‘persuasion of the woman’ scene, where he basically bullies Miranda into risking her life in a mind-meld with the insane Spock in order to save him. She succeeds — and the experience not only brings her closer to Kollos but also frees her from her jealousy. The last scene has Miranda and Spock saying their goodbyes, Miranda noting her new appreciation of the IDIC philosophy in the lines quoted above.
That precis doesn’t actually do the episode full justice. It still stands up well, despite the usual Trek pitfalls of garish decor and dissimilar stunt doubles substituting for the main cast in all the fight scenes. Diana Muldaur’s icy, vicious performance as Miranda is a pleasure, as is seeing Leonard Nimoy play the passionate and charming Kollos. It’s got pretty much everything you could ask from a classic Trek episode — Sulu and Chekov both on deck, McCoy saying an actual “He’s dead, Jim”, Scotty in a dress uniform with kilt(!), and Shatner bringing The Full Kirk — seductive, territorial and ruthlessly loyal to his ship and crew. There’s some great dialogue, especially when Kollos-in-Spock talks about his perspective as a telepathic, non-corporeal being experiencing the limitations of flesh for the first time:
“This thing you call language, though… most remarkable. You depend on it for so very much, but is any one of you really its master? “
But… watching the show from the perspective of of a man pushing fifty instead of a kid of six, the flaws stand out harshly against all that egalitarian optimism. Let’s go back to that dinner scene…
The scene opens with what appears to be a flirty chat between Kirk and Miranda — Kirk of course doing most of the flirting. After a few exchanges, the camera pulls out to show that Kirk’s incessant attempt to pull is apparently his idea of light dinner conversation during a formal occasion. The food (those ever-enjoyable primary coloured cubes so beloved of early Federation cuisine) is served by the only other women in the scene — two yeomen, silently dipping and gliding around the table in their ludicrously tiny minidresses.
The rest of the meal’s conversation, other than Miranda’s nasty little digs at Spock, is mostly concerned with the men of Starfleet banging on and on about how terrible it is for a woman as physically lovely as Miranda to be ‘cursed’ with having to behold ugliness for the rest of her career. (It’s worth noting that this dinner, allegedly a formal welcome for Ambassador Kollos & his entourage, is conspicuous by the absence of Kollos himself… which allows the noble crew to insult him behind his back and sexually harass his staff. Which is perhaps a problematic approach to diplomacy when he’s a telepath.) Kirk offers an inevitable toast, “To Beauty”… and Miranda has a sudden telepathic flash that someone wants to kill Kollos. She excuses herself, leaves… Larry mutters a couple of veiled comments regarding her character and goes after her — leading to the pressing of his suit for her (or, as we would say these days, attempted rape).
The dualisms in this scene and the whole episode sit there, demanding to be reconciled: Male/Female, Good/Evil, Beauty/Ugliness, Love/Hate, Blind/Sighted. To its credit, the script (by neophyte scribe Jean Lisette Aroueste, who wrote one more Trek episode, All Our Yesterdays, before retiring from screenwriting) does address some of these points — leading us back to the symbolism of the IDIC, that noble emblem for the reconciliation of dualities.
You never forget your first. But then again, you never really remember it right either.
In the intervening forty-odd years since I first saw that episode, I became a very different person. My love of Star Trek led me to my first science fiction convention and a deepening involvement in SF fandom. (At that first Star Trek convention in 1980, and not knowing the backstory at all, I unironically bought an IDIC pendant.) My memory of the actual episode blurred — but even after moving on somewhat from organised fandom and developing a wider, perhaps more cynical, appreciation for things philosophical, that concept still stuck. And, even though its origin is, shall we say, a little tacky, the IDIC is still a powerful symbol for me.
That’s the thing about constructing your own mythology from the hyper-real — reality might get in the way, but there’s still a deeper spirit you can make your own.
The world of 2011 is very different from 1968, but, like then, it is a time of turmoil and change. A time where dualistic us-and-them mindsets have not vanished in a United Federation of Planet(s) — and also a time where any method of working towards reconciling those warring dualisms could be useful. Even a tackily merchandised one. As ever, it depends on your point of view.
