Monthly Archives: October 2010

Aural Architecture – Building a Temple in Sound: The Swans | Thee Majesty & the Concert Ritual

“Fairly often while I was talking quietly with the Shaikh, the name ‘Allah’ had come to us from some remote corner of the zawiyah, uttered on one long drawn out, vibrant note…It was like a cry of despair, a distraught supplication, and it came from some solitary cell-bound disciple, bent on meditation. The cry was usually repeated several times, and then all was silence once more.

…Later when I asked the Shaikh what was the meaning of the cry which we had just heard, he answered:

‘It is a disciple asking God to help him in his meditation.’

‘May I ask what is the purpose of his meditation?’

‘To achieve self-realization in God.’

‘Do all the disciples succeed in doing this?’

‘No, it is seldom that anyone does. It is only possible for a very few.’

‘Then what happens to those who do not? Are they not desperate?’

‘No: they always rise high enough to have at least inward Peace.’

- from Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi: A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century,, His Spiritual Heritage and Legacy,  by Martin Lings

Something more raw and real

Contemporary concerts are all too often facile exercises in dead culture; no alchemy, no vision, just genre and acquiescence to the limited expectations of the crowd. It’s rare and valuable when you encounter an artist able to invoke a more powerful experience, something raw and real, bordering on ritual or the screams for self-realization that Lings encountered in his experiences with Sufi sects.

On March 4th, 2010 Genesis P-Orridge brought Thee Majesty to support the first Chicago showing of the William S. Burroughs documentary A Man Within at St. Paul’s Community Center. In a moldering Catholic church  converted to an arts venue, a motley assortment gathered to witness Thee Majesty pour vitriol on the idea of blind acquiescence to ideology or organization.

A culture of individuals

I was surprised at how disparate the folks were in the audience. A guy dressed in a well tailored suit sits next to a man, apparently well into his 60’s, with a long, stringy white beard and a loose, rough cut, red tunic. This was a community of individuals, bound by active acceptance of each other and not a passive belief in unity.

“I have lied to you…” Genesis howls over the discordant drone of Bryin Dall’s guitar and the percussion. The sounds were acrid, melting away blind belief and calling for gnosis. To participate in this ritual was not to loose ones’ self in a hazy notion of the All, it was participation as a self-realized unit of the whole. An existential moment of responsibility that tore down the illusion of cohesion in order to place the individual into an unblinded view of their place.

Further on one discovers through the immersive atmosphere of pandrogyny, alchemical marriage and surgical remembering that Genesis evokes, individuality itself becomes a subtle lie to be shed as well. The concert becomes an exploration of the phenomenal mixing of parts expressed in other traditions through shamanic dismemberment, Chod practice, the Great Work of alchemical adepts and the amorphous therianthropic forms of the witches sabbat.

Resurrection

This experience was repeated when Michael Gira resurrected the Swans at the Double Door on October 5th. Gira in a conservative haircut, collared shirt, tore apart the distinctions between raw sound and lush harmonies. Theatrics stripped away, here was the music itself, naked and real.

They were not there to support the expectations of the audience. Our place was as guests, we were invited to accompany him into a temple built of sound, where we could experience what he wryly referred to as his “poor man’s religion.”

An end to academic rituals

The audience had assembled for a concert in the classic sense. They were expecting what the academics think of as a ritual, with the expected cultural narrative and social interaction accompanied by some fitting genre music. Cat calls from the back demanded that the audience “Fucking dance! This is a Swans concert…” despite the fact that for 30 years of performing Gira has consistently mentioned that he hates the brute  and group oriented elements of musical culture.

Gira is an advocate for the individual, with no interest in rituals like moshing that support group think. A Swans’ concert is not the place for the cheap parlour tricks of a Human Resource department, the street equivalent of trust exercises. When Gira is your host he is there to, in a very personal way, tear you open to reality.

Laying the foundation

The concert begins with the long, droning squeal of a distorted guitar. The tension builds, at first the audience stands in expectation, as time passes it becomes obvious that this sound is not an introductory element and will play for longer than most songs, the audience becomes nervous. People start to yell and cheer, needing some kind of release. They are not tantrics, the power of withholding doesn’t linger long in their mind.

Then the percussion begins, Thor Harris playing what sounds like rhythmic church bells over the continuing drone. All of this the audience interprets as showmanship, they’re missing the very simple fact that these sonic elements are serving to sever them from their daily routine, wiping their mind clean for what’s ahead. The ground is being laid for an architecture of sound in which the elemental drama will play out.

The architect

Gira’s focus, calm and fierce at the same time, Harris and Phil Puelo with alternate looks of agony and release as they hammer an impossible rhythmn. The entire band goaded on by Gira, whipped with looks and pulled forward by his own movement into the sound. If the audience was able they were welcome to come with. Even those left outside the inner chamber of the sound by their own expectations were throttled into submission.

William S. Burroughs compared Led Zeppelin to the Master Musicians of JouJouka, but they were still mired in mid 20th century Western culture. What Gira was able to summon had the immediacy of the Morrocan musicians, sound and vision cultivated from the ruins of Western culture. A ritual fit for the time, the music carrying fragments of traditional narratives torn into an elemental experience of life in the 21st century.

Genesis P-Orridge and Michael Gira are both able to capture the true ritual elements of the concert experience. Untied to tradition, religious, musical or cultural, they pull out the most effective pieces from the cultural drift and create temples of sound, opening up the reality of our times.

(Illustration: Untitled, David B. Metcalfe)

This is the world where Raven stole the Sun for us all: A Critique of the Fantasist, by Zac Odin

As we, as a culture or as a counter culture, attempt to reclaim our past, our worlds, our realities, we are turning quite rightly to myth.

This is an obvious and admirable decision; the searchers look and the searchers define but it seems as if they are often looking in the wrong places and defining the wrong things.

