Friday, December 30, 2011

Lennon & NK-Presley's Greatest Hits

A week of smirking at the North Korean cult on full funereal display is coming to an end. Elvis has left the building in style, his smiling bouffant gaze atop an armored 1974 Lincoln rolling the powdered streets of Pyongyang. The videos of the mourning citizens are pretty intense—powerful evidence of an authentic "God is dead" sentiment among at least some of the people.

The Team America gag isn't so funny when you see those people on their knees bawling in the snow. That state casts a spectacular spell over its population.

North Korea is the last sideshow freak of the geopolitical carnival. Watching the twenty-something son try to exude charismatic leadership, you have to wonder if the show will go on without its master carny. More broadly, here at the end of a year of fallen autocrats, one can't help but think that species—the eccentric dictator leading a cult of personality—is endangered as network culture replaces kings with the leaderless multitude.

But network culture produces its own personality cults, as the past three months proved with the mass media deification of Steve Jobs. Even as we celebrate the use of 21st century social networks to topple tyrants long thought permanent, we worship the Prometheus who gave us the glowing screen that allows us to participate in the network. His unsmiling face is everywhere, in that black and white photo adorning the well-timed official biography, the John Lennon of techno-capitalism.

Even Jobs' Wikipedia entry reeks of this taint, with a creation story of elusive parentage and mystical journeys to the East. Chandu returns with the magic of the yogis, and manages to lock its power inside his lucent white devices. How will the iPhone designers fare as the semiotics of divinity wisp away like cremains in the breeze? Will He be reborn in some even more powerful form, like Gandalf?

Ask Muammar Q: the late medievalism of the militarized nation state maintaining power a personality cult seems unsustainable in the emergent era of network-enabled participatory democracy. But the American business corporation is a different animal than the Westphalian sovereign, an even more primitive emulation of the warlord-controlled band. The personality of the CEO dominates the culture of all corporations; less often does it infiltrate the culture through the corporation's products and brand. The wailing Apple Store walls suggest that will change, as Capital figures out the power of putting wizard-priests in charge instead of warlords —the sorts of messianic, wonder-seeking personalities that seem to thrive in periods of great instability and change like the one into which we have recently entered.

Imagine the Steve Jobs of biotechnology—the one that gives us new organs that enhance our lives in ways we cannot now imagine. (He might even be more Yoko than John.) That is the model for the personality cult of the century to come. Maybe if we look for him, like the scouts that find the new baby lama, we can see him coming. And remember the koan.

If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Winter's master key

If The New York Times had the comics section it needs (and really could do something cool with, mixing new indie strips, Wednesday Comics, and great vintage stuff), this downer of an article about how politics prevents us from even trying to really understand what's going on with our overtaxed climate would be counterweighted by Mark Trail's placid meditation on mistletoe and holly.

In the future, when network culture makes me my own newspaper every day (as it kind of already does), the Mark Trail lightness that follows the climate change depression will be annotated with a deeper reading. Perhaps with the unabridged edition of The Golden Bough, James George Frazer's thirteen volume compilation of the deep magical practices of human cultures that leads to a revelatory analysis of why it was mistletoe—the fruiting plant of northern woods that does not go dormant in winter—that killed Balder. "[M]istletoe acts as a master-key as well as a lightning-conductor; for it is said to open all locks." From Chapter 65, "Balder and the Mistletoe":

Now, considering the primitive character and remarkable similarity of the fire-festivals observed by all the branches of the Aryan race in Europe, we may infer that these festivals form part of the common stock of religious observances which the various peoples carried with them in their wanderings from their old home. But, if I am right, an essential feature of those primitive fire-festivals was the burning of a man who represented the tree-spirit. In view, then, of the place occupied by the oak in the religion of the Aryans, the presumption is that the tree so represented at the fire-festivals must originally have been the oak. So far as the Celts and Lithuanians are concerned, this conclusion will perhaps hardly be contested. But both for them and for the Germans it is confirmed by a remarkable piece of religious conservatism. The most primitive method known to man of producing fire is by rubbing two pieces of wood against each other till they ignite; and we have seen that this method is still used in Europe for kindling sacred fires such as the need-fire, and that most probably it was formerly resorted to at all the fire-festivals under discussion. Now it is sometimes required that the need-fire, or other sacred fire, should be made by the friction of a particular kind of wood; and when the kind of wood is prescribed, whether among Celts, Germans, or Slavs, that wood appears to be generally the oak. But if the sacred fire was regularly kindled by the friction of oak-wood, we may infer that originally the fire was also fed with the same material. In point of fact, it appears that the perpetual fire of Vesta at Rome was fed with oak-wood, and that oak-wood was the fuel consumed in the perpetual fire which burned under the sacred oak at the great Lithuanian sanctuary of Romove. Further, that oak-wood was formerly the fuel burned in the midsummer fires may perhaps be inferred from the custom, said to be still observed by peasants in many mountain districts of Germany, of making up the cottage fire on Midsummer Day with a heavy block of oak-wood. The block is so arranged that it smoulders slowly and is not finally reduced to charcoal till the expiry of a year. Then upon next Midsummer Day the charred embers of the old log are removed to make room for the new one, and are mixed with the seed-corn or scattered about the garden. This is believed to guard the food cooked on the hearth from witchcraft, to preserve the luck of the house, to promote the growth of the crops, and to keep them from blight and vermin. Thus the custom is almost exactly parallel to that of the Yule-log, which in parts of Germany, France, England, Serbia, and other Slavonic lands was commonly of oak-wood. The general conclusion is, that at those periodic or occasional ceremonies the ancient Aryans both kindled and fed the fire with the sacred oak-wood.

