Wednesday, 18 January 2017

For Robert Anton Wilson's Birthday – some words on Operation Mindfix

Today is the birthday of the late great American agnostic Robert Anton Wilson.

His books (and in particular, the Illuminatus! trilogy he co-wrote with Robert Shea) depict a bewildering world of conspiracies, half-truths, lies, fake news, incompetence and our inability to find anything resembling objective truth. Or to put it another way, it describes the world as it is now, ten years after his death.

Wilson was a leading figure in the counterculture project known as Operation Mindfuck. This was a form of western Zen. Seeding our culture with confusion, contradiction and mischief, it was thought, would jolt people out of their illusions. Operation Mindfuck kicked off in the 1970s and has never really stopped.

Operation Mindfuck, like the Discordian religion which embraced it, was typically politically neutral, or at least clear that the ideologies of both the left and right were equally valid targets. However, the ideas behind Operation Mindfuck have since become a tool for those with a lust for political power, most blatantly Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov, as explained in this short film by Adam Curtis.

It’s stating the obvious, but the vast majority of us are not enjoying this ‘post-truth’ world. It is not so much that the fake news is disturbing. The real gut-kick is when people confidently proclaim that we should return to the pre-post-truth world, and then think about how to do that, and slowly realise that not only is it impossible but that there was no pre-post-truth world in the first place. Think of Hillsborough, or Iraq’s imaginary WMDs. What has actually changed is that it is no longer possible to comfortably fall for our earlier illusions. As the saying goes, if you want to be certain, buy an encyclopaedia. If you want to be uncertain, buy two encyclopaedias. Our culture has bought a second encyclopaedia.

The rise of the Alt-Right, with their use of meme magic, conspiracies and disinformation, led to left-leaning Discordians thinking that Operation Mindfuck had been weaponised against them.
You don’t need me to tell you that this is currently grim as all hell. But if you take the long term, pragmatic view, it could be that the use of Operation Mindfuck techniques in this way are, essentially, a trap.

In his books, and most importantly in his autobiography Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson talks about the psychological state where you have no way of making sense of what is happening, where all your maps have run out, and where you have no fixed point with which to orient yourself by. He called this place Chapel Perilous. This is where we are now as a culture.

There are only two outcomes from a visit to Chapel Perilous, Wilson tells us: paranoia or agnosticism.

Agnosticism – and here Wilson means not just doubt about God, but doubt about everything - requires an acceptance that you are not the only right-thinking person on the planet, and that it is not true everyone else should agree with you. It requires a recognition that you are statistically just as full of shit as everyone else. There are over 7 billion people on the planet and you will never find someone else who shares your views exactly. Our reality tunnels are all different because they are shaped by our own unique experiences. None of us know what we don’t know. We need all the help we can get, including science and other people’s perspective, in order to get by. The ultimate goal of the agnostic is not to become right, but to become less wrong.

Agnosticism, then, involves humility. It was humility – and an extraordinary act of forgiveness - that rescued Wilson from his own stay in Chapel Perilous. Wilson was ultimately able to make a good life for himself with no need for certainty.

But the alt-right don’t do humility. They like strength, and decisiveness, and have a psychological need for certainty. How will they exit Chapel Perilous with those values? They may have grabbed the ring of power, but are trapped in the postmodern post-truth world, the one place they will never find the certainty and strength they seek. They are like Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. The more they attack, the more stuck they become. They aren’t going anywhere.

It’s no secret that populist far-right movements never end well. There are no examples in history of them being a good idea. How desperate for a fixed, certain ideology would you have to be to hitch your identity and worldview to one? This is clearly a dangerous time. But look again at the alt-right in Chapel Perilous, lashing out in all directions, owning the news cycle as they do. See how their contradictions enrage those around them, who react with great energy, which keeps the system running? Now imagine those people who feed them gradually finding their own way out of Chapel Perilous. See how the non-humble flounder and turn in on themselves when their victims move on and there is no-one else left to fight? They are stuck in postmodern, post-truth quicksand from which they are the only ones who can never escape. Without humility, Chapel Perilous is a nightmare jail for the cruel.

What is the way forward? Readers of Robert Anton Wilson are a useful group to look at here because they have already processed Chapel Perilous and, judging by the ones I’ve met, there is something interesting happening. It is too soon to definitively label and define, but the designer Amoeba has coined the temporarily-useful name Operation Mindfix. As he says, Operation Mindfuck is over for Discordians because it is unnecessary in the post-2016 world. From now on, the ongoing work can be considered part of Operation Mindfix.