There has been recent discussion of science fiction and fantastic literature as the repository of our living mythology.  This is a mistake; world-building fantasists are not engaging in real myth, but an empty rather truncated form. Myth is the Reality in which the culture lives.  It is Reality.  Period.

Do you think that the Kwakwaka’wakw of Canada’s Pacific Coast (http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/aborig/nwca/nwcam25e.shtml and http://www.umista.org/) thought they were involved in some so banal as world building?  No.  Obviously they were (and are once more) participating in the mythical world, a world more real, a foundational world, a world that built their world.

The dance is a supernatural dance, mythical beings representing abstractions of realities (supernatural birds, ‘The Listener’ from the Dance of the Forest Spirits – making physical abstract concepts) and solidities (bear, other forest animals – abstracting and mythologizing the physical), and all the people were seeing it as it was.  Real.

This is not cosplay; there is no suspension of disbelief here, no LARP emptiness, but pure Reality.  Because this is the world in which they lived.  The Listener was in the Forest Dance because the Listener really is in the Forest.

This is the world where Raven stole the Sun for us all.  The people saw Raven every day as a constant reminder of the mythological foundation of their world, the First Time was a different time, celebrated in myth.  It was a time when animals and humans were indistinguishable from each other.  It is this world:

“I will talk about the middle between our world and the upper side of what is seen by us, the blue sky where the sun and moon and stars stay, that is what I mean, the names of the various birds of the Rivers Inlet tribe, the Crooked-Beak of Heaven and the Huxwhukw of Heaven and the Screecher of Heaven and the Ugwa’xta’yi, and many others whose names I do not know, the various birds above the clouds”. (http://www.umista.org/)

And it is this world at exactly the same time.  There really is no difference.

So where are our myths?  I don’t think we can find them in the world building of science fiction.  Our myths are so much a part of our reality that we are unable to disentangle them enough to study them.  But sometimes, if you look hard enough, you can see.

In this case the impulse that leads us to play at world creators is mythic, not the world that has been created.  Just because Tolkien references the Jungian Shadow with Sauron does not make The Lord of the Rings mythic on a level like the Kwakwaka’wakw dances.  Not even close.

That which leads us to create worlds, that drives us to be Apes of God, is the Myth. It is playing at Demiurge, every writer an Ialdabaoth.  That is the Myth not the content.

On Behalf of a Flickering Shadow by Zac Odin

John Sundman’s Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations

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A key note speech at the World Future Society’s 2010 annual convention brought to light some of ethical and practical concerns that the technological progress raises. The ethical implications of smart drugs, Artificial Intelligence, surveillance, cybernetics, life extension technologies and all of the other developments that define our current scientific advances need to be better understood. The surprising political ramifications that came out of the development of nuclear weapons shows us that this kind of technological advance is best accompanied by serious thought.

In Media Lab: Inventing the Future,  Stewart Brand explores the development and influence of the M.I.T. Media Lab, and many of the discussions center on the potential for Science Fiction to be the most succinct form of contemporary philosophy in terms of developing thought experiments that address emergent technologies and scientific progress. One can see this in the fact that many authors such as Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear and William Gibson, have influenced or play an active role in the development of the culture surrounding technology and science.

John Sunman explores this relationship as well, in the course of 4 books he has dipped into the fractured mindset of the 21st century to tackle issues surrounding technological progress and its affect on society. Beyond this he also explores digital culture through his self-publishing efforts. An early adopter of Creative Commons he is at the forefront of the changes going on in the publishing industry.

In the following piece (originally published on Wetmachine) John discusses the reality of self-publishing and what it takes to be, as Bruce Sterling called him in Wired Magazine, “the future of printed fiction.” – David Metcalfe

*introduction originally published at  Open Myth Source

Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations

by John Sundman

I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.

As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I have to use other ways to get my books in front of readers. So sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.

I’ve done this for more than ten years.

Does it make any sense to sell books this way? Am I a brilliant self-marketing original or just some crackpot who wrote some crackpot books?  I don’t know, but if you read this post I’ll think you’ll have enough info to form your own opinions. (Jane Friedman of Writers’ Digest thinks I’m doing something right, which is some consolation.)

Below, the story of my most recent such gig & biggest one ever, Defcon, Las Vegas, late July/early August 2010. This account includes a rambling disquisition on the whole “hand-selling books on the road” idea in general, with lessons learned from ten years of this idiocy.

(Since Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the rights.)

Me on the Road Selling Books to Geeks

I’ve sold books at USENIX conferences and CloudWorld Expos, at O’Reilly technology conferences and Linux Worlds, at Bar Camps and Geek Fair(e)s, at bioinformatics conferences and trade shows, at street fairs and on street corners. I’ve done it in San Francisco, New York, Vineyard Haven, Santa Clara, Boston, San Jose, Cambridge, San Diego, Tucson and points in between. It’s kind of like being a has-been rock star on the dive-bar circuit, only without out the sex, drugs and rock and roll but with smarter & sometimes less drunk people in the audience. My trip to Defcon this year was Sexy Sadie, the latest and the greatest of them all.

Defcon for dummies

Defcon is an annual tribal convocation of black-hat hackers, crackers & criminals & their white hat adversaries — along with associated geeks, grey hats, poseurs, script-kiddies, Feds, and corporatist & statist agents of control. It’s the largest such gathering in the world.  2010 was Defcon #18. There’s no pre-registration for Defcon & no attendance list. So projecting how many people are going to show up is a guessing game. This year, going in,  the organizers expected between five and ten thousand people to show up.

To get a feel for Defcon, check out this photoblog on Wired Threat Level. Wired says there were about 10,000 people at this conference — mind boggling, actually — and pretty much everybody there fell in to my “target demographic.”  See also the blog post of Argentine novelist Pola Oloixarac, from which the above photo was lifted.