When I started writing this piece, the news came over the wire that Zachary Quinto, the actor portraying Mr. Spock in the Star Trek reboot, had come out as a gay man. Hearing this, I smiled… and just for a moment, the spirit of IDIC was as real and tangible to me as it was in 1968. I thought of the kid who was me watching the telly. I thought of Robert Anton Wilson, some six months after his encounter with the harsh reality of us-and-them in the midst of the Chicago Democratic Convention Riots, possibly watching the episode when it first aired. And I realised that any mythology we hold as true has to adapt, but also has to have some solid, irrevocable basis… and these contradictions will never resolve neatly. But, sometimes, they do resolve — with as much elegant simplicity as a symbol balancing a circle and a triangle. Meaning, and beauty. Sometimes you can get both, for a while.
I wrote this piece in March 2011 for the Modern Mythology site: it appears in the published collection of site articles ‘Apocalyptic Imaginary’, which was used as a Comparative Religion text at SUNY Binghamton.
The main changes since first publication are that ‘gypsy’ has been, I think justly, reconsidered to be a slur word, the Jedi fell to merely the 5th-largest UK religion in the following census… and that the hyperreal religion model is the basis of both my Darklore article ‘Believing In Fiction’ and my upcoming book ‘New Gods and Monsters’.
1: Census Sweep
It’s always an odd sensation to discover that a field of interest you’ve passionate about but know is considered fringe at best has been under the scrutiny of academia for some time.
I first learned about the work of Australian sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai from the excellent Theofantastique blog which covers the intersection of religion and cinema. Drawing on the work of Baudrillard, Possamai coined the term ‘hyper-real religion’ to describe the post-modern, syncretic belief systems that have arisen from pop culture. One major example he mentions is Jediism.
I’ve always been drawn to the way people can gain spiritual and mystical perspectives from avowedly fictional works. Some of my most intense moments of gnosis have sprung from certain movies and TV shows. So I’ve no problem at all with this. Others, it is clear, do.
Though plenty of people have been feeling a spiritual connection with Star Wars since 1977, the framing of this into an actual denomination didn’t really come up until the UK census of 2001, where a grass-roots campaign managed to get over 390,000 participants to put Jedi as their religion. (This was the first UK census to ask the religion question — it had tick-boxes for the major Judaeo-Christian flavours, Hinduism, ‘None’ and a fill-in box for ‘Other’.) These figures put Jediism into the position of 4th most prevalent faith in the UK, above Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism, and way above Paganism.
Of course, many if not most of these entries were frankly taking the piss — and the authorities responded, by putting specific codicils into religious protection legislation exempting Jediism (along with another sci-fi faith — Scientology, pro-pedophile beliefs… and Satanism) from discrimination protection in law. Nonetheless…
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the Jedi have made some inroads towards official recognition — as in the case of a Jedi who went into a Job Centre, was asked to lower his hood, refused on religious grounds — and was forced to leave, only to complain and be issued a formal apology for insulting his faith from officialdom. This happened at the same time as a Christian nurse lost her discrimination law suit when she was disciplined for refusing to stow her crucifix when on duty.
(And don’t even get me started on how keeping your hood raised as a Jedi isn’t even canon…)
It’s census time again here in Blighty. The Jedi are again pushing for inclusion. And there’s a strong push against them… from atheists.
Noted geek pundit Cory Doctorow jokingly tweeted his family might put Jedi on the 2011 census form religion option — he was instantly barraged by aggrieved atheists from the already-extant You Are Not A Jedi campaign, leading to a placating post on Boing Boing — a site which gets more than a few hits.
What interests me about all this — and has been the subject of Possamai’s scholarly-yet-sympathetic gaze — is the question of what defines a religion that must be taken seriously?
Is it longevity? (If so, then most American evangelical faiths are less than a century old, as are neo-paganism, Baha’i and of course Scientology .)
Is it numbers? (“Judge me by my size, do you?”)
