That’s the last line of the last page of the last issue of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s pop magic comic book master work. That final issue came out right around Y2K, but it’s set on the December solstice of what was then the freaky-sounding future year 2012. All this year, every time I heard somebody cracking wise about the Mayan Apocalypse, I thought, “Unless you’re an ancient Mayan, you’re stealing Grant Morrison’s bit.”
I bought and read every issue of The Invisibles as it came out from 1994 to 2000. It’s the only comic I’ve ever followed so religiously. It’s brilliant and fun and a bit of a mess and it meant the world to me. It worked its way into my life and rewired the way I saw things, which is pretty much what it was intended to do. Yes, it’s dated now, but so am I. I can’t be any more objective about it than I could be objective about my twenties.
My first pointless argument with a stranger on the internet—you never forget your first time—was on an Invisibles fan site, and it was about whether or not the world was really going to end on December 21, 2012. The world of the comic book, that is. There’s much talk in The Invisibles about the End of Days, the Mayapocalypse, Glitterdammerung, you name it, but I figured all along that Grant was going to invoke the “As We Know It” clause—the end of the world wouldn’t be a literal end but just the dawning of a new age, an evolution to a some higher (read: more Grant Morrison-like) state of being. When an early issue featured a flash forward to the year 2051 or so, showing the young protagonist Dane McGowan dying of old age, I said this proved Dane’s world wouldn’t end in 2012. My internet interlocutor said this was a false vision sent by the comic’s demonic baddies to demoralize Dane. I’m not sure how demoralizing it is to be told you will die peacefully in bed at the age of eighty-three, but the Archons of the Outer Church work in mysterious ways.
And when it comes, I think you will agree that the difference between being crushed by the massive palm of the headless body of NUG-SHOHAB on the ruined plain of RAGNAROK versus dying alone in a hospital room with a television flickering images at you of a football player dancing with the stars is so small that it is not worth arguing over.
That’s John Hodgman in what has to be the year’s best apocalypse, That Is All. Now, Hodgman’s not stealing Morrison’s bit. He probably read all about the Mayan calendar back in 1979 in The People’s Almanac or The Book of Lists. Speaking of 1979, here’s Stephen King talking about the appeal of the apocalypse in Danse Macabre (I’ll admit it: King’s red-state apocalypse The Stand was almost as big a deal to me in high school as The Invisibles was to me in grad school):
Much of the compulsion I felt while writing The Stand obviously came from envisioning an entire entrenched societal process destroyed at a stroke. I felt a bit like Alexander, lifting his sword over the Gordian knot and growling, ‘Fuck untying it; I’ve got a better way.’ … In this frame of mind, the destruction of THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT became an actual relief. No more Ronald McDonald! No more Gong Show or Soap on TV—just soothing snow! No more terrorists! No more bullshit!
Pause for a moment to reflect that The Gong Show and Soap were once, apparently, arguments for the destruction of humanity. Today they’d be an improvement over many things on TV. (Come back, Chuck Barris, all is forgiven!) Setting that aside, who hasn’t felt like that, like the end of everything would be a kind of relief? Who hasn’t felt like that this week?
The lure of apocalypse is not just the thrill of destruction. It’s the dream of the blank slate. One stray comet, one deadly plague, one dolorous blow from the headless NUG-SHOHAB, and all our troubles will be over. Sure, the world will be a smoking ruin, but that term paper you have to write, those bills you have to pay, those intractable social problems that we just aren’t up to solving—they’ll all be made moot. Cosmic Do-Over. Tabula Rasa. Inbox Zero.
When I put this weblog in mothballs two years ago, I was feeling depressed about the internet, and all the ways in which it seemed to be falling short of what we’d hoped for it. I said it didn’t surprise and delight me any more. I still feel that way (see Anil Dash’s recent “The Web We Lost“), but I resist the urge to disown the optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s, no matter how naive or embarrassing it all seems in retrospect. That would let us all off the hook too easily for the things we didn’t accomplish. (For the record: the internet still surprises and delights me from time to time.)