For years I had wanted to got to Defcon to sell my books, but every year I forgot to apply for a vendor table until it was too late & they were sold out.  This year I finally got my act together and got my application in early. Despite getting my application in early I was still wait-listed, and I didn’t know for months whether or not I’d get a table. Finally, sometime in late spring, I got greenlighted: my vendor application had been approved.

But once I had the opportunity, I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not to go. It would cost me money for airfare, money for a hotel, money for food, and money to ship the books to Las Vegas. Plus, the table cost $400. I would have to sell a ton of books just to break even. I had just had a bunch of less-than-spectacular outings schlepping my books to Boston and New York, and I wasn’t sure I was up for the hassle and or the disappointment if I flopped in Las Vegas. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford to lose the money if I failed, and odds of failure were pretty high. I nearly backed out.

At Defcon, the vendor area is open three days: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. If I sold 100 books a day at an average of $10, I would gross $3k and net about $1k.  I decided that if I couldn’t sell 100 books a day to a crowd of 10,000 Defcon geeks I might as well hang it up. So I decided to just do the damn thing. On the principle of “in for a dime, in for a dollar”, I bought a plane ticket, reserved a hotel room & ordered an 8-foot long vinyl banner to hang on the wall behind me. Vegas here I come.

Traveling Geek Novelist Modus Operandi

So this is how it goes. I travel to the conference, whatever conference we’re talking about, in the cheapest way possible. I try to arrange a couch to crash on, whether at a friend’s house or with a friend of a friend. (For a long time I had a stash of my books in San Francisco, so if the event was anywhere near there I wouldn’t have to worry about bringing books from Massachusetts.)

Table: I arrange to get a table in the vendor area. I hardly ever pay full price for the table; most often I get it for free by sweet-talking my way into a Starving Artist discount; sometimes a friend does me a favor.  (There was no chance of getting a discount at Defcon; I didn’t even ask. In the first place, Defcon’s table prices are cheap. And in the second place, all the Defcon vendors are starving artists.)

Signage: In the past I’ve sometimes made cheesy hand-lettered signs on posterboard to describe my books; recently I’ve gotten a little bit classier and had some small displays made. (You can see pictures in Pola’s blog.)

Propaganda & supplies: I always bring a bunch of photocopies of favorable reviews of my books from geeky websites and of newspaper articles about me & my mad self-publishing career. (For Defcon I brought about fifty copies each of my favorite dozen articles.) And I bring a ton of my glossy two-sided biz cards, and a dozen pens with fat tips, suitable for signing books in a bold hand.

Set up: When the venue opens for vendors to set up, I lug in my supplies—mainly the heavy boxes of books. I unpack my little poster-board signs & I tape them to the table, using little cardboard corner-protectors for braces. I put out piles of my books along with piles of the reviews. All around me other vendors are going through similar rituals.

Billy Mays inhabits my being. I AM Billy Mays.

Eventually the hall opens for regular humans & the long day pitching warez begins. I start addressing passers by, in what I hope is a confident (but not high volume) friendly (but not smarmy) voice:

“Hello. How are you? Come check out my books. Take a look! Do you read fiction? Oh, you don’t read fiction? Well, sorry, nothing for you here.” [That person walks on. Another shows up. I relaunch the spiel.] “I write fiction. These are novels. Yes, I wrote them. This one’s a thriller about about nanomachines and brain hacking. This one’s about a storytelling contest between two AIs–at least, that’s what it pretends to be about. This one’s an illustrated fable that’s kind of George Orwell meets Ronald Reagan. Yes, you can take a review. Take however many you like! Where are you from? Are you having a good conference? Ten bucks a pop, cheap, and I’ll sign ‘em for you. Yeah, that’s a real Slashdot review. . .”

Over and over and over and over, all day, with only occasional bathroom breaks, (for which I take all the books off the table and place them behind it, so people don’t think the books are free and help themselves. Every bathroom break is a logistical hassle.)

Depending on the kind of show it is, a reasonable number of people stop to check out my table—and of those who stop, a certain number actually buy books from me. Of course, most people walk on by without stopping. Some say “hello” back to my “hello”, and some just ignore me. A few people make a point of forming a disdainful face, church-lady style, as if I’ve violated their sacred space. (This happens more frequently at gigs that have a corporate feel than at those that have a hacker vibe.)

Conversations

Of the people who stop at my table, most pick up a book and start reading it someplace in the middle (I cringe when they do that. Why don’t they start on page 1???). Some people start by reading the back cover. Some people read a review first. Some people ask questions.

Every once in a while I meet somebody with an agenda. They want to convince me that my books suck because they’re self-published, or they want me to buy their book, (or sell their book!) or they want to convince me that the moon is made out of green cheese and space aliens control the tides. I’ve had many pleasant conversations. I’ve also run into a fair number of kooks that I could not get to shut up or leave me alone no matter how hard I tried.

When somebody says, “sure, I’ll take one of your books,”  I say, “Now you’re talking!” and I grab a pen.

“For whom shall I sign it?”, I ask.  With every sale I put one of my cards, which has my email address on it, between the pages of the book.

“Send me a note after you’ve read it. Let me know what you think of it.”

“What if I think it sucks?”

“I don’t care if you don’t like it; I’ve already got your money. I just want to hear from you.”

Everybody promises to write me. Hardly anybody ever does.

Sometimes I meet people who have heard of me; more rarely I meet people who’ve read one of my books or that I’ve met at another conference. Sometimes I meet old friends, people I worked with back in those glorious days when I had a real job.

I meet so many people that I forget who I’ve met and who I haven’t. Sometime I start pitching my book to somebody who just bought three copies and spent fifteen minutes chatting with me. That’s embarrassing.

I take cash only, and I put the bills in my wallet. At the end of the day, I go back to where I’m staying — a friend’s house, a hotel room, a van down by the river–and count the loot. That’s how I figure out how well I’ve done that day. On a good day I’ll sell 100 books & walk out with my wallet fatter by a thousand bucks or more; one time I sold 150 books. On days like that I feel hopeful.

