[12 September 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
If there was anything left in the tank from Journalism School, I’d buckle to tradition and frame this second act of the exclusive interview with John Reed by talking about Leonardo. About how Leonardo is really a MirrorWorld image (a term that comes courtesy of Bill Gibson’s Pattern Recognition; it’s there in chapter one if you’ve not read it yet) of Einstein. But in a far more poignant sense than the obvious one which paints them as having a collective and lasting impact on our species.
I’d make the point accessible, by which I mean easy to understand, and mobile, by which I mean easy to replay in your memory, easy for you to pass along. The point is really elegant enough in itself. Both Leonardo and Einstein spearheaded a revolution in the human imagination. Einstein’s reliance on thought-experiments are really the first proposition. It’s a new way of doing science, one that revolutionizes Galileo’s already revolutionary method of observing the world and encoding it in mathematics. Imagine traveling at the speed of light, Einstein’s famous thought experiment that would end in outlining Specific Relativity began. What we see is what NYU physicist Michio Kaku might refer to as the “physics of the impossible”—it’s the unshackling of the imagination to fly freely through a science fictional landscape, and use the scientific method to reverse-engineer the exact physics of the situation.
For Einstein, it’s imagination first, and the scientific method falls in service of that. For Leonardo, it’s almost no different. There’s a secret Leonardo, one never spoken about publicly, one only hinted at that deceptively wondrous videogame series, Assassin’s Creed. It’s Leonardo the war engineer. It’s the Leonardo who conceived of tanks the size of palaces, of battering rams that would rival the Washington Monument, of siege engines that would need thousands of humans to operate.
Just like Einstein would encourage us to rally around easy, accessible ideas, Leonardo would conceive of great machines that would pull us inward, deep into their own inner workings. And there’s a new kind of Leonardo that begins to emerge—Leonardo as an early avatar of cyberpunk. And somewhere between Einstein’s imagination, and Leonardo’s and Leonardo’s own ever-more plausible scifi credentials, it wouldn’t be so long a leap to Orwell. Orwell who leverages literary forms as a kind of experimental space. And a much shorter leap still from Orwell to John Reed. The Reed who tackles Orwell’s project directly in Snowball’s Chance, a novella now at it’s 10-year anniversary, and the Reed who confronts the world that Orwell’s thinking built in his political satire cartoon, Shitty Mickey.
If there was anything left in the tank from Journalism school, this would be the frame for this piece. It’d play out in clean, crisp thoughts, each neatly distinct from the previous. All the thoughts arranged in neat line of argument, a kind of vector to make my point in the hopes of winning you over. The sentences would themselves be equally clear, crisp. Not too many run-ons. Not too many carry-overs. Just nicely packaged takeaways that you might Tweet or Like or Digg.
But life doesn’t work that way. And if writing is to be held to a higher standard, a standard more a vexillum of meditative engagement with the world, then we’ve got to let that last little bit of Journalism School die within ourselves. It’s going to need to be the dream of Alice Cooper, that we can hit permanent condition of school being out. Because what’s school but a sordid today mercilessly hounding a better tomorrow?
Writing should again begin to reflect the messiness of life. “Shut the engines down”, as Invincible Iron Man writer Matt Fraction might say. Not because writing’s done so in the past. But because we’re entering into a deeper, more properly scientific description of economies, one that holds the promise of a true human revolution. And if this exclusive is to represent the full complexity and messiness of lived human experience, then its writing will need to wrestle with these ideas that keep reemerging when I think about what to select to build this piece around.
It’s three ideas that emerge time and again, when thinking about the interview. Three ideas that always emerge in connection with one specific moment, the one moment that seems to stand as emblematic of the entire interview—John’s almost-throwaway thought on Jefferson. I can’t work myself free of these thoughts, and their over-and-again reemergence points to there being something of deeper value there, just beneath a surface I cannot, or perhaps subconsciously refuse to, break.
The thoughts are simple ones, it’s their connection to John’s ideas on Jefferson and to Orwell that will proven enriched by a greater complexity. The first an interaction with Terry and Amanda and a phone number that shall not be mentioned. The second is about being taught chess and how that’s different to learning the game. And the third, by far the easiest to connect with Orwell, with John and with Jefferson, is about Frank Herbert’s Dune. Well, not Dune itself, not quite the greater science fiction tome, but the book’s second sequel, Children of Dune.
It was hard to read Dune, I’m sure, and not draw a parallel between the world entering into the ‘70s. So very much of the ideologico-mythographic structure of the book seems to resonate with the historical twists and turns of the era. So much seems Lawrence of Arabia-esque, feels like Mossedagh or Arafat’s PLO. But at a deeper level, Dune resonates with the actual ‘60s/‘70s, with the dismantling of colonial structures in Africa, with Castro in Cuba, and a slew of Latin American revolutions, with Che’s traveling circus of communist revolutions, with Allende and his government’s inevitable apocalypse into Pinochet.
Dune makes sense in connection to Animal Farm. Both are emboldened by a spirit of literary experimentation. Both read as a protracted prelude to Ginsberg’s “Howl”, both a kind of exorcism of the 18th century values that have produced a state of affairs that had already then, become untenable. Both leverage older, more simplistic literary forms—Orwell the fable and Herbert scifi. Orwell of course, we’ll later come to understand more fully, comes with a secret betrayal. His use of the fable form is already a kind of countervailing of the genre; it comes at the price of inducting us into allegory, an older churchly genre that hopes to convince us that redemption is a far safer mode of existence than self-reliance, despite the obvious trade-offs involved in redemption.
