In his recent study of mass murder and suicides, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, Franco Berardi notes that “in the contemporary aesthetic production it’s easy to detect the signs of a sort of dark zeitgeist.” One needn’t look far: dystopian YA novels in bookstore windows; another season of True Detective on TV; Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters.
While it’s true that these works offer occasional flickers of light, the characters, or what Milan Kundera calls our “imaginary selves”, generally live without it. In one of the only moments in Mad Max: Fury Road when Max articulates a complete thought, he says, “You know, hope is a mistake.”
Indeed, the dark zeitgeist is all around us. Chuckle if you want, but these are good times for grim thoughts, and some of the best and freshest writing is coming from Eugene Thacker. Some readers may know Thacker from his introductions to E.M. Cioran’s books; others will have read In the Dust of This Planet and his other “horror of philosophy” books.
For those unfamiliar with Thacker, a newly-published collection of aphorisms titled Cosmic Pessimism would be an entertaining place to start. Truth be told, Thacker is not nearly as gloomy as one would think, and though he charts familiar ground here, the presentation is a bit more lyrical than what we get in his other books, and accompanied by abstract black and white artwork. At 55 pages, Cosmic Pessimism is less taxing than one might fear, yet more thoughtful than one might expect. For example, we learn early on that there are different types of pessimism:
“Pessimism’s two major keys are moral and metaphysical pessimism, its subjective and objective poles, an attitude towards the world and a claim about the world. For moral pessimism, it is better not to have been born at all; for metaphysical pessimism, this is the worst of all possible worlds.” Cosmic Pessimism, instead, is “a pessimism of the world-without-us”, a notion of “primordial insignificance”.
Whether pessimism is actually a philosophy is something that Thacker questions. “The very term pessimism suggests a school of thought, a movement, even a community. But pessimism always has a membership of one—maybe two. Ideally, of course, it would have a membership of none, with only a scribbled, illegible note left behind by someone long forgotten. But this seems unrealistic, though one can hope,” he says, with a wink.
And there is plenty of fun to be had here, everything from buried Joy Division lyrics, to entries like this one:
Kierkegaard: life is a tightrope. Nietzsche: life is a jump rope. Kafka: life is a trip rope. Schopenhauer: life is a noose.
Cioran: life is a noose, improperly tied.
Thacker’s own pessimism is playful, but never trite, and sometimes even personal:
Cioran once wrote, ‘I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.’ I keep returning to Kant, but for the opposite reason. Each time I read, and witness the scintillating and austere construction of a system, I cannot help but to feel a certain sadness—the edifice itself is somehow depressing.
James Wood says that a good writer notices things, which is precisely what Thacker does, as when he distinguishes between fatality and futility or doom and gloom. The latter two terms especially we use without a second thought, even though “doom is not just the sense that all things will turn out badly, but that all things inevitably come to an end”, whereas gloom “is atmospheric, climate as much as impression, and if people are also gloomy, this is simply the by-product of an anodyne atmosphere that only incidentally involves human beings.” In other words, “if doom is the terror of temporality and death, then gloom is the horror of a hovering stasis that is life.”
The edge of heavy, lugubrious passages like these is blunted not only by gallows humor, but also by numerous anecdotes about Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Chamfort, and others who write in a pessimistic vein. It’s also worth mentioning that Thacker is, at times, critical of pessimism (“There is an intolerance in pessimism that knows no bounds”) and recognizes that it can be spiteful: “a spite for this person or a spite for all of humanity; a spectacular or a banal spite; a spite for a noisy neighbor, a yapping dog, a battalion of strollers, the meandering idiot walking in front of you on their smart phone, large loud celebrations, traumatic injustices anywhere in the world regurgitated as media blitz…”.
There is a hint of self-criticism in his words, yet a pessimistic disposition, or what Thacker sometimes calls a philosophical disenchantment, remains valid. After all, as Paul Mason argued in The Guardian, the dystopian world of Mad Max no longer shocks us because it’s too close to reality (17 May 2015). If this is true, then Thacker’s eloquent Cosmic Pessimism must be both an articulation of and monument to our dark zeitgeist.
Photographer Nicolas Bruno spends his days like the rest of us, but his nights are very different. And terrifying. 22 year-old Nicolas has been suffering from sleep paralysis for 7 years now, which means that he experiences his nightmares more vividly than regular sleepers.
Sleep paralysis is a condition that happens when we are about to enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In it, our bodies paralyze themselves to stop us from acting out our dreams, but Bruno’s mind is awake and experiencing horrific hallucinations. This forced him into insomnia and depression: “I thought I was possessed by demons,” he said.
Everything changed when one high school teacher suggested he should document these terrors. He has been battling his fears with photography ever since. “This project has gifted me a sense of who I am,” he said. “It gave me the strength to persevere in life, to create art and speak to people. It gifted me art, and I don’t know where I would be without it.”
Has there ever been a movie more misunderstood than RoboCop? Paul Verhoeven’s hyperviolent dystopian cybersatire was released 30 years ago and almost immediately joined the likes of The Prince, Watchmen, and Wall Street in the great pantheon of works whose points have been completely missed by legions of fans and imitators. RoboCop was intended to be a viciously hilarious attack on police brutality, union busting, mass-media brainwashing, and the exploitation of the working class by amoral corporate raiders. Alas, all too many people only noticed the viciousness, not the targets thereof. As a result, the film’s subsequent sequels, spinoffs, and 2014 remake have been generally straight-faced. If they’re socially biting at all, their criticism is mild in comparison to their carnage.
Unfortunately, we can now add another faux-boCop clunker to the steel pile: Fox’s new police procedural APB, which wears its admiration for RoboCop on its high-tech sleeve. The female lead (Natalie Martinez) is named “Murphy,” a near-certain homage to the real name of Verhoeven’s titular super-cop. The show borrows much of its basic premise from the 1987 masterpiece: A corporation privatizes a police force and puts advanced machinery on the streets to combat soaring crime. Alas, it lacks any of the visceral criticism of its forebear, opting instead to celebrate generic cop work done with fancy toys. That’s a goddamn shame, because RoboCop is more relevant today than it’s ever been. Indeed, if we had collectively heeded its warnings, America might not be in the dire situation it finds itself in today.
If you haven’t seen RoboCop, you could be forgiven for assuming the movie is an earnest thriller, given its basic plot outline. In a near-future version of Detroit, a sleazy firm with the delightfully over-the-top moniker Omni Consumer Products* (or OCP, for short) buys up the police force — ostensibly to fight crime more efficiently, but really to test out brutally violent hardware to sell to the military. They could not give less of a shit about the actual police, who are planning a strike, and when one of the boys in blue gets shot to pieces by an OCP-allied gangster, his brain is surreptitiously harvested to make a cyborg cop with a computer-driven consciousness. After a rocky period as a warrior against criminality, he turns on his masters and regains his individual dignity.