Is it how many of your avowed believers are sincere in their belief? (It’s a criticism getting specifically aimed at Jediism, as noted above — but an awful lot of folk just say they’re Christian or whatever out of habit or societal pressure. How does one measure religious sincerity, exactly?)
Is it the historical evidence of their roots? (That would rule out pretty much all Bible-based beliefs, unless you’re a xtian-biased archaeologist…)
Is it power and influence? (Scientology has forced a position in the US of considerable prestige, but it’s nowhere near as ‘respected’ elsewhere.)
And, most relevantly here — is it knowing the source material is unquestionably, undeniably fictional?
An atheist would make a very sincere case that all religions are based on fiction. Most observers outside of a faith would note that, however ‘real’ its roots, all belief systems pick up a bit of fictionalising (mythologising, in the narrow sense) along the way. A Chaos mage working within a hyper-real faith framework would insist it doesn’t matter at all.
So the question is — who decides?
Belief is as personal a thing as there is. And in many, it varies — shifting from knee-jerk to utter belief to doubt. In some, it’s based on a personal mythology taken from life experience and ideas taken from every source, even fiction — the often-maligned “pick and mix” syncreticism. Why exactly do people who claim their faith is unwavering, unquestioned and ineffably (in their minds) true get privileged above those whose faith is fluid, Mercurial? Is it really just because it’s easier to put on a form?
I’m putting Taoist on my census form. It’s pretty close, and allows the possibility that what I believe is only a symbol of the numinous — in short, it leaves room for flexibility, without actually lying. But what about the sincere Jedi — or Na’Vi or Discordian (if there can be such a thing)? Does a religion having an origin in taking the piss out of another religion, or the religious impulse itself, exempt it from being taken seriously? Though the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster started as a reductio-ab-absurdam of xtian evolutionary theory, it’s occupying enough mindspace that some, I am sure, are quite sincere when they call for the blessing of His Noodly Appendage. The Church of All Worlds, derived from Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, has been a feature in SF fandom since the 60s and I’ve been in situations where sharing water became an unquestionably sincere mystical act.
I don’t have all the answers — hell, I’ve barely started to form the right questions. Adam Possamai’s work asks a lot of interesting ones that I’d not considered, and I’ll talk about some of those here later.
Next time, I’ll be looking at how the hyper-real faiths can be seen as product, as an offshoot of late-capitalism — and whether or not this makes them (and possibly all modern belief) cargo cults.
The British Humanist Association has tried, unsuccessfully, to have posters about their position re. the census appear at British railway stations. In a piece on the subject at christian.org.uk, the following appeared:
The forthcoming census and the BHA’s campaign were featured on Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week.
Speaking on the programme, BHA chief executive Andrew Copson said the religion question in the census was “aberrantly imprecise” and “wantonly inaccurate.”
He said the results of the census would lead government, both nationally and locally, to make “wrong assumptions” based on “erroneous data” when allocating resources and developing policies.
But a Church of England spokesperson disagreed with his criticism.
Revd Linda Barley, Head of the Church of England’s Research and Statistics Department, said of the religion question: “It’s not about belonging, it’s not about believing, it’s not about practice, or any of those things, it’s about just whether people feel they align themselves with different religious persuasions.”
She went on to say that the kind of more detailed information Andrew Copson was looking for would come from surveys like the British Social Attitudes Survey “to find out what it means on the ground.”
And her comments were backed by Peter Benton, Deputy Director of the 2011 Census.
“There are different concepts that you can measure in relation to religion”, he said, including religious practice, belief and affiliation.
“And when we’ve talked to the people that use the census data”, he added, “the one that matters most to them is religious affiliation”.
He concluded: “we could have chosen to measure some of the narrower aspects but it was a deliberate decision not to.”
If the definition of someone claiming a faith-identity comes down to “whether or not people feel they align themselves with different religious persuasions”, then how does any belief, fiction-based or not, fail to qualify?
One of the key perspectives in the work of Adam Possamai in regard to the ‘hyper-real’ postmodern pop-culture belief systems comes from his background as a sociologist. As a result of this, he frames a lot of his analysis of the phenomenon as manifestations of late-capitalism. Put simply, he sees them on one level as product.