But on a lousy day when nobody’s buying, I sell a couple dozen books or fewer. That means I’ve lost money and wasted my time. Then I feel like Willy Loman, a loser on a pointless mission with no future.

Expenses & the cost/benefit calculus

So let’s recap the expenses for any gig. I have to get myself there and back. I have to get my books and supplies there (sometimes I bring them myself, and sometimes I ship them ahead of me). I have to eat. I have to have photocopies of reviews, and signs for my table. Sometimes I have to pay for the table itself. And, if I don’t manage to sell all the books I’ve brought with me, I have to get them back home–which is easy if I have my car, but an expensive pain in the ass otherwise. It’s easy to lose money selling books on the road, especially if there is air travel or a hotel involved. You have to sell a lot of books to make it worthwhile. I’ve had a bunch of money-losing trips–at least on a cash-accounting basis.

On the other side of the ledger the most obvious benefit is cash. On a successful two-day trip, if I stay with friends and get comp’d a meal ticket at the conference (meaning I spend $0 on food), I can come out nearly two thousand bucks ahead, net.

Over the decade I’ve been doing this, I would guess that I’ve come out slightly ahead. That is to say, in the aggregate, my revenues have exceeded my expenses. But not by a whole lot.

But there’s another part of the calculus, and that’s the serendipity factor. You never know when you’re going to meet somebody who can give you precious publicity, buzz that’s worth all your expenses and then some. Since nobody, not even J.K. Rowling, could ever sell enough books in person to make a sane living, a key idea behind the Billy Mays/”hand selling” thing is to generate buzz, to make serendipitous connections that will launch sales nonlinearly outside of the event itself.

For example, it was at the Geek Pride Festival in 2000 in Boston that I met CmdrTaco and Hemos from Slashdot and Jeffrey Zeldman from Zelman.com. Those encounters led to a couple of glowing reviews of my books on Slashdot and Zeldman.com. Those reviews led directly or indirectly to sales of thousands of copies of my books. I met Cory Doctorow at an O’Reilly conference, and he started mentioning my books on his site boing boing. It would be hard to overstate the value of those connections. I’ve had similar things happen, even if on not quite that scale, at lots of gigs. If I had stayed at home I never would have met those people, I would have sold far fewer books than I have, you wouldn’t be reading this, and I would probably be a very depressed man. In the aggregate, therefore, the road trips have been worthwhile –at least to the extent that my writing career is worthwhile. (See my interview with Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest for more on this.)

Case Study: Defcon

Once I had taken the decision to go to Defcon, there were logistics to take care of.

Transportation: Books and Me

It would cost too much and take too much time for me to drive out to Las Vegas, which meant that I would have to fly there. The only ticket I could afford would get me into Las Vegas late Thursday night and leave Sunday night. To make matters even more complicated, from Vegas I would be returning not to my home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard  in Massachusetts, but to the family reunion at the beach in New Jersey. So the itinerary: Boat, bus, plane to Vegas; plane, bus, metro, train, bus to the beach. Complicated.

Since I was flying I would have to send the books ahead of time. The only reasonable way to send them is by U.S. mail “media” rate — but that involves a gamble too, since media mail from Massachusetts to Las Vegas can take anywhere from 4 days to three weeks. I would have to send them to the Riviera Hotel business center, where they charge a handling fee for every box. That fee goes way up if the books arrive too early & they have to store them. So the first question is, when do I mail the books? Too early and the handling fees wipe out my profits, too late and I have no books at the show. I decided to ship 9 days before the show. (The books got there in 5 days and there was no surcharge. Score!)

The next question presented itself: how many books to send? If I sent too few, I would run out of them before the conference was over, and then I’d be kicking myself for being too timid & missing a great chance to make money. But if I sent too many books, then I’d have to give them away or send them back, and there was no way I was going to send any back.

How many books to send?

In a carton of Acts of the Apostles there are 28 books. In a carton of Cheap Complex Devices there are 60; for The Pains it’s 72. It costs about $14 to send a box of books, and the handling fee on the other end is almost as much. Let’s say it’s $30 shipping & handling for a box of books. If I sell all books for $10/each, then a box of Acts contains $280 worth of merchandise, a box of Cheap Complex Devices contains $600 worth; for The Pains it’s $720.

At Defcon the vendor area is open for three long days, 10AM to 7PM. I figured that if I got really lucky, I might sell 150 books/day. Selling 450 books is a highly ambitious, insanely optimistic goal. But it’s Vegas, what the heck, and there were supposed to be 10,000 people at Defcon. I decided to go for broke.  I sent out 14 cases of books: 10 Acts, and 4 mixed CCD & Pains. About 500 books total.

Yes, this was bit nuts. No, wait. Not “a bit”.

Lodging

The Riviera, where the Con was to take place, was sold out, but I asked the nice person on the phone there to recommend someplace cheap within walking distance, and that’s how I wound up at the Sahara, which was a jet-setter hot-spot in the 1960′s and is now a giant dive with a tattoo parlor in the smoke-filled lobby. $25/night for the first two nights, $50 the third. Add in taxes & fees and it came to $150. The walk from my hotel to the Con was about half a mile.

Cost of Goods Sold

I paid the bill for printing Acts and CCD years and years ago, so I consider them free goods. The cost of printing The Pains is too painful to think about, so I don’t think about it. I consider them free goods too. You can see why I wasn’t cut out to be an accountant.

