Media

Swindle of the Century

So what IS the Trump / Putin connection? So many theories. Sadly, I don’t put a tremendous amount of faith in the really tawdry stuff; the hookers, the pisstapes. Much as I’d like to savour the urinesque fragrance of these salacious rumours, this is my for-the-most-part-baseless gut-feeling about the whole thing:

Following the collapse of the USSR a small cabal of Russian and formerly Soviet industry figures and statesmen were about to become wealthy beyond imagining, almost overnight, through the privatisation of services and industries previously owned and operated by the state. This was all very back-room, skull-duggery, shady-shit, and doubtless an UNTOLD number of Russian journalists committed suicide on their way home from the supermarket during this time. Putin’s crackdown on oligarchs can in many ways been seen as taking out potential political rivals and successors, a consolidation of power.

Of course being crime-lords rather than true statesmen or captains of industry, these rascals buried their money in investments and banks all over the world.

Now, one of the nicest ways to launder dirty money and a lot of it is through high-end real-estate, and that’s where the Trump dynasty comes in.

Oh, and all the ‘adoption’ talks Trump Jr.’s been having with Russian diplomats? In 2009 a Russian journalist named Sergei Magnitsky was arrested while investigating corruption and financial fraud among Russian tax officials. I’m sure you can guess what happened; Magnitsky was beaten to death in prison.

The U.S. put the Magnitsky Act into effect afterwards, thereby preventing certain Russian oligarchs from entering the U.S. or using its banking system. The Russians, in the most petty retaliation ever, immediate put a freeze on any American family hoping to adopt a Russian child. There’s a fucking BUTTLOAD of orphans in Russia, so this was a pretty horrific humanitarian poker-chip to waggle around.

So when Trump Jr. mentions adoption talks with the Russians, that’s code for “we’re negotiating the repeal of sanctions put in place following human rights violations.”

We are living in the second series of True Detective, and I strongly suspect the villains are going to win again.

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Armageddon Obsession

Years back, at DisInfoCon (I’ll try to find the link later and stick it here), Grant Morrison, comic-book writer, ritual magician and Glaswegian, mourned what he considered the western youth’s slide into what he deemed “apocalypse culture.” It’s an interesting cultural development; this is perhaps the first time in history that a vast amount of our consumable entertainment media has been based in worlds which appear to be ruined versions of our own.

Let’s take two huge examples: Post-Nuclear Apocalypse and Zombie fictions. These have been done to death of course, but they provide adequate examples of settings and scenarios which, fittingly, refuse to die. These genres stretch far back in our popular culture; A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the earliest novels set in the scorched wastes of a world which has in recent centuries undergone severe nuclear devastation, came out back in 1960. Night of the Living Dead, obviously not the first occurrence of zombies in folklore but perhaps the first time the subject matter had beed appropriated by the western culture industry, came out in 1968.

And yet still we obsess over these tropes. The Walking Dead is more popular than ever, and the Fallout games still move millions of units effortlessly. These genres have basically gone unchanged, and I reject the notion that zombies have been ‘deconstructed’ over time; dark notions of what people are willing to become in order to survive have been present in the genre since the beginning, as has the question (repeated ad nauseam) “are WE the real monsters?!” Making the zombies capable of running hardly constitutes a revolutionising of the whole stage. Post-Nuke stuff seems satisfied with ‘yesterday’s tomorrow forever’; the way they perceived the possibilities of the future in the dawn of the Nuclear Age, rising steel statues ravaged by fire, twisted impressions burnt into the earth for those who come after to find and ponder over.