But if at these solemn rites the fire was regularly made of oakwood, it follows that any man who was burned in it as a personification of the tree-spirit could have represented no tree but the oak. The sacred oak was thus burned in duplicate; the wood of the tree was consumed in the fire, and along with it was consumed a living man as a personification of the oak-spirit. The conclusion thus drawn for the European Aryans in general is confirmed in its special application to the Scandinavians by the relation in which amongst them the mistletoe appears to have stood to the burning of the victim in the midsummer fire. We have seen that among Scandinavians it has been customary to gather the mistletoe at midsummer. But so far as appears on the face of this custom, there is nothing to connect it with the midsummer fires in which human victims or effigies of them were burned. Even if the fire, as seems probable, was originally always made with oak-wood, why should it have been necessary to pull the mistletoe? The last link between the midsummer customs of gathering the mistletoe and lighting the bonfires is supplied by Balder’s myth, which can hardly be disjoined from the customs in question. The myth suggests that a vital connexion may once have been believed to subsist between the mistletoe and the human representative of the oak who was burned in the fire. According to the myth, Balder could be killed by nothing in heaven or earth except the mistletoe; and so long as the mistletoe remained on the oak, he was not only immortal but invulnerable. Now, if we suppose that Balder was the oak, the origin of the myth becomes intelligible. The mistletoe was viewed as the seat of life of the oak, and so long as it was uninjured nothing could kill or even wound the oak. The conception of the mistletoe as the seat of life of the oak would naturally be suggested to primitive people by the observation that while the oak is deciduous, the mistletoe which grows on it is evergreen. In winter the sight of its fresh foliage among the bare branches must have been hailed by the worshippers of the tree as a sign that the divine life which had ceased to animate the branches yet survived in the mistletoe, as the heart of a sleeper still beats when his body is motionless. Hence when the god had to be killed—when the sacred tree had to be burnt—it was necessary to begin by breaking off the mistletoe. For so long as the mistletoe remained intact, the oak (so people might think) was invulnerable; all the blows of their knives and axes would glance harmless from its surface. But once tear from the oak its sacred heart—the mistletoe—and the tree nodded to its fall. And when in later times the spirit of the oak came to be represented by a living man, it was logically necessary to suppose that, like the tree he personated, he could neither be killed nor wounded so long as the mistletoe remained uninjured. The pulling of the mistletoe was thus at once the signal and the cause of his death.

When you admire the mistletoe, know that it is a symbol of the externalized soul. And when you think of mistletoe's connection to sacrifice, consider it as a symbol of our human ability to kill undying nature. And hope the rebirth doesn't have to wait to happen until after we're all gone.

Full text of The Golden Bough here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Who votes in Super-Cannes?

In J.G. Ballard's 2001 novel Super-Cannes, the bourgeois residents of a corporate gated community in the south of France develop their own outlaw therapy to exercise their animal natures: ties off, truncheons in hand, they set out on night prowls of the city looking for immigrants to beat.

When I read the novel in 2002, I found the premise somewhat implausible. Perhaps because the protagonists, mostly manicured pan-European technocrats (from the good old days of the "New Economy") who I imagined all looking like Michel Foucault with an M.B.A., seemed so intrinsically modern, socialized to the point of metro-emasculation.

That was before Europe started falling apart, and the slacker sovereignty of the South collided with the post-Panzer dictates of Merkozy.

