The Trouble with Witty Flights: Tickling the Master’s Creatures
You never did! –The Kenosha Kid
In a 6 February 2006 interview for LAist, Adrienne Crew queried Theresa Duncan’s opinion on the “Best LA-themed book(s).”
Duncan’s reply: The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.
What Duncan saw in the novel, or why this came to mind in response to that particular question, only she would know. As far as we know, her answer gives us some insight with respect to her blog. While we’ve mentioned others during this series--most notably Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita--the Pynchon influences on Wit of the Staircase become even more noticeable and redundant after awhile. And to some extent seem to affirm many other allusions, including those to Nabakov.
If you search the blog’s bio page and scroll down a bit, in the left hand corner you’ll see a series of quotes from another Pynchon novel, namely Gravity’s Rainbow, specifically what the author referred to as “Proverbs for Paranoids.” They read as follows,
1 You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoids because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.
Anyone who’s seen intrigue up close will chuckle and nod her head upon reading these. The book itself is almost a paean to paranoia, much like the Wit of the Staircase posts endorsing Rigorous Intuition.
In his 1987 book Postmodern Fiction, Brian McHale described Gravity’s Rainbow as “literally an anthology of postmodernist themes and devices.” As such we can detect a somewhat knee-jerk rejection against storytelling conventions, with long digressions on subjects that might, or might not, have some kind of meaning later on, numerous characters who come in and out over the course of a novel that’s almost 900 pages, a bizillion subplots, rhapsodies on linguistic wordplay, the occasional breaking down of the fourth wall, and so forth. It’s the tendency of postmodernism to reject master narratives, one of the most critical here being the distinction between high and low art, or highbrow, commercial and lowbrow culture. The postmodernist would most likely see them as equally valid. Not surprisingly, one finds, that in Gravity’s Rainbow Emily Dickinson shares equal shrift with Porky the Pig, exquisite discourses of mathematical, philosophical, artistic principles are juxtaposed in equal measures with vulgarities that would make Richard Pryor blush--and that’s saying something.
If you want to know what it’s about, or in other words its plot, then good luck. Pynchon doesn’t clarify to what extent the events in the book happen, and to what extent they exist only in the mind of the protagonist, or perhaps someone else. But the most straightforward storyline follows the adventures of Lt. Tyrone Slothrop (USA), and for the lack of a better explanation, his lone super power. Stationed in London during the days of extensive V2 attacks toward the end of World War II, Slothrop becomes (um) sexually aroused in the very spots that the rocket will land, within a time frame of ten days (four and a half days, on average). This allows the psi branch of British Intel, known colloquially as the White Visitation, to make Ty the subject of a long-term research project. The White Visitation consists of an amalgamation of paranormal and psychological researchers, conducting everything from Pavlovian experiments on dogs to seances. The psychiatrist in charge of his case, Dr. Pointsman, utilizes such spies as statistician Roger Mexico and Slothropp’s best friend, British officer Tantivy Mucker-Muffrick in order to keep the operation’s methodology and purpose a secret.
By the time he takes his furlough at the Herman Göring Casino, Slothrop has already caught on that someone is conspiring against him. So he tricks a bunch of British officers into playing a drinking game, plying them with champagne until a pair of loose lips drop some startling revelations. For the most part, Slothrop follows up on this info, hunting for more proof about his own private conspiracy. It appears to revolve around the events of his childhood, and his wealthy family’s connections to, among other things, the I.G. Farben corporation. We later discover that an I.G. Farben scientist, Dr. Laszlo Jampf, immigrated to the U.S. after WWI, and used Slothrop--with the approval of his father--as a guinea pig for psychic experimentation. Specifically, Dr. Jampf conditions Slothrop to go “beyond” zero awareness, to a state of, I guess, negative awareness. Unfortunately for him, Tyrone has been sent on a snipe hunt for such things as rocket 00000 and the Scwartzgerat (black device).
The themes of paranoia, predestination, power and the tenuous nature of reality found in Gravity’s Rainbow, and to some extent The Crying of Lot 49, find parallels in the posts of Wit of the Staircase. They’re too numerous to list in a short space, but in the next post, I’d like to go over them in order to show something about Wit of the Staircase, and in doing so argue that the blog, like Jeremy Blake’s Winchester, was rife with ideological significance.
The Trouble with Witty Flights: The Existentially Modern Postmodern Couple
As I was saying....
A professor once asked me to define ‘postmodernism’ in twenty-five words or less. My reply: “Beats the hell out of me.”
That’s six words.
Seven years later, I still can’t define postmodernism in twenty-five words, or for that matter twenty-five pages. Nevertheless, I’ll try to relay some thoughts on it in order to contextualize the creative works of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan.
Like many artistic, philosophical or cultural movements, postmodernism is a reaction to, or against, other artistic, philosophical or cultural movements. Yet there is something unique about it. Younger movements usually push their way through the older ones and ultimately replace them. For example, the ornate gaudiness and ostentatious grandeur of the Baroque and Rococo ceded, chronologically, to the measured restraint of the Classical era, and the rationality of the Enlightenment. Postmodernism, on the other hand, chiefly reacts against a couple of contemporary movements: to a small degree existentialism; and to a much larger extent, modernism.
Okay, you’re probably wondering now what the smurf is modernism. My reply’s consistent: beats the hell out of me.
Generally, modernist texts and philosophies tend toward the rational. Some see them as an outgrowth of eighteenth-century Enlightenment positivism, an optimism that mankind can discover, dissect, define and catalog empirical truth. This, in turn, leads to the acceptance of master narratives and taxonomies, general concessions about what constitutes reality and causality. Meaning and validity, in this sense, derives from the instance or being of something compared to its logical place within said reality. Items that do not fit into this construct, more or less don’t exist.
Postmodernism usually entails a critique on the fundamental assertions of modernism, assuming one can actually separate the two.* Among other things, postmodernism calls into question the verification of empirical truths, and consequently master narratives. Whereas one would see modernist thought in terms of objectivity, the postmodern would see greater validity in a subjective reality. As opposed to a modernist belief in truth according to a universal construct, the postmodernist would more likely see truths as localized (to a philosophy, nation, family, or even the individual) and non exclusive. What’s true for you, might not be true for me, and both our positions could be equally valid. Instead of asserting a specific realism with a high degree of confidence, the postmodernist would be more comfortable with incongruence–in other words, the acceptance that something can simultaneously be understood and unknown within different localized spheres. For example, what is known to the American might not be known by the Iraqi, and vice versa. While modernism is dedicated to something called “progress,” postmodernism would ask “Toward what?”
Und so weiter.
Figure 1. Still from Winchester
When looking at something like Blake’s Winchester Trilogy we see a very potent critique of master narratives, some of which Blake himself articulated. As he said in an online interview dated 9 August 2005:
It reminded me of the American obsession with massive scale and the sort of upper class monster houses that are being built in contemporary suburban America. I liked that the first one was build [sic] to house ghosts, because it captures something truly American about how we are working hard in this world, to get to the next. And then there is also the obsession with protection from unseen threats, which has become present again.
Here, Blake openly questioned a master narrative many call “The Protestant Work Ethic,” “The Protestant Ethic,” or, as I prefer to call it, “The Protestant Success Ethic.” This particular narrative originated in Calvinistic thought that believed in a Doctrine of the Elect. the idea that salvation from Hell came not from your good deeds, or because of your steadfast faith and piety, but simply from God’s decision to include you on the guest list. No reason given (or as adherents would say, “God’s will hath no why.”) Over the years, the idea morphed into a secondary one, namely that God showed His favor to the elect through material wealth–and the subsequent power that entails.
The critique is even more striking when looking more closely at the subject matter, As the story goes, rifle heiress Sarah Winchester (left) consulted a Boston medium about the evil spirits haunting her house. The psychic told her they were the ghosts of all the people killed by the Winchester rifle. To appease them, she would have to build them separate rooms in her mansion, where they could live by themselves, and the hell away from her. So she added on room after room after room until she finally passed away in 1922. The house, lacking a master plan, became an unwieldy mess, with numerous dead ends, and staircases that don’t lead to anywhere except the ceiling.
Of course, we here in the Twenty-First Century would tend to interpret the spirits not as ghosts, but as Winchester’s own raw guilt. Let’s face it. Unless you use it to shoot tin cans off the back fence, or in the freefall vacuum of outer space you utilize the recoil action as a means of propulsion, a gun’s only good for violence, or the threat of it. Given an industry that thrived on the brutal death and suffering of others–for the most part belonging to a class not her own–we might subsequently see irony. Election itself was inadequate for salvation, as the heiress literally tried to buy stairways to Heaven.