Would it be reductive to simply consider this ghoulish western obsession with the apocalypse either a bizarre manifestation of the Judaeo-Christian ‘End of Days’ eschaton or as an example of mass-unconscious self-loathing imperialist decadence? We’re still caught up in the hall-of-mirrors that is post-modernism, an era chiefly characterised no longer by its incorporation of myriad narratives but instead by a nihilism born of diaspora and self-obsession. Adorno & Horkheimer wrote that “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), and whereas The Frankfurt School were principally concerned with the inherent homogeneity which characterises art produced in a capitalist society, this lends itself perfectly to the longevity of the genres in question: what better product to market to a society which finds itself in the existential crisis which accompanies imperial decline than one which offers a masochistic vision of said society catastrophically humbled by its own hubris? And one which (and here’s the kicker), depicts the viewer-projection protagonist as a survivor of the horror which surely awaits us?

Want to make an actual deconstructive zombie film? Okay. Have the film open on a shambling pack of zombies, whatever era you deem most intriguing, and follow them for 90 minutes as they wordlessly scuttle about, picking off shrieking survivors and rooting through buildings. Offer absolutely zero human element to the narrative, the backstories of any survivors glimpsed are of no significance.

That was a clumsy (spellcheck suggested ‘classy’ there) way of trying to highlight how post-apocalyptic fiction often tries to offer the audience the vicarious and deeply self-indulgent fantasy of being present for the world’s eventual devastation yet not succumbing to it. It’s the Bystander Fallacy, the delusion some people have that in a high-intensity and adrenaline-heavy situation of violence or disaster they would surely remain calm, collected and capable throughout the ordeal, logically approaching the situation rather than losing their heads and screaming about the place like the other lesser beings present, who unlike the solipsist fantasist in question are not the Protagonist of the situation.

The impression one gets from observing these highly-successful genres is that our culture is one in the throws of an anxiety; we’ve all noticed the trends and parallels, historically. We feel like we know where this is going. Fallen is Babylon, it’s the Last Days of Rome, etc. Pornhub reveals year after year that our tastes are growing more extreme and abstract, populist movements surge behind authoritarian statesmen who hark incessantly to bygone, civilised (and notably caucasian) golden ages which never truly were. It’s all coming down, maaan, and now every generation which follows gets to experience an even more crystallised terror of being all-too-conscious in the seconds after the wheels lose traction on the ice beneath and the car spins into the night, breath held in the timeless moments before the crash.

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XV – The Devil

Note: what follows is rough notes from a project between me and Neuchowski.

devil

Ave Satanis. The Devil is a much misunderstood card, much like Death. Crowley’s deck goes out of its way to try and distance itself from the traditional depiction of Lucifer from the Christian cosmology and instead reverts to an older, pagan Horned God, while still holding on to some of the darkness inherent in the card.

One thing you could never really accuse The Devil of the Tarot of is ‘high-mindedness’. The Devil is concerned with Earthly matters. In other decks The Devil may have human slaves chained to him like bleak parodies of The Lovers. In some decks there isn’t even a personification, The Devil being depicted as a huge chest of gold that humans are trying and failing to carry.

In the Thoth, The Devil is a three-eyed goat, mantled with magnificent horns which are crowned with a wreath of flowers, another nod to the pagan Horned Gods. If The Devil is often used to depict ugly lust, Crowley’s Devil subverts this depiction by instead having the Devil represent fertility. The goat stands before what can only be seen as a giant phallus, the tip of which reaches into opaque clouds. White humanoid figures dance (or writhe…) within the testes, all seeming to try and leap upwards, unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, dark, murky webs surround the card.

In this card Crowley is possibly making a rather incendiary statement, at least for the Victorian era in which this would have been initially produced: the idea that sex, lust and the continuation of life are interlinked and mutual. Fear of sex and all things venereal was a definite trope within British Victorian society, and the necessity for sexual coupling in the establishment of a family was an uncomfortable topic. People wanted a good marriage, a family and a respectable image, however in order to procure this they’d have to engage in some sweaty, breathy, grunting wet beastial fucking.

Crowley is mocking the prissiness of his era, reminding everyone that his time’s fear of sex, cum and blood was a modern superstition, one laid upon them by a Judeo-Christian perspective, and one not respected or even considered in an Older time, when there was at least some degree of honesty about the human experience. This is why Crowley utilises pre-Christian imagery for this card, to remind us that the moral trembling of his era was by no means Right or Logical.