But the plot is only half the story of RoboCop. More important are the tone and stylistic flourishes, which are astoundingly good ventures in pitch-black comedy. Newscasters announce nuclear armageddon and accidental presidential assassinations with ignorant cheer; folks use comically oversize guns to shoot at their victims for 20-second stretches, unrealistic blood squibs firing left and right; everyone watches a TV show in which buxom ladies hit on a hideous old man who incongruously shouts, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” at random; an elementary school is named after Lee Iacocca; and so on. It depicts a fallen world where tragedy long ago faded into farce and we’re supposed to ridicule virtually everything that goes on. If you’re not laughing, you’re not paying attention.
That is, in a way, the tragedy of RoboCop — you really do have to pay attention to get it. It’s a victim of its own success, insofar as what makes it hilarious is how straight-faced everything is. There are no winks to inform you that it’s time to giggle, so if you’re only half-watching, you’ll miss all your cues. That said, if you do pick up what the film is putting down, you’ll see a remarkable degree of significance for the world of 2017.
In 1987, Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner were extrapolating Reagan-era greed and enthusiasm for privatization by imagining a corporate takeover of public services. Now, that’s barely an extrapolation — it’s a serious proposal made by a startling number of America’s most powerful industrialists. OCP dreams of throwing off all government control in its Delta City community, and it’s hard to watch the movie now and not think of it as a kind of land-bound seastead. The Peter Thiels and Tim Drapers of the world have, in their infinite wisdom, concluded that government more or less doesn’t work and that folks would be far better-served if they were part of an entirely private polity that values entrepreneurship above conventional citizenship. Today’s techno-utopians may prefer Jobsian asceticism instead of the coke-addled sneers of Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton, but their ideology is closer to Bob’s than they may like to admit.
RoboCop makes a profoundly good case against privatizing the police force and, by extension, any public necessity. Sure, it makes the obvious critique that the profit motive drives people to carry out obscene miscarriages of justice like, well, using a near-dead body to secretly build a super-robot that can be shopped around to the highest bidder. But there are even wiser points, as well. In a nod to the robo-fiction of Isaac Asimov, RoboCop has to obey three hard-wired laws, along with a classified fourth. We eventually learn that the last directive prevents him from arresting or attacking any employees of OCP, thus exempting them from the very law enforcement they make it their business to enact.
That plot point echoes current controversies over Facebook and Google. As the saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product, and Facebook and Google — as well as a bevy of other digital entities — make their billions by mining users’ personal information. Each takes our secrets and our intricacies and auctions them off, but in a cruel irony, they themselves are black boxes. Some people are banned without explanation; others are allowed to remain, despite ostensibly breaking the terms of service. The core algorithms, so crucial to countless users’ businesses and lives, are opaque and will remain so until the sun dies.
Like OCP, Facebook and its ilk exempt themselves from the things they do to everyone else. RoboCop teaches us that a private service, be it a police force or anything else, will inherently lack the transparency and accountability that (at least in theory) is built into an entity beholden to the public through elections, recalls, impeachment, and the like. We trust free-market libertarians at our own risk.
What’s more, RoboCop teaches us that, when the forces of corporate overreach are at work, we have to retain power against them — power that comes not from robot suits, but from unions. Early on, we learn that the overstretched and underfunded cops, who receive not a whiff of the cash that OCP is stirring into its R&D division, are contemplating a strike. This becomes a running bit in the film, especially as the uncaring OCP chieftains start to favor their shiny RoboCop over the concerns of the actual folks on the beat. (To Verhoeven’s credit, the force has a substantial number of tough women, not just dudes.)
An officer who’s acquiesced to OCP control muses that “we’re not plumbers, we’re police officers — and police officers don’t strike.” The guy is, of course, totally missing the point: The fact that cops don’t usually strike makes a potential strike all the more potent. Not everyone has a tin exoskeleton, but everyone can create the collective armor of a picket line. Even then, though, there has to be a society-wide appreciation of unionization, as RoboCop points out — when the strike is put on the table, an OCP exec gets stoked about the idea of using it as an opportunity to put more robots on the street. In other words, RoboCop was talking about the tension between automation and working people well before it became a topic at the highest levels of political and economic debate. It’s hard to imagine these ideas coming up in a sci-fi film today, largely because union membership is so passé, free-falling at a rate that makes 1987 look positively communist. RoboCop’s pro-labor message was powerful then, but it’s vitally urgent now.
So, too, is the way Verhoeven and his collaborators confront actual police work. RoboCop is a metal personification of extrajudicial police violence, destroying bodies and lives with casual aplomb. He bursts into an attempted convenience-store stickup and viciously beats the gunman, then, without attending to him medically, bids the owners a calm “Thank you for your cooperation” and walks out. He reads a thug his Miranda rights while punching him bloody. He also has no idea how to interact with the community — after stopping an attempted rape, he holds the victim and, in his inhuman, metallic monotone, declares, “Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock. I will notify a rape crisis center.” She looks terrified.
Such overcompensating intensity feels especially chilling in the Trump era. The new president frequently depicts the “inner cities” as hellholes rife with murder, gangs, drugs, and (his favorite term) carnage. It’s not unreasonable to think the man in the Oval Office would love to see RoboCop put on the streets, fighting violence not with any kind of structural reasoning or community improvement, but rather the simple language of brutality. The irony is that he’s also in favor of unrestricted access to guns, which is another essential point of critique in RoboCop — everyone has firearms, and they accomplish nothing but mayhem and dismemberment.
Unfortunately, the mayhem and dismemberment is all that some people enjoy about the film, the ultimate insult to RoboCop’s teachings. We’re supposed to laugh at and loathe the use of violence. In this, the movie is a spiritual sibling to Verhoeven’s other tragically misinterpreted masterwork, 1997’s antiwar satire Starship Troopers. In both tales, the impulse to fuck other people up and over leads only to empty souls and dead bodies. The vulgarity of television and interpersonal conduct leaves everyone debased and pitiful. Our present moment is one in which the ability to take what you want at all costs, without the slightest bit of empathy, is espoused at the highest levels of society — in other words, a moment that RoboCop prefigured three decades ago. It’s time to listen to what the movie screams at us, to reengage with a movie that is simultaneously funnier, more thrilling, and more socially astute than most ever made. A RoboCop renaissance? I’d buy that for a dollar.
“We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures, and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision. They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident, inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.”
Up to 80% of the Internet is said to be hidden in the so-called “deep web,” which can be accessed using special search systems, like the Tor browser. Often, the “deep web” is associated with criminal activities, like firearms sales and drug trafficking.
The deep web is a kind of mysterious place where one can find everything that has been published on the Internet, but can’t be accessed via traditional search engines. In other words, it is collection of websites that are publicly visible, but hide the IP addresses of the servers that run them.
“There are various services within this universe. Some are used to protect delivered information, conceal identities or ensure anonymity,” IT expert and CEO of TIB company Maximiliano Alonzo explained in an interview with Sputnik Mundo.
At the same time, Alonzo noted that the deep web can be used both — in positive and negative ways.