Thursday night the French Senate voted 173-166, after an inflammatory debate, to give foreigners the right to vote in local elections. An exceptionally progressive move from the same legislature that a year earlier adopted the "Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space"—and one likely to provoke tribal responses even stronger than those articulated during the debate.

The French debates about whether people who would like to wear burqas to the polls should be able to vote for mayor are part of a pattern visible all over the world (or at least the West) of cultural struggles to come to terms with the long slow death of national sovereignty. It includes things as ridiculous as the Oklahoma referendum to ban Shariah law and things as serious as the current debates on whether Sarkel can employ the current crisis to persuade weaker European countries to bargain away enough of their sovereignty in new treaty negotiations that both creditor and debtor nations can be governed under a common monetary and fiscal policy mandate from Brussels.

It's so easy to accept the inevitability of world government in the techno-utopian future, when we have magically solved the problem of all resource constraints. When you tell people it involves being governed in part by the tribal other of today, the response is feral, primitively territorial. It's insight, not accident, that underlies the persistent idea in science fictional utopias that healthy world governments only occur after planet-scorching wars and subsequent dark ages.

The post-Westphalian age is emerging before our eyes, geopolitical cousin of network culture, manifesting itself in both failed states and imminent super-states, like the EU and the NAFTA zone. Capital, and the need to rationally manage limited resources, will continue to compel the march towards the elimination of economic borders. But the idea of national identity will fight it every step of the way.

As Eric Hobsbawm has effectively argued, the idea of nationality is largely a fiction preceded by—and created by—the state. The current languages of the European nations did not really exist until the current states were created. And in the age of network culture ascendant, the imagined community (and linguistic coherency) of the nation state will have increasingly powerful competition in the form of the plethora of virtual communities more authentically tailored to each individual. But that doesn't mean the idea of national identity, a variation of the socially constructed concept of race, will die easily.

Demographics will compel a reversal of current immigration hysteria. In twenty years or so, declining population growth rates in Europe and North America, combined with ever-longer-living populations of old people, will have us all competing to attract younger immigrants from the South and the East to fuel the dynamism of our societies. As borders blur, will that ultimate socially constructed national identity—the idea of the American—persist?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mark Trail in the edgelands

[Pic: Mark Trail and his colleagues discover a valley full of wild animals—in Canada! Courtesy of DailyInk.]

The other day I noticed a new billboard in my neighborhood. The billboard has two images: the user's eye view of an actual smartphone game, and a picture of a youthful hand holding a digitally inserted tree frog. The message: "Unplug." Brought to you by, a service from the U.S. Forest Service designed to help you and your kids find natural areas to discover right in your own backyard (or even "Take a Virtual Hike!").

As it happens, the billboard rises up from an empty lot between an old overpass and some light industrial uses. When I went back to take a closer look on a Monday morning, I noticed a sleeveless urban forager walking the lot, collecting fallen pecans into a plastic bag, preparing for Thanksgiving. And couldn't help but think that his collection of edible nuts was a lot more real than the idea of nature embodied in the sign's imaginary tree frog.

The idea that nature is a separate thing from the place we live, partitioned into little animal and plant reservations that you need to look up on the map, is a pernicious one that explains why the Forest Service thinks it needs to teach parents how to find it. Chances are the kids, like the pecan forager, already know where to find it—wherever they are.

An extreme variation of the American way of recreating our idea of what nature is can be found in the police reports released last week by the Muskingum, Ohio County Sheriff's Office. Sgt. Steve Blake was the first on the scene:

At approximately 1700 hours this date 10/18/11 I was dispatched to 210 Kopchak Rd. Zanesville, Ohio 43701 to investigate the report of a lion in the back yard of that residence. Upon arrival at the TERRY THOMPSON residence which is immediately north of 310 Kopchak Rd. I noticed that there were several wild animals running around inside the fence of the Thompson residence. There was a Black Bear and at least two African lions.

I made several attempts to contact Thompson by telephone and was unable to find anyone. A short time later LT. RINE of the State Highway Patrol arrived. At that point Lt. Rine and I decided to shut down Kopchak Rd. He dispatched one of his units to the intersection of US 40 and Kopchak and I had another unit II do not recall who) go to Ridge Rd. and Kopchak Rd.

Sometime during all of this two of the deputies assigned to my shift discharged their weapons. A wolf who had gotten outside the fence was shot and killed as well as a Black Bear.