Steven King was asked about the character Randal Flagg, who appears in many of his books as a sort of recurring Anti-Christ figure, and whether the reader is supposed to consider Flagg a Satanic character. King, in an answer which surprised many, considering his Born-Again status, replied that he didn’t believe so, as “The Devil probably has a sense of humour.”

Notice the goat’s smirk. Crowley’s Devil mocks the social mores of his generation, the empty puritanism which serves only to increase misery, and the kind of Faith that causes people to disregard this precious little time on Earth in favour of some promised ‘afterlife’. You’re taking things too seriously, and The Devil thinks it’s hilarious. Fuck, cum and be merry, because what the hell else are you going to do?

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V – The Hierophant

Note: The following is from rough drafts of a project me and Neuchowski are working on.

hierophant-thoth

The Hierophant can be read several ways, but primarily they stand for an ascended figure of wisdom. Oftentimes The Hierophant represents a figure who initiates others into an esoteric tradition; a keeper of higher knowledge who ferries neophytes to the shores of wisdom, a Guru.

Conversely, The Hierophant embodies the knowledge, power and ascended position of the Established Wisdom. The Hierophant may represent an entire cultural ethos, with all the entrenched power and influence of a long-standing and unquestioned tradition that the practitioner may find repellent.

The Hierophant is the Shaman who teaches the younger tribesmen about when and where to hunt, which herbs are medicinal, how long the crops will take to grow and how to harvest them, and why the moon changes shape. 
The Hierophant is also the Pope, armoured in all the history, grandeur and authority of the Vatican and the Holy See, a master of esoteric knowledge you do not fully understand but that you already know you find disagreeable, leaving you forced to acknowledge that despite the equality of your viewpoints, The Hierophant will always be considered before you due to the weight of their office and the long-trusted tradition they represent.

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Mental Diarrhea #00004 – E-Cigs

I’m surprised we never saw this coming. We have always imagined ways in which future technology was going to elevate us, to enhance the ways in which we live our lives or even just add a touch of novelty and freshness to a long-stagnant aspect of daily life.

“It’s the future, where’s my flying car?” is a phrase you still hear. We’ve reduced the media-intake experience to a digital level, and while we may bemoan the loss of ‘ownership’ in a culture which eschews physical mediums for data which we are effectively licensed, it’s still a kick that Star Trek saw it coming.

There are electronic books with ‘smart ink’ now. Headsets for fully-immersive viewing experiences. And no one needs yet another trite examination of the ubiquitous nature of the smart phone (I’m surprised we’re even using the word ‘phone’ at this point).

But no one saw e-cigs coming, and that surprises me.

I wonder, did we simply think we were going to ‘get over’ smoking before technology stepped in? I’m racking my brains trying to think of sci-fi examples featuring updated, upgraded nicotine-intake-vessels and I’m almost coming up empty. Watchmen has those weird steel balls people smoke through, though it’s still clearly smoke they’re inhaling. Metal Gear Solid 2 features new fangled cigarettes with harmless second-hand smoke. But for all intents and purposes these appear to be slight twists on an old standard. I suppose as far as we were concerned, smoking was here to stay, as bizarre a thought as that was.

Hell, in Thank You For Smoking they go out of their way to try and devise some fantastical technology which would prevent cigarettes igniting a high-oxygen environment for an upcoming sci-fi feature.

Then came the Vape Age, and things changed.

Initially, they were met with scorn. I had an old crusty punk make fun of mine outside a pub when I first got one, and people would look derisively at my metal/plastic apparatus while they rolled up and stepped outside for a fag. But then, that was the first moment where all of a sudden they didn’t seem so ridiculous. I’ve sold e-cigs, have done since they took off, and I did notice that sales shot up right around the time stepping outside the pub for a smoke was a bit of a wind/rain/ice affair.