Or so the story goes. On 1 May 2013, Winchester historian Richard A. Wagner posted an article on his website arguing that the popular story of Winchester’s guilt had no basis in fact, and was actually an urban legend.** Yet, postmodernists would argue that whether or not the story is factually accurate, the legend nevertheless exists. Moreover, because we’re talking about subjective reality, as opposed to objective reality, the legend becomes just as valid or as real as the actual story. It could even, perhaps, be more real. One could argue, for example, that if the Sarah Winchester story is factually inaccurate, there have been plenty of other war profiteers. Unless they’re all psychopaths, you’d have to think that some of them might have felt guilty about how they paid for their lives on Easy Street. So if Blake erred in terms of assessing Winchester’s state of mind, he most likely nailed someone else’s. As an artistic work pregnant with ideological meaning, the Winchester Trilogy delivers a narrative that, if not literally true, is still allegorically true, and in such a way that’s powerfully inescapable. You can’t look at it and miss that message.
Another tenet of postmodernism runs along a similar line. Many would suggest that the mass-mediated event is just as real–if not more so–than the unmediated event. If your favorite NFL team, for example, won the Super Bowl, would it be any less real for you watching the game on TV than it would be were you sitting in the stands? Think about it. If you’re up in the nosebleed section, you’re not going to have a very good look at the action unless play is right in front of you. And if you’re sitting in the endzone, you won’t hardly see anything until someone’s about to score at your end. Contrast that to the experience of watching the game on TV, where you can hear commentary by professional announcers, see instant replays, in slow motion, and from multiple angles. Where you can actually see the player’s faces under their helmets. And, if you have TIVO or a similar system, you can manipulate the experience yourself to a small degree. Of course, nowadays, most major sporting events have TVs on site to provide instant replays and other media content, and it’s purpose is just the same for the fan at home–the mass mediated experience of watching a replay on the Jumbotron validates what you just saw with your own naked eyes. In other words, it reinforces the reality of the experience.
Another master narrative that Blake openly questioned in the Winchester Trilogy is the one that describes the methodology of art. Postmodern views on artistic creation often champion the dismissal of rules, conventions, formalities and so forth. Yet for Blake, the tools used to create visual art, their usage, and their purpose were up for reinterpretation. As he stated in the aforementioned interview, when the questioner attempted to draw strict lines between documentary and art:
A documentary would be fascinating, but I'm not interested in being an historian. As an artist in a site like that, I would rather try to draw some sort of meaning. The way I did that was to show what I thought was the psychology of the builder of this house. In other words, what interests me was the neurosis of this person and the poetic powers of what they build, rather than the history in a more straightforward way. Sort of like the alchemist expression of the prose, where you're trying to show the motivation and psychic of the character by interpreting the surroundings.
In his use of video and animation, Blake, in effect, created three-dimensional images. While we normally think of three dimensions in terms of length, width and depth, there’s also the fourth dimension of time. Video allowed Blake to unfold patterns of length and width–what we would see as two-dimensional space,–in time, bypassing depth as a third dimension, similar, in a way to Picasso’s Light Drawings (right). Had he lived long enough to have witnessed the technological breakthroughs in 3D-imaging, Jeremy could very well have created four-dimensional paintings. Of course, the master narrative of modernist interpretation defines a painting as a two-dimensional medium that only simulates three, sometimes four dimensions, and would therefore tend to view such works as Winchester and Sodium Fox as representative of another medium. And if we accept the postmodern understanding about the validity of mass-mediated experience, then the manipulation of that experience–especially by eschewing the previously accepted means for producing it--could also be valid.
In other words, the ideological statements inherent in an artwork don’t necessarily derive from any overt message, which might come across to an audience as preachy, but in the construction of the artwork itself. The degree to which the artist is consciously aware of what he or she is doing would depend on the artist. Still, on the unconscious level an artist such as Blake, who received a good deal of formal training, would realize that he’s breaking rules, or that he’s actually challenging the validity of the rules, or the definitions.
And it’s in this vein that when we take a look at the creative output of both Blake and Duncan, we can discern a number of postmodern influences. Chop Suey, for example, blurs the distinction between gameplay and storytelling. Moreover, unlike more modernist structures of narrative, where we have beginnings (expositions), middles (developments) and ends (climaxes) spun for us by the author, it’s the player who gets to choose where the story will go. There’s no set chronology of events, so a lot of how it plays out would be beyond the control of its authors, namely Duncan and Monica Gesue.
We can also see a bit of the postmodern ethos in Blake and Duncan’s collaborations: some in their “Closet Cases” episodes, and a whole lot in A History of Glamour, where there’s deliberate toying with verbal language and symbols. Looking at Wit of the Staircase, the fabled blog that launched a thousand blogs, we not only see a postmodern influence, but the very clear influence of an author whose works often serve as a prime example of postmodern literature. And like other literature described as such, it features an ongoing critique on art and culture that reveals an ideological meaning of its own.
______________________ *Citing Eye magazine founder Rick Poyner’s book No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, one blogger wrote:
Poynor writes that postmodernism can not be understood without reference to modernism, while the ‘post’ prefix might seem to suggest that postmodernism comes after modernism, or that it replaces or rejects it, many commentators point out that postmodernism is a kind of parasite, dependant on its modernist host and displaying many of the same features –– except that the meaning has changed.
**Wagner explained that the elaborate and bizarre architecture resulted not from hauntings or guilt but from Masonic and Rosicrucian beliefs (Winchester belonged to both orders). As such, the building’s very design is an encryption of sorts, and actually has some coherency when viewed in that light.
Will this scatomancy never end? It's not an ouroborous; it's a circlejerk, from top to bottom.
--Earlier anonymous commenter on this series.
Hmm. All this time, I thought I had made myriad points. Perhaps reviewing this series would help clarify them:
1. The first set of writings were a Preamble, a way to introduce a number of topics that would be important to the story later on. Among these were the nature of suicidal ideation; the fluid nature of online identity and tricksterism; past and present official efforts to quell public dissent, especially with respect to martial policies; the sexual fascination with pubescent and post-pubescent teenagers manifested by older generations during the 1960s; and, of course, The Last Statue, a novel that became a lightening rod, of sorts, in the upcoming story.
2. Most important: the story of Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake played out as a social drama in a number of different media, among them print (the Vanity Fair, newspaper and other hardcopy accounts), television (the Law & Order episode titled “Boogeyman”), and cyberspace; it will continue to play out on the silver screen with the upcoming movie produced by Gus van Sant and penned by Bret Easton Ellis. Like other social dramas, it began with an anomalous event–the apparent suicides of two people who seemingly had everything to live for–over which various actors offered a meaning that conflicted with the interpretation of others.
The contested meaning resolved in different ways, according to the medium and the source. The most disparaging descriptions of Blake and Duncan, both in life and death, betrayed a consistent ideological bias. This offers some indication of the political meaning of Blake’s artwork and Duncan’s writing, or at least the meaning that some might take from each. And this bias seemed to take the most solid hold in traditional media.
The Internet featured a couple of different narratives that tended toward conspiracy explanations–not that surprising, since Blake had discussed conspiracy hypotheses with friends, and Duncan posted items about conspiracy topics (e.g., MONARCH, MOCKINGBIRD, etc) on her blog, Wit of the Staircase. The first, articulated in such posts as ““Duncan & Blake ‘Suicides’ Solved: The Omaha/Des Moines Allegations, MediaBistro.com Data Mining and the CIA,” by Alex Constantine, and “After the Ambulances Go.” by Jeff Wells, explored the possibility of murder. The latter did this by calling into question some of the particulars, especially in regards to the discovery of Duncan’s body. The former concentrated on the deep connections between various people associated with the couple.
The remaining narrative, the ARG angle, was explored as a possibility in situ. Although the originator into this line of research backed off the initial hypothesis as more information came in, the possibility of using Blake and Duncan’s deaths in a fictional way, or in a game, still loomed.
While all three of these narratives have obvious weaknesses, they also have strengths, some of which aren’t quite so obvious. Moreover, when one takes a closer look at them, he or she can note that they aren’t completely inconsistent with each other, since each addresses disparate aspects or topics in the story.
3. The next part examined the specific claims Duncan and Blake made during their lives. While these claims were undoubtedly wild, some were actually quite plausible, especially when compared to documented and proven cases alleging harassment by the Church of Scientology. Other alleged threats are harder to assess. Because many people–including many depicting themselves as friends–dismissed plausible harassment as outright paranoid, the other claims are filtered through this one.
We can speculate that the couple exaggerated the degree of harassment. We can just as easily speculate that no one close to them took the other claims seriously because of what Bake and Duncan said about Scientology. What we don't have to speculate about is the fact that a private investigator employed by the Church of Scientology participated in the writing of an influential article that mocked the couple's criticism of the cult.
4. The contested meaning of these events led to rancor among those examining the lives and deaths of Blake and Duncan. A division occurred that historically paralleled some of the divisions that surfaced decades ago, when anti-war and New-Left factions found themselves at odds over fine ideological points and tactics. Compounding this social fissure were official policy proposals that cited conspiracy research as a vague threat to national security, and outlined measures to stop it. The effect of such policies, were they put into effect (assuming that they had not), would undoubtedly be quite similar to the most contentious parts of the Theremy phenomenon.