Dreams of utopia and dreams of apocalypse are both ways of talking about the future—no, scratch that—they are ways of talking, if only obliquely, about a radically different present. In a society that seems to have given up trying to imagine anything much better than multinational capitalism, you need to sneak up on social criticism. Dress it up with rayguns or zombies. Set it in some freaky futuristic-sounding year like 2012.
That’s fine and all. But what are you supposed to do when the world doesn’t end? What do you do when the flying saucers don’t land, the Mayan star-demons don’t tear us to shreds, the Rapture comes and goes and God doesn’t take a single one of us? Or, what do you do when a revolutionary new technology rewires the world yet leaves all the power structures and patterns that predated it intact? How do you make your way and make a difference in a world that refuses to end, a world neither apocalypse nor utopia, a world where the slate will never come clean?
Toward the end of The Invisibles, one character tries to tell King Mob, the ass-kicking anarchist hero of the series, “Amid all the bangs and the drama and the grand passions, it’s kindness, and just ordinary goodness, that stands out in the end.” In fact, King Mob spends most of the comic shooting people, using time travel to hook up with women from different decades, and reminding everyone how cool he is. But Dane, resolutely unglamorous, saves the world just by being a good person. And the final issue finds Dane doing nothing more dramatic than giving comfort to a dying friend. I know which kind of heroism is more meaningful to me. This week especially.
The end of the Mayan calendar is not an apocalypse at all, of course. It’s just like Y2K–another big odometer rolling over. That can mean as much as or as little as you want it to. What’s the end-of-the-world equivalent of “think globally, act locally”? Think apocalyptically, act… ordinarily? Think as if the world is ending, act as if it isn’t.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Invisibles, but I dug out the final issue to write this post and I noticed one more thing I’d never seen before. The final issue is actually set on December 22, 2012. The day after the Mayapocalypse. Suck on that, fourteen-years-ago internet arguer.
The first line on the first page of the first issue of The Invisibles is:
My god, this thing we (unfortunately?) call blogging has changed so much in ten years. It’s enjoyed its edgy youth, its boom town gold rush days, and its decadent high baroque. Now, with the rise of blogging’s vapid, staccato children, the blog as medium seems to be settling into old, weird decrepitude. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself. We always do, don’t we, when we talk about the internet?
It is time, I think, for Old is the New New, at least in its current incarnation, to come to an end.
Not necessarily today, and not necessarily with this post. No, this blog will ramp down and fold up, I expect, in the same half-assed, dilatory way it has always lived. But it is time for some kind of change.
Ten years is a long run for a blogger, even one as erratic as I. If you are reading this, oh Teeming Dozens, thank you for your time. If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, thank you. If you’ve ever commented, if you’ve ever linked, if you’ve ever gotten anything out of this at all, thank you. I am so grateful for, and flattered by, every success this little blog has had.
What exactly “come to an end” means is a little fuzzy. I am still going to be blogging about history and play at the shiny new group blog, Play The Past. I am, if a little unenthusiastically, on Facebook and Twitter. This site will absolutely stay up, maybe with a facelift of sorts. The archives aren’t going anywhere. (I’ve even been toying with the idea of vanity-publishing my best old stuff as a POD book. Would anyone buy one? Mom?) And whenever I write something new, as I expect I will from time to time, I will probably post it here. So in what sense will the blog be “done”? Why not just call this yet another hiatus? I’ve obviously had no problem letting these furrows lay fallow for months at a time before.
The reasons are mostly in my head. My life too often feels like a chain of endless open loops. (I am sure nobody reading this can relate.) As I scramble to hammer out the final revisions on my telephone book, assemble my tenure file, teach my classes, and try not to screw up my two kiddies too badly, I’d prefer to think of Old is the New New as some kind of accomplishment, rather than one more hovering obligation. And the way to do that, I think, is to draw a line and call it done.
I also want to free myself for new things. I remember talking once about “blogging voice” with Timothy Burke. For me, Tim sets the gold standard for academic generalist blogging. He’s got a brilliant, playful, wide-ranging mind and can find something interesting and original to say on any topic under the sun. But Tim has written more than once about how the “voice” he’s crafted on his blog is both “a treasured accomplishment and a frustrating confinement.” “The more you write,” he says, “the more your writing is both burden and expectation, a second self whose permission is required before you do something new.”