The e-cig people are onto something quite special; they’ve managed to somewhat bypass the laws concerning the advertisement of tobacco products. While Marlborough can’t slap a logo onto an F1 car or cowboy-oriented billboard anymore, the vape magnates can splash out on big notices about their ‘quitting’ tools. See, that’s the primary fallacy at play here; ostensibly, electronic cigarettes exist to help people give up smoking. It reduces the health drawbacks tremendously, limits how far you need to go out of your way just to inhale some nicotine and draws your attention to the varying strengths of the available oils, encouraging you to gently decrease the potency until you’re nicotine free!

This is, of course, a tremendous lie. Quietly, electronic cigarettes have positioned themselves not just as a means of giving up smoking, but as accessories. The sheer scope of flavours available, the opportunities for customisation that an e-cig provides which you simply can’t get from standard straights and rollies. There are even competing brands (I’m a Kangertech man, myself).

I feel that I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Rachel McAdams’ character using one in season two of True Detective, but I was. And this can only be the beginning; barring some sudden, massive wave of legislation, e-cigs can only grow in popularity.

A dark aspect of the ascendency of vaping can be seen in it’s desirability and accessibility; I’ve lost count of the tweens and teens I’ve turned away trying to buy vape gear. They’re all so surprised too, most of them having been gladly served by less scrupulous traders already, many of them clutching frankly BALLER vape rigs, which I have to try and not appear envious of and ultimately give across a disapproving air.

I feel one of the ways in which e-cigs were able to attain this unexpected platform as The New Smoking is by riding the coattails of marijuana vaping, then ramping straight up into the mainstream. Not to suggest vaping bud is new; people have been doing that since someone first knocked the filament out of a lightbulb, or since the first Australian couldn’t find any rolling papers and so logically put some carving knives on the stovetop. But it has grown in popularity in recent years; I work in a headshop, so I can’t fail to notice these trends. And while traditional vapes may be currently playing second fiddle to that fickle culture’s new favourite toy, the dab rig, many were intensely interested in technology which promises to cut health risks and provide a far more intense high. I suppose it’s not a tremendous leap to assume that people would quickly link the technology to other, less legally-dicey but FAR more habit forming substances they could transmute into thick plumes of cool, sweet steam.

I was playing Mass Effect 2 the other day, and while initially it seemed like a cool character feature for The Illusive Man to be constantly pulling on a tab, it just seems kinda goofy now. Clearly they were going for an X-Files things, Cancer Man sitting in the background pulling on an endless supply of smokes and foiling Mulder and Scully’s investigations. In the past, smoke was a useful visual aid to help depict a character as shrouded in mystery, moral ambiguity and classical style. But things are different now. You can doxx anyone these days, mystery is an illusion. The old-school trappings of noir are going to require a serious rejig if technology keeps this pace, and thanks to vapour having a far less detrimental effect on your lung capacity, it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

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Mental Diarrhea #00003 – An Entertaining Maiming

What is our cultural fixation on romanticising psychopathic behaviour? Grant Morrison touched on this at his drug-addled DisInfocon lecture many years back.
“John Wayne Gacey?” He said, “John Wayne Gacey’s a fucking prick, killed a bunch of innocent people and did some shit paintings.”
And yet people pour over these admittedly shit paintings, hoping to gleam some dark kernel of insight from the artwork of a madman who butchered children. What are they hoping they’ll find?

The human being is predictable. We’ve had about 4000 years of civilisation to get to know the human, and hir behaviours haven’t changed that dramatically. We eat, we sleep, we procreate, and in one of nature’s little flourishes we also developed an advanced consciousness that allows us to consider ourselves and our place in the universe. To pull a quote from True Detective:

“I believe human consciousness was a tragic misstep in our evolution. Nature created an aspect of itself separate from itself.”

Perhaps our fascination with the macabre habits of our darker representatives is rooted in the “unheimlich”, or what we call the uncanny. We’ve gotten so used to the human that it really spooks us when they throw a curveball at us. Did WE do that, we ask ourselves? One of US? Us guys, who painted cathedral ceilings and built nanomachines and discovered that if you tug on pork a little people will pay fucking bank to eat it in a dusty focaccia roll?