“The deep web is like a scalpel: in the hands of a doctor it can save lives, but in the hands of a criminal, it can kill. So everything depends on its use. There are certain countries in which citizens have a limited access to the Internet, and the deep web is for them an alternative way to receive information,” Alonzo explained.
The concept of a deep web appeared with the occurrence of the first search engines. All data that can’t be accessed by Google is available via special search systems, like the Tor browser, which makes it impossible to trace the identity or address of its users.
“If a user tries to access a certain web site, his IP address gets registered in the system and makes it possible to identify the country, the city and even the identity of the user. The Tor system can change a person’s data and make its access anonymous,” the expert explained.
The deep web contains any kind of information and is often associated with criminal activities (like firearms and drug trafficking as well as personal data sales).
For instance, the sales of a fentanyl drug caused a wave of deaths and were ultimately prohibited by one of the Dark Web marketplaces.
Earlier, it was also reported that hackers sold on the deep web hundreds of millions of personal passwords from websites such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Tumblr, Fling.com, and VK.com.
Study finds that they do feel regret, but it doesn’t affect their choices
When most people hear the word psychopath, they immediately think of a Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer who is cold, calculating, emotionless, willing to do or say anything to get their desire.
And they’re not alone. For decades, researchers studying psychopathy have characterized the disorder as a profound inability to process emotions such as empathy, remorse, or regret.
A recent study, though, suggests that psychopaths are not incapable of feeling emotions like regret and disappointment. What they cannot do, it seems, is make accurate predictions about the outcomes of their choices.
The study, co-authored by Joshua Buckholtz, associate professor of psychology at Harvard, and Arielle Baskin-Sommers, assistant professor of psychology and of psychiatry at Yale University, offers a new model of the disorder that could shed important light on the decision-making process of psychopaths. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The assumption has always been that they make these bad choices because they can’t generate negative emotions like fear, or appropriately respond to emotional signals generated by other people … but we turned that idea on its head.”
Using an economic game, Buckholtz and Baskin-Sommers were able to show that while psychopaths have normal, or even enhanced, emotional responses in situations that typically elicit regret, they have trouble extracting information from the environment that would indicate that an action they’re about to take will result in the experience of regret.
“There are two components to regret,” Buckholtz explained. “There is retrospective regret, which is how we usually think about regret — the emotional experience after you learn you could have received a better outcome if you had made a different choice. But we also use signals from our environment to make predictions about which actions will or won’t result in regret. What differentiated psychopaths from other people was their inability to use those prospective regret signals, to use information about the choices they were given to anticipate how much regret they were going to experience, and adjust their decision-making accordingly.
“It’s almost like a blindness to future regret,” he added. “When something happens, they feel regret, but what they can’t do is look forward and use information that would tell them they’re going to feel regret to guide their decision-making.”
“These findings highlight that psychopathic individuals are not simply incapable of regret [or other emotions], but that there is a more nuanced dysfunction that gets in the way of their adaptive functioning,” Baskin-Sommers said. “By appreciating this complexity, we are poised to develop more accurate methods for predicting the costly behavior of psychopathic individuals.”
Using a measure of prospective regret sensitivity, Buckholtz and Baskin-Sommers were also able to predict whether and even how many times study participants had been incarcerated.
“Contrary to what you would expect based on these basic emotional-deficit models, their emotional responses to regret didn’t predict incarceration,” Buckholtz said. “We know psychopathy is one of the biggest predictors of criminal behavior, but what we found was that behavioral regret sensitivity moderated that, raising the suggestion that intact behavioral regret sensitivity could be a protective factor against incarceration in psychopathic individuals.”
While the study upends the pop-culture image of psychopaths, Buckholtz is hopeful that it will also provide a new direction for scientists who hope to understand how psychopaths make decisions.
“We actually know very little about how psychopaths make choices,” he said. “There have been all sorts of research into their emotions and emotional experience, but we know next to nothing about how they integrate information that we extract from the world as a matter of course and use it to make decisions in daily lives. Getting better insight into why psychopaths make such terrible choices, I think, is going to be very important for the next generation of psychopathy research.”
Two of the world’s greatest comic book writers are wizards. No, seriously. Their work has not only changed comics forever, they’ve spilled over into literature and especially film. A lot of the movies you loved, and even more of the movie-plots you loved, were influenced by these two guys. So even if you never actually heard of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, you know their work.
Both men are British; both are only a few years apart in age. Both present themselves as rebels of a sort. Both are passionately dedicated to a personal practice of the occult, and their occult writing has been taken seriously and influenced the scene.
But here’s the kicker: Moore and Morrison freaking despise each other. So much so that it’s actually bled into their work. Some of the greatest comics of the last 25 years have been a direct product of Moore and Morrison’s wizard-fight.
First, some background: both men started out writing comics in the 1970s, and became famous in the 1980s (internationally, Moore became famous a few years earlier than Morrison).
Alan Moore is probably most famous for V for Vendetta, From Hell, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a little miniseries called “Watchmen” that changed comics forever.
Morrison wrote Animal Man, and Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. He was the driving force behind the ‘vertigo’ line of DC comics which focused on weird fiction with occult/horror overtones, which had a huge influence on subsequent movies and TV.
His work was groundbreaking, but he was also responsible for incredibly significant work on mainstream comics like the X-Men, the Justice League, Superman and Batman, radically renovating each of those titles and producing some of their most memorable stories of recent years.
Moore did mainstream superhero comics too: in the 1980s his writing on Green Lantern had a significant influence on that character, he turned Swamp Thing from a failing monster-comic into a major character, invented John Constantine, wrote “The Killing Joke” for Batman and a couple of Superman stories that were extremely memorable. But he had a falling out with DC comics over royalties for “Watchmen” and in opposition to a plan to put ratings systems in their comics; after that he quit working for the big mainstream comic companies and never looked back.
By the early 90s, it was already obvious Moore had issues with Morrison. He claimed to have helped give Morrison a leg up in his career (Morrison later pointed out he was making comics, though much less famous ones, before Moore had become known at all), and that Morrison in return just ripped-off all of Moore’s work.
Morrison, on the other hand, claimed that Moore’s own work was derivative of a 1977 novel called Superfolks, and that “Watchmen” was not as great as everyone thought, and that Moore wants to take credit for everything great in comics while slagging anyone he sees as competition.
Moore has continued to insinuate throughout the years that Morrison has kept ripping off his ideas, once notably saying, “I’ve read Morrison’s work twice: first when I wrote it, then when he wrote it.”
Even the question of which one of them is the more “occult” comic book guy has been a bone of contention. Moore’s coming out as a magician was better known and got way more press, and he did that in 1993. On the other hand, Morrison was talking publicly about being involved in Chaos Magick a few years earlier than that, and Morrison has claimed that Moore only decided to come out because Morrison was already public about it.
It’s not as if either of them were really secretive about it. Moore’s magical ideas were already mostly evident in his early work, and Morrison’s pre-1993 work was already highly esoteric. Moore’s V for Vendetta openly espoused gnostic concepts and Aleister Crowley‘s magical philosophy.