5. So, that leaves us with the question of what actually happened to Blake and Duncan. Public information about this is somewhat sparse, despite valiant efforts by a few researchers (namely, some of the contributors to this series) to ferret out more information through good old-fashioned gumshoeing. These data indicate a number of things, some speculative, some not. While the speculative isn’t provable, it does affirm a credible storyline, parts of which were documented by the press, and by Duncan herself.
I got a snail mail today from Langley. It reads, in part, as follows:
Mr. Dell (or would you prefer Dr. X?)
We at CIA are most disturbed by your posts, and feel that you have a decided bias that we should correct as soon as possible.
To set the record straight, the Agency is not involved in any conspiracies, nor has it been. The stories about our documented evil activities (MK-ULTRA, Mossadegh, Robertson Panel, etc.) were all developed by us in order to test how fast misinformation can spread when stipulated to the public and thoroughly documented. And while some official stories are not true to the letter, they’re close enough. For example, it’s true that Lee Harvey Oswald did not fire on President Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, but rather from the second floor lunchroom while putting coins in a vending machine–he got off a trick shot that ricocheted three times within TSBD, emerged from the sixth floor window, circled the Stemmons Freeway several times, before striking the President in the front of the head. Naturally, the sixth-floor story was a simplification for the benefit of the public, who often cannot comprehend the basics of theoretical physics.
So, you see, you really have nothing to report. And the Agency is loath to think that you might be besieged by a third-party contracted for online corrections duty. These operants can be verbally abusive at times (I see, some of them have already been to your page), and have no qualms about informing the public about your various peccadillos (especially since they enjoy making them up). Yes, they know where you live, but they have no intention of paying you a visit, in the middle of the night, disguised as midget ninjas, and toting AK-47s. So your future reportage of them will attest to your mental instability.
But take our word for it. You’re simply wrong. Worse, you’re a threat to national security.”
Gee. I never knew all that. I guess I was wrong. And I’ve wasted all of your time. I’m so sorry.
In order not to waste any more of your time, I am ending this blog and erasing everything. Forget everything that you’ve read here. In fact, don't even read this post. And have a good life.
The Trouble with Witty Flights: Dissidence and Patriotism, Off the Deep End
Got your deep paranoia suit on? Then proceed with caution. Updated 2/28/13
Paranoia seems to us an absolute patriotic duty at the moment, and Rigorous Intuition is like the incredibly symbolically twisted and bizarre dream you wake up from to realize that the scenario thrown up from the unconscious is actually the expression of some very simple truth you had been desperate to avoid facing.
–Theresa Duncan, “The Swell Life: Homo Californius And The Return Of The Paranoia-Free Pastoral,” Wit of the Staircase/
Writer Robert Anton Wilson associated with some very interesting people with fascinating connections, among them his friend and sometimes collaborator Richard Bandler, a pioneer of Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP). Bnadler’s research into NLP led him to consult with PSYOPs experts at the Pentagon and Langley, according to a number of crediblesources. Wilson also knew Bandler’s former tenet, Gregory Bateson, an applied anthropology lecturer at the Humanistic Psychology Institute, as well as a consultant for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII, and later for other intelligence services.
The two associates Wilson mentioned in the quote cited previously used the rather obvious pseudonyms Malaclypse the Younger, and Ho Chi Zen. If you want to attach real names to these colorful figures, you might want to start here, at the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) official collection of JFK assassination documents. Malaclypse turned out to be Gregory Hill, a rather obscure figure, about whom little is known. He nevertheless became a character in Wilson’s Illuminatus! books. Ho Chi Zen was one of the numerous pen names used by Kerry W. Thornley,
Thornley’s involvement with the JFK assassination began in 1959 when he met Lee Oswald at El Toro Marine Base, located near Irvine, CA. In 1962, Thornley completed the first draft of The Idle Warrior, the first of many books written about Oswald. Thornley subsequently testified about Oswald for the Warren Commission.
Orleans Parrish District Attorney (later Louisiana Appellate Court Judge) Jim Garrison firmly believed that Thornley worked for the CIA as a contract agent. In his 1988 book On the Trail of the Assassins,
Like a number of young men who have been identified as CIA employees, Thornley had a post office box in the federal building across from Banister's office. Such post office boxes are customarily used by federal employees with clandestine assignments as "message drops" as well as an acceptable excuse for regular visits into a federal building...Thornley actually lived across Lafayette Square from the old post office building and from the Newman Building, in which Oswald later was seen, prior to his moving into the French Quarter. At the time of the assassination Thornley was living on Dauphine Street a block and a half downtown from Esplanade. Shortly after the assassination he departed abruptly for the Washington, D.D. area, where he remained until after his testimony before the Warren Commission.*
Specifically, Thornley and his girlfriend, Jeanne Hack, lived at 1824 Dauphine Street with their landlord, John Spence. Spence was a friend of CIA contract agent Clary Shaw, who had visited the house on occasion. Despite the fact that he had prepaid one month’s rent, Thornley left New Orleans immediately after the JFK assassination. Both the Secret Service and the FBI came looking for him in the twenty-four hour period after President Kennedy’s death.
One of Garrison’s investigators, Harold Weisberg, interviewed attorney Tommy Baumler, a suspected associate of Thornley, and an employee of Guy Banister on 9 April 1968. Baumler told Weisberg that he recognized Thornley when shown a photograph of him, although he could not identify him in another pic published by the Times-Picayune. According to Garrison and author Bill Davy, Baumler organized faux leftist groups and individuals for CIA for purposes of discrediting them.**
Thronley characterized Oswald as a rabid, possibly deranged, communist with loyalties to Cuba and the Soviet Union in his testimony before the Warren Commission. Years later, shortly after the release of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, Thornley appeared on A Current Affair to say that both he and Oswald wanted to kill Kennedy, and that he was upset because Oswald had beaten him to it–again painting Oswald (and this time himself) as a lone angry nut. While the interview does show Thornley saying at the end that he thought someone framed Oswald, his story seems so outlandish–Kerry said that he conspired with a mysterious man named “brother-in-law” to assassinate the President–that it seems to discredit a conspiracy hypothesis more than support one. The overall tenor of his interview, very likely due to the editing process, and the segment itself appear to endorse the single-shooter hypothesis.
While we can assert with a high degree of confidence that Oswald actually knew Thornley–they lived near each other at El Toro–there’s very little evidence that the two men knew each other particularly well, or as well as Kerry claimed. And there’s considerable evidence indicating that others on the base knew Lee far better. These men characterized Oswald very differently as apolitical.***
This is purely speculation here, but given his willingness to be the only fellow US Marine to badmouth Oswald so that the Warren Commission could brand Lee a mentally ill commie in 1964, and to come out of the woodwork to confound the issue in 1992 so that a tabloid TV news show produced by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation could debunk Judge Garrison and Oliver Stone, Thornley comes across as a loyal cold warrior, who primarily served a public relations function. Of course, if Thornley were the type of paid PSYOP agent that Judge Garrison believed him to be, the question arises as to whether or not his assignments were limited to promoting the Warren Commission’s party line.
Discordianism was never monolithic or coherent enough where one could say that Discordianism did so-or-so at such-and-such and such a time. Yet, nothing would prevent someone like Thornley or more likely individuals within his circle of associates–especially those with intelligence connections–from cloaking an aggressive attack on the leftist influence of 1960s countercultural leftism in the guise of Eris.
Mae Brussel, for one, believed that Intel actively worked to undermine leftist dissidence on many different fronts–from infiltration of leftist groups to out-and-out smear campaigns. She noted how what she called “The California Violences" (Manson, Zodiac, SLA, etc.) seemed to always tie themselves to either the general “permissiveness” of the 1960s, or, in the case of the Symbionese Liberation Army, to faux leftist groups, whose membership backgrounds were either, military (e.g., Bill Harris, Joseph Remiro), intelligence (e.g., Colston Westbrook, Thero Wheeler), or ideologically far to the right (e.g., Nancy Ling Perry). These incidents not only discredited the New Left (as Intel called it), but gave the public reason to support police excesses and extra-legal efforts to suppress them.