Expenses Summary

It cost me about $350 for shipping & handling of the books. $150 for three nights at the el-cheapo run down Sahara Hotel. $400 for the table at Defcon. $900 transportation, including airfare, shuttles, train, taxis, boats, buses. The banner & shipping cost $100 (but I still have the banner.) Plus a hundred bucks or so for a few days food. I had enough photocopied reviews from earlier events, so that cost, at least, was zero. So what does that come to? Let’s see put down the seven, carry the one, divide by 13, add in the fudge factor. . . let’s say $2,000.  That’s a lotta dough for a man in my situation. . .I was going to have to sell a lot of books just to break even . . .

So, how did it go?

The first day I sold 80 books at $10 each. Not bad by my normal scale, but bad by my unrealistic Defcon goal. I was going to have to do better. Next day, I sold about 100 books. Which means, OK, Saturday night I’ve about covered my expenses. But note: I’ve sold 180 books, but I brought close to 500 books with me, leaving 300 unsold. And I’ve got no reasonable way to ship them back home.

So I do the obvious thing: On Sunday, the final day of Defcon, I put signs all around my table. Sale Price! $5/book, or one of each, complete set of my three novels, for $10.

People come streaming into the vendor area on the last day. A nonstop crush, and many of the people have a beer bottle in one hand starting 10:00AM.  Vegas rules. “Three books for ten bucks? OK, you got me.”

By 5PM, vendor closing time, I’m down more than 200 books and up more than $1200. I’ve taken in $3000 over three days.

I donate my unsold books to the Defcon “goons” (the volunteer staff that runs the con). Most of them were distributed as free swag at the closing ceremony & the rest were claimed by goons. Or they were trashed. Who knows?  I know where at least one of the swag books ended up.

Conclusion: Hand selling doesn’t scale. But nothing does.

So for three days’ work (not counting all the prep work beforehand) I made about $1,000, net of expenses. Which is better than getting punched in the face, but not a great long-term strategy for avoiding homelessness.

Plus, I had fun, and a learned a bit, and I got some nifty snippets and ideas to stick into Creation Science, the novel I’m working on now.

The whole thing of it is, you can’t judge gambles like this Defcon gig on the basis of the one-to-one, “hand” linear sales. It’s the nonlinear effects of meeting somebody like a Zeldman or a Hemos, where one sale means fifty sales, or five hundred, that determine whether the event was worthwhile or not.

I like to think that at some point I’ll reach some critical mass of name recognition and my books will start selling themselves on Amazon and through my site. Kindle sales of Acts and Pains seem to be up a lot lately. Is there any Defcon effect behind that? Who knows?

I do believe that my willingness to go out into the great big world & shamelessly pimp my warez to hackers and geeks & my familiarity with the people who attend Defcons and O’Reilly conferences and so forth helped convince the good people at Underland Press to make me an offer for Acts of the Apostles. So maybe my Defcon outing got me a book deal. (Or not. I don’t know.)

Were there any nonlinear effects from Defcon? I’m disappointed that I’ve heard back from so few people, but there are a few connections that my pan out, a few things in the works, maybe. We’ll see. After all, the great Slashdot review that was my big break appeared in late May, more than six weeks after I gave a copy of Acts to Hemos. Sometimes these things take time. Maybe some influential person I met at Defcon will start talking up my books and it will snowball & I’ll become the next Dan Brown.

On the other hand, these are Defcon people, and in general they’re very privacy/anonymity-obsessed. Many of them are even more technoparanoid than I am, and they would no more leave a trace on a site like, for example, Amazon.com than they would flap their wings and fly to Pluto.

But I like to think that in some secret Defcon-insider irc channel the good word is starting to buzz, and next year in Vegas I’ll sell thousands.

***

John Sundman, is a novelist with a background in low tech agriculture and high tech computing technology.

Email: john _remove_at_wetmachine.com
Twitter: @jsundmanus
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Borrowed Traditions, Rediscovered Paths – Neo-Platonism and the Reunion of Western Philsophy

While doing research for an Open Myth Source article on the concept of Mytho-poesis, which is, roughly understood, the use of poetic reasoning to interpret and activate mythological ideas, I remembered an essay I had seen by Hazel Twiggs discussing the development of terminology in contemporary astrology. Her analysis of the break from historical antecedants in contemporary astrology, and the reinterpretation  of certain common terms, provides further insight into some of the processes involved in the development of many of our current intepretations of ancient ideologies and practices. – D. Metcalfe


Borrowed Traditions, Rediscovered Paths – Neo-Platonism and the Reunion of Western Philsophy, by Hazel Twiggs

Practitioners of modern astrology are quite used to using language that they assume are understood by their peers and contemporaries. Such words seem to be used with impunity and few appear to define them with rigor, depth, or attention to historical antecedent. Words like “soul 1,” “spirituality 2,” and “karma 3″ are used so often by people who practice and are interested in astrology and similar contemporary philosophical systems that one would assume these ideas are not only commonplace but that they have some historical precedent in Western culture and thought. Many of these well-meant but essentially nebulous ideas—when they are traced to their inspirations—are very often the product of a loosely conceived yoke between Western astrological concepts and what is more or less watered-down Eastern (meaning Hindu or Buddhist) philosophy. In fact, few astrologers who consider themselves to be “evolutionary 4″ or involved in healing the “spirit” can avoid borrowing Eastern ideas such as the chakras 5  for the very reason that for the past 1700 years Western spirituality has been dominated by monotheist and increasingly materialist6 Christianity, a Christianity whose basis is a strict dependence on an external force for the salvation of one’s soul.