Magically, the two believe in very different things. Neither of them are exactly orthodox, but Moore is a more traditionalist kind of wizard. He is an admirer of Aleister Crowley’s “Thelemic” magick, and the philosophy in his Book of the Law. He appreciates the value of magick as a kind of art form, and in turn, considers art to be a kind of magick.
Grant Morrison is from the school of “chaos magick”, who practice magick that is less worried about rules and ritual and more about trying to get things done. Magick can be done from just about anything, as long as you have the right intention. Chaos magicians tend to like mixing up elements from a whole variety of different cultures and history, to reinvent it all to fit whatever they’re in the mood for, and have no problem with doing magick for personal gain (or to change the world) rather than just for human transcendence.
Moore’s very loud statement of declaring himself a Magician in public may just have been a factor in motivating Morrison to go whole-hog with the ‘occult comic book’ thing, when he started on “The Invisibles” in 1994.
“The Invisibles” is a 1500 page (59 issue) masterpiece of Occult Literature, written in comic book form. Its winding plotline tells a single long story (with various sub-plots) about a group of occult rebels using magick to try to liberate mankind, opposed by a cabal of black magicians in positions of power and authority trying to use sorcery to control and oppress humanity. It is, simply put, one of the greatest comic series of all time.
According to Morrison, if you want to take him at his word and not just assume it’s a chaos-magician metaphor, he was told parts of the story by space aliens when he was abducted by them in Kathmandu. The entire comic was intentionally designed to function as a kind of spell’, meant to create powerful changes in consciousness in whoever reads it. It also had weird effects on Morrison’s own life.
His character “King Mob” was meant to be based on Morrison’s ideal version of himself as an occult rebel-hero; Morrison started to find that when he wrote bad things happening to King Mob, bad things happened to himself. When King Mob nearly died from magical bacteria in one of the comic’s issues, Morrison himself caught a life-threatening infection. Later, King Mob was shot and almost killed, and Morrison himself had to be hospitalized for blood poisoning. After that, Morrison started writing King Mob as having great things happening to him, and Morrison started to have unexpected fame and fortune of his own.
While “The Invisibles” hasn’t got its own movie or TV series yet (it’s probably too weird and too hard to make), it was enormously influential on a ton of sci-fi and fantasy writers, as well as filmmakers. In particular, the creators of The Matrix were hugely influenced by “The Invisibles.”
So here’s where we get to the part that most articles on the Moore/Morrison feud have missed. I’m a comics reader but probably not expert enough to really detail the history or quality of work other than at the ‘fan’ level. But I am an expert on occultism. And I can say this: the war between Moore and Morrison isn’t just a “writers’ fight”, it’s a “wizards’ feud.” It is two very different views on magick using comics as a medium to fire salvos at each other.
A few years after Morrison started on “The Invisibles,” Alan Moore came out with “Promethea” – a 32-issue comic about a young woman who becomes the latest host for the spirit of an ancient superpowerful demigoddess of the imagination. Incarnating in the modern world, she takes on the role of a wonder-woman-style Super-heroine.
Like “The Invisibles,” “Promethea” is full of occult symbolism and esoteric philosophical ideas. It’s lavishly beautiful and brilliantly written. Just as The Invisibles served as a showcase for Morrison’s own ideas about chaos-magick, buddhism, conspiracy theories, psychedelia, UFO-fanaticism, esoteric psychology, punk politics and apocalypticism; Promethea became a showcase for Moore’s ideas about Magick, Thelema, the Qabalah, gnosticism, art-as-magick, imagination-as-reality, transcending the shallowness of the modern world, and apocalypticism.
Yes, both comics end with the ‘end of the world’. But the way these end up is very different from each other, and reflect the different views of the two magicians. In the Invisibles, the apocalypse is a humanity-transcending singularity. In “Promethea,” it is a divine union which makes us all more totally human than ever. This difference, like almost all the content in both comics, serve to highlight how Moore and Morrison have very different ideas about occult philosophy:
Morrison on magick:
Moore on magick:
I could have picked some other quote from Moore, like his manifesto about how magick should be stripped of its nostalgia or its introverted edginess and be treated as an expression of art, and how learning how to use words is what magick is all about (that you cast a spell in the same sense as ‘spelling’ a word). But the quote above in some ways seems more appropriate. Morrison wants to be precise and coherent, and he wants to present an image of himself in everything he does; he’s a kind of preacher for magick. Moore doesn’t give a crap what you think of him, and he just wants to drop hints of wisdom at you, and then you need to figure the rest out yourself.
Moore seemed to be mocking Morrison’s style of chaos magick in “Promethea,” basically calling it wankery. In one scene in the comic, Moore has a character point out that in the 1920s, (ritual) magick was all about “turbans, tuxedos and tarts in tiaras,” but now modern (chaos) magick is all about “sigils, stubble, and self abuse.”
In response, Morrison called Moore’s Promethea “elitist.” He seems to want magick to be both accessible to everyone, and revolutionary at the same time.
As a wizard myself, I’d say that both comics are absolute masterpieces of modern occult literature. “Promethea” probably includes the greatest explanation ever made of the “Tree of Life” – the roadmap of traditional western magick. It’s glorious. “The Invisibles” is probably the most complete compendium of occult ideas of the modern age. That’s how they’re different: “Promethea” shows you magick, teaches you why it’s important, and invites you to make your own humanity magical. “The Invisibles” doesn’t give you a choice: just reading it changes you, it blows your mind like it was a supernatural drug. It’s not an instruction; it’s an experience.
But it’s too easy to try to write the conflict off by painting Moore as some kind of grumpy old traditionalist, and Morrison as the bold in-your-face counter-culture rebel.
Remember, it was Moore who argued his way out of mainstream comics forever. On the other hand, Morrison plays the rebel but has become an icon of Mainstream Comics (though anyone reasonable would agree he’s transformed that mainstream and helped enormously to raise the quality of mainstream comics writing).
Morrison even got an MBE from the Queen, which Moore saw as the ultimate proof of Morrison’s fake rebel act being exposed as conformity. For it, he called Morrison a “Tory” (which, from Moore, is like the dirtiest word imaginable).
Morrison once claimed that Moore only had one “Watchmen”, while he does “one Watchmen a week”; which frankly is complete bullcrap. And you could laugh at Morrison’s arrogance for saying something like that, except that then he went on to launch a magical attack directly at Watchmen just to prove his point, with his comic “Pax Americana.”
“Watchmen” had started out as an idea Moore had using a certain group of DC-owned characters (Captain Atom, Peacemaker, The Question, Nightshade, the Blue Beetle, Thunderbolt) which DC wasn’t really using. Luckily for us all, DC didn’t let him use them, so he reinvented them as the Watchmen characters (Dr.Manhattan, Comedian, Rorschach, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Ozymandias) and created a masterpiece.