I know what he means. Even with my own erratic output, there are a few hundred posts below this one, trailing back ten years to the start of this century. I doubt many of you have read them all, but I have, and I do feel them dragging in my wake whenever I sit down to write something new. How many posts have I started by linking to what I said on the same subject two years ago, or three, or five, or eight? I want to be able to start fresh, to sharpen and revise my voice. I don’t know if a new format or URL or blog theme will be enough for me to do that, but it’s a start.
Finally, I’m just a little down on the whole internet deal just now. I know that every generalization about the web is wrong, including this one. Emily Gould called the internet “a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to.” My internet isn’t yours, and again, whenever we make hand-wavey generalizations about the web, we’re mostly just describing our own neurochemistries. So read this how you will, but when I look at the web today, I get tired. There’s great stuff out there, I know. But I can’t shake the sense that rhetorical closure is setting in, and it’s not all we thought it was going to be. Four years ago, Time‘s Person of the Year was “You,” which is to say, us, which is to say, that whole user-generated people power 2.0 schtick. Yes, it was hokey and about three years late in coming, but a worthwhile sentiment just the same. This year, of course, Time‘s Noble Personage is Mark Zuckerberg. Don’t tell me there’s not some kind of declension there.
There was a time when the web, and the blogosphere in particular, surprised and delighted me every damn day. It doesn’t do that lately. Am I just old? Maybe. But the thing to do, I’m thinking, is not to get all wistful about it. It is to step back, to try to rethink and hopefully rediscover my relationship to this space, and see if, somewhere down the road, I can’t surprise and delight myself (and maybe you) once more.
I’m enjoying Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and already thinking about which chunks I will cannibalize for my history of science and technology class next semester. Good Ideas brings together themes that Johnson has been developing for years: the networked nature of innovation, the ingenuity of cities, the power of thinking across disciplines and scales. It’s a great read, as ingenious and beautifully written as all his stuff, although its wider scope makes it, to my mind, a little breezier and more lightweight than, say, The Ghost Map, which remains my favorite of Johnson’s books. I want to say this gently, because I think Johnson is terrific, but there is a whiff of the airport bookstore, if you know what I mean, around this business of “good ideas” and how to have more of them. Good Ideas shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in a way Ghost Map or Emergence or Invention of Air do not: you too can harness Charles Darwin’s seven secrets of info-lution! That’s probably a plus for some readers, but it’s not really what I came for. Still. I’m only part way into the book, and I trust Johnson to take me someplace smart and unexpected and cool.
I like to read related things in tandem (that’s one of the seven secrets, sort of), so as a bit of a counterweight I’m also reading John Durham Peters’ 2004 essay “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’: A History of the Concept,” published in a collection called Toward a Political Economy of Culture. Johnson’s metaphors are more biological than economic–not a ”marketplace” of ideas but a “coral reef”–but otherwise, Peters could have been talking about Johnson here:
Words are conceptual mausoleums, haunts at which the spirits of the dead continue their debates and threaten to possess the bodies of the unwary. Intellectual history can provide a selective exorcism … Taking the ‘marketplace’ as the central metaphor for public communication, as we will see, has divergent effects. It packs hefty semantic freight, suggesting that communication and economics are not only analogous but flourish when unregulated, that diversity is essential, and that exchange occurs in a “place” where people congregate and circulate, enter and exit at will. The term often wears the halo of what one might call the libertarian theodicy–the faith that ideas, if they are left to shift for themselves, will be diverse and truth will conquer error in the long run. It implies a rather disembodied vision of public communication, as if the politics of culture were governed by entities so Platonic as “ideas.”
Are all ideas good ones? Do The Origin of Species, a sexy new way to market music, and predicting the 9-11 attacks beforehand all come from the same place? Did Social Darwinism, CD packaging, and the 9-11 attacks themselves come from some different process?