Of course, as I said, the previous three paragraphs are highly speculative. But some things are not. In her 2001 book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders gave a very comprehensive view of how Intel, the Central Intelligence Agency in particular, understood culture. She also demonstrated the importance the Agency attached to it. It’s one thing to control a population through force and intimidation. But from a strategic standpoint it’s better to have that population regulate itself to conform to the needs of power by providing said population a world view that’s consistent with said needs. The CIA, early in its mission, understood that conquest meant nothing if you could not win the “hearts and minds” of the subjected.****
While Americans generally think of subjective populations as those existing in other lands, we know–not from “conspiracy theory,” but rather history–that the same tactics applied to specific groups within the US. Another thing we don’t have to speculate about is Intel’s efforts to sabotage the New Left, due in significant part to its anti-war stance. The Church Committee Final Report and Supplements extensively chronicled CIA, FBI, NSA and military intelligence efforts to squelch political dissidence through surveillance, criminal activity (e.g., black bag jobs). infiltration, and, well, pranks (e.g., false-flag operations; snitch-jacketing; writing bogus anonymous letters to an activist’s family, professors, colleagues or employers so that those closest to the target turn on her, or him; and so on). While the rationalization had always been national security–the premise that the Soviet Union had sponsored and directed the New Left–the FBI conceded that they knew, as early as 1964, that this was not the case. The operations were really designed to foster domestic political security within the United States.
Combining the speculative with the stipulated, one must concede the fact that political and other authorities have (A) historically viewed cultural and ideological dissidence as a threat, and (B) spent considerable effort and resources trying to thwart it. Discordianism’s possible role in this would constitute unsubstantiated conjecture, for the most part. Nevertheless, one could see its potential effectiveness in such activities were it used that way. It’s highly cellularized, so plausible deniability isn’t a problem. Because of its humor, it is highly charismatic and persuasive. Moreover, the practical application of its philosophy is consistent with the maintenance of the status quo. Added bonus: its founder (Thornley) and what would become its public face (Wilson) had associates who worked for Intel, thus making them accessible. And the beauty part, from this perspective, is that there need be no formal declaration of intention or motive, or any conspiratorial action requiring a highly organized effort. Instead, a simple utterance of disdain, or derision (mild or vehement) of the target by influential priests could have triggered the desired effect. The impetus towards one political direction or another could just as easily come from outsiders, who bought their papacies and networked successfully enough. Thus, those actively throwing rocks at the counterculture in the 1970s would have acted completely under their own volition, for they were not ordered, but instead influenced. This type of subtlety–which Intel can be really good at, sometimes–would leave no trace of a conspiracy. That’s because there would have been no conspiracy. And given the severity of threat that Intel perceived, throwing everything they had to solve the problem makes sense, even if it entails nonsense.
As Shakespeare would say, the past is prologue. After all, the counterculture of the 1960s has come and gone. But that’s not to say that dissidence vanished in the new millennium. In fact, dissidents the world over, from India to Egypt, have utilized cyberspace in ways unimaginable to their mid-twentieth-century counterparts. In the case of India, the dissidence centered around what you’re doing right now: blogging, a medium that allows anyone to express herself in any way she deems appropriate, unfettered by commercial or cultural gatekeepers, and often (although not always) without government censorship.
The US government defines censorship as “prior constraint,” which means that authorities cannot technically stop you from saying what you want, under most conditions, but can penalize you after the fact for saying it. The exceptions to this include defamation, possible infringement of other constitutionally protected rights,***** threats to public and individual safety, and, of course, national security items.
It has been under the rubric of national security that military/intelligence personnel have openly voiced grave concerns about the “free and open” nature of Internet communication. Just as often, they have looked at the ‘Net as a fortuitous platform for psychological operations. In their respective papers for the Naval War College, Maj. Angela Lungu and Gary Whitley argued that Congress should eliminate the legal restrictions that prohibit the conduct of domestic online PSYOPs, specifically those contained in the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. At the same time, Lungu and Whiteley argued that someone else could use those very same channels of cybercommunication to counter content they deem detrimental to foreign and domestic PSYOPs campaigns.
Like the “communist threat” of the 1960s, the heightened specter of terrorism provides the current rationale for official concerns about political and cultural dissidence. True, we don’t typically see such things as so-called “conspiracy theory” as dissidence. We usually think of dissidents in a glamorous way, for example such august figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or those behind the Iron Curtain writing and propagating Samizdat publications criticizing the USSR. Conspiracy research, on the other hand, is often ugly, often bigoted and obtuse. Yet it is dissidence all the same. Like anything else labeled as dissidence, “conspiracy theory,” on the whole, criticizes apparent abuses of government and industrial power. The degree to which a particular theory is accurate or in accurate wouldn’t really matter to authorities. Either way, they’re at best annoying, and at worst could undo carefully crafted public relations: a critical element in the battle for hearts and minds.
Lest you think that we’re really off the deep end here, the truth is that we are only in shallow water. Government officials have targeted Internet conspiracy researchers. As far as we can prove, they have engaged in surveillance against them. But one government official has gone further in proposing more drastic actions that might have already taken place.
Between 2003 and 2007, The US Department of Homeland Security set up some seventy-odd Fusion Centers, domestic intelligence networks often subsumed under the aegis of local law enforcement agencies encompassing each of the fifty states. Their ostensive purpose is to provide the FBI, CIA, DHS and other spy apparatuses with timely intelligence on potential domestic terrorist threats in meatspace and online. The open sharing across jurisdictions allows information that cannot be lawfully obtained in one state to be gathered in another state where the collection is legal. And since the Internet doesn’t really have borders, an investigator in one state can just as easily access materials written somewhere else.
Problem is, Fusion Centers haven’t as yet produced anything that would effectively prevent domestic terrorist attacks, despite estimated budgets ranging from $189 million to $1.4 billion dollars annually. And seeing that the information that they receive from data mining and other methods focuses primarily on American citizens and nationals, the possibility exists that they, like the infamous COINTELPRO, are simply monitoring those critical of US policy.
Although some might say that these activities only occurred on a local level, and others might point out that the MIAC quickly retracted the report in the face of scathing public criticism, note several things. First of all, Fusion Centers openly shared information across jurisdictions. So if Missouri law enforcement officials had it, everyone else in that loop had it. And we’re not talking about the monitoring of materials produced solely in the Show-Me State, but rather anywhere in cyberspace that local officers could access–which is everywhere. Second, the MIAC might have retracted the report as a public document, but one would be hard pressed to believe that such a document, or more important the very data it alluded to, simply vanished into thin air. Third, the fact that some official body thought “conspiracy theory” as a potential security threat is in itself interesting. After all, even many who abhor them would agree that the expression of conspiracy hypotheses result from cherished principles of free speech, and see nothing terroristic in them unless they advocated violence.
Also in 2008, law professor Adam Vermule (Harvard) and Cass Sunstein, future-Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) under the Obama Administration (formerly of Harvard and University of Chicago), wrote a paper titled “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures” (The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 17, issue 2). The paper itself is so rife with factual error and distorted reasoning that it is quite tempting to take it apart line-by-line here and now. It’s a flat 85 mph fastball with no movement hanging dead-center in the strike zone.****** But in the interest of (ahem!) brevity, let’s save that deconstruction for later, and focus on the most troubling aspect of it: namely, Vermule and Sunstein’s advocacy for the secret infiltration of online conspiracy research communities, preferably through third party sources:
Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior, their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts. Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.
Never mind the fact that the authors are calling for the US government to engage in conspiratorial action in order to disprove the existence of government conspiracies. What’s important here is that as OIRA chief, Prof. Sunstein had responsibility for implementing a number of regulatory policies. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget Circular 130, the OIRA is also responsible for the implementation of policies governing information technologies.
Profs. Sunstein and Vermule debated whether it would be better to infiltrate conspiracy communities openly–i.e., government officials going online, announcing who they were, along with their real positions, and “correcting” information as it came in–or surreptitiously, using sock puppets to plant information that would counter assertions made in forums, blogs, and so forth. Out of the two, they felt that secret infiltration would work better, because of a possible knee-jerk negative response to any informant acting in an official capacity. They also felt it would also be better to hire third-party contractors for the work, so that there would be distance from the government.
Thus, we would have no way of knowing if this policy came into effect or not, since it could have been done secretly, or not at all. But we would still have to note that Prof. Sunstein proposed a policy. One year later, the President appointed, and Congress confirmed, him to a position where implementation of that policy fell within his purview.
Of course, that’s assuming that someone, anywhere in government, might not have embarked upon such a strategy already. Even if the contracted source gave accurate information, it could be incomplete or so out of context as to be misleading. Although half-truths are often as deceptive as an out-and-out hoax, they might still satisfy the legal requirements of Smith-Mundt, which basically forbids public officials from openly lying to the public. So if someone wanted to do that, they could argue they had legal grounds for doing so. Speculating further, one can note instances that certainly raise awareness, if not suspicion, that something along these lines might be going on. In his 23 August 2008 interview with S. Miles Lewis, dreamsend gave a tantalizing example when describing someone he had begun interacting with online:
He goes by different user names on any forum he goes on...and he had all these posts already there, before I got there, about alternate reality games. He had two really long threads that were primarily his data dump about alternate reality games. And it was just there. It was like a tutorial. There it was just waiting for me. And, you know, this guy could be a whistleblower from inside the beast. I really don’t know. But I was going back over all the old comments on my blog. He also posted on my blog. And I looked at his IP. And he’s so careful about his anonymity. But I looked up the IP and tracked it back to a company called Crane Aerospace. And I looked them up, and dammit if what they do is not defense contracting, intelligence (specifically they mention intelligence contracting) and primarily what they do is they make little microwave devices
A defense contractor, especially one that already had clearance for intelligence work, might be an ideal third-party source for the type of policy that Profs. Sunstein and Vermule proposed. Speculating more deeply, one could wonder if someone like a Joseph Matheny, who has a connection to a Discordian milieu that could boast of redundant ties to intelligence personnel, might also be a suitable third-party contractor, as some have rumored. Matheny's mocking derision of such communities as cults certainly wouldn't help allay fears that he might have somehow participated in what they perceived as attacks against them.