But in “Pax Americana,” Morrison reversed the situation. First, he did get to use the DC characters; but he wrote them in a style that imitated (almost but not quite to the point of mockery) the style of Moore’s “Watchmen” characters. Then he makes a complete story in just one issue, that is just as much a work of genius as Moore’s 12 issues of “Watchmen.” This too is a magical technique, once again, Morrison has turned a comic book into a spell. “Pax Americana” itself even deals with the nature of time, and the keys to the universe in the number 8; he even magically over-rides “Watchmen”’s base-3 (9 panel) format with a base-4 (8 or 16 panel) format. It’s like a wizard crafting a more powerful magical square-talisman than his rival.
The first page of the story actually shows you the ending of it, and you can read “Pax Americana” from front to back, back to front, or starting from anywhere in the middle. By playing with time in this way, and using the older characters Moore’s “Watchmen” was based on, Morrison’s comic-spell is essentially trying to retroactively change history, and to neuter Moore’s claim that he was there first. “Pax Americana” isn’t just an amazing comic – it’s an amazing spell.
For his part Moore hasn’t responded to this latest volley quite yet, having been too busy working on his decade-long novel project Jerusalem, which he finally published last year. It’s one of the ten longest novels of the English language, and got some pretty good reviews. But I’m guessing comics will pull him back in again, and Alan Moore’s magical duel with Grant Morrison won’t be over until one of the two is dead. Maybe not even then.
“There is an invisible world connected at the handle to every tool—use the tool as it is intended, and it fits you to the mold of all who do the same; disconnect the tool from that world, and you can set out to chart others.”
The ideal capitalist product would derive its value from the ceaseless unpaid labor of the entire human race. We would be dispensable; it would be indispensable. It would integrate all human activity into a single unified terrain, accessible only via additional corporate products, in which sweatshop and marketplace merged. It would accomplish all this under the banner of autonomy and decentralization, perhaps even of “direct democracy.”
Surely, were such a product invented, some well-meaning anti-capitalists would proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was nigh—it only remained to subtract capitalism from the equation. The anthem of the lotus-eaters.
It would not be the first time dissidents have extrapolated their utopia from the infrastructure of the ruling order. Remember the enthusiasm Karl Marx and Ayn Rand shared for railroads! By contrast, we believe that the technology produced by capitalist competition tends to incarnate and impose its logic; if we wish to escape this order, we should never take its tools for granted. When we use tools, they use us back.
Here follows our attempt to identify the ideology built into digital technology and to frame some hypotheses about how to engage with it.
The Net Closes
In our age, domination is not just imposed by commands issued from rulers to ruled, but by algorithms that systematically produce and constantly recalibrate power differentials. The algorithm is the fundamental mechanism perpetuating today’s hierarchies; it determines the possibilities in advance, while offering an illusion of freedom as choice. The digital reduces the infinite possibilities of life to a lattice of interconnecting algorithms—to choices between zeros and ones. The world is whittled down to representation, and representation expands to fill the world; the irreducible disappears. That which does not compute does not exist. The digital can present a breathtaking array of choices—of possible combinations of ones and zeros—but the terms of each choice are set in advance.
A computer is a machine that performs algorithms. The term originally designated a human being who followed orders as rigidly as a machine. Alan Turing, the patriarch of computer science, named the digital computer as a metaphorical extension of the most impersonal form of human labor: “The idea behind digital computers may be explained by saying that these machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer.” In the fifty years since, we have seen this metaphor inverted and inverted again, as human and machine become increasingly indivisible. “The human computer is supposed to be following fixed rules,” Turing continued; “he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail.”
Just as timesaving technologies have only made us busier, giving the busywork of number crunching to computers has not freed us from busywork—it has made computing integral to every facet of our lives. In post-Soviet Russia, numbers crunch you.
Since the beginning, the object of digital development has been the convergence of human potential and algorithmic control. There are places where this project is already complete. The iPhone “Retina display” is so dense that an unaided human eye cannot tell it is comprised of pixels. There are still gaps between the screens, but they grow smaller by the day.
The Net that closes the space between us closes the spaces within us. It encloses commons that previously resisted commodification, commons such as social networks that we can only recognize as such now that they are being mapped for enclosure. As it grows to encompass our whole lives, we have to become small enough to fit into its equations. Total immersion.
The Digital Divides
Well-intentioned liberals are concerned that there are entire communities not yet integrated into the global digital network. Hence free laptops for the “developing world,” hundred-dollar tablets for schoolchildren. They can only imagine the one of digital access or the zero of digital exclusion. Given this binary, digital access is preferable—but the binary itself is a product of the process that produces exclusion, not a solution to it.
The project of computerizing the masses recapitulates and extends the unification of humanity under capitalism. No project of integration has ever extended as widely or penetrated as deeply as capitalism, and the digital will soon fill its entire space. “The poor don’t have our products yet!”—that’s the rallying cry of Henry Ford. Amazon.com sells tablets below cost, too, but they acknowledge it as a business investment. Individual workers depreciate without digital access; but being available at a single click, compelled to compete intercontinentally in real time, will not make the total market value of the working class appreciate. Capitalist globalization has already shown this. More mobility for individuals does not ensure more parity across the board.
To integrate is not necessarily to equalize: the leash, the rein, and the whip are also connective. Even where it connects, the digital divides.
Like capitalism, the digital divides haves from have-nots. But a computer is not what the has-not lacks. The has-not lacks power, which is not apportioned equally by digitization. Rather than a binary of capitalists and proletarians, a universal market is emerging in which each person will be ceaselessly evaluated and ranked. Digital technology can impose power differentials more thoroughly and efficiently than any caste system in history.
Already, your ability to engage in social and economic relations of all kinds is determined by the quality of your processor. At the lower end of the economic spectrum, the unemployed person with the smartphone snaps up the cheaper ride on Craigslist (where hitchhiking used to be equal opportunity). At the upper end, the high-frequency trader profits directly on the processing power of his computers (making old-fashioned stockbroking look fair by comparison), as does the Bitcoin miner.
It is unthinkable that digital equality could be built on such an uneven terrain. The gap between rich and poor has not closed in the nations at the forefront of digitization. The more widespread digital access becomes, the more we will see social and economic polarization accelerate. Capitalism produces and circulates new innovations faster than any previous system, but alongside them it produces ever-increasing disparities: where equestrians once ruled over pedestrians, stealth bombers now sail over motorists.11. You can use a 3D printer to make a gun, but the NSA can make computer worms that seize control of entire industrial systems. And the problem is not just that capitalism is an unfair competition, but that it imposes this competition on every sphere of life. Digitization makes it possible to incorporate the most intimate aspects of our relations into its logic.
The digital divide doesn’t just run between individuals and demographics; it runs through each of us. In an era of precarity, when everyone simultaneously occupies multiple shifting social and economic positions, digital technologies selectively empower us according to the ways we are privileged while concealing the ways we are marginalized. The grad student who owes fifty thousand dollars communicates with other debtors through social media, but they are more likely to share their résumés or rate restaurants than to organize a debt strike.