We’re horrified/obsessed by our own capacity for inventive cruelty. People describe brutality as “animalistic,” but animals are far more to-the-point in their bloodshed. You won’t find any SS officers among a herd of hippos, and no capuchin monkeys ever formed their own adorable version of the Tonton Macoute. There aren’t any bears performing Mengele-esque experiments in dank operating rooms.

We’re the worst animal, and we love/hate being reminded of such. Perhaps this is why media always paints the psychopath as a cultured artiste. Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan: these are charming, personable eccentrics with an inventive flair. We like to remind ourselves that with all of our potential for expression, beauty and critical thinking, we nevertheless retain a capacity for unimaginable malevolence, and it is this very creative aspect of ourselves which grants us the ability to devise horrific means of violence and torture, both physical and psychological.

There is another potential angle to all this, though. Quick question; do you play video games, reader? If not, congrats, I’m sure your life is very fulfilling. But to anyone who answered “yes,” let me ask you: How many virtual people have you killed? This is a rhetorical question, and I’d be pretty unsettled by anyone who could actually give me a confident answer. If you’ll continue to indulge this tangent, let me ask; how many people were disposed of like so much cannon-fodder in the last action or horror movie you watched?

This is a round-about way of pointing out that ours is a society desensitised to violent death. It’s popcorn stuff, entertainment. Hell, ask any crime reporter: “The gorier the better,” they’ll tell you before getting into a fistfight with the guy from Channel 6 about who gets the closest shot of the crying, blood-drenched students outside the community college.

We’ve had so much blood, gore and war for breakfast that we start to crave something a bit ‘spicier’ for dinner. So we make the killer’s inventive. We give them layered personalities. We give them complex motivations and a modus operandi to die for.

It seems kind of dull, in the long view. A room full of coked-up semi-creatives trying to figure out the most sensational kind of violence for this week’s episode, for this year’s series title. Hopefully we’ll eventually get over our violence-obsession, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Anecdotally, many of my friends are making the shift towards veganism lately. I myself am sort of dabbling with it. I don’t think I’ve eaten meat or dairy in a week, and that’s without even trying. But even within these conscientious, kindly people beat the black hearts of warlords, assassins and and butchers. My girlfriend hasn’t eaten meat in years and won’t even let a balloon fly into the air because it might (read: probably will) suffocate a dolphin one day, but she loves her some Game of Thrones. A good friend of mine is a hardcore vegan with a huge axe to grind against the military-industrial-complex, but during our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns he regularly bathes his dark god’s amulet in the open, sucking chest-wounds of the recently slain.

I’m no different. I’m probably worse, because I’m not even trying to make the world a better place in my day-to-day. It’s just unsettling to think about: we’re so tied to our bloodlust that we can comfortably manage the cognitive dissonance of adopting a position of pacifism while racking up 1000 kills in about 15 minutes in a game of Dynasty Warriors.

An end note: I don’t have any research to back this up, so blow me, but I read somewhere that generally speaking, horror movies and violent media don’t tend to sell well in nations that have recently or are currently experiencing genuine war and upheaval. It brings to mind the part in Girls where Lena Dunham’s character is freaking out about STDs at the clinic, and somehow brainfarts her way into thinking that her obsession with AIDs might be an unconscious desire to contract the virus, which earns her the most withering fucking stare of all time from her doctor, who gravely asserts that “No, you do not want AIDs.”

All this artificial violence. When the real thing suddenly slams down into the street, leaving tattered, bloody rags and shoes that might/might not have feet in them strewn about, will we still want to watch Samuel L. Jackson blow someone’s brains out? It’s been a century since the Great War, which heralded the mechanisation of the war-machine. Up until that point, war was still seen by many as something ‘glorious,’ ‘noble,’ ‘honourable.’ It was only when people received news that “Your son has been chewed up like fucking hamburger by artillery, his death served no purpose, nothing was learnt, God Save The King,” that we realised the terrible corner we’d backed ourselves into.