The gate to the Thompson residence was locked. An employee of FRED POLKs lifted the gate up from the pin where it was allowing me to drive up to the residence to attempt to contact Thompson. When I got up to the residence I noticed that there were several more animals running loose including several lions, a mountain lion, a tiger, and more Black Bears. It appeared as if the doors of the pens were opened. I parked outside of the Thompson residence and sounded my horn but got no response.

I then drove back to the outside of the gate. A few minutes later a male who identified himself as an employee of the Thompsons arrived. This was later identified as JOHN MOORE. Moore told me that Thompson should be at the residence. At this point I became concerned for Thompson's welfare. Moore drove with me back up to the house. We did enter the house and searched the inside of the house but were unable to find anyone in there. There were two monkeys and a small dog.

On the way out the driveway Moore looked and stated that he thought he saw someone lying just over an embankment near the barn. I stopped and looked. It did appear to be the dead body of a person. Due to the fact that there was a white tiger near the body which appeared to be eating the body I did not approach to try to identify it or see if the person was still alive.

I then drove down to the gate where I spoke with CAPT. LECOCQ and SHERIFF LUTZ. By this time several members of the Special Response Team with automatic weapons had arrived. At Sheriff Lutz's request I drove DEP. TODD KANAVEL's personal vehicle which is a pickup truck with several other deputies with automatic weapons up to near the house. I drove around while they shot numerous wild animals.

Psychogeography teaches us how to discover the secrets hiding in plain sight within our urban environment, but it is rare to find those modes of access to our physical space applied to discover the pockets of wild nature that abound amid human development—to say nothing of discovery of the idea that our human milieu is itself part of nature—every house and yard a node in the ecological network of the planet. I have written about my own efforts in that regard earlier on this site. And this year I have been discovering the rich trove of English writers who have explored the topic in much more depth—albeit while professing to be anything but psychogeographers.

[Pic from Simon Sellars's "Postcards from the Edgelands (for Marion Shoard)"]

This spring the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts published Edgelands. Subtitled "Journeys Into England's True Wilderness, the book is a celebration of places that the title term was invented by the geographer Marion Shoard to describe—places where wild nature and human development bump right into each other. A deep annotation of the ways in which the imminent ruins of the late industrial revolution, the corporate office parks that replace the forest, the woodlands full of trash and concrete rubble, the grasslands dotted with abandoned shipping containers and living room furniture, all merit lyrical exploration and celebration. Farley and Roberts access the edgelands with the eyes of the boys they once were in rusty industrial suburbs, retaining their youthful capacity to explore the most remote edges of the city with an intuition for wild wonder.

Farley and Roberts cite the deep influence of Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside (1973), which documented the resilience of wild nature in the interior and edgelands of London. Iain Sinclair rediscovered the book last year for The Guardian, finding in Mabey a bookend to Ballard's exploration of the human pathologies of urban negative space:

The Unofficial Countryside is a proper reckoning, the Domesday Book of a topography too fascinating to be left alone. Gravel beds, abandoned by film studios, were blissfully repossessed by passerine birds and opportunist plants. Mabey logs the tough fecundity of the margin, where wild nature spurns the advertised reservation and obliterates the laminated notice-boards of sanctioned history. Human tragedies of our paranoid cultures, raids and terrorist outrages, as Mabey points out, are nature's opportunity. "The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation."

[Video: Matthew Bey fly-fishing Austin's Shoal Creek, at the edge of downtown.]

I have not yet found any American analog to this English library of the edgelands. The closest thing is probably the urban exploration scene, which focuses on abandoned buildings rather than neglected landscapes. Perhaps this is because our big colonized continent still has so many verdant areas largely free from human encroachment, like Mark Trail's magic valley, where we experience palpable virginal biodiversity. Those places will always exist, though often under examination they reveal themselves to be incubated by human curation—more sophisticated connoisseur variations on the Zanesville exotic animal park.

Edgelands are a more realistic template for future nature than Avatar, and by exploring them and better appreciating how our habitat is fully integrated with that of other species, we can amplify that integration and make it more harmonious. As the provocateurs at the new group blog Next Nature are documenting so well, the conditions of the 21st century compel us to confront nature from the part of it we cause. If we can see the planet as a giant imminent edgeland, we might be able to do a better job sharing it with our fellow occupants—and better perceive the quotidian wonder we drive by every day, and have the power cultivate and enhance.

Monday, November 7, 2011

See the man

(an ambient fiction)

See the man.