As much as Dune seems to run the same circuit as Animal Farm, Herbert hits a sudden, unexpected escape velocity with Children of Dune. Children is the story of Paul Artreides’ children who claim his legacy, and in claiming it, break it. “I dream of a world where everyone is free to shape their own destiny from moment to moment,” Leto Artreides’ words echo like the whip of a banner beginning to unfurl. And later, “I am Leto of the line Artreides, come to usher in a Golden Path.” If Dune was the Mideast, and postcolonialism’s reshaping of geopolitics, Children was California, Dogtown, the Z-Boys, the birth of skateboarding as a cultural option, but more importantly, the rise of popculture.
With Herbert switching from Dune to Children in the span of a single career, Animal Farm begins to feel like a betrayal, Orwell himself never having made it as far as John did with Snowball’s Chance. After not going through that same self-critical hoop that Herbert so easily transitioned through, belies a secret paucity to Orwell. It seems more and more a logical consequence that Orwell himself would become exploited by both neocons and neo-liberals. Become the standard-bearer for an English culture that ejected the government that won the war.
Maybe it’s the rise of pop culture tied in with Orwell’s own (perhaps in some senses willing) exploitation by political machineries of the day, that brings my mind back to a very personal horror story. In short, Amanda picked up the folded PostIt, and I would have too. The PostIt contained a name and number, or at least, what at first blush seemed to be a name. Ten digits, neatly transcribed, and a single name, I’m assuming all in caps, centered above them.
Even before Amanda spoke her next words, I knew it would be the kind of number that no one should be in possession of. I knew this, because I know Terry. Terry being the kind of guy would be complimented if I were to call him a great and sleeping dragon. The kind of person lulls you into believing he’s slightly less dangerous than he appears, because the kind danger he presents is nothing more than knowing dangerous people. Amanda on the other hand is completely immersed in the politics of representation, in the Finer Moments and the Higher Culture of Art and Literature. It’s not unfair to say that she’s bought into the Renaissance compromise of artistic patronage and churchly power, the same compact that has made something as subversive as books, become accommodated in something as totalitarian as libraries. It’s equally not unfair to say that while she’ll never seek out TMZ, she dreams of a day when E! will reappear in its evolved form that will make it more acceptable to literary circles. Nor is it unfair to guess she’d probably not want to speak to me after this characterization, while Terry will most likely Facebook his.
“What’s ‘Yolo’, street for ‘Yolanda’?,” Amanda asks, gesturing at the future. “Why Oh El Oh, Mandy,” Terry replies, “You Only Live Once”. Which is, to be honest about things, purely a lie. Like you, I’ve seen that documentary hosted by Sean Connery, You Only Live Twice, and the successor documentary hosted by Peirce Brosnan, Die Another Day. I’ve read the great and secret treatise of our age, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and its successor, The Singularity is Near. And to be even more honest, somewhere deep down, much like you do, I agree with Tony Robbins; that it’s never about resources, it’s always about resourcefulness.
It’s a clandestine victory that I’ll never revisit, my not picking up that PostIt. YOLO feels like an act of surrender in a world that comes pre-rigged for Keeping up with the Kardashians and Jersey Shore and lolcats. Maybe it’s that moment Jefferson encounters, a moment that secretly breaks him.
“Did you know that when the Europeans first started coming to America,” John says to me conspiratorially, “There was a theory that a poison in the atmosphere kept the people here primitive?” And he says more, “And it was only a matter of time before the white people, too, devolved into barbarians.” And then something about Jefferson’s peerless intellect, “Thomas Jefferson was opposed to the idea.” And then something human about Jefferson, “But of course, was afraid it was true”.
Just for a moment I’m trapped in a single magnificent, wholly egotistical thought. Would Jefferson have picked up that PostIt? Jefferson himself probably knew, and was probably friends with his fair share of Terries and Amandas. He probably would have come face to face with a telephone number (let’s say street address to be more historically accurate), no one should ever need. So what would his reaction have been in the situation? Would it look a little like John’s dismantling of Orwell as a literary ideal? Like Herbert’s faith in the power of pop culture? Like Taylor Momsen singing “Make Me Wanna Die” after doing her time on the sets of Gossip Girl?
A single comment from Reed, a comment about Jefferson no less, and I’m lost in the seven or so years it took me to move from being taught chess to begin learning chess. And how, chess never did anything to prepare me for poker, probably the most samurai thing you can do these days. It is the art of the showdown, the art of committing to a decision, in advance of knowing the outcome, the art of the single blow to produce a singular victory. A victory not leveraged against defeat or against an opponent. But a victory over conditionality, over situation.
If 10 years of Snowball’s Chance has taught us anything, literature is already immediately political activity, with political consequence. That anything can be co-opted into the socioeconomic apparatus, that horizontal inequality is grist for the mill, and that to be a great thinker, you must be a great gambler also.
Orwell’s exploitation of allegory folded into the genre of the fable, is a deep plea for redemption. Or maybe more a plea bargain. The hope that politics itself can be redeemed through the cogitations of literature, the idea that something from outside can salvage a system completely. Snowball’s Chance feels like a new dawn because if present us with a new kind of gospel. One that can oppose grand narratives and the idea of collectivism with a keener, more flexible understand of the inner workings of systems. And for that reason, among countless others, I’d never want to sit down at a poker table with either Thomas Jefferson or John Reed.