To be clear, I have no proof that Matheny, Thornley, Hill or anyone else participated in some sort of government program to neutralize political dissidence, either in 1960s meatspace, or the buzz of twenty-first-century cyberspace. My reasons for bringing Thornley, Wilson, Matheny, Discordianism, Sunstein et al to this discussion are threefold.
First, someone writing to my inbox floated an idea, that I had already kicked around. Imagine, if you will, a cabal of tricksters, or as someone else characterized them cyberbullies, who have little or nothing better to do than to mess with people’s heads online through various shenanigans, and merrily lead them down the garden path to what amounts to a colossal waste of time. That would be similar to the infamous Discordian Project Jake, the goal of which was to target a civil servant, hit him up with a boatload of letters describing a bizarre problem, and ask for help in “some complicated political matter that passes all rational understanding.” Perhaps there are other pranksters there–related to the first group, maybe not–who make the gag more interesting by introducing something ominous, something threatening. Then imagine that the target for the Jake isn’t a civil servant, but say someone who writes about conspiracies.
The idea floated to me was that Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan might have come across such a band of such cyberbullies, or were perhaps victims of a Jake targeting people who could be regarded as conspiracy theorists–not that the couple saw themselves that way, but others (e.g., Dr. Reza Aslan) did. If so, Blake and Duncan might have seen such pranks not as gags, but threats somehow connected to the problems they concurrently had with the Church of Scientology. These would have added more stress to an already stressful situation. While I cannot rule out this hypothesis completely–after all, Wit of the Staircase moderated comments, and as mentioned earlier Duncan did have some heated online discussions--I am not aware of anything like that going on, or of any concrete allusions to it on Duncan’s blog.
The second reason is because of the nature of discord that resulted in the wake of the Theremy phenomenon. Things like the “UR Doin It Wrong” thread seem particularly consistent with a prank . A lot of ill will and accusations are flung about, with no clear starting point, although such items as The Last Statue and dreamsend’s research became lightening rods. This is such an obvious reminder of the golden apple story from Greek mythology, that when reading the thread with that in mind one can actually see humor in it. It’s not that the consequences were funny, especially to those who had to pay them. But the cadence and reactionary statements reminds one of the old practical joke where someone privately disparages person A to person B, then backbites person B to person A, and then sits back and enjoys the sparks as they fly when A and B finally confront each other.
The third reason is because the historical parallels are so striking as to be worth noting. In the 1960s, government agencies engaged on a strategy of infiltration in order to discredit political dissent that, among other things, countered the political will to wage offensive war abroad, and questioned numerous official policies in the US, starting with Jim Crow. Over the past decade, various government actors proposed the manipulation of Internet communication and “cognitive infiltration” of conspiracy researchers in order to neutralize whatever influence they might be able to wield–especially if it ran counter to official PR/PSYOPS efforts. The general public knew nothing of such things as COINTELPRO, MERRIMAC or CHAOS until years after they had commenced operations. One could safely surmise that the FBI, CIA and other acronyms would have probably denied these activities were they asked about them point-blank during the time they were operational. Likewise, the current researcher won't likely find official conformation as to whether or not some government body targeted them. Nevertheless, because of such things as the 2008 MIAC report, we know that some of them were. It’s possible that Wit of the Staircase, Rigorous Intuition, or for that matter The X-Spot–all three of which were up-and-running during the investigation in question–might have gotten a looksee from such agencies. Yet, finding evidence of that would be a Herculean challenge.*******
In each case, the ostensible target was some bugbear that compelled the public to a fear response--sometimes acute, sometimes just a lingering anxiety. In the Sixties, it was communism. Now, it’s terrorism. And in each case, the actions taken or proposed did not, nor would not, result in the deterrence of a violent threat, but would at best compromise civil liberties, and at worse actively silence criticism of official policy–however righteous or wrongheaded that criticism might be.
And in each case, there loomed the real or perceived presence of a merry group of pranksters who have curious historical ties to intelligence personnel, and could possibly be used by anyone–even outsiders–to discredit dissidence by making the activist or the researcher or the group look foolish.
While this (admittedly long-winded) post has been highly speculative, there’s one thing that’s certain. Some participants of a specific conspiracy community became entrapped and suffered hurtful (some would describe them as traumatic) consequences when they looked into the deaths of Blake and Duncan. Colleagues lost confidence in themselves and each other. One participant put it to me quite succinctly in an IM dated 18 December 2012 (slightly edited for format purposes, and quoted with his permission):
Before TD [Theresa Duncan], we all were much more than we are now. We were strong in our research, even if it was paved out to us by intel; we followed the leads and dug up the dirt and the dead. It subverted EVERYTHING. It compromised great minds, blurred dots that once connected devoured focus, devoured interest, devoured energy. In place of a greater understanding of parapolitics and who/what the bad guys really are, was only this great ambiguity where nothing that is said can be trusted by anyone those who have not reached that reckoning haven't taken the path to its logical destination. In a word, the bad guys get to stay the bad guys, and none of us made a difference at all.
Did Intel have a hand in creating confusion in this case? Hell if I know.
But here’s one thing I do know: if PYSOPs personnel wanted to neutralize the potential political effects of online conspiracy research, they couldn’t find a better model to work from than Theremy.
*Garrison suspected that Thornley was also one of the “second Oswalds” running around New Orleans and Dallas during the summer of 1963.
**Thornley publicly depicted himself as a far-right extremist during his Marine Corps days, who turned to the left during the 1960s, or in other words after his residence in New Orleans.
***For example, in his Warren Commission testimony, Nelson Delgado said, “He [Oswald] would discuss his ideas, but not anything against our Government or--nothing Socialist, mind you.”
"Although I generally regarded Oswald as an intelligent person, I did not observe him to be particularly interested in politics or international affairs," said John Heindel to the Commission. Donald Camarata, Peter Connor, Mack Osborne and others made similar statements. So it’s kinda interesting that Thornley’s depiction was the one that stuck.
****Industry also deliberately acted to subvert the anti-materialist aspect of 1960s youth culture. In the early-1970s thirty-nine unnamed corporations funded research conducted by Arnold Mitchell of the Stanford Research Institute, which eventually led to VALS typology, a marketing strategy designed to win the hearts and minds of a younger generation of consumers.
*****For example, judges can issue gag orders if they think that sensationalistic press coverage might prevent a defense or prosecution’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by, among other things, influencing non-sequestered juries, as happened in the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard.
******Not unexpectedly, Sunstein, and by association President Obama, have received their share of flak over this paper, which online has come to haunt the former. Interestingly, Sunstein appears to have backed away from discussing it, claiming that he doesn’t really recall much about the paper’s content. *******Our friend Ray found an example of the Army Corps of Engineers' effort to go after criticism of its handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that you can find on YouTube. There's another YouTube video of a Canadian news report of online government trolling that you can find here.
The Trouble with Witty Flights: Olympus Has Fallen for Golden Apples and Frozen Internet Dinners
Click here to see an update on a previous post in this series.
The History of Glamour has never gone out of release, and is [sic] far as I'm concerned we're still watching the sixties unfold culturally
–Theresa Duncan, interview with Adrienne Crew, LAist (6 February 2006)
Researching this topic, I’ve come across a few things that made me smile. This page, for instance, links Joseph Matheny’s Ong’s Hat to a nefarious cult called Discordianism. The author of this page, a blogger going by the handle Central Scrutinizer, has dedicated his entire site to what at first glance appears to be an attack on Discordianism. While one cannot be sure whether his commenters are missing the joke or in on it, it’s clear that CS is hardly against Discordianism. In fact, the page manifests the tenets of this, for lack of a better term, philosophical/spiritual movement.
It’s difficult to summarize Discordianism in a few sentences But in a nutshell, it’s the belief that disorder (represented by the patron goddess, Eris, or her Roman counterpart Discordia) and order are in equal measure a part of Truth. As explained in the canonical text Principia Discordia:
The Aneristic Principle is that of apparent order; the Eristic Principle is that of apparent disorder. Both order and disorder are man made concepts and are artificial divisions of pure chaos, which is a level deeper than is the level of distinction making.