All that aside, the real catalyst for this post was a throwaway reference in Good Ideas. Talking about Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine, Johnson writes:
For all its complexity, however, the Difference Engine was well within the adjacent possible of Victorian technology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady stream of improvements to mechanical calculation, many of them building on Babbage’s architecture. … In 1884, an American inventor named William S. Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company to sell mass-produced calculators to businesses around the country. (The fortune generated by those machines would help fund his namesake grandson’s writing career, not to mention his drug habit, almost a century later.)
Did everybody else know about this? Digging into my old Suppressed Transmissions, I see Ken Hite mentioned Burroughs the elder back in 2002, damn his eyes. But there’s still crazy untapped hashpunk potential in the idea of “William S. Burroughs’ Difference Engine.” And get this: Wikipedia tells me that a Burroughs Corporation computer console appeared in the old Batman series as the Bat-Computer. Holy Dreamachine. I don’t know what’s weirder there: the Burroughs-Batman connection or that the Bat-Computer was a real computer. So. Conflate or combine the two William Burroughses and mix them up with William Gibson too. Posit a drug-fuelled information revolution in the late 19th century. Giant beetly arithmometers talking out of unpleasant looking orifices. Phallic zeppelins of Interzone. Predatory mugwumps stalking the back streets of Tangiers. And some time in the surreal century that follows, the scion of the Burroughs family (along with youthful ward Allen Ginsberg) dons a cape and mask to rid his city of crime. To the Beatmobile!
See? Darwin’s seven secrets of evo-vation are working already.
There’s a nice long article in this month’s Harpers about vampire belief and lore in the present day Balkans.
Unlike his Western relation–that handsome, aristocratic, mirror-wary antihero–the Balkan vampire is typically confined to living and hunting among the laboring classes … Also a Western conceit is the vampire’s pallor; whereas female vampires are beautiful and white-robed, most firsthand accounts indicated that male vampires are ruddy, corpulent peasants, whose affect–once unearthed–is that of a freshly gorged mosquito.
Lots of good stuff about rural vampire-hunting, a legendary Serbian horror movie about an evil butterfly, the post-Tito return of the Devil, and why there are no goats in the nativity. On sparkly Western vampires, the author has this:
The Americanized vampire is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline: the person who has been able to take it all with him when he dies, who has outlived the vagaries of civilization itself. Having abandoned the culture that forged him, moreover, he deceives us into thinking that he has moved beyond being what he always has been–a disease. Now the plague he spreads is a therapeutic fantasy in which an embarrassment of wealth and youth and hedonism is acceptable as long as its beneficiary is equipped with the right intentions. We have forgotten to be afraid because … we are willing to believe that a weapon of evil, in the right hands, can be transformed into an instrument of good.
Your opponent is the City. You must do battle with it from the time the ferry-boat lands you on the island until either it is yours or it has conquered you. The battle is to decide whether you shall become a New Yorker or turn the rankest outlander and Philistine. You must be one or the other. You cannot remain neutral.
John Berger, “Keeping a Rendezvous” (1987):
Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
To which some droll New Yorker replied: “Albany is an old man in a deli, trying to send back soup.”
Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad Axe” (1856):
The great city is that which has the greatest men and women. If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.
Gary Provost, quoted in Roy Peter Clark’s (terrific) Writing Tools:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
It’s good advice, of course, but mostly I was impressed by the execution.
Our culture’s post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment prohibition on the supernatural and exclusion of a transcendent, nonmaterialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression. … The displaced religious impulse surfaces … as an overvaluing of the object beyond its intrinsic function in our lives. Craving its holy objects, its temples, its roadside shrines and absolutions, we have let the transcendental in distorted form invade art, the sexual experience, psychotherapy, even the quasi-worship of celebrities living and dead. …
The contemporary realm of popular entertainment is our main subterranean entry, the grotto entry, to the boarded-up mansion of sacred awe, where we conduct our primitive discourse on religious subjects–a discourse whose crudeness would horrify our pious ancestors, but nonetheless a discourse–behind our own backs.
File under: “Did ya ever look at a dollar bill? There’s some spooky shit goin’ on.”
Shelve with: Milutis, Ether; Wood, Edison’s Eve.
(Via my man Devon Elliott.) (I haven’t gotten to the puppets yet.)
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.
The monster is back, patient readers, but it only has a few hit points left.