Officers Reed and Malloy are driving through a diorama of some Los Angeles apartments, inside a windowed box in your living room. Their police interceptor is a 1:35 scale model of a 1965 Ford LTD that was painted and assembled by one of the guys that works at Hobby Haven in the Sherwood Forest shopping center in Clive. His name is Kent, you think. He has thick glasses, a big smile, and a huge Adam's apple.

At the east end of the faux Tudor complex, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlett are frozen in stone. You have a picnic there, watching them from the table.

On the other side of Hickman Boulevard, in the gigantic mall named after the dead farmboy of WWI, they have a sculpture of a man with a handlebar mustache riding a tricycle naked. His brass anatomical counterpoint to B. Dalton is a source of constant fascination among the shoppers.

Officer Pete Malloy enters the subterranean bowling alley beneath the mall. Revolver drawn, flashlight in the other, he steps into the dark behind the pins.

The bowling alley is also a fallout shelter, marked with the crypto-military sigil of the Civil Defense Board, an organization of run-down Presbyterian Freemasons who receive their coded instructions in the arrhythmic sonograms of Paul Harvey's midday broadcast on AM radio 910.

Pete Malloy does not smile, even though his face is dusted with boyish freckles. He is an ethical nihilist, believing in nothing but the cryptic instructions that come into his car from the dispatcher, their enforcement a minimalist theatrical pronouncement for an absent god.

"See the man."

Malloy remembers when the diorama was new, and the trees and water it contained were real. Now the only clean things within its limitless confines are his uniform and his police interceptor.

If you touch Officer Reed's hair, it will cut your fingers off. Reed is an amateur pornographer. He mails his high key black-and-white tapes to a man in Boca Raton who resells them through hard-to-find mail order catalogs.

The Iowans are everywhere, in your cities, known to each other by their otherwise undetectable sarcasms, masquerading as ordinary people. They like to hang out in watch repair shops, where time can be slowed, interrupted, restored.

Malloy is their enforcer, and he knows what you have done.

After work, after the news of the War and before the banal prime time comedies, your father walks the diorama with Malloy, basking in the cathode rays of the California sun, maintaining internal order while the diorama is disassembled around him by the people who killed the King.

Life in the terrarium is so fucking beautiful.

(See also: Rambo Dreaming)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Queen for a day

The first news coming over the network into my ears this morning was bizarrely atemporal for a day of otherwise apocalyptic headlines: the decision of the 16 nations of the British Commonwealth to change a bunch of 17th century statutes and abolish the rule of male primogeniture. Meaning that, if Wills and Kate have themselves a little princess, and then a petit prince after that, the princess still gets daddy's job when he's done. I guess David Cameron has finally discovered the category of reform that he was born to drive.

While Cameron acts as midwife to England's thousand-year experiment in degenerative eugenics, childless physicist Prime Minister Angela Merkel, product of an extinct state socialist meritocracy, shows she has more cojones than the big bankers of Europe, calling their bluff in after-midnight negotiations and getting them to write off half of their Greek debt to avert default and potential meltdown.

While she and the other fiduciaries of Europe's pensioners struggle to maintain the 1999 future in a deleveraging world, back in the New World the occupation of the abstractions seems to have actually scratched the nerve of general popular discontent with the American distribution of wealth. Whether the movement will produce any real reform in the absence of any coherent political theory for how things should be organized differently remains to be seen, but when you start to think about large quantities of highly educated and chronically unemployed people mixing with demobilized veterans of our endless wars against other abstractions and seasoned with the radical political contingent that has always been around but largely invisible to the media since 1989, the realm of plausible scenarios becomes a lot more interesting. To the Wall Street Station?

Digesting the smorgasbord of my anachronistic morning newspaper and all these disparate threads, I am struck by how much of it is united by a common thread: the pursuit of the liberation from work. The escape from the grinding alienation of life in a capitalist society. For the 1%, by making enough money that you don't need to make any more. For the pensioners, by doing your time dutifully and graduating to an early and lengthy retirement of modest leisure. For the Occupy-ers, perhaps through a more self-expressive and communitarian existence in some alternate system they have been unable to actually articulate.

These all seem to me like variations on a Viagra commercial. The one where the grey but otherwise hot and healthy and implicitly prosperous couple is walking on the beach. Our R-rated, secularized, 21st century version of heaven—the happy variation of life when played by contemporary Capital's rules, the end of alienation we can supposedly obtain by enduring decades of it.

Consider the example of the railroad workers arrested in New York yesterday in a successful disability fraud scheme that would have extracted $1 billion of pension funds to finance the eternal days off of eleven people who "after claiming to be too disabled to stand, sit, walk or climb steps, retired to lives of regular golf, tennis, biking and aerobics." Is that really what we are all stealing to achieve? Simulations of country club leisure?