When the heavily loaded word “soul” is used it summons from the shadows of Western religious and philosophical history myriad references which can be summarized thusly: from the Christian point of view 7 soul is both particular to human or sentient life and is also an eternal force which resides in the living body and which is assumed to outlive corporeal death; from a scientific point of view8 the soul is that which is immeasurable, incalculable, and immaterial, existing within time but not space, while what can be known of soul must by scientific terms be limited to sensory understanding. At any rate, the idea of the soul is replete in modern astrological lore. That it is an ephemeral concept requiring philosophical approach, it is “esoteric,” or “confined to and understandable by only an enlightened inner circle.9″ At the heart of these introductory comments is the intention to reveal that while the philosophical foundations for an expansive, innovative, modern, and “esoteric” astrology are consciously, though imprecisely, embedded in 19th and 20th century developments such as theosophy, there exists deeply hidden within Western thinking an esotericism which modern esotericists and scholars appear to have missed. Whether due to the rift in Western philosophical history created by scientific materialism or not, modern astrologers seem to believe that “Eastern” philosophy is their only means by which the numinous may be known or approached.

This is most evident in the works of Alan Leo, founder of the Theosophical Society of the Astrological Lodge of London in 1915,10 and Alice Bailey, both authors of treatises entitled Esoteric Astrology.11 Leo’s book, first published at the close of the 19th century, is a document that entirely represents the adoption by Western spiritualists of Eastern ideas in an attempt to deepen, broaden, and personalize their spirituality. Leo’s preface begins with a reference to his meaningful travels to India and relates to the reader that his conversion to such Eastern ideas as reincarnation was prompted at age 17 when he was present during a discussion between his Puritan mother and “a gentleman of the same religion” on that subject. (Leo, v-vi) Such inspiration resulted in Leo’s creation of a philosophy of astrology that reflects the notion that “God sends forth from Himself certain spiritual embodiments of power, love and wisdom. The planetary Spirits or Intelligences who carry out His will are manifestations of His consciousness” which “produce certain vibratory energies known as planetary influence…” (Ibid, xvii) Directly after these comments and throughout the text thereafter, each philosophical principle underlying Leo’s “esoteric” approach to astrology is a direct reference to Hindu principles and terminologies, beginning with the Gunas and including such concepts as the caste system.12

Bailey’s text, first published in 1951—two years after her death, also well documents that the attempt to formulate an “esoteric” astrology is meant to be Eastern and “intuitional” (as opposed to Western and rational) and that its development represents a “return to the knowledge of that ancient science which related the constellations and our solar system.” (Bailey, 3) Sprinkled throughout her text are co-opted Eastern ideas and references to “energy” sans any overt recognition of a conventional or scientific meaning of such. She gives an explanation of “The Twelve Creative Hierarchies” in which several constellations relate to specific shaktis, while each of the twelve signs represent an “energy” of some sort. (Ibid, 34-35) Yet nowhere does Bailey seem to actually address directly what is meant by these descriptions other than that esotericism in general “teaches (and modern science is rapidly arriving at the same conclusion) that underlying the physical body and its comprehensive and intricate system of nerves is a vital or etheric body,” which is “an integral part of that entity which we have called the human family,” which, in turn, “is an integral part of the planetary etheric body,” and constitutes, “along with the etheric body of the sun…the body of the solar system.” (Ibid, 10-11) The reader is, apparently, supposed to have some familiarity with the concept of “ether” in this passage, as well.13

Whether these or other modern, esoteric, astrological doctrines are self-conscious of the seeming lack of continuity between their innovations and the philosophical conventions of Western culture which lead up to the 19th and 20th centuries or not, their ideas actually can be traced back to an epoch of the Western tradition which developed uninterruptedly up until the 3rd century CE and has served as the primary foundation of Western thought, culture, and politics to this day. In fact, the tradition to which 19th and 20th century esoteric ideas like “ether” and “planetary energy” draw upon the 6th century BCE dictum of the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales: “all things are full of gods.”14 Plato’s 4th century BCE description of the ensoulment of the “corporeal universe” in the Timaeus in which “all the stars which were necessary to the creation of time… had become living creatures having bodies fastened by vital chains” (emphasis added)15 not only fits the modern esoteric astrological paradigm but is also the arguable progenitor of it. Plato’s argument in Book VI of the Republic in which he explains the four-fold division of the visible and intelligible worlds is also well known. In it he explains that the realm of invisible archetypes— what Bailey and Leo and other esotericists call “vibrations” or “emanations”—”make use of the visible forms and reason about them”16 and convert into images the ideals perceived only by the Mind which they resemble.

So, from this formative period of Western philosophy, where did the lineage of the intuitive Mind’s supra-sensory apprehension of a universe replete with gods become merely a field of physical substance subject to fate? It is unsuitable in a brief paper such as this to give a rounded, dutiful description of the entire history of Western thought that followed Plato. However, it suffices to say that Aristotle’s inheritance of Plato’s metaphysics closely followed by the development of Stoicism began this obfuscation and was later used for political ends. This turn of events attuned the study of reality to the causal, material realm and eventually denied entirely the direct detection of a Western mysticism astrologers such as Bailey and Leo sought. A description of Stoicism according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy supports this view:

“Stoic logic is, in all essentials, the logic of Aristotle. To this, however, they added a theory, peculiar to themselves, of the origin of knowledge and the criterion of truth. All knowledge, they said, enters the mind through the senses. The mind is a blank slate, upon which sense- impressions are inscribed. It may have a certain activity of its own, but this activity is confined exclusively to materials supplied by the physical organs of sense. This theory stands, of course, in sheer opposition to the idealism of Plato, for whom the mind alone was the source of knowledge, the senses being the sources of all illusion and error. The Stoics denied the metaphysical reality of concepts.”17

The involvement of materialist metaphysics in politics referenced above is incredibly important because it was a vital force which supported the rise of Christianity and the subsequent obscurity of Platonic mysticism. Julius Firmicus Maternus, a Christian writer and notable astrologer who lived during the reign of Constantine I18, wrote in the 4th century CE19 of the 3rd century CE teachings of Plotinus, generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism,20 that he “severely reproves men who fear the decrees of Fortune when he claims that the control of our lives is entirely within our own power. He attributes nothing to the force of the stars, nothing to the necessities of Fate, but says everything is in our power.” (Bram, 23) Rather than observe power as an emanating force that may govern Fate, Maternus exhorts his readers to “concede that nothing is placed in our power, but the whole is in the power of Fate. Whatever we do or suffer, the whole thing happens to us by this same judgment of Fortune.” (Ibid, 28) What is this control over one’s life Plotinus claimed? What precedent might it have had in classical culture and why was its veracity so disputed? In the Gospel of Thomas21, an apocryphal, non-Canonical text dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE, Jesus is reported to have said, “If those who lead you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”22 (emphasis added)