He’s got a point. Pop culture, by definition, is something we can buy. (Or steal, or bootleg… but I’ll get to that later.) It’s a manifestation of mass production and dissemination. It’s worship of things you can buy in a shop. Production line totems.
In other words, it’s kind of like a cargo cult.
The last remaining cargo cult, the worship of a semi-mythical (possibly black US Army soldier) John Frum is on the South Sea island of Tanna. It’s well worth reading Mike Jay’s 2002 piece on the history and current state of the Vanatu who worship Frum. Jay finds the history of Frum-worship rife with meaning and symbolism for our times. Frum is a mercurial icon— a Jesus/Moses/Spartacus figure, who has inspired automatically-received songs in languages the Vanatu do not speak. One of my favourite stories of the Frum-inspired rebellion against colonial rule, told by Jay, goes:
…by 1941 there was no doubt that something was going on. A ‘prophet’ named Manehevi from Sulphur Bay had been arrested and tied to a tree for a day by the colonial administration, pour encourager les autres, but John Frum continued to appear. Subsequent witnesses had been deported and imprisoned. Then, big news: a huge detachment of American troops had arrived on the neighbouring island of Santo. Not only had these Americans brought unheard-of amounts of cargo — arms, tanks, boats, food, medicine — but a considerable number of them were black. The centuries of unbroken symmetry between foreigners (white, rich) and locals (black, poor) had been broken, and the black GIs were variously interpreted as descendants of the islanders who’d been kidnapped by plantation owners in the past, or as John Frum’s own detachment of the US army. Messianic fervour gripped Sulphur Bay, and one Sunday morning the new movement came out into the open with a baffling act of civil disobedience which sent shock-waves through the white community. The compulsory attendance at the Presbyterian church was universally ignored; instead, a group of locals walked solemnly into the white-owned trading post and carefully removed every price label from the stock.
That last touch, the peaceful occupation of a symbol of the privileged of capitalism struck me as awfully similar to the approach taken at the weekend by the UKUncut affinity group, who protested the draconian public service cuts in Britain by a peaceful sit-in at one of London’s poshest shops, Fortnum and Mason.
All 150-odd non-violent activists caused no more damage than knocking over a chocolate Easter bunny (symbolic sacrifice?)… and were tricked out of the building by police — told they were being moved for their protection, then nicked as soon as they were out.
A recent paper published in the Physical Review has some astonishing suggestions for the geographic future of financial markets. Its authors, Alexander Wissner-Grossl and Cameron Freer, discuss the spatial implications of speed-of-light trading. Trades now occur so rapidly, they explain, and in such fantastic quantity, that the speed of light itself presents limits to the efficiency of global computerized trading networks.
These limits are described as “light propagation delays.”
It is thus in traders’ direct financial interest, they suggest, to install themselves at specific points on the earth’s surface — a kind of light-speed financial acupuncture — in order to take advantage both of the planet’s geometry and of the networks along which trades are ordered and filled. They conclude that “the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface” is thus economically justified, if not required.
Amazingly, though, their analysis — seen in the map, above — suggests that many of these financially strategic points are actually out in the middle of nowhere: hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, for instance, on the shores of Antarctica, and scattered throughout the South Pacific (though, of course, most of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Bos-Wash corridor also make the cut).
These nodes exist in what the authors refer to as “the past light cones” of distant trading centers — thus the paper’s multiple references to relativity. Astonishingly, this thus seems to elide financial trading networks with the laws of physics, implying the eventual emergence of what we might call quantum financial products. Quantum derivatives! (This also seems to push us ever closer to the artificially intelligent financial instruments described in Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando).
It’s financial science fiction: when the dollar value of a given product depends on its position in a planet’s light-cone.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if one of those financial feng-shui nodes just happened to be on or near Tanna? If the actual control of the world’s cargo were to flow through Frum’s land? There’s also the distinct possibility of quasi-national libertarian states, like the tenacious republic of Sealand, could pop up too.
John Frum versus John Galt?
The control, both financially and possibly magically, of the products of late capitalism, caught in our local light cone, distributed at lightspeed. The swiftest of the messengers of the gods of cargo.