No wonder the same front page also reported changes in the rules of golf.

Is the real problem that, in a society that is dehabituating itself from the practice of financing today's consumption with the imaginary income of tomorrow, the idea of that world on the other side of the paycheck is no longer tenable? Once that narrative breaks, the whole thing unravels like a Ponzi scheme. After everyone stops complaining about it, what happens then? Maybe it takes a world without a future to teach people how to live an authentic now—maybe even one in which the golf courses are put to other uses.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to win revolutions and influence people

[pic: Mohammed el Bibi brandishes Qaddafi's golden gun, courtesy of]

So our mediasphere exploded with revolution porn yesterday, as the West celebrated the death of one of its odder symbiotes. (You knew Qaddafi was doomed weeks ago when you learned his homes were being fire-bombed by Scandinavian F-16s; the image of having him dragged from a culvert by a kid in a Yankees cap and a mullet, stealing his golden gun, surely was scripted by some master of psyops.) All of our heads of state and talking heads lined up to celebrate his death as a moral victory of the Libyan people, subtextually reveling in the way the narratives are finally starting to play out in accordance with the American master mold, ever since the death of Osama. For our exhausted republic, sustained by our national myths of popular rebellion against unelected monarchs, actual revolutions on other continents are a very convenient way to provide the People with a way to vicariously experience the thing they wish they could do, but don't actually know how to—being so effectively brainwashed with the idea that the current society is the product of revolution. We the People! Or is it Up with People!?

I see the Occupy Austin folks around town, holding up signs saying "Join the Revolution." One of their staging areas is across the street from my home in far East Austin, a neon plant where you can hear them arguing in the wee hours about their messages of the day. It's authentically refreshing to see indigenous protest movements calling out our latest plutocratic disequilibrium, but when I see signs like "Bring Back the American Dream," I have to wonder whether any of these infantilized suburban white boys with look-at-me dreadlocks would be able to chase down a dictator under artillery fire, drag his body out of a drainage ditch, and put a bullet through his head.

[Pic: Get Motivated! billboard, Airport Boulevard, Austin]

At the same time as the Occupy-ers have gotten their signs into our minds, a different set of signs has been springing up all over town, on gigantic billboards along every major thoroughfare—advertisements for the upcoming Get Motivated! seminar featuring an ultimate lineup of Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Mary Lou Retton, General Stanley McChrystal and a coterie of platitude-spinning entrepreneurs and salesmen. Only $1.95 per person!

Granted, I have a semiotic soft spot for the any seminar organizer with the lunatic genius to bring together America's peppiest little balance beam cheerleader and the Col. Kilgore of the GWOT (the man with his own custom nunchakus, whose command comprised "...a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs...a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts... [who] jokingly refer to themselves as Team America"). I imagine Mary Lou Retton enlisted by the "retired" General McChrystal as the leader of a next generation Gymkata squad, taking out the world's most flamboyant dictators with a combination of floor show acrobatics, pep squad aphorisms, and napalm. (And featuring Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott, their wacky post-Oscar Goldman handler.)

[Pic: the personal nunchakus of General Stanley McChrystal]

What I really wish is for a way to combine these disparate movements. Get Occupied!? All the more so when I read that the Get Motivated! seminars are a giant scam to sell people a smorgasbord of get rick quick schemes. I share the Occupy-ers' desire for radical change in our advertising-based mental environment, but I think an American political movement that attacks the idea of *success* is doomed to failure. Americans only object to wealth when, as with the 1% riding on top of the Great Recession, it becomes perceived as a ruling class that the average person no longer has the opportunity to join. But self-improvement and meritocratic achievement are the real American religions, and opting out of Alpha seems a juvenile political strategy. Think how powerful it would be if someone could appropriate the self-help business values and aspirations that run through American culture from Benjamin Franklin through Warren Buffett in service of an opposition to mega-Capital, Empire, and the class of plutocrats and technocrats they create?

I imagine a slightly shifted reality where radicalized versions of Stan McCrystal, Mary Lou Retton and Joel Osteen evangelize global change through self-help seminars and ubiquitous infomercials—revolution as a get rich quick scheme. The chaos of our apocalyptic globe repackaged as a leveling opportunity for political arbitrage, the geopolitical equivalent of a work-from-home program teaching you how to make big money off your neighbors' home foreclosures. Put a little MKULTRA in the Starbucks, and see what happens.