All this is happening away from the boxing matches of social media. It needs the coming together of people in the real world, because empathy is rarely found online. There is magical thinking involved, but then, when is there not? It chimes with academic talk about the move from postmodernism to metamodernism, where sincerity and belief are returned to our world not as pillars of identity but as tools for personal use, to be used and discarded as circumstances demand. There are echoes of it in the theatre director Daisy Campbell’s attempt “to create a narrative so utterly complex and so thoroughly self-referential that it becomes to all intents and purposes alive.”

It understands that social media can be used for finding those who chime with us but that there is no point in using it to shout at the different. It comes from a recognition that being a consumer and a critic are not enough, and that we won’t be fulfilled until we step up and contribute in our own individual way. It involves the virtuous circle of people being inspired by people being inspired. It centres of the understanding that meaning exists, but it needs to be self-generated.

It’s the dawning realisation that, by supporting friends and being supported by them, and by taking a leap of faith, every one of us can evolve our own souls.

None of this is a solution to our immediate political problems, of course. Near-future politics will be chaos as technology takes our jobs, walls replace bridges and climate change and population demographics start to bite. Great change is coming and it is going to be messy. No, this is a larger project: the act of evolving into twenty-first century humans.

I have a suspicion that, when we moved from being hierarchical people of the book to networked people of the screen, all this became inevitable. Which is not to say that Operation Mindfuck or the Illuminatus! trilogy were unnecessary. They were, in many ways, a training manual for both understanding this particular point in time, and in getting through it.

So Happy Birthday Bob - and thanks for the toolkit.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Adventures on the Edge of Culture

We've got something a bit special planned for this years Brighton Fringe. The May 12th Odditorium, called Adventures on the Edge of Culture, is an evening of the following...

A talk from me called Ziggy Blackstar & the Art of Becoming
Shardcore on subverting social networks
Melinda Gebbie and Daisy Campbell in conversation
Dr David Bramwell on Sun-Ra and living myths
Greg Wilson, Kermit Leveridge and me in conversation,
and a talk and Q&A from Alan Moore.

Yeah, that's right, Alan Moore's coming to Brighton.

Which means - this will probably sell out pretty quickly. Which means, you might want to get tickets now.

So you'll have to tackle the Fringe booking website, which is far from easy and which currently doesn't even make it clear when this particular event is on. This may be fixed soon, but for now, here's the link.

You need to select the May 12th event - this is 3 hour one, not the usual hour and half talks (it will run from 6pm to 9pm).

I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to this - see you there!

UPDATE - MARCH 6th: And... that sold out quick, in just over a day. Hope you got tickets okay. If not, there are three other Odditorium events at the Fringe with different speakers, which are well worth a look.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Stranger Than We Can Imagine algorithmically compressed into 400 words

My new book Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century is finally loose in the UK - being sold in shops, downloaded as ebooks onto Kindles and as audiobooks onto phones. It will be published in Canada on October 6th and America on November 10th, with Spanish, German, Dutch, Greek, Turkish and Romanian translations on their way. There are, I'd like to think, versions for everyone.

Everyone, that is, except those who don't want to read an entire book. What about those people?

Now, my friend the artist Shardcore had been playing around with automatic text compression software. If you have a long document to plough through, you can run it through this software and it will create a shorter version which, in theory, will retain the most important information. And the results are pretty impressive, so long as you set it to shorten the text by no more than about 40%. If nothing else, it highlights the differing levels of redundancy in the prose styles of different writers.

If you try to shorten the text further, the results aren't quite so good. Information, nuance, insight and meaning are all lost. If you try to shorten the text by 99.5%, all you get is a bunch of unrelated random sentences.

This is, clearly, a dumb and pointless exercise that only a fool would inflict on their hard-crafted work.

Here, then, for those who have no desire to read an entire book, is Stranger Than We Can Imagine algorithmically compressed by 99.5% into about 400 words of near-gibberish:

What the hell happened to the human psyche? An omphalos is the centre of the world or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world, or, perhaps more accurately, was the idea that an artist challenged the art establishment by presenting a found object sufficiently interesting for that idea to be considered a work of art? The wars that did occur after the defeat of Napoleon were brief. Do what thou wilt. In April 1904 the British poet, mountaineer and occultist Aleister Crowley dictated a book which, he believed, was transmitted to him by a non-human intelligence called Aiwass. Naturally, they dispensed with the restraints of customary morality and of reason.