Only when we understand the protagonists of our society as networks rather than freestanding individuals can the gravity of this hit home: digital collectivity is premised on market success, whereas we all experience failure in isolation. In the social networks of the future—which advertisers, credit agencies, employers, landlords, and police will monitor in a single matrix of control—we may only encounter each other insofar as we affirm the market and our value on it.
The System Updates
Competition and market expansion have always stabilized capitalism by offering new social mobility, giving the poor a stake in the game just when they had no more reason to play along. But now that the entire world is integrated into a single market and capital is concentrating in the hands of a shrinking elite, what could forestall a new wave of revolt?
The aforementioned Henry Ford was one of the innovators who responded to the last major crisis that threatened capitalism. Raising salaries and increasing mass-production and credit, he expanded the market for his products—undercutting the revolutionary demands of the labor movement by turning producers into consumers. This encouraged even the most precarious workers to aspire to inclusion rather than revolution.
The following generation’s struggles erupted on a new terrain, as consumers reprised producers’ demand for self-determination in the marketplace: first as a demand for individuality, and then, when that was granted, for autonomy. This culminated with the classic imperative of the do-it-yourself counterculture—“Become the media”—just as the global telecommunications infrastructure was miniaturized to make individual workers as flexible as national economies.
We have become the media, and our demand for autonomy has been granted—but this has not rendered us free. Just as the struggles of producers were defused by turning them into consumers, the demands of consumers have been defused by turning them into producers: where the old media had been top-down and unidirectional, the new media derive their value from user-created content. Meanwhile, globalization and automation eroded the compromise Ford had brokered between capitalists and a privileged subset of the working class, producing a redundant and precarious population.
In this volatile context, new corporations like Google are updating the Fordist compromise via free labor and free distribution. Ford offered workers greater participation in capitalism via mass consumption; Google gives everything away for free by making everything into an unpaid job. In offering credit, Ford enabled workers to become consumers by selling their future as well as present labor; Google has dissolved the distinction between production, consumption, and surveillance, making it possible to capitalize on those who may never have anything to spend at all.
Attention itself is supplementing financial capital as the determinant currency in our society. It is a new consolation prize for which the precarious may compete—those who will never be millionaires can still dream of a million youtube views—and a new incentive to drive the constant innovation capitalism necessitates. As in the financial market, corporations and individuals alike may try their luck, but those who control the structures through which attention circulates wield the greatest power. Google’s ascendancy does not derive from advertising revenue or product sales but from the ways it shapes the flows of information.
Looking ahead down this road, we can imagine a digital feudalism in which finance capital and attention have both been consolidated in the hands of an elite, and a benevolent dictatorship of computers (human and otherwise) maintains the Internet as a playpen for a superfluous population. Individual programs and programmers will be replaceable—the more internal mobility a hierarchical structure offers, the more robust and resilient it is—but the structure itself will be nonnegotiable. We can even imagine the rest of the population participating on an apparently horizontal and voluntary basis in refining the programming—within certain parameters, of course, as in all algorithms.
Digital feudalism could arrive under the banner of direct democracy, proclaiming that everyone has the right to citizenship and participation, presenting itself as a solution to the excesses of capitalism. Those who dream of a guaranteed basic income, or who wish to be compensated for the online harvesting of their “personal data,” must understand that these demands would only be realized by an all-seeing surveillance state—and that such demands legitimize state power and surveillance even if they are never granted. Statists will use the rhetoric of digital citizenship to justify mapping everyone in new cartographies of control, fixing each of us to a single online identity in order to fulfill their vision of a society subject to total regulation and enforcement. “Smart cities” will impose algorithmic order on the offline world, replacing the unsustainable growth imperative of contemporary capitalism with new imperatives: surveillance, resilience, and management.22. Smart cities will not be based on greener buildings, but on the surveillance and control of our personal possessions: Walmart is already using RFID chips, the same chips used in US passports, to track the flows of its commodities across the globe.
In this dystopian projection, the digital project of reducing the world to representation converges with the program of electoral democracy, in which only representatives acting through the prescribed channels may exercise power. Both set themselves against all that is incomputable and irreducible, fitting humanity to a Procrustean bed. Fused as electronic democracy, they would present the opportunity to vote on a vast array of minutia, while rendering the infrastructure itself unquestionable—the more participatory a system is, the more “legitimate.” Yet every notion of citizenship implies an excluded party; every notion of political legitimacy implies a zone of illegitimacy.
Genuine freedom means being able to determine our lives and relations from the ground up. We must be able to define our own conceptual frameworks, to formulate the questions as well as the answers. This is not the same as obtaining better representation or more participation in the prevailing order. Championing digital inclusivity and “democratic” state stewardship equips those who hold power to legitimize the structures through which they wield it.
It is a mistake to think that the tools built to rule us would serve us if only we could depose our masters. That’s the same mistake every previous revolution has made about police, courts, and prisons. The tools of liberation must be forged in the struggle to achieve it.
The Social Networks
We contemplate a future in which digital systems will meet our every need, as long as we ask only for the present order delivered instantly. Tracing the trajectory of our digital imaginary, we will soon be always voting, always working, always shopping, always in jail. Even fantasies that separate the soul from the body to travel inside the computer leave the liberal subject intact: every post-humanism we have been offered has been a neoliberalism, every one.
Liberal gradualists fighting for online privacy and net neutrality figure the subalterns they are defending as individuals. But as long as we operate according to the paradigm of “human rights,” our attempts to organize against systems of digital control will only reproduce their logic. The regime of constitutions and charters that is presently coming to an end didn’t just protect the liberal subject, the individual—it invented it. Each of the rights of the liberal subject implies a lattice of institutional violence to ensure its functional atomization—the partitioning of private property, the privacy of voting booths and prison cells.
If nothing else, the ostentatious networking of daily life underscores the fragility of liberal individuality. Where does “I” begin and end, when my knowledge is derived from search engines and my thoughts are triggered and directed by online updates? Countering this, we are encouraged to shore up our fragile individualism by constructing and disseminating autobiographical propaganda. The online profile is a reactionary form that attempts to preserve the last flickering ember of the liberal subjectivity by selling it. Say, “identity economy.”
But the object of exploitation is a network, and so is the subject in revolt. Neither have ever resembled the liberal individual for very long. The slave galley and the slave uprising are both networks composed of some aspects of many people. Their difference consists not in different types of people, but different principles of networking. Every body contains multiple hearts. The perspective that digital representation provides on our own activity enables us to clarify that we are pursuing a conflict between rival organizational principles, not between specific networks or individuals.
The networks produced and concealed by liberalism are inevitably hierarchical. Liberalism seeks to stabilize the pyramid of inequality by forever widening its base. Our desire is to level pyramids, to abolish the indignities of domination and submission. We do not demand that the rich give to the poor; we seek to cut down the fences. We cannot say that the digital is essentially hierarchical, because we know nothing of “essences”; we only know that the digital is fundamentally hierarchical, in that it is built upon the same foundation as liberalism. If a different digital is possible, it will only emerge on a different foundation.