We learn nothing.

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The Junky and the Lush – A Buddy Comedy

Burroughs and Waits make for a perfect and leveled sober-media-intake. If those two tortured, haunted, ethically-questionable souls can’t make you take a long, hard stare at your less-than-visible problems then I don’t know who will. James Frey? Maybe.

Junky is still one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, and nothing that terrible even happens in it. There’s nothing quite like Burroughs’ own-brand of nihilism. Junky is an incredibly simplistic, pulpy novel about Burroughs’ self-insert ‘William Lee’ (kind of like Hunter S. Thompson’s Raoul Duke) and his decent into opiate addiction.

No… no that’s not quite right. Burroughs doesn’t descend; he’s already at rock-bottom before he learns what junk is. That’s what makes it so striking. Other novels and artistic works of this variety, such as de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream fixate on the pathos of substance abuse; the surrendering of the soul to a bodily bondage of need, relief, and subsequent need. Most often, the primary theme running through all these works is that of ‘lost potential’ or even ‘innocence lost’, if the author is halfway empathetic towards those who have lost some degree of themselves to a substance which imprisons them.

In Junky, Burroughs never once indulges in self-pity. He talks about his rich upbringing casually, never pining after the life he could have lived, and matter-of-factly declares himself a junk addict and career criminal. What is even more fascinating is that Burroughs doesn’t revel in his iniquity, either. He takes no pride from being a junky, nor does he experience shame. He simply; Is.

What makes Burroughs so very unsettling is the unavoidable feeling that he simply doesn’t care about anything at all. Not in an ‘everything is worthless/smash everything’ way though. Burroughs, maybe more than most other writers in his era and perhaps more so then even today’s artists, sees and outlines what he considers the arbitrariness of Western society, the petty gauges by which we measure morality, vitality and importance. What appeals to Burroughs about the junk-life, I think, is the lack of pretense. Living as a junky allows Burroughs to move through life without adopting any of the meaningless rules, judgements and social-contracts that sober society mandates. There is no good or evil in Burroughs world, only different shades of junk-sickness and the necessary actions that must be taken to curb said sickness, regardless of what they might entail.

Waits is a bit less miserable, but not much. I’m not sure how he managed to do it, but Waits succeeded in putting on vinyl what being drunk sounds like, to me at least. The bawdry, masculine, surreal hopelessness of it all. Waits somehow manages to record all of those strange little tales that go in and out of your head when you’ve drunk yourself clopsy. Most forget them, so well done him.

I’ve always found Waits useful for depression. The Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombone and Bone Machine albums have gotten me through more than one long, aching evening, and have succeeded in transforming my sullen mood into a fanciful and imaginative one. It was Waits I think who taught me that my misery could actually be one of my greatest advantages.

I don’t have as much to write about Waits, as I’m less of a nerd about music than I am about books.

Luckily it’s pretty easy to talk about them in the same breath, if only due to The Black Rider, which I would consider to be Waits’ weirdest album, and he’s released some oddballs in his time. A collaboration with William Burroughs, The Black Rider is… well I’m actually not sure, having listened to it several times. Is it a play? Is it a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist? Is it about junk, or is it going deeper?

Whatever lessons there are to be gleaned from The Black Rider, on a purely aesthetic level it already achieves greatness. It’s a very unsettling album, which is cloaked in a kind of darkly-violent fairytale. Waits has always had a bit of a ‘carnival/circus’ vibe to him, often inhabiting the role of a kind of ringmaster or compare and bellowing camp, vicious declarations from a megaphone. This synchs with Burroughs perfectly.

I think… I think perhaps one of the things which most unites Burroughs and Waits is their perception of archetypes. Characters in Waits’ songs and Burroughs’ books rarely have any touched-upon complexity, and so come to represent their most up-front characteristics, be they booze, wild living or junk addiction. I think the terrible secret Waits and Burroughs share is that past all the introspection and growth and personal developments, we really all are what we eat.

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