With our concept-making apparatus called ‘the brain’ we look at reality through the ideas-about-reality which our cultures give us...
Western philosophy is traditionally concerned with contrasting one grid with another grid, and amending grids in hopes of finding a perfect one that will account for all reality and will, hence, (say unenlightened westerners) be true. This is illusory; it is what we Erisians call the Aneristic Illusion. Some grids can be more useful than others, some more beautiful than others, some more pleasant than others, etc., but none can be more True than any other.
With this in mind, along with the fact that anyone who joins the faith immediately becomes a Pope and can therefore effect change within the religion/philosophy itself, what ostensibly results is chaos. Thus, there are divergent views within Discordianism as to what it actually is, and what it actually means. Some of the founders, for example, saw it as a vehicle for social change by disrupting conventional wisdoms and entrenched perspectives through a series of humorous pranks, hoaxes, or other forms of culture jamming.* Others saw it as a nihilistic/anarchistic creed with the goal of breaking down society completely. And some, noting the comedic edge that pervaded every aspect of it, simply saw Discordianism as a long-running gag.
Of course, human nature being what it is, one could also expect a degree of orthodoxy to develop within various enclaves of any open system, even if it's a non-system. Our race has a tendency to extract order out of randomness, after all. And if we took Discordianism seriously for a moment (something which Discordians would view in and of itself as heresy), we could very well see it, in the language of Principia Discordia, as simply another grid constructed by self-appointed know-it-alls to filter Truth.** In the quest to slay the dominant cultural narratives of the day–Discordians would say that if you wave the flag of one side in opposition to another, you’re still marching under someone else’s colors–the question emerges as to the dragon’s identity. In other words, there seems to be within Discordianism the impulse to go after what individual Popes might consider extremism on any side. Problem is, extremism is often in the eye of the beholder. While most people object to what they consider ideologically extreme even when it affirms their world view, extremism in opposition to their perspective often inflames their animosity, prompting them to deem it worthy of annihilation If one considers tolerance of and sensitivity to those different from the majority in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and class objectionable, for example, he can caricature it as a form of extremism and dub it “political correctness.”
One can therefore see a trend under Discordian banners (and it does have them) of scorning political views that lean too far one way or the other. What one often finds, therefore, is a very curious, almost backhanded, defense of the status quo, or in other words, a sort of hip conservatism.
When describing Discordian principles and philosophy, Popes often cite National Lampoon, its live performances, its records, and its movies as examples of the faith. One artifact, a song, seems to crop up time and again in this regard.
Figure 1. National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata.” Performed by Norman Rose and Melissa Manchester; words by Tony Hendra, music by Baron Christopher Guest (warning: earworm alert)
“Deteriorata” spoofed :Les Crane’s 1971 single “Desiderata,” an uplifting, inspirational (and yes, sappy) 1927 poem by Max Ehrmann set to music. Looking at it from a cultural studies perspective, “Desiderata” didn’t really represent a 1960s new-leftist counter-cultural viewpoint so much as it did a response to it, a kind of cultural compromise or dialogue. If you’re too young (or were too stoned) to recall the era, “Desiderata” really encompassed the contemporary optimism that people, individually or collective, could effect positive social change. “Deteriorata,” on the other hand, lambasted the notion of compromise, and instead, with tongue firmly buried in cheek, replaced the optimism of the original with a pessimistic paean to submission.
And in case the subtleties of “Deteriorta’s” commentary on the 1960s escape the reader, he or she should note its context. The parody originally appeared in National Lampoon’s 1973 stage show, Lemmings, a scathing satire of 1960s counter-cultural that poked fun of the Woodstock Free Concert, and “political correctness” in general.***
Figure 2. Excerpt from National Lampoon’s Lemmings. Performed by John Belushi, Paul Jacobs, Christopher Guest, Alice Playten, and Gary Goodrow. Words and music to “Lemmings Lament” by Jacobs. (Warning: serious earwig alert)****
The late author Robert Anton Wilson, himself an avid fan of and contributor toNational Lampoon, helped develop Discordianism back in the 1950s, and propagated it in many forums, among them forewords in various editions of Principia Discordia, and in his Iluminatus! trilogy (co-written by Robert Shea), Wilson’s connection to the aforementioned Joseph Matheny is exemplified by the latter’s inclusion of audio commentary by the former on his 2010 album, Temporary Autonomous Zone. In another audio interview titled The Lost Studio Session, Wilson gave Matheny a brief history of his involvement with Discordianism, saying:
The fascinating thing about Chaos Theory is that I was one of the pioneers without even knowing it. Back in 1957, two friends of mine named Malaclypse the Younger and Ho Chi Zen were in a bowling alley in Yorba Linda, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, and they were arguing about why there was so much chaos in the world. And according to Ho Chi Zen, a chimpanzee walked in and said, ‘read Bullfinch. All this chaos is due to Eris,’ and then disappeared in a puff of green smoke.
According to Malaclypse, they figured it out themselves. And Ho Chi Zen just invented the miraculous talking chimpanzee to make this religion more attractive to the gullible. So they each ex-communicated each other. Malaclypse became the head of the Discordian orthodxy, and Omar Ho Chi Zen became the head of the Lunatic Fringe. And as soon as I learned about this religion, I excommunicated both of them. And we were all popes of three different factions of the Discordian Society, which is true to the spirit of Malaclypse’s original revelation, ‘We Discordians must stick apart.’
The reference here is to Thomas Bullfinch, a Nineteenth Century literary historian who, among other things, wrote down a number of classical Greco-Roman myths. The tale describing the wedding of Peleus and Thetis became the central theme of importance to Discordianism. In this legend, Zeus and Poseidon, fearing that a sea-nymph named Thetis would give birth to a son who would displace the current rulers of Olympus (just as Zeus and Poseidon had deposed the previous generation of gods), arranged for her to marry a mortal named Peleus. They even threw a grand reception for the newlyweds, inviting the entire pantheon, with one exception.
They decided not to invite Eris, the goddess of discord, because, let’s face it, she was a buzzkill. Incensed at what Discordians would someday call The Original Snub, Eris planned to get even. She created a solid gold apple inscribed with a Greek phrase that roughly translates as “to the prettiest.” She then surreptitiously crashed the party long enough to roll the apple in front of the three most powerful goddess, knowing full well that they’d fight over who should claim it.
Zeus then found himself besieged by Aphrodite (in some stories his daughter, in others his sibling), Athena (his other daughter) and Hera (his wife and sister), each demanding that he judge them in what amounted to a beauty contest. Zeus declined, so the trio looked around to find a male stupid enough to accept the task of evaluating their pulchritude, and eventually found what they wanted in Prince Paris, the second son of Priam, king of Troy.
Not content to let their looks speak for themselves, each contestant offered Paris a bribe. Hera offered him unlimited power. Athena vowed to give him a wealth of advanced knowledge. Paris, not interested in the first two, chose Aphrodite, who promised him the undying love of the sexiest woman in the world. Unfortunately for many, Helen, the woman in question, already had a husband: namely, King Menelaus of Sparta. When Paris went to Sparta under cover of a diplomatic mission, he claimed his prize, taking Helen back to Troy with him. Enraged, Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, considered Helen’s disappearance an abduction and an act of war. They launched “a thousand ships” filled with soldiers to rescue her, thus starting the Trojan War.
If you’re scratching your head right now wondering this post has to do with the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, then I’d have to answer very little, if anything, as far as I know. I’ve heard speculation (clearly labeled as such) wondering if Jeremy and Theresa had come up against a cabal of cyberbullies who, along with the Church of Scientology, harassed the couple and became additional sources of their stress and dread. Given Matheny’s animosity towards a conspiracy community that Duncan herself seemed to encourage, along with the Discordian influences of such predecessors as Wilson, one might infer a tricksterish impulse to play games with someone so passionate about a number of things. Yet, there’s very little evidence that I’m aware of that would indicate anyone, much less Matheny, set out to “Jake” Duncan, or for that matter Blake. And while I can show you places where Duncan received flak for asserting a reasonable but unpopular position, there’s nothing to suggest that anyone targeted her specifically–again as far as I know.
While this digression into Discordianism doesn’t have much to do with their deaths, I would posit that it does have some bearing on the content of Wit of the Staircase. As the opening quote of this post would illustrate, Duncan had a keen understanding of (1) the 1960s, (2) the semiotics of that period, (3) the cultural history and significance of the decade, (4) the continuing social drama struggling to define it, and (5) the role of artistic expression in that contested meaning. Moreover, we have reason to believe that the primary tenets of Discordianism, if not Discordianism itself, were not only on her radar, but that she in some ways embraced them, and in other ways stood in opposition to them.