We don’t need better iterations of existing technology; we need a better premise for our relations. New technologies are useless except insofar as they help us to establish and defend new relations.
Social networks preexist the internet; different social practices network us according to different logics. Understanding our relations in terms of circulation rather than static identity—in terms of trajectories rather than locations, of forces rather than objects—we can set aside the question of individual rights and set out to create new collectivities outside the logic that produced the digital and its divides.
The Force Quits
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Integration creates new exclusions; the atomized seek each other. Every new form of control creates another site of rebellion. Policing and security infrastructure have increased exponentially over the past two decades, but this has not produced a more pacified world—on the contrary, the greater the coercion, the more instability and unrest. The project of controlling populations by digitizing their interactions and environments is itself a coping strategy to forestall the upheavals that are bound to follow the economic polarization, social degradation, and ecological devastation wrought by capitalism.
The wave of uprisings that has swept the globe since 2010—from Tunisia and Egypt through Spain and Greece to the worldwide Occupy movement, and most recently Turkey and Brazil—has largely been understood as a product of the new digital networks. Yet it is also a reaction against digitization and the disparities it reinforces. News of Occupy encampments spread via the Internet, but those who populated them were there because they were unsatisfied with the merely virtual—or because, being poor or homeless, they had no access to it at all. Before 2011, who could have imagined that the Internet would produce a worldwide movement premised on permanent presence in shared physical space?
This is only a foretaste of the backlash that will ensue as more and more of life is fitted to the digital grid. The results are not foreordained, but we can be sure there will be new opportunities for people to come together outside and against the logic of capitalism and state control. As we witness the emergence of digital citizenship and the identity market, let us begin by asking what technologies the digitally excluded non-citizen will need. The tools employed during the fight for Gezi Park in Istanbul in summer 2013 could present a humble starting place. How can we extrapolate from protest mapping to the tools that will be necessary for insurrection and survival, especially where the two become one and the same? Looking to Egypt, we can see the need for tools that could coordinate the sharing of food—or disable the military.
Understanding the expansion of the digital as an enclosure of our potential doesn’t mean ceasing to use digital technology. Rather, it means changing the logic with which we approach it. Any positive vision of a digital future will be appropriated to perpetuate and abet the ruling order; the reason to engage on the terrain of the digital is to destabilize the disparities it imposes. Instead of establishing digital projects intended to prefigure the world we wish to see, we can pursue digital practices that disrupt control. Rather than setting out to defend the rights of a new digital class—or to incorporate everyone into such a class via universal citizenship—we can follow the example of the disenfranchised, beginning from contemporary uprisings that radically redistribute power.
Understood as a class, programmers occupy the same position today that the bourgeoisie did in 1848, wielding social and economic power disproportionate to their political leverage. In the revolutions of 1848, the bourgeoisie sentenced humanity to two more centuries of misfortune by ultimately siding with law and order against poor workers. Programmers enthralled by the Internet revolution could do even worse today: they could become digital Bolsheviks whose attempt to create a democratic utopia produces the ultimate totalitarianism.
On the other hand, if a critical mass of programmers shifts their allegiances to the real struggles of the excluded, the future will be up for grabs once more. But that would mean abolishing the digital as we know it—and with it, themselves as a class. Desert the digital utopia.
This past February, the Brooklyn Rail published an essay on black metal by the critical theorist and artist Aliza Shvarts. “Metal is an overwhelmingly white and heteromasculinist subculture,” she wrote. “Yet as such, it offers something useful to a prurient queer feminist interest…metal is a relevant site to dark radical queers and feminists precisely because it is usually not for us but about us.” She proceeds her argument not by decrying sexism in metal music, but rather by singling out of one the genre’s more avant-garde outfits, Sunn O))). As she sees it, the band—a remote project between Paris-based guitarist Stephen O’Malley and Los Angeles-based bassist Greg Anderson—has been queering metal itself, subverting rather than entrenching patriarchy.
Shvarts isn’t alone in this outlook. Sunn O))) have developed a steady fan base as a metal band that doesn’t play to the conventionalities of the genre. Instead, their music has long been characterized by their meditations on distorted guitar chords, a sound much indebted to the raga work of the drone music pioneer La Monte Young. The band’s percussion-less compositions have no discernible verse or chorus structure, yet typically push past the ten minute mark. One such track, a 20-minute instrumental dedicated to jazz legend Alice Coltrane, features trombones and major chords held until their natural dissipation. The latter, especially, is a common trait of the band. In a genre largely dominated by stomping rhythms and chaotic speed, Sunn O))) rewards those who are willing to immerse themselves in their patient music.
For the band’s seventh studio album—titled Kannon, their first in six years—O’Malley had turned the band’s attention to the calm and merciful manner of the Buddha. “[In Buddhist teaching] ‘Kannon’ is the aspect that hears the suffering of the universe and then transforms that energy into compassion and relief,” O’Malley tells me during an interview in Brooklyn’s East River Park. He adds that Kannon is usually depicted in Zen teachings as a female Buddha. It was during the band’s exploration of this concept back in February that Shvarts’ article was published. One of the things she argued is that the immersive quality inherent in Sunn O)))’s music has more in common with the sounds of reproductive labor—“it’s magic, horror, and drone”—than the industrial, mechanized sound that is more common to metal. It is in this deviation from the status quo that Shvarts sees Sunn O)))’s power. O’Malley was impressed with Shvarts’ ideas and he invited her to expand on them in an essay that would become the liner notes to Kannon. In turn, the record grew into a triptych of mantra-like compositions that subvert common notions of metal music—dark distorted guitars, howling vocals, tightly threaded song partitions—by channeling them into amorphicity.
“We’ve worked with concepts before,” says O’Malley, “but we’ve never gone this deep with one.” Black One (2005), he explains, challenged the aesthetic confines of black metal, while Monoliths and Dimensions (2009) instigated a conversation between distorted drone and orchestral arrangement. Kannon doesn’t just further Sunn O)))’s philosophical investigations into metal, it’s an inquiry into the band’s continued existence. It was largely developed during the band’s live shows, the only time its two core members ever see each other. Though they founded Sunn O))) in their hometown of Seattle in 1998, O’Malley and Anderson have lived in different cities since 2001, with O’Malley residing for many years in New York, and now in Paris, and Anderson raising a family in Los Angeles. “Playing with Stephen and keeping this band going,” says Anderson over the phone from his L.A. home, “has been one of the most awesome challenges in my life.”
In eschewing the meticulousness of their previous studio albums for a more raw and stripped sound, Kannon demonstrates the quintessence of Sunn O))). O’Malley and Anderson slowly churn guitar chords as Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar—who also appeared on Monoliths and Dimensions—delivers snarling and rapturous incantations. Both members acknowledge that Kannon largely matured with Csihar as the fulcrum. “In the last four or five years our live show has kind of turned from a wall of fog into a triangle with Attila in the foreground,” says O’Malley. Csihar and Shvarts are just two of the contributors on Kannon’s personnel, which also includes longtime producer Randall Dunn, Moog player Steve Moore, and experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi, amongst others.
