To Attack and Dethrone Gods

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Still of Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, 1968.

Borges was introduced to the original terrorist somewhere between Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Schwob. He had no face and a name like a resonance chamber: Herostratus, arsonist of the second Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; punished with Oblivion, redeemed by Spectacle.

His subsistence, despite his damnatio memoriae, means Spectacle is not beholden to its Debordian trappings ―commodity fetishism, the mass media, etc― but rooted in the fundamental problem of representation, and so of art-world-historical interest. And as mundane as the Herostratian claim to infamy may seem today, it also took stock of change in the epochal temperature. To cite Debord himself: “[t]he growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, [and] derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, is expressed by the destruction of God.” Herostratus’ arson ushered in a new and outré aesthetic limit-experience, and it is interesting that legend has it Alexander was born on that very night.

The terrorist organisation as we know it ―cast as the asymmetric shadow of the modern state on a cellular level― lays no claim to the Herostratuses of the world, who are after attributions more exclusive to the State ―or, indeed, God― than the means of production. To become as the State, or like God, is to seize and control the means of destruction, no matter how fleetingly. To “attack and dethrone God” is to pay off an entire world’s accursed share.

The society of the spectacle decorates the serial killer with the benefit of Method, but it is the Herostratian terrorist who has κόσμος. He is destruction as the herald of a new world order. He may look like Descartes or like Terence Stamp in Teorema, but for his act to be effective and to ―maybe― resonate within collective, folk, historic or genetic memory, it must be unrepeatable and unforgettable. Therein his nod to Spectacle: the Herostratian knows that, more so than beauty, terror has aura.  

Two days ago, social media was ablaze with reports of “baby witches” hexing the Moon. The implications of their assault on not just Artemis, but the Thing-In-Itself, are occult and even philosophical, but they are not artistic, or historic, or spectacular. This attempted deicide was borne not from irreversible knowledge, but from a dearth of knowledge so profound as to be irreversible. As a charge on the Debordian House of Representatives, it didn’t even nick Representation.

Notes — Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Book Notes

My second deep dive pandemic read is Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman, covering the history of the United States’ industrial mobilization for World War 2. There is a good deal of resemblance between the mobilization to beat Covid (and coming soon: climate) and WW2 mobilization, so it’s a good history to have in your back pocket for the next decade.

As with my previous deep dive, on Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, this is just a cleaned-up version of my livetweeting as I read the book. As with that book, this one too benefits from a lot of Wikipedia side-trails, and I’ve linked a bunch of them.

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Notes: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Book Notes

I just finished the heaviest read so far in my pandemic reads list, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the 14th century, loosely an account of the European experience of the Black Death. It is a 784-page monster and I read it in 15-30 minute chunks at bedtime over 68 days, while live-tweeting it.

I was going to try and reshape my live-tweeting into an actual longform review/summary, but people seemed to like the live/fresh feel of the livetweeting, so I decided to just clean up and post the thread here as notes, with some light editing, linking, and addition of a few post-twitter [editorial additions]. This is also a book that benefits from a lot of Wikipedia bunnytrailing on the side, and I found myself doing a lot of reading about characters and events mentioned in passing. I’ve linked a selection of those to these notes.

Aside: if you like this format, let me know. I have a bunch of threads on Twitter that are probably suitable for this sort of light-touch blogification.

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Mansionism 1: Building-Milieu Fit

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Mansionism

In politically turbulent times, when it is not clear which way the arc of history will bend, it is useful to reframe the question of political futures in terms of built-environment futures. Instead of asking, what kind of milieu will we inhabit, you ask the potentially easier question, what sort of built environment will we inhabit? You then try to infer the future of the milieu from that. The question can also be asked in more specific ways, such as what sorts of futures contain mansions? Besides allowing you to focus materially on what you likely really care about, such questions allow you to finesse more fraught political questions.

Loosely speaking, the reframe turns a scenario-planning question into a design-fiction question. The underlying hypothesis is that the medium is the message. If you can forecast something about the medium, you can forecast something about the message. Here, the medium is the built environment, and the message is the range of milieus that might thrive or wither within it. This gives us the idea of a building-milieu fit (BMF), by analogy to the product-market-fit idea used in the startup world.

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MJD 59,004

This entry is part 6 of 17 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiments. In an interview last year, James Mattis described America as “this great big experiment of ours.” I made a 2×2 to think about this. America falls in the Grand Design Experiments quadrant. The x-axis is self-explanatory, the y-axis is ordinary versus extraordinary in the sense of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I wrote about this before in Extraordinary Laboratories.

As an experiment, America is a set of extraordinary (and not coincidentally, exceptionalist) claims about the nature of government.

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New E-Book, and a Portfolio Update

I have a new Kindle ebook out: Breaking Smart Archives: Selected Newsletters, 2015-19. This is a sequenced selection of 32 of the better essays from the Breaking Smart newsletter from the last few years, covering the period between the original 2015 Breaking Smart essay collection on software eating the world (also available as an ebook), and my recent pivot of that whole project to a subscription newsletter for serializing my longer projects.

As I’ll be the first to admit, the collection is weirdly choppy, both in form (a mix of essays and twitter-style threads), and content. But it was oddly satisfying to put together (thanks to Alex Wagner for his help), and I did my valiant best to impose some sort of coherent thematic structure onto it.

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Leaking into the Future

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

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Alamut, Bosch, Gaddis: Introduction to Epochal Art

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Recognitions


On the noon of the seventeenth day of Ramadan, 1164, Hassan II, the hereditary Imam of the Alamut State founded by the Order of Assassins under Hassan-i-Sabbah, immanentised the Eschaton. 

In a bravura display of apophatism, he declared quiyāma ―the Islamic Resurrection― with the abrogation of Sharia law; inviting the Nezāri potentates to gather ―with their backs to Mecca― and partake with him in a feast of pork and wine. In normal circumstances, this would have been haram, but Paradise is outside time and so without sin or law. In the state in which nothing is true and everything is permitted, Apocalypse Now coincides with Paradise Regained. The Imam’s worldbreaking banquet prefigures other tropes we may be more familiar with: Blake’s fearful symmetries, Nietzsche’s balls-to-the-wall transvaluation, Burroughs’ “disruption of reality” as “literal realization of art.” 

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Quarantine Art

I tweeted a sketch of the view from my balcony, from an abandoned project to make a proper art piece, and slashdottir made this rather snazzy quick study out of it. Sometimes twitter is very liminal. Also check out people’s interesting art projects.

Liminality?…Well, there’s a free sample!

One of my favorite jokes in Herge’s Tintin comics is a bit in Prisoners of the Sun (1949), where the Thompson twins ask Captain Haddock what’s in a pile of sacks on the dock labeled “guano.” The captain umms and ahhs a bit, but then a seagull poops on one of the Thompson twins’ hats, and the Captain brightens up, having been handed the perfect short answer: “Guano?… Well, here’s a free sample!”

For those wondering why sacks of bird droppings would be on a dock, guano was once a major industrial commodity, an input for nitrogen fertilizers and explosives. The rise of Chile saltpeter as an alternative, and the adoption of the Haber-Bosch process after World War 1, slowly made it obsolete.

A few years ago, I was challenged by a Twitter friend to explain liminality, and I came up with a thread in response that I think is still roughly right. But if I were asked today, I would gesture vaguely at the world around and say, “Liminality?… Well, there’s a free sample!”

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