One of these products of late capitalism, a comic book produced by the Time-Warner/DC empire (specifically Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’), once suggested that all human religions are cargo cults. It’s a throwaway idea, which Gaiman himself called a ‘notion’ rather than a fully-fledged idea. But it’s one that stuck with me, because the language of commerce and trade has infiltrated everything. We talk metaphorically of the cost of our actions, the price we have to pay, the deals we must strike. The death toll of a military action, in British military slang, is called the Butcher’s Bill. And England, let us not forget, was described by Napoleon as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. And if the English are shopkeepers, what then are the Americans?
One of the biggest ever US pop-culture influences world-wide is undoubtedly Star Trek. And it’s really interesting to me that the show makes a point of saying that a precondition of their relatively utopian and egalitarian society is that “we outgrew the need for money”… without actually telling us how they did so. Further, when Star Trek’s later iterations appeared, this was underlined further by the appearance of a culture which far more closely resembles the character of modern late-capitalist society than the enlightened Federation… the Ferengi.
(Remember that awful buddy flick Swingers? It strived to make the phrase “you’re so money” into a synonym for coolness. It was made in 1996, at the tailing edge of the cultural worship of flash cash that brought us Wall Street and Loadsamoney. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see it being remade in this new resurgence of that current. For fucksake, they remade that most egregious of capitalist wank fantasies, Arthur…)
Possamai, I must note, is scrupulously fair about the way capitalism influences faith. He notes how there’s an opposite reaction to the hyper-real religions — a kind of hypo-real fundamentalist pushback, limiting the faithful’s access to a ‘free market’ of ideas, offering narrow but plentiful products of their own. It’s perfectly possible for a child to be, for example, raised, educated and employed entirely within a climate of, say, Xtian Dominionism — they have their own books, toys, TV shows, internet realms, pop music, comics — all the things the hyper-real draws on but neutered, made acceptable within their paradigm. And it’s almost too obvious to note how their megachurches increasingly resemble corporations, their temples more and more like malls.
And the Chaotes, the Newagers of every stripe, the Na’Vi and the Jedi and the FSMites… they all work their ways, buy the albums and books and DVDs and action figures and How To Speak Klingon CDs and on and on – many of them deeply suspicious of just how that cargo ends up in their hands. As suspicious as the Vanatu, with no John Frum to lead them.
So, knowing all this… how’s a denizen of the capitalist, English-speaking West to react to this? How do we find our spiritual, mythic and magical place within these mass-produced possibilities?
3: Modern Soul
“Gypsies, tramps and thieves,
You hear it from the people of the town, they call us
Gypsies, tramps and thieves…
But every night, the men would come around,
And lay their money down.”
-Sonny and Cher
“I’m a little bit wooah, a little bit waayy, a bit dodgy, a bit tasty…. I’m a geezer! I will nick anything!”
~ Chris the Crafty Cockney, The Fast Show
If, as the work of Adam Possamai suggests, modern culture (and pop-culture especially) is essentially a product of the machinations of late-capitalism, is just product, merely cargo… what can we, supposedly nothing more than mere consumers, do to find a relevant personal spirituality?
The answer to that lays somewhere in the nature of power, ownership and control.
It’s clear that the modern industrial West is a place where the definition of ownership and property is getting… blurry. Corporations benefit on the one hand from immense political influence which they use to redefine the concept of property (through swapping actual ownership of sold goods to a model where the consumer merely rents them from ‘the cloud’, to suing anyone who infringes ‘their’ copyright while plundering other cultures and counter-cultures for their next Big Idea) and, on the other, from the trillions given to them to bail out economies fractured by the biggest Ponzi scheme in human history… from which they also profited to the sum of trillions of dollars. Numbers and power like that have a crushing weight to them, a force of gravity like supermassive black holes in culture.
So perhaps the best way to deal with them is to turn that gravity against them, to slingshot past their aims and, gaining speed from their mass, plunge ever deeper into imaginal space.
And, as we pass, steal anything that isn’t nailed down.
