The Trouble with Witty Flights: Real Lives
Blogger dreamsend thought that website Wit of the Staircase seemed consistent with the methods and goals of an alternate reality game (ARG). While having no truck against ARGs per se, he expressed concern about their usage as a pysops tool, based on the various memes and subtexts one can find on the blog. This initially led him to consider the possibility that the blog’s creator, Theresa Duncan, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Blake, were not real, but in fact characters played by actors. He later posited that the blog was a joint collaboration between many parties, and that two bodies surfaced as the blog reached its dramatic conclusion. Taking Duncan’s work as a whole, he saw various clues that neither these persons nor the blog, were what they appeared to be.
One can certainly discern a subtext within the posts of Wit of the Staircase. And we have good reason to suspect that Duncan included one (for reasons we’ll examine later). But subtexts have existed long before ARGs.* Consequently, their existence on Wit of the Staircase does not necessarily point to an effort to entice people down a rabbit hole and engage in metafiction. A subtext here could very well indicate other contexts or meanings.
As Abraham Maslow said in The Psychologies of Science, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Likewise, if one has a belief in an ARG explanation of Wit of the Staircase, all aspects of it seem to confirm this as the case, even when less sinister explanations are more plausible. As in the Paul-Is-Dead rumor, we can explain some of these nails as tricks of stochasticity, the human tendency to force meaning onto randomness. In such cases, we often pay attention to similarities, but dismiss differences.
Looking at the putative examples of ARGness in “The History of Glamour,” for instance, we can see similarities to Duncan’s life and her eventual fate. We see the number forty in odd contexts, and we know that Duncan died at that age. Yet, that specific numerical value brings with it a host of semiotic usages, among them the death of one state of existence and spiritual rebirth, a theme found in the film’s plot. In other words, this could very well have constituted subtle foreshadowing with respect to the movie, but not to Duncan’s life. To dismiss the other possible meanings of “forty” and latch onto one interpretation demonstrates a selective process in determining meaning. Another example: the protagonist comes from Ohio, whereas Duncan hailed from Michigan. As someone who has lived in both the Wolverine and Buckeye states, I can tell you that natives of each would see that as a huge difference. Yet, someone living outside that geographical area would probably lump these places together as the same general “Rust Belt” area, dismissing the distinction as unimportant--another example of selectively filtering out differences, while accentuating similarities.
Other items offered as evidence of ARG activity in Wit of the Staircase have been presented out of context. For example the alleged prediction of Duncan’s death (as a fictional character) made in a comment to an 8 June 2007 post on Rigorous Intuition (“‘A Lonely Wit - Aloha,’ or ‘A Holy Toenail Law.’”) actually seems like something else when one reads the string in its entirety. The context of the comment is the prolonged back-and-forth banter between Et in Arcadia Ego Eve, and another netizen going by the handle Shrubageddon. This protracted dialogue between the two began somewhat antagonistically when Eve requested a photo of the site’s master, Jeff Wells. Shrub responded to the request with a fairly sharp criticism about the nature of the request. At some point, the banter took on the tone of a tongue-in-cheek flirtation, with both parties expressing their mutual admiration for the other’s “rapist wit [sic].” Eve prefaced the anagram remark, writing:
But how will I entice you with a beautiful smile if I do not polish my lovely pearls with ULTRA whitening toothpaste? And how can I combat this artificially intelligent crazy toxic electronic typing machine if not by using it to reach you Adam Shrubbery with my infinate [sic] Eve love.
Thus the “lonely wit” mentioned here does not reference Duncan, or Blake (Mr. Wit) but rather Et in Arcadia Eve and Shrubageddon. The gag is that if Eve can’t get herself in order she can’t seduce a fellow “rapist wit,” thus making her a lonely wit.**
As with Alex Contantine’s analysis, where we can legitimately demonstrate or infer a connection between most of the parties named, one can articulate themes and recurrence on Wit of the Staircase. But just as in the murder hypothesis, the ARG narrative prompts the question of how meaningful these inferences really are. There’s also the addition question of what these inferences actually signify if they are meaningful.