Buñuel told Dalí of a dream in which ‘a long tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor slicing through an eye’, but there is a big difference between the world at the sub-atomic level and the human scale world we live in. I wanted to make something sacred. The English maverick theatre director Ken Campbell also recognised that this level of ambition could arise from science fiction. When Clov says that the world is going out, but he has never seen it lit up, I could say ‘Well I have.’ Antoine Roquentin initially suspects that the repulsion he has begun to feel towards existence may not be a product of the objective world, but rather something internal that he projects outwards, and Parsons would pioneer the solid fuel rocketry that would take America into space.

For real liberation to be enjoyed by men and women, neither can be reduced to a passive role. Greer argued that the way forward for women was to recognise their innate self-worth and become fully sexual creatures, but Rees-Mogg and The Rolling Stones were not, perhaps, as politically different as they might first appear.  Seeing how systems flipped from one state to another brought home just how fragile and uncontrollable complex systems were. The idea that a Western democratic politician from a mainstream political party could gain office with a platform that aimed to reduce corporate power became increasingly implausible, and I happen to have Mr McLuhan right here. If you want to understand postmodernism you should spend a few hours playing Super Mario Bros, a 1985 video game designed by Japan’s Shigeru Miyamoto. It would not be properly investigated, not least because of his charity work.

The full text, I should add, is possibly the only book to have been lauded by both Alan Moore and the Daily Mail, which means it must make more sense than the above.

Monday, 13 April 2015

2015 Tour

Time to emerge from hibernation and go out and face people - here's a list of all the talks I'll be doing in 2015:

Thurs 16th April - London
A Campfire Storytelling event, accompanied by art by Shardcore. Free entry, but please RSVP. Details are here.

Thurs 23rd April - Harrogate
I'll be talking about the twentieth century, and there's a couple more really interesting speakers on the bill, it should be a good night. Details.

Thurs 21st May - Brighton 
The Catalyst Club present The Lost Worlds of Albion in the Spiegeltent Bosco tent, as part of the Brighton Fringe. I'll be talking about Watling Street.

Sat June 20th - Also Festival, Warwickshire
I'll be talking about The KLF, more details here

July 30th - Aug 2nd - Port Eliot Literary Festival, Cornwall
Like last year we'll be in the mysterious, enigmatic tent at the back of the woods that no-one could find.

Aug 6th - Aug 9th - Wilderness Festival, Oxfordshire
Which I agreed to do the moment I realised that both Bjork and George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic are playing... I'll be doing a talk entitled The Urinal and the Baroness.

Thursday August 13th - Brighton
Another appearance at the always-great Catalyst Club.

Sat Aug 15th - Whitstable
The history of magical thinking from Tim Leary to The KLF, at CJ Stone's Psychedelic Salon.

Fri August 21st - Dorkbot Bristol
Me and Shardcore talking at Bristol Mini- Maker Faire Dorkbot Special

Fri Aug 28th - London
A night at Heavenly Social to celebrate the new book, with talks from me, Daisy Eris Campbell, Alistair Fruish and a DJ set from Flinton Chalk of TC Lethbridge. Plus Heavenly Jukebox - come along, all welcome!

Sep 3rd - Sep 6th - Festival No6, Portmeirion.
I'll be doing a talk about Timothy Leary on the Friday and... something else on the Saturday as part of the Super Weird Happening. Really looking forward to this.

Thurs Sept 10th - Northampton
At the NN Cafe with Robin Ince, Alan Moore and Grace Petrie for Another Blooming Buzzing Confusion Night (recording for Robin's podcast)

Sept 30th - Wigtown, Scotland
Speaking about the 20th Century at the Wigtown Book Festival.

Oct 14th - 16th - Amsterdam
Talking about The KLF at the mighty Amsterdam Dance Event

Friday Oct 30th - Hotel de las Letras, Madrid, Spain
In conversation with Jordi Costa, 8pm

Thurs Nov 5th - Salon London
In conversation with Helen Bagnall

Friday Nov 13th - Lavenham Literary Festival
I'll be speaking in a medieval National Trust guildhall, should be fun. Details. 

Sunday Nov 22nd - Bristol Cube KLF night
"Tickets £5 on the door, £10 in advance..."