A key concept here is the Situationist term Détournement and the parallel idea of Bricolage— the taking of the products of capitalism and inverting them, remaking them to serve people rather than be cargo-trinkets to be worshipped and sought.
Think: remix culture, sampling, cut-ups, mash-ups. Sharing, rather than unequal ‘free’ market trading. Pirate Bay. Fan-fic and Adbusters. Open-source Makers rather than trademark-and-copyrighted sellers. Stealing back from the thieves.
The Street finding its own use for things.
It’s not like there’s a lack of examples of popular ground-level belief systems appropriating the symbols and tools of the mainstream for their own purposes — from the John Frum devotees I mentioned last time, to Voudon altars covered with cigars, cheap bottles of rum and shop-bought Virgin Mary devotional candles. So many stories, so many tools… why not just pick them up, wield them… and most importantly, see what they can do when you ignore the warranty, use them outside of the realm of the manufacturer’s warning?
Ever wondered why Hermes was the god of both magicians and thieves? Why crafty has nuances of meaning that imply both skill and cunning? Why bricolage derives from the French word for a tinker? It’s a hint.
The biggest confidence trick of our times is that we are nothing but powerless, passive consumers. That this is not only how things should be, but that it’s good for us. But we can and should be more — active, smart, crafty tool-users. Tinkers, and tinkerers. The Master’s Tools bloody well can be used to dismantle (or rebuild) The Master’s House — that’s what tools are for. Turn the con back on the grifters. Provide Leverage.
“even though it borrows eclectively from earlier esotericism, is to be understood as an expression, in the field of spirituality, of emergent post-industrial or post-modern culture.”
The side-effect of all that Individualism that has been pushed as a way to make us buy newer and shinier things as a ‘lifestyle choice’ has had the unintended consequence of letting ‘consumers’ actually make those same individual choices about their own natures — and use the tools and themes and memes that array around them as the means to develop and construct their own path, their own mythos. The refusal to accept that anyone has the right to define our personal mythology but ourselves is an increasingly radical act, especially in the face of violently competing resurgent Great Narratives, dualistic us-and-them battles. There is far more to be had at the margins, the Bordertowns; the messy and vibrant meniscus between Buyer and Seller, adherent and heretic, the economists and the economised.
All the fun stuff happens at the edges: where the carnival shows and travelling clans, the car-boot sales and swap-mets, set up. Beyond the Pale. Beyond the consensus definition of the Real… out in the Hyperreal. Where the mages, fanboys and roleplayers, the short-con men and the jugglers, the Makers, Grinders and hackers and the rest of the Tribe of the Strange live, where it’s not quite safe and certainly not at all respectable or ordered or polite — and especially not Business As Usual. Where myth lives again.
(First appeared on the defunct website Weaponizer in 2010ce)
The Tribe of the Strange have always existed. Ever since we were people. We appear in every generation, pretty much every country. There aren’t very many of us – and we’re odd. Really odd.
We don’t get an instruction book to tell us just how odd or what to do about it.
Our heads just don’t work the same as the rest of you. Not always better – but always odder. Some of us have odd powers (usually very small ones), most of us don’t. But, sometimes, we can sense our own kind.
Each generation doesn’t really know what to do with us. Sometimes, we’re persecuted, hunted, burned. Sometimes we’re respected as shamen, artists, musicians. Sometimes, not so much.
Mostly, we’re just outcast from consensus reality – a bit too real for the room.
It used to be we had to hide in plain sight, where we wouldn’t stick out too much: the priesthood, art… science once it came along.
We had to.
These days, we don’t have to hide nearly as much. So we can find our tribe mates. We meet, we form networks. Find and share tools.
These days, it’s a lot easier for us to assemble our personal instruction manuals from found work. Centuries of occult tomes and myths, scientific models and and blessed fictions. Music to stir us.
Codes left by our ancestors, or those inspired by them. Most of ’em are easy to find online.
The Toolkits of the Tribe of the Strange are vast, complex and idiosyncratic as hell. And improving all the time.
These days, there’s little quite as powerfully odd as a mage with a smartphone and a multi-tool.