As for Discordianism’s’ role in the Theremy phenomenon, that would be difficult to assess, let alone prove. In some ways, the hypothesis that someone deliberately punked the Rigorous Intuition board in general, and the “UR Doin It Wrong Thread” specifically, leaves us with a rather (golden) delicious irony. Some might have seen compared2what? as initially rolling the apple by hurling cryptic accusations against unspecified individuals. The again, c2w also seems to be blaming others, specifically those “prepping the board” for The Last Statue, of fruit bowling. Just as in the ancient myth, no one sees what sets the apple in motion It would be pointless to accuse any specific individual of sewing the seeds of discord, especially since those seeds are so very prevalent in mainstream culture, thanks to National Lampoon and other media producers who make their bread and butter from the burlesque of non-mainstream ideas. So, for all we know, no one rolled the apple. Yet, the apple is there. Discord ensues.
Before this series re-establishes Blake and Duncan as the main characters in the story of Blake and Duncan, let’s take a look at something else along these lines. In case you didn’t notice in the above quote, Anton Wilson names two other individuals. Very interesting fellows, indeed.
And if you thought this post was out there, you might want to put on your deep paranoia suit for the next one.
*The practice, dubbed Operation MINDFUCK by Robert Anton Wilson, was highly cellularized, instigated by individual members, who would not apprize other Popes (especially more senior ones) of their actions. The idea was in large part inspired by an analysis of game-play developed by two Princeton University professors, mathematician Dr. John von Neumann and economist Dr. Oskar Morgenstern, in their 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Morgenstern and von Neumman’s work supported the understanding that an opponent can least predict your attacks if you sufficiently randomize them.
**As it evolved, one can see a consistent distinction between Truth and reality here, as adherents view the latter as a construct heavily influenced by culture, and the former as what I often refer to on The X-Spot as the ‘empirical world,’ i.e. the cosmos as it actually is within and beyond human perception or understanding.
***Over the decades, National Lampoon displayed a seemingly hypersensitive antagonism for “political correctness,” among other things boldly pushing the envelope with grossly racist stereotypes, and stark attacks on feminism, making women, and often the female body itself, the butt of many a joke--in more ways than one. (Warning: NSFW link.)
Also, for whatever reason, “Deteriorata” does not appear on the Lemmings album, but instead on Radio Dinner.
****Compare the sentiment of Lemmings to the following statement made by Matheny on 23 February 2009 for a podcast titled “Fear and Loathing on the Internet: Redux Part 1”
I've always kind of had this 2% theory...there is about 2% of humanity that is actually a mutational curve that's worthy of surviving any kind of environmental change, that includes intellectual, and then the rest of them are pretty much followers that are going to walk off the edge of the cliff or are just going to be really surprised when conditions start changing as they are now and they're not going to be able to adapt. That's reflective of that principle because everything I've ever done, it's been about 98% of the people that have responded to it have responded exactly in the opposite way I wanted them to respond.
Of course, one can not be sure, despite his trumpeting of the 2% here and elsewhere, that Matheny, like National Lampoon, is simply joking, especially given the irony of that last sentence. Of course, even commonsense would concede that there's often candor in jest.
Anyone who knew anything about the lives and deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan could readily see the parallels between them and the unfinished novel, The Last Statue. Looking at it on just a superficial level, one sees numerous references to the lyrics of Steely Dan songs, one of which, “Rose Darling” seemed to have had a special meaning for her.* Also, the story examines a Hollywood steeped in occult beliefs that guide its business decisions. And at the core of this is an entrenched 4-Pi presence throughout the industry. Compare that to Duncan’s suspicion that her work ran up against the power of the Church of Scientology, of which 4-Pi is an offshoot of an offshoot, and you can infer why a script such as Alice Underground might not have ever seen the greenlight of day, despite the hopes that studio execs had for it.
The Last Statue’s introduction to various forums caused a stir when many posters saw it as an intrusive alternative reality game, as demonstrated by the brouhaha within the “UR Doin It Wrong” thread. Many of the posters reacting on that forum made clear their opinions that alternative reality gaming (ARGs) had an insidious purpose: namely to confuse the facts of conspiracy research with fictional memes introduced by various sock-puppets, controlled by an puppet-master.
In this case, the puppet-master had a name. He also had a reputation.
When discussing the ARG-like qualities of the Blake and Duncan story, there were a number of insinuations, and sometimes outright accusations, that those promoting The Last Statute were either the various secret identities of one Joseph Matheny, or someone acting on his behalf (wittingly or not). The association of an individual netizen to that particular name often invoked said netizen to set the record straight as quick as possible. In a 26 July 2007 Rigorous Intuition thread titled “Theresa Duncan,” for example, Woombaticus Rex replied to dreamsend’s initial post with a single word, “Matheny?”
In his next post, dreamsend answered, “No...Matheny is not working with me...is that what you mean?”
That’s not what Wombaticus meant. As he explained in his next post, “No, I was asking if Matheny was one of the people you were referring to,.”
Speaking of Wombaticus, in the “UR Doin It Wrong” thread, the poster known as compared2what? hinted that he might have been dreamsend and, and thus Matheny’s dupe because he commented on both of their blogs:
There's an ‘Uncle Humpasaur’ on...I think Joseph Matheny's blog comments from about a century ago, who might be [dreamsend] and might be our I-ain't-admittin'-nothin Wombat friend, assuming that they're two different people. And seriously, I don't have the tools to prove whether they are or aren't. Nor do I care. I see their actions. Which are stupid, dull, and destructive.**
A Unifiction poster going by the handle teri lee shunned any association with Matheny. In a forum titled “[Trailhead?] The Last Statue,” she wrote:***
They concerned the fact that you [SteganosaurusRex] seem convinced that The Last Statue is yet another Matheny project, which is something that would be of great value to know, a relevant and important thing to know in the context of the ongoing discussion, that would be a reasonable and entirely appropriate item of discussion between two parties who have had a sustained information- sharing dialogue for some time prior to this current thread,
The authors wish me to convey as plainly as possible, that this is NOT a Matheny project, and in some ways could be regarded as the antithesis of such.
Added our friend Birdmadgirl:
My point is–[The Last Statue] is in direct opposition to Matheny's effort to deflate/deflect any serious inquiry into the Process Church and its offshoots [e.g., 4-Pi] by ridiculing/misleading those who do take the occult seriously (not necessarily the woo-woo of occult belief, but the influence the occult may have had on less savory aspects of American culture and history). When one takes a long, hard (and yes, skeptical) look at the Process and other like movement/organizations, there may be more to it than a bunch of woebegone cultists who wore crazy black robes and owned a lot of dogs.
Of course, one of the charms of AR gaming is the tendency to deny that a game is even taking place. That prompted Mark R to post, “‘I am not Matheny’ sounds almost as sincere as ‘This is not a game’ and the new hit single ‘This is not an ARG.’”
To which teri lee facetiously replied, ““everything's a meme. everybody's Matheny”
In this I’m-Matheny-you’re-Matheny-she’s-Matheny-we’re-Matheny-wouldn’t-you-like-to-be-Matheny-too environment, the presence of Joseph Matheny loomed large in discussion of the Theremy phenomenon, even (or especially) when his actual participation was not clearly evident. To this end, many were accused of representing Matheny in discussion of the topic. Consequently, this led to a situation where many were on the hunt, trying to find out who, among their fellow posters was Matheny.
And that’s a real question Who’s Matheny?
To some extent, Joseph Matheny (left) leads a fairly public life. Looking him up on Wikipedia, one can learn that he is both a writer (screenplays, technology, sci-fi) and an originator of such things as behavioral analysis algorithms and software. Yet, Matheny’s primarily known around cyberspace for his pioneering contributions to alternative reality games, which were actually more like interactive fiction–kinda like Chop Suey The Next Generation. In this case, the story unfolds across numerous media–from pre-Web bulletin boards to xeroxed hard copies, CD-ROMs, radio and TV, and eventually to the Internet as we know it–with players uncovering myriad layers or facets of the story the more they delve into the subject matter. Meticulously researched, the projects often blur the comfortable distinctions between fact and fiction.
Ong’s Hat, drew inspiration from conspiracy research, most notably from Project Montauk In this story, Ivy League scientists descend upon the ghost town of Ong’s Hat, NJ in order to conduct secret research on chaos and quantum theory. Their work eventually leads to a theory of time travel utilizing a device called the EGG.
In a September 2007 interview with P. Emerson Williams (Milford Connolly), Matheny expounded on his use of conspiracy ideas in his fictional work:
I like to play with the name [Illuminati] with a lot of other things, because I consider that to be a very crucial element to modern American mythology–is conspiracy theory. All things–basically all the stuff you would hear on Art Bell–are kind of the things in the past that I like to play with as themes for fiction because I do consider that and comic books to be, like, probably the only two real American mythology that’s floating around these days.