Monday Nov 23rd - London Fortean Society, Conway Hall
A Talk entitled The Strange Person Theory of History 

Tuesday Nov 24th - UKC Psychedelics Society, Cambridge
7pm - 9pm in KLT3, Keynes College

Sat Nov 28th - Under The Austerity, The Beach - Northampton
Alan Moore's day of counterculture, with Robin Ince, Josie Long et al - more details here

That's all for 2015 - 2016 should see me speaking at Hebden Bridge, Hawarden and... who knows? Hope to see you somewhere along the way.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Cosmic Trigger Festival Talk

It's too early to say exactly what detonated at the Cosmic Trigger play and festival in Liverpool this weekend, save to say that this particular firework was not a dud and much will be written about it.

At one point a man called Duncan Harvey handed me a memory stick containing a long lost photo shoot he did with Robert Anton Wilson at the Old Chelsea Town Hall, London, in 1986. I've placed my favourites throughout this post. Good, rights-clearable photos of Bob are in short supply, so if anyone has a use for these photos get in touch and I'll connect you with Duncan. This is my absolute favourite:

I was due to give a talk and host a panel with Robin Ince, Adam Gorightly, Robert Temple and Daisy Campbell. This didn't happen alas - whoever was in charge of the speaker's room lost interest in that role and wandered off and the resulting confusion and free-for-all (Hail Eris!) claimed the time alloted for my talk. So rather than see that talk go to waste I've transcribed here roughly what I would I would have said, bar the ums and errs and general blather.

Rather marvellously the panel talk was replaced by an impromptu wedding between Greg Donaldson and Daisy Eris Campbell. This was entirely fitting as we were going to be talking about connections, but the weekend was working on deeper levels than mere talk. It was a weekend of theatre and ritual, and a wedding expressed the concept of connection far better than words alone. Without giving away too much of the story of the play, a connection of love in the dark heart of Chapel Perilous, expressed in ritual theatre, is exactly what the weekend was about. Chapel Perilous, lest we forget, is still a chapel.

Here's what my talk would have been:

It is a year and a month to the day since I stood up, at the Horse Hospital in London, and spoke about Robert Anton Wilson. I talked about how people no longer reference Bob, and that I feared he was in danger of becoming forgotten. So how stupid do I look now?

As it turned out, the deathly quiet that I had mistaken for disinterest was a potent tingle of potential enthusiasm, waiting for an excuse to manifest. This was the day when Daisy Campbell spoke in public for the first time about her dream of putting on a Cosmic Trigger play, and this was the excuse that was needed. You know how a pearl forms seemingly out of nothing, provided it has a bit of grit to form around? Well, Daisy was our bit of grit. Which admittedly doesn’t sound like a great compliment but trust me, it is.

Watching this festival form over the past year has brought to mind the Noah’s Ark story. Noah didn’t go out and collect up all the animals. He busied himself building the ark. The animals just knew they were supposed to be there, and they turned up at the right time, and they got on the ark, and they didn’t eat each other.

It’s the same for everyone here – cast, audience, performers, backstage, and production crew. You somehow knew you had to be here and you turned up as and when needed. I’ve talked to a lot of you this last year and your stories about what brought you here are all very different. You are very different people, with different aims and motivations and baggage. Yet you all turned up, and you didn’t eat each other.

This coming together has been extremely productive. It’s been a virtuous circle of people being inspired by people being inspired. I’m reminded of a quote from Ken Campbell I saw recently, in which he said that the meaning of life can be peripherally glimpsed by being amazed and by amazing others, but it can fully grasped by amazing yourself.

When you gather together new-age heads and materialist rationalists, American libertarians and British socialists, the focused and the vague, the serious and the silly, the human and whatever it was that accosted me earlier, it does not sound like a recipe for getting things done. The only thing we all have in common is that we have at some point read Robert Anton Wilson and recognised and valued the impact that he has had on us.

So the fact this weekend actually happened is, I think, a great credit to Bob’s philosophy. Discordians take it for read that other people have different reality tunnels, and we don’t feel the need to force others into our own. We know it is as important that we don’t fall for our own belief system, our own BS, as it is that we don’t fall for other peoples'. Instead we value people like Robin Ince, a man who knows Alan Moore and Richard Dawkins, and who can be friends with them both and converse with them both and understand them both, without his head exploding.

I could tell countless stories about what brought people here. Scott Mcpherson who did all the animations and projections is a good example, as everyone has been raving about his projections today. When Daisy was writing the script, she wondered if it was possible to do stuff with projections, but neither of us knew anyone who did that sort of work or what it cost. And at that point, this guy @amoebadesign tweets out of the blue, asking if we need anyone to do projections. I’d seen him about on twitter talking about my KLF book and clocked that he was a Wilson head, and I’d assumed he was based in Glasgow. But no, he was in Brighton, where me and Daisy live. So we went to meet him.