While canonical Christianity marched forth from the 3rd century, several traditions—namely the Gnostic23, Hermetic, and Neoplatonic—managed to survive formally until around the 6th century, but fading out primarily due to the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens by the Emperor Justinian.24  This school was the last orchestrated dominion wherein such esoteric ideas as the “role played by the stars in the dissemination of divine ‘energies’ throughout the universe”25 flourished following in the tradition of Iamblichan theurgy. (Fowden, 91) Iamblichus (3rd  century CE), student of the Neoplatonist Porphry, put into ritualized form the Middle Platonist mixture of Stoic and Pythagorean philosophy that had been “common coin” in the 2nd century CE. (Ibid, 135) He was “convinced that he had found…a supreme authority and universal way in a synthesis of Chaldean,26  Egyptian, and ‘philosophical’—that is Greek—doctrines” whose purpose was “to invoke the assistance of the gods, in order to liberate the soul from the body and the bonds of sympathy, and bring about its ‘theurgical union’ with the divine.” (Ibid, 132) In fact, what could have been the salvatory delight of 19th and 20th century seekers of esoteric truth in the Western tradition is that Iamblichus deprecated his teacher’s “reliance on reason in order to arrive at the conviction that the gods exist, for this is an intuition  that was planted within us (sic) before we ever learned to judge and choose.” (emphasis added) (Ibid, 133) The primary point here is, of course, that Leo’s and Bailey’s books on esoteric astrology may have never been necessitated by a dearth in the Western tradition of such spiritual practices had ideas such as these survived the political motivations of the Cannon and the rise of orthodox Christianity and the consequent evolution of materialist science.

Footnotes:

1 In this and the following three footnotes examples of contemporary ways the terms in question have been used.  http://www.soulastrology.com/astrology/soul.html

2 http://www.spiritual-astrology.com/index2.htm

3 http://www.karmastrology.com/ast_faq.shtmlwhatiska

4 http://www.mauricefernandez.com/eng_whatis.html

5 http://www.innerself.com/Astrology/chakras.htm

6 The recent film The Passion of the Christ and such developments as the Holy Land theme park in Orlando, Florida (http://www.theholylandexperience.com/) are ample evidence of the ways in which a strict interpretation of Biblical stories are interpreted literally, and, subsequently, materially.

7 http://www.wlsessays.net/authors/V/VogelOTSoul/VogelOTSoul.pdf can be referenced for these ideas.

8 That modern science is a result of Protestant Christianity and Renaissance Humanism is the topic of another, much longer paper. For the sake of brevity we will assume the reader is comfortable with the idea that the evolution of Western thought is inextricably due to its philosophical and religious history. Here Bertrand Russell’s 1926 essay entitled “What is the Soul?” is used by way of contrast to typical Christian thinking: “I think the opponents of materialism have always been actuated by [the desire to] to prove that the mind is immortal, but our power is very strictly limited. We cannot at present do anything whatever to the sun or moon or even to the interior of the earth, and there is not the faintest reason to suppose that what happens in regions to which our power does not extend has any mental causes. That is to say, to put the matter in a nutshell, there is no reason to think that except on the earth’s surface anything happens because somebody wishes it to happen.” (http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Russell/what_is_the_soul.html)

9 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/esoteric

10 http://www.astrolodge.co.uk/astro/info/lodgehistory.html

11 Bailey, Alice. Esoteric Astrology. London: Lucis Press, 1997; Leo, Alan. Esoteric Astrology. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1989.

12 Chapter 4 addresses “The Significance of Caste and Social Distinctions.”

13 On the previous page Bailey describes “the ether of space” as “the field in and through which the energies from the many originating sources play.” (9)

14 Frost-Arnold, Greg. “On Thales’ “all things are full of gods”.” University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 20 Sep 2007 . Frost-Arnold writes, “We believe Thales said that all things are full of gods primarily because of one passage from Aristotle’s de Anima. If we examine that passage closely, it does not give us strong reason to believe Aristotle was certain Thales…believed everything was ensouled…. The claim that everything is ensouled…is Aristotle’s own conjectural…rationalization for Thales’ dictum.”

15 Jowett, Benjamin. “Timaeus by Plato.” The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 20 Sep 2007 .

16 Jowett, Benjamin. “The Republic by Plato.” The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 20 Sep 2007 .

17 Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 13 Dec 2004. Stanford University. 20 Sep 2007 .

18 The emperor Constantine I laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization through his legalization and support of Christianity. Several things went along with what has been called this “Constantinian shift”: citizenship in the state became equivalent with membership in the church which was no longer voluntary, a move from to the power of priesthood in the church hierarchy, and a shift of emphasis toward concern about the fate of each individual’s soul. Barrett, Lois. “Thinking Theologically about Church and State.” 25 Oct 1996 Religion-online.org 21 Sep 2007 .

19 Bram, Jean Rhys, trans. Julius Firmicus Maternus. Matheseos Libri VIII. Ancient Astrology: Theory and Practice. Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Press, 1975.

20 Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 30 June 2003. Stanford University. 21 Sep 2007 .