Part of the problem that conspiracy researchers had with Ong’s Hat was its tendency to use venues ordinarily used for conspiracy research in order to propel the story line (e.g., a noted piece penned by Chica Bruce for Disinfo). Many saw this as an intrusive dissemination of memes that compromised earnest conspiracy research because it confused understanding between what was known, what could be speculated or inferred, and what was now purely fictional. Those relying on Disinfo and similar sites for information about such topics as Montauk subsequently suspected an active misinformation campaign in new revelations about any subject.
If those within conspiracy research circles grew to have severe animosity toward Matheny, then the feeling seemed mutual. In the previously cited interview with Williams, he made clear his disdain for some online conspiracy communities, accusing them of neglecting real-life problems and issues in order to go off the deep end:
[Matheny]: My opinion on the MONARCH and MARIONETTE mythos is that the reality–having right after or right around the time I was kind of pushing Ong’s Hat very heavily, and, you know, a lot of people, for some reason, a lot of people attached themselves to that mythos, that seemed to think that I was, that there was something in this story that was talking about mind control. And in fact, what the story of Ong’s Hat, one element of the story in Ong’s Hat was talking about in training yourself to get into a meditative state so you could do dimensional travel. But not this victimization/mind control crap that I hear these days.
[Williams] See, it, I–
[Matheny]: But, but, now just listen. So, I came into contact with some people, who I’m not gonna name. But if I did name the names you would know the names. They’re very prominent names from the mind control conspiracy community. And I observed these people basically convincing people who had obviously had psychological problems of one sort or another convincing them that their problems were caused by MONARCH and MARIONETTE mind control. Implantation and, you know, all this [unintelligble] stuff And that inevitably, what followed that was that they were the deprogrammers that could help them. Right? This, to me, looked and smelled, and eventually I figured out, it was cult behavior. Cult induction behavior. Nothing less than that is what it was. Right? And these people were basically what they were doing is they were doing the same thing a cult does, which is to convince you that you’re helpless, that you have problems, and that your problems can only be solved by the cult or the cult leader. Right? I don’t see any difference in what’s going on between the MONARCH programming thing that goes on right now and those–and that kind of behavior. That, I would call it a cult. I would call those people cults.
If you study psychology, what you discover is that in order to be a paranoid schizophrenic there’s a necessary precursor condition which is called ‘primary narcissism,’ which if you think about it makes sense, which is in order to actually be so paranoid that you believe that they are out to get you, you have to first believe that you are important enough for them to be out to get you.
These statements illustrate a number of things, among them a belief very similar to that of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Although Matheny did not say that those who “obviously had psychological problems” actually remembered being inducted into MONARCH or similar programs, he did express the opinion that they had been coerced into a belief system similar to that of cults. Moreover, like cults these beliefs were quite rigorous and orthodox.
Of course, many who approach such boards would say that they already had anomalous experiences, and that they found such online communities in order to find out if anyone else had undergone something similar, or were looking for support among sympathetic persons who would not automatically dismiss them as crazy. And if we assumed that one of the communities in question were, say, the one hovering around Rigorous Intuition, then his statement could naturally seem like an indictment of them personally, and against its host Jeff Wells.
Perhaps more problematic is the equation of online conspiracy networking to cults–beyond the pejorative connotation of that term. They really don’t seem to operate in similar ways. People often disagree with each other in these forums, unlike in a cult where internalizing the catechisms handed down by leadership becomes so mandatory that members are always in constant agreement. Moreover, I’m not aware of any of the participants of Rigorous Intuition and similar forums “tithing” 10-70% of their income, or being subject to food/water deprivation, drugs, or forced isolation: behaviors many cults engage in. True, the pursuit of conspiracy information could alienate some family members. Yet, I don’t recall Wells, Eleanor White or anyone else fitting that description ordering those on the forum to sever family ties and so forth, lest they risk suffering severe consequences--which they actually plan to carry out if not obeyed.
As for ‘primary narcissism,’ it’s a concept coined and advanced by Dr. Sigmund Freud in his 1914 paper “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” Freud characterized it as the normal, libidinous self-awareness that complemented the non-sexual energy of egoism. As such, he considered it to be a necessary component of any healthy organism, and something that should be present by the end of early childhood (about six years). Matheny’s therefore technically correct in citing it as a necessary precursor condition to paranoid schizophrenia. By the same measure, it would also be a necessary precursor for the blues, a case of the sniffles, a broken toe, or a flat tire on the Interstate.
By conflating the Freudian concept of primary narcissism with contemporary popular and clinical understandings of narcissism, Matheny seems here to not only vilify (at least some) conspiracy research as cultish, but to pathologize it as well. Perhaps Matheny was speaking ironically (although one would doubt it given the themes of such later works as El Centro).**** Likewise, those participating in the Rigorous Intuition and other forums might have similar animus against Matheny, with suspicions about him ranging from Anti-Christ to, worse yet, intelligence operator. Thus, when reading the “UR Doin’ It Wrong” thread and others we can see a certain leeriness and fear when it comes to Matheny, his actions, and his motivations even though there isn’t really good reason to suspect that he is participating (or for that matter aware) of the discussion.
Most important, in terms of Theremy, some in the conspiracy community were well aware that the story of Blake and Duncan had definitely come across Matheny’s radar: As he explained to Williams:*****
Well, you know, there’s the Theresa Duncan thing that’s going around these days, And I find–what I find interesting about that is that there’s been a smokescreen that’s kind of been thrown over that whole incident, which, you know, those two people committed suicide, that Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. It was very tragic. Nobody really knows what the reason is. But I do know that before they both killed themselves they did claim that they were being harassed by Scientology. That doesn’t mean it’s true, but it doesn’t mean it’s not. Because it’s hard for me to scoff at Scientology harassment having experienced it firsthand. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m not going to go into–no, no, no–I’m not going to go into it because these guys have a policy called ‘Fair Game.’
Despite the fact that he gave mild credence Blake and Duncan’s contention of Scientology harassment, the point, for many, was that he had apparently some interest in them, or in the Theremy phenomenon itself.
After visiting his Greylodge websites, listening to his podcasts, and watching him on YouTube, one begins to see Matheny as an interesting man, full of ideas, creativity, and self-assuredness that some might say crosses the line between confidence and hubris. Yet, I find one of his influences far more fascinating. He actually alludes to it Ong’s Hat, and in other projects. While one could argue that he’s taking an artistic/literary tradition to a whole new level, the tradition itself has been part of mainstream culture for decades.
*Duncan quoted the lyrics of “Rose Darling,” in the Wit of the Staircase posts “Sur les toits de Detroit [On the Roofs of Detroit],” and “The Spore Is on the Wind Tonight,” Arguably a more poignant example of Duncan’s affinity for the band came during her funeral, when the lyrics of Donald Fagan’s “Walk between the Raindrops” were read at the grave site.
**As mentioned earlier, SteganosaurusRex was a handle used by a Unifiction forum poster who many at RigInt had identified as dreamsend. Also, in the “UR Doin It Wrong” thread and other places, Wombaticus Rex identified himself as Humpasaur. c2w’s accusation here probably links the identities of Wombaticus and dreamsend because of their alternative aliases, both of which spoof the names of dinosaurs.
***(Click here to see an episode of Project Camelot, where Matheny participated in an online discussion about time travel.
Ong's Hat also drew inspiration from the Moorish Orthodox Church, a sister faith of the Nation of Islam. The MOC evolved into an eclectic sect embracing other religions and technological advancement. Like the NoI, the MOC traces its roots to Timothy Drew, an American mystic active during the early part of the Twentieth Century.
****In the same interview, Matheny stated:
[The] El Centro [Project] was really my fuck-off and farewell to the conspiracy community. That’s how it was intended. And the way the whole thing–to give it away a little bit, I’m not going to give away too much because this thing is a book, you know, and I do want to try to get this out there, and have a little element of surprise to it-- but it, at the end of the day, the chapters that you can’t get to now really did show that the main character, Gil, who I think you read one of the chapters about him, ends up discovering that, you know, he’s not really mind-controlled. He’s been led to believe that he’s being programmed and mind-controlled by some rather nefarious newage characters (notice I said ‘newage,’ like ‘sewage’) who really are just, you know, out to do what I was talking about earlier with the whole MONARCH and mind-control and reptillian-alien bullshit that goes on out there. And really just trying to find people who are in a bad way, who are at a weak point in their life, or who are suffering from some sort of organic or mental distress of the brain, and take advantage of those people.
*****In another online forum, dreamsend quoted Matheny as saying:
If I have anything to add, it's this: Theresa and Blake are two tragic examples of the very thought patterns that I was trying to criticize in El Centro and not unprecedented in their final outcomes because of it. To those that have said, ‘They would appreciated what we're doing [i.e., researching their deaths as possible homicides]’ I counter with a comment written to me by someone who DID know them ‘They would run screaming from these people.’
With the help of Birdmadgirl, I've been able to locate the source. These statements could really only be applied to Rigorous Intuition, which early on raised the question of assassination in a 24 July 2007 post titled “After the Ambulances Go.”