He started showing us examples of his work including footage of a road in front of blue wooden garage door, with typography animated in the scene as if the words were filmed in the real world. I asked him why he had filmed those particular blue garage doors, and he explained that his then-office was right there, in the window next to the blue doors. And I explained that I know that road because I wrote the KLF book in the building opposite, sat at a window in an office which looked down at those doors. What was on the screen was the exact view I had as I wrote that book. Which was something of a coincidence, when you think about the size of the world... So yeah, I knew then that he was our guy and having seen what he did yesterday, I don’t think anyone will disagree. Although I do sometimes ponder if such close proximity to Scott’s psychic pollution during writing could have shaped that book in any way.

Another example of what brought people here is the band TC Lethbridge, who played their first gig last night, 23 years after they formed. Their story needs longer than I have here to do justice. In fact I’ve written a 28,000 word book about it, to mark their appearance at this festival. I doubt there are any other bands who have had a full biography written about them before they have even poked their noses out in public, and I wouldn’t have done so if they and their story hadn’t been so extraordinary.

That edition of that book is just limited to 111 copies – it’s not for sale bar for 5 copies which were placed, for obvious Discordian reasons, on the bookstall this morning and which have since gone. One reason why it’s not being made properly available is because I feel some unease about how badly a particular individual comes out of that story. But after writing it I realised that the book also works as a jigsaw piece. It connects to the story I told in my KLF book, and it also connects to my Timothy Leary book. With that work connecting the other two, the three books can be thought of as one larger story - if admittedly a lopsided and strangely shaped larger story.

This pleased me greatly, for what was my KLF book but a statement that five seemingly separate stories were, in a certain light, one bigger story? It was my way of saying that the stories of Bill Drummond, Robert Anton Wilson, Ken Campbell, Alan Moore and Doctor Who were parts of something larger, even if none of the characters in that story were aware of it. And so by joining up those three books, and squinting at them a bit, you get an even larger story still.

This, it seems to me, is exactly where we are as a culture. I’ve written a book about the 20th Century which will be out next year and which I’ll bang on endlessly about soon. But one thing I realised writing that book that the predominant story form of the 20th Century, especially in cinema, is what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. A young man (and it's almost always a man) of lowly means receives a call to adventure, meets a patriarchal mentor, faces many challenges, defeats the personification of evil and returns home with treasure. You’re probably sick to death of that story, it’s been used in everything from Errol Flynn movies to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. It’s the story of a single reality tunnel – it’s the tale of how the hero views the world.

But there’s been a huge shift in our culture. Look at the big hits that we get now. You have TV series like Game of Thrones, where the complicated interplay between dozens of competing reality tunnels proves to be a far more interesting, rewarding and illuminating piece of television than the story of one single reality tunnel. You get things like the Marvel cinematic universe, where all these separate individual superhero films join up into something larger, because Marvel understands that the sum is larger than the parts. In the Eighties the fact that Doctor Who had decades of backstory was a reason not to watch it: now people love it when they pick up on a Jon Pertwee reference from the 1970s. A simple children’s Hero Journey story such as The Hobbit becomes an epic 9-hour trilogy for today’s audience. Alan Moore understood all this decades ago, when he first began connecting up the entire world of fiction in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

And this is what this weekend is all about. All the stories, all your individual stories about what brought you here to this building on this day, they all connect up and form one larger story that is greater than the sum of its parts. And none of us can see that story, but we can sense it. We know deep down that this is exactly where we are meant to be, and that being here is important and will resonate with us for perhaps the rest of our lives. This weekend is about something other than one person’s reality tunnel. And yes, it is frustrating that none of us can see this larger story, but you know it’s there, just out of the corner of your eyes, because you keep getting flashes of it. So perhaps now is the time where we should stop hearing what me and the rest of the speakers think, and get as many different voices heard as possible. We’ll bring a few people back for a panel, people who you might have questions for, and people who might have insights into what you’re thinking, and we’ll see what we can learn from each other.

I’m hoping your heads are buzzing and fizzing and full of questions and connections, and that by catching glimpses of what you’re all thinking we won’t gain any clarity or closure, but we'll go away with even more buzzing and fizzing and questions and connections.