21 Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (NY: Random House, 2003), relates a comment made by the Roshi of the Zen Center in San Francisco: “…had I known the Gospel of Thomas, I wouldn’t have had to become a Buddhist!” (74)

22 Schenk, Greg. “The Gospel of Thomas.” 17 June 1992. Internet Sacred Text Archive. 21 Sep 2007 .

23 This tradition, though arguably a dark and imprisoning philosophy, is included here due to its cosmological view that there exist lower powers called “Archons” who are led by a demi-urge (in the tradition of Plato’s Timaeus) which seem to relate to the planetary powers though their aim appears to be “the enslavement of man.” Jonas, Hans. Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1958. (42-44)

24 Moore, Edward. “Neoplatonism.” 2006. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 21 Sep 2007 .

25 Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

26 Given that Leo sought to bring oriental ideas into Western astrology, there is some irony in the theurgical desire “to emphasize these oriental connections that gave their oracles their epithet ‘Chaldean’.” (Fowden, 135)

Fools in the deepest sense – Mediating the ‘Other’

Inspired by a recent article on Chris Knowles’ Secret History of Rock N Roll blog that attempts to expose the Plutonian energies drifting through contemporary pop music, Zac Odin took the responsibility of drawing the debate closer to practical reality.

It’s interesting to look at the various influences that affect popular culture, and it’s often surprising to find that some of these influences have different origins than we might expect. Unfortunately Knowles presumptions about secret histories seems to relate more to starting an investigation from an inaccurate world view than revealing any hidden knowledge.

Are Die Antewoord emissaries of some darkling force adrift in the universe? Are they the inevitable mediators of repressed racial disparities, mass mediated occulture overload, emergent culture and the realities of poverty in the 3rd world?

I think Zac makes a pretty strong case racial disparities, clownish mediators and the realities of 3rd world povery, the Plutonian thing….I dunno about Plutonian energies, unless that’s the term you’re going to use to describe the fact that quite often, Humanity is a nasty beast of a creature.

For more on the liminal aspects of clowns check out:

Gilber V. Wilke’s analysis: There’s a Reason Clowns are Creepy

and Zac Odin’s follow up: Some More Thoughts on the Nature of Clowns

- D. Metcalfe

Enter the Mediators:

The only real things in life is the unexpected things. Everything else is just an illusion.” – Ninja

Die Antwoord are Clowns. Fools in the deepest sense. That is why they have spread like fire across the internet. Clowns are liminal figures, trapped on the borderline between yin and yang, darkness and light, bringing dark into light and light into dark. Clowns represent the confusing Other in terms we can accept but they do not change the nature of the Other and they do not allow us to forget the Other.

Die Antwoord, regardless of their actual histories, dwell in our western perception on the borderline between the third world and what we like to imagine is the first world. South Africa, white apartheid subsumed by the heart of Africa where the realities of the West are remixed into strange new forms. Yes, we are still bound by colonial fears, no matter how you mask it, how ironic or arch your hipsterness is. Die Antwoord (and, to a lesser and less aware degree, jugallos) dance on the edge of these fears. They are white, Yo-Landi Vi$$er whiter that white – winter crystals forming on her eyelashes – harbingers of a rapidly mutating global culture. As such, they are acceptable to all of us
in our offices, ipad-carrying, bike riding, sustainability craving middle class westerners.

Because that’s how they exploded – blossoming out of a post on Pitchfork media. And we all know who reads Pitchfork. Accepted and spread by middle class western internet users – accepted as a joke, an artifact, the real thing, a fascinating obscurity; it doesn’t matter how. It is who. You think they’re funny? Well they are joking in a way but why do you think they’re funny? Does your hipster smirk mask something else? It’s a prank but a prank like the K Foundation. Real as fuck. Cutting to the heart of your reality, they are liminal figures from the townships at the edge of the Western world. From the edge of the western soul – from where the west is transformed by the heart of darkness.

So they are playing a game with pieces of culture. You want white trash from a
shantytown? You don’t get fuckin white trash. You get something else. What you
expected is not what is there. And yet at the same time its exactly what it purports to be; not a game but it’s the biggest game ever. Ninja’s real but he only just came into existence. Everyone’s talking about them being a joke, fakes, that Watkin Tudor Jones & Yo-Landi Vi$$er are artists with all these other personas behind them, other games like the Constructus Corporation and Max Normal. Some of you need them to be fakes but does it matter?

No it doesn’t. At all. The effect is real, the reason they are all up in the
interwebs is real. The end result is real.

Was Elvis real? Not as real as the world he mediated between ‘ours’ for. Yet he was real. Same thing. Same fears, same blatant male sexuality but revised for our times – watch Evil Boy. Its Priapus in the Bush of Ghosts. Its aggressive sexuality from both sexes – Yo-Landi’s breasts are watching you. Which means that the moral majority will be the next to take notice. Next comes the fear, outright fear of the clowns. Middle class fear unmasked.

- Zac Odin

When was the first time…

…you remember being introduced to the slippery slope of esotericism?

I’ve been digesting odd material since I was quite young. Jim Henson’s collaborations with Brian Froud on Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, along with his Storyteller series caught me early. By the time I was 7  I spent much of my allotted library time digging through the folklore section and breaking the spines on titles like Encounters With the Invisible World Being Ten Tales of Ghosts,Witches and the Devil Himself in New England, Myths and Legends of the Celts, and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Standard childhood fare…

This singleminded focus lead my parents to get me a 3 book promotional pack from the Time Life Books series Mysteries of the Unknown one Christmas. As I remember it, one book focused on ‘Mysterious Places’,  one on ‘Mysterious Creatures’ and one on UFO’s.  Pouring over every detail in those books I encountered a world that went far beyond the folk tales I’d been devouring.

Here was Aleister Crowley on his wedding night at the Great Pyramid, spiritualists with ectoplasm oozing and weird lights over distant hills. My youthful mind was glowing with possibilities.

All of this was brought back when Lisa Trudeau at Red Wheel/Weiser mentioned they had a cute YouTube promotional for their Field Guide series.  I can only imagine where my mind would be if the Field Guides had been around to add to my instruction.