Either that, or wait to see how long before #Occupy gets successfully co-opted by Madison Avenue.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hacking the Warlord Complex

The Presidential campaign has been settling into full embarkation on the quest mode this week, as the pool of candidates locks in. Christie and the Rogue are staying on the sidelines. The Republican voters who would dethrone a demonized Obama have lost the possibility of a better choice than the current stable. For my adult lifetime, the Republicans have been waiting for the second coming of Ronald Reagan, and unsurprisingly, he's really dead.

Across the aisle, Democratic voters wait for the President to more emotively channel their feelings, their aspirations for proto-utopian benediction, a rekindling of that feeling they had on the night he won. Unfortunately, HOPE is a little more complicated when it is expressed through MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Meanwhile, a somewhat eclectic collection of dissenters is busy trying to #Occupy the abstraction, declaring that it is not looking for leaders. While there are things about the Occupy movement that seem pretty old school (like their admonitions to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932, which mandated segregation of investment banking and deposit-taking until its repeal in 1993, as if that were a silver bullet to kill the vampire infestation of Capital), the idea of the leaderless opposition movement is very much in tune with the Zeitgeist. Networks are the dominant organizational model of the 21st century, and they don't have heads. Perhaps that's what took the media so long to pay attention—the lack of a figurehead really hacks the master narrative (same way that the media desperately tried to elect Mohammed el-Baradei the leader of the Egyptian movement when he parachuted in from his plush life in the West).

The Presidential election season really stands in profound contrast to the movements we have seen all over the world this year. We have come to take voting for granted, as a kind of old world civic duty, structured as a consumer choice between two similar products. Coke or Pepsi? "Politics practiced as a branch of advertising," as JG Ballard noted. The liberated vigor that voting represented when it was a new freedom achieved through revolutions against capricious monarchs has degenerated into an emphysemic wheezing, as we watch our mature republics struggle to navigate a radically morphing world. Is it too heretical to question whether 18th century political structures are really up to the task of managing the 21st century world?

To me, it is self-evident that contemporary human social networks mediated by computing technology are naturally evolving to provide a more complete and participatory means for our governance, one that is likely to radically change existing republican political systems in the same way the tech boom of the 1990s challenged monolithic corporate powers tat had evolved in the 20th century. I think any development that lessens the concentration of power in any particular individual or group is a good development, one that will promote a healthier and freer society. But I also can't help but wonder: is there some inherent human need to elect chiefs that one is foolish to think can be changed? Can you really have a human society that is not structured as a pyramid with one dude at the top, expressing superior power to maintain order?

Consider the fact that, at its root, the Anglo-American legal system is based on the methods a family of nomadic warlords developed to administer the territory of England after they had conquered it under force of arms. Our property laws, largely evolved from the means used to settle disputes between the warlord's senior minions about the respective lands they were charged with running to maintain dominion. Is it really surprising when you hear the Russian intelligentsia whine about how the people don't really want democracy—they just want Putin the tiger hunter to maintain order and the pride of the nation? The fact that basically every corporation is structured like a medieval military band with a single chief at the top, only periodically accountable to the board of elders or the tribal stakeholders to whom they are accountable, says a lot about the natural order of things. Are we always waiting for the return of the King?

One can't help but wonder whether the great danger of atomizing the distribution of power through new constitutional codes of the network wouldn't just expose us more to a mob that can be manipulated by a strongman that knows how to push their buttons. Network-based movements give me great hope for the potential for a more authentic democracy. But they also make me wonder: what would Goebbels do with Facebook?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

To the App-Cave!

Going over my notes and recollections from FenCon last weekend, this one stands out even among a LOT of news, good advice and reading recommendations. Pyr editor Lou Anders showed a few of us this fantastic iPad/ iPhone app for reading comic books digitally. It's called ComiXology and I found it very nicely reviewed at a British tech review Website.

DC and Marvel are digitally available this way and so are plenty of edgier, bolder independent comics. Oh-oh. I have never felt an itch to invest in an iPad until now. I've always loved looking at comic books, and this app gives you a full-color, flexible view that can sequence through the panels in order and then zoom to the full page for the layout to be appreciated. Between that and the enormous amount of talent doing comics these days - wow.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Robert's Rules of Emoticon Order

It is an interesting thing to watch the tired old Palestinian fighters, who have spent their whole lives competing with the Israelis for control of the same soil, present their petition for statehood to the United Nations. In part because the idea that such a process even exists is so science fictionally cool, because it represents the possibility of creating new states—maps do change, as we have all seen in our lives, and the possibilities for how much they could change are theoretically boundless. The criteria are pretty simple: you need to have some real estate over which you exercise internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. Simple enough, but for the unspoken part about the other people who might think it's *their* sovereignty to exercise.