Here, Anderson and O’Malley tell the story of Kannon and the continued evolution of Sunn O))) in their own words.
O’Malley:Kannon originated from a demo I made in New York in 2006. Greg was into it, and we slowly began introducing early versions of that material into our sets.
Anderson: An early version of “Kannon 3” is actually on our live album Dømkirke (Dome Curve, 2008), that was recorded at the Bergen Cathedral in Norway.
O’Malley: On Dømkirke, it’s called “Cannon” with a C, which carries a different meaning than when it’s spelled with a K. It’s been part of our live set for a few years now.
Anderson: Compositionally, Kannon represents we’ve been doing live over the last eight years. Whereas the other records were really developed and created in the studio, this record was most inspired by and developed through our performances. And one of the great impacts of our live show has been to work with Attila Csihar, who has become, sort of, our vocalist. Our last couple records have been sort of half-vocal, half-instrumental pieces where this album is really more stuff that we were developing live, and that including his parts as well. He’s participated in developing these songs from the beginning.
O’Malley: Attila’s totally integrated into the reality of the live band, and we had worked together on Dømkirke and Monoliths and Dimensions. The one track we kept instrumental on that album is “Alice,” which is a tribute to Alice Coltrane. Funny anecdote about that song: I met that dude Flying Lotus at the Oya Festival in Oslo this past summer. It had this crazy backstage with a massage parlor, a hair salon, and a swimming pool. We all got our beards trimmed at the salon, and he was sitting next to me getting a haircut. I didn’t recognize him, but he recognized me. He was like “Hey, you’re Sunn O))) right? I really liked your tribute to my aunt!” I thought it was cool that he knew about it, and he seemed equally grateful it existed. “Alice” was also how Soused (4AD, 2013) happened; I’d sent Scott Walker the recording and we batted around the idea of having him put vocals on it. That didn’t happen, but then you know, we ended up making a whole album with him later on. Attila wasn’t involved with the Soused sessions, but he was incredibly gracious about stepping aside and letting us work with Scott. I think that experience made us all more confident in what we were doing, maybe more ambitious. Maybe it has also given us a chance to feature Attila as the frontman in the next step of our evolutionary process.
“In the late ‘90s, it was a much more rigid and narrow-minded community. If you didn’t dress a certain way, or play a certain way, than you weren’t metal.”—Grey Anderson, Sunn O)))
Anderson: [Making] Kannon has been a useful way to investigate our sound and to stretch and morph these songs in ways we might not have done had we recorded them all in a studio. It’s kind of ironic that this album reflects our live sound, because at first we weren’t sure if the band was going to continue to play live—we thought we might just turn this into a studio project. So when we did decide to keep playing live, that aspect of Sunn O))) really took on a life of its own. We tried to keep those elements somewhat loose as far what we were going to do, and what we were going to play, and we were open to possibilities about where to go with the music, in order to keep us going.
O’Malley: When we took this stuff into the studio to record it, we wanted to present it in a way that our people could provoke a discussion with something other than just the music. Aliza’s essay on feminism in metal was a big part of that. There’s a huge sexist problem in metal—“problem” isn’t the right word, it’s traditionally a sexist culture—but the way Aliza broached the topic of sexism in metal, and put a feminine spin on our own music, was pretty original and refreshing. No one had approached our work with this perspective. So I reached out to her about contributing liner notes. There she discusses this idea of [our sound] from the perspective of feminist and Buddhist thought, how it [immerses the listener] in an all-encompassing feminine embrace—you’re within—as opposed to a more masculine, a more directional, opposal way of thinking.
I’m not the most scholarly person on this subject, but that way of thinking interests me. I’m not calling this our “Buddhist record,” but we wanted to give Kannon a twist, to present something that has a little bit more of a philosophical angle. Why don’t we take this intense, brutal consuming sound, and present it as a sort of merciful, almost relief, music? Attila took this Buddhist concept and worked it into the language and voice. His way of looking at things is very visual, event-based, and phenomenological, where every line is very rich and poetic.
Anderson: Attila’s pretty great at pulling from a wide variety of influences that can range from a David Icke book to a Diamanda Galas record. The imagery of his lyrics are as much a part of the concept as everything else.
“Why don’t we take this intense, brutal consuming sound, and present it as a sort of merciful, almost relief, music?”—Stephen O’Malley, Sunn O)))
O’Malley: There’s a hope that there might be some reaction to this concept from the East. We have a lot of fans in Asia, like in China, but we’ve never played there. I don’t even know what it’s like. There’s a lot of people who think of concepts like [the ones explored on Kannon] on a daily basis, but probably less so here than there; in many Asian countries, it’s a fundamental thing. We’re in a position where people are looking at what you’re doing, and listening to what you’re saying, so what are you going to talk about? You have the opportunity to make statements, whether they be philosophical or political ones. Though, as a band, you have to share a message or you’ll just splinter.
When we were invited to play in Israel in 2006, some of the band members didn’t want to go. So Attila, Oren, and I went, and performed as a sort of side project to Sunn O))) called Gravetemple, which we created just to go and have that experience. But while we were there, war broke out with Lebanon. It was crazy. There’s something about going to a country as an artist, where you’re not a political ambassador or endorsing the beliefs of the government so much as you are there for your fans. They’re so grateful for you to go past politics and just be there with your music. Maybe it’s a bit irresponsible to think about it that way, but it’s also important to remember that these things don’t always have to be tied up in the political media frenzy and fear—this paranoia and all this racist shit that gets programmed by the media. A place like Israel is just so intense on that level—but I’ve also met amazing people there, who try to avoid all that and make art.
Anderson: Even the attitude of the metal community can be polarizing, though it has significantly progressed toward openness since we first started. Back then, in the late ’90s, it was a much more rigid and narrow-minded community. If you didn’t dress a certain way, or play a certain way, or even shared the same beliefs, than you weren’t metal, and therefore not really accepted. No one understood us, or really cared to. People just said it was garbage and noise. But it never deterred us from exploring our own sound within a metal palette, and now we have a huge following and sell out shows because we didn’t conform to doing metal by the book. This has caused some people within the metal community to ask if we still respect and love it, and the answer is absolutely.
Stephen and I are extremely obsessed with, and incredibly influenced by metal. We eat, breathe, and sleep metal. Even if we don’t wear it on our sleeves, we have it in our hearts. And maybe that won’t satisfy everyone. Certainly people have tried to expose us: “They claim they’re making metal, but they’re not. They’re not metal!” Or they want to know what kind of metal that we play. That’s why we get these awkward descriptions of our sound, like “avant-garde drone doom metal.” I understand that people have these terms so that they can easily describe us, but talking about something just in terms of labels also prevents people from forming independent thoughts about our music. So if people ask, at the end of the day, I always just say that we’re experimental. It’s a broad enough term to satisfy most people and they can make what they want of it.
Kannon is out December 4th via Southern Lord Records (order it here).