Possible interpretations aside, the ARG hypothesis has, at its root, a more fundamental problem. An ArticleFirst search on the name “Jeremy Blake” yields twelve articles written before his death, and two after.*** An identical search on the name “Theresa Duncan” returns one article written during her life, and one after her death. A MasterFILE Premier search results in eighteen newspaper and magazine articles written about Blake during his life, and sixteen after; for Duncan, the numbers are thirteen articles in life, seven in death. A NewsBank search yields 108 articles about Blake during his lifetime, and ninety-seven after; Duncan’s numbers are twenty-nine before and fifty-four after. A ProQuest search shows seventy-five articles written about Duncan during her life, with forty-three after her death; Blake’s numbers are sixty before, and fifty-three after.
When viewing the number of articles written about them after their passing, one has to keep in mind a couple of things. First, mainstream accounts of Duncan after 10 July 2007 focus exclusively on her death. Mainstream coverage of Blake mostly centers on his artwork, and subsequent showings of it. These articles tend to mention his death in passing, sometimes with no reference to Duncan by name, or at all. Second, the number of articles written after 17 July 2007 is inflated by a flurry of coverage during August 2007, where the press mostly examined their reported suicides.
Figure 1. JT LeRoy (left). Theresa Duncan photograph, Elle magazine 1998 (right).
So for relatively obscure people, Blake and Duncan received extraordinary attention in traditional mainstream media during their lifetimes. If they were no more than fictional characters, then this would have been a fairly extensive ARG, which would have had to have retained actors for exclusive long-term roles. After all, if they appeared in anything else, people would have seen them merely as actors. If these were amateurs (as in the case of JT LeRoy), then others would immediately see through the ruse, since there were no obvious attempt to disguise the two, as was the case with LeRoy (see Figure 1). Furthermore, we’d have to wonder why no one has yet exposed this as a hoax, especially since the reveal is usually an important component of culture jamming.
You would also need the participation of numerous major sources (e.g., Los Angeles Times, New York Times, New York magazine, Elle, Cosmopolitan, USA Today, New Republic, etc.), or rely on them all never to fact check. This could possibly been done. But what you’re talking about would be an enormous undertaking. And for what purpose? To play a game? To sell a line of fiction? Although dreamsend indicated the purpose could have been to set up a psychological operation, the target or ultimate function of that PSYOP isn't very clear.
Most important, every single one of these sources depicted Duncan as an unusually gifted storyteller adept at working with cutting-edge technology. In this respect she and Blake shared a mutual artistic interest in expanding the conventions of narrative dissemination. So if there is a subtext contained on Wit of the Staircase, we would have to concede that Duncan was quite capable of doing that all by herself. While one can reasonably speculate that Blake and possibly others surreptitiously contributed to the site–the bulk of articles consist of a one-paragraph cut-and-paste quotes, followed by a link; easy enough to mimic–there’s no good evidence to say that the site represents an equal collaboration between myriad parties.
True, others online or off could have provided suggestions, offered opinions of topics to cover, and might have even given some inspiration on how to layer meaning. And someone could even include Wit of the Staircase as part of an ARG. But we don’t have sufficient evidence to show that Wit of the Staircase is itself an ARG, or designed to be part of an ARG. We do, however, have abundant evidence to show that (1) Blake and Duncan existed, (2) they were capable of producing the artifacts attributed to them, and (3) Duncan exerted principal control over the content of Wit of the Staircase.
*For Example, nursery rhymes sometimes contained political subtexts. And the works of William Shakespeare in toto yielded abundant political memes that often dealt with the subject of conspiracy (e.g., Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, and so forth).
**I’ve come across rumors that Et in Arcadia Eve works as a paralegal in the Southeastern US. If true, the phrase “toenail law” could have some additional significance in this regard.
***This is after taking into account duplicate articles (articles listed separately because they appeared in more than one publications, sometimes under different titles) and articles about other people named Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan. Naturally, some of these articles mention both of them.