Imagine, if you will, a near-future Texas—say fifty years out—whose demographics have radically changed, such that the only Perry that could ever be elected to statewide office would be a Perez. It is not hard to imagine such a sub-state of the United States deciding it wanted to return to becoming a sovereign state of its own. And that to accomplish such an act isn't really about the legalities under the flaccid regime of international law, the law of an imaginary sovereign with no real ability to enforce its edicts, but about the military ability to keep out occupying armies and the political ability to secure diplomatic recognition. Just ask the Confederates—the political theory underpinning our legal systems has never really articulated a coherent legal code defining when and how new states can be created within existing ones. Which doesn't stop a whole lot of free thinking iconoclasts from trying.

[Pic: President Kevin Baugh of the Republic of Molossia, aka a piece of land outside Reno, Nevada.]

Of course Abbas wants to get after the issue now, in the fall of the Arab Spring, as the incipient leaders of post-revolution territories debate their visions for a 21st century Arab state. But to do so also seems very anachronistic, when we are in a historical moment that reveals the the culture of the Jewish diaspora a much more relevant model for the organization of peoples than a piece of land with a fence around it and some ruling fathers running the rancho. Isn't the real power of the modern Israeli state based on the pre-Westphalian power of the transnational, inter-state network of supporters, who want the state because it articulates the existence of the network in the only terms that were understood by the post-colonial, post-WWII rulers of the world atlas?

In this century, the network is a more compelling model for the polity than the nation state.

The signs are all there in the outstanding roundup by Nicholas Kulish at The New York Times of the post-democracy movements emerging around the world—As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe.

Surprise: the generations raised in cyberculture don't take the truths of constitutional democracy as self-evident.

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

Someone had to step in, Mr. Levi said, because “the political system has abandoned its citizens.”

The rising disillusionment comes 20 years after what was celebrated as democratic capitalism’s final victory over communism and dictatorship.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a consensus emerged that liberal economics combined with democratic institutions represented the only path forward. That consensus, championed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End of History and the Last Man,” has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises — the Asian financial collapse of 1997, the Internet bubble that burst in 2000, the subprime crisis of 2007-8 and the continuing European and American debt crisis — and the seeming inability of policy makers to deal with them or cushion their people from the shocks.

Frustrated voters are not agitating for a dictator to take over. But they say they do not know where to turn at a time when political choices of the cold war era seem hollow. “Even when capitalism fell into its worst crisis since the 1920s there was no viable alternative vision,” said the British left-wing author Owen Jones.

Will the law students of the future learn Robert's Rules of Emoticons? It seems very likely to me. As suggested in last month's post, In the Panopticon, no one can hear your reboot, it seems indisputable that contemporary networking technologies present more compelling tools for the construction of direct democracy than have ever existed. These under-40s all over the world who are the natives of the realm of those technologies are naturally forming their own political networks using those tools. And these imminent polities may violate all the geopolitical conventions of land, language, and ethnicity.

Geopolitics isn't going away, but it is going to have its work cut out for it dealing with the emerging 21st century cyberpolitics.

What will the United Nations Security Council do about sovereign polities that assert themselves in the ethereal space of the network, even controlling resources and behaviors through the systems of the network, without needing to wall in any segments of the physical world?

What will happen when a virtual world secedes from the jurisdiction of the governments of the physical world?

What happens when a virtual polity decides to assert dominion over the physical world?

This mode seems the first really viable alternative approach to political choice, and the idea of democratic representation, to emerge in a long time. The NYT piece tries to place it within the existing dualistic right/left paradigm, but that kind of watered down Hegelian dialectic doesn't really have any place in the network. A network parliament would be a polyphony. A network parliament, in all likelihood, wouldn't be a parliament—it would be the People.

In a time when modern Greece is crumbling as a sovereign republic, is it too utopian to imagine the planet as a virtual Athens, governed by a network-enabled direct democracy? It is certainly a scary idea for the power elites of the world, the rulers of all the contemporary republics quietly scornful of popular opinion while relentlessly pandering to it and manipulating it in their own political and financial interests. And the American Founders would have no trouble scaring us with the idea of how horrific it could be to live in a society ruled by an Internet mob.

Lots to worry about in how to construct effective operating systems for that sort of polity, but the truth that seems self-evident to me is that we need to start tackling those tasks in earnest, because it's already starting to happen.