She Blinded Me With History

Jeremy Kalgreen’s Science! t-shirts are, obviously, awesome. It’s a sign of how much I’ve changed since the 1990s that I have not already ordered a closet of them. If another sign were needed, that is, besides kids, minivan, hair in places where there was no hair before… The key is the Magnus Pyke exclamation mark. Science (no exclamation mark) is a painstaking process consisting mainly of grant applications, faculty meetings, and washing out test tubes. But Science! is giant guitar-shredding robots, cloned T-rex burgers, and tri-breasted alien honeys. You see the difference?

I want a line of History! t-shirts.

But what would History! designs depict? Shirley Temple decking Hitler? Voltaire and Ben Franklin playing electric guitar? Vikings, just being themselves? All worthy subjects, but not iconic enough to immediately read as a t-shirt design. What are history’s goofy, “hell yeah!” equivalents to Kalgreen’s jubilant mad scientists? I suppose some of his equally swell Teach The Controversy t-shirts, like UFOs building the pyramids or the Illuminati ruling the world, could work as History! designs. As could much of Kate Beaton‘s stuff. But I welcome alternate suggestions.

I’ve been trying to come up with a mission statement for this blog: to figure out if and why I want to keep writing it, to boil what it’s all about down to one or two sentences. I haven’t gotten there yet, but one thing I’ve always known is this: History ought to be awesome.


The Secret Origin of Canada

John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada is a beautiful book, and it makes an appealing argument which I would really like to be true. Canada, Saul argues, is not a British nation or a French nation but a Métis nation, profoundly if unconsciously shaped by Aboriginal ideas. Almost everything that is distinctive or admirable about Canadian society–modesty, pragmatism, respect for diversity, negotiation and compromise, a comfort with constant tension between individuals and groups–comes, he says, from Aboriginal roots.

Some raised their eyebrows at this argument. Some did considerably more than that. Not long after A Fair Country came out, I was at a fancy sort of dinner where I mentioned the book to a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter from one of Canada’s major newspapers. He was totally excellent–gruff, profane, and hilarious, my Platonic ideal of a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter. I said, “I don’t know that Saul proves his thesis, but it’s a really appealing argument.” He said, “If you can find six other Canadians that believe it, I’ll [eat my hat].” Except he didn’t say “eat”, “my”, or “hat”, and I did a laughing spit take that sprayed daikon sprouts and golden beet soup all over the assembled dignitaries.

The way I prefer to interpret this book is that Saul is engaged in conscious myth-building. His alternate history of Canada–a secret origin story, if you will–might not be provable or true, but it could offer a kind of usable past, a national mythology that would be more invigorating and not a lot less plausible than the one we’ve currently stitched together around hockey, Tim Horton’s, and miscellaneous insecurities. If embracing our mythic Métissage helped us to throw off some postcolonial baggage, to know and appreciate our Native communities, and to celebrate rather than lament our penchant for negotiation and compromise, well, what’s a secret origin without a little retconning?

My only personal beef with the book involves Saul’s treatment of the United States, or lack thereof. He sees the United States as the child and fullest expression of Enlightenment Europe, and lumps the U.S. and Europe together throughout the book, always contrasting the grim spectre of monolithic “Euro-U.S.”-style nationalism with Canada’s Métis grooviness. There’s no exploration of how the United States might differ from Europe, how Canada might be influenced by America, or how Canadian and American histories might in fact be intertwined.

The most egregious example of this blind spot appears while Saul is discussing the Canadian mantra, “peace, order, and good government.” This phrase, he says, was a late ninteenth-century corruption of our true (Aboriginal) ideals: “peace, welfare, and good government.” Saul quotes approvingly in this section from William Lyon Mackenzie’s manifesto for the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837-1838. But look what he does here:

Mackenzie produced a draft constitution on November 15, 1837–the result of meetings among “Farmers, Mechanics, Labourers and other Inhabitants of Toronto.” They denounced Britain’s breaking of its “covenant with the people of Upper and Lower Canada” and proposed a new covenant in order “to make choice of our form of Government and in order to establish justice [i.e., good government], ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence [i.e., two aspects of peace], promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of civil and religious liberty…”

Those square brackets and italics are Saul’s, not mine. And they are working very hard to shoehorn the phrase “peace, welfare, and good government” into Mackenzie’s constitution. Anyone who’s ever seen a book blurb or movie poster is familiar with selective quotation through subtraction, but I didn’t know you could just add things you want quotations to say. “MacDougall’s book is tedious and unoriginal [i.e., it is awesome!].”

Besides that, if you take out Saul’s hard-working brackets, Mackenzie’s constitution reads like this: “in order to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of civil and religious liberty…” My stars. Wherever could the rebels of Upper and Lower Canada have gotten that language? Hint: If you are about the same vintage as I am, you might be humming it right now. I read this section multiple times, just to make sure Saul wasn’t having me on. He makes no reference to the U.S. Constitution whatsoever. What was he thinking, to use that particular quotation (in a book not overly burdened with direct quotations or citations of any kind), as evidence against “Euro-U.S.” influence on Canadian political culture? I’ll be [eating] that [hat] now.

Anti-Americanism is such a bedrock position of the Canadian left–indeed, I think anti-Americanism often stands in for actual left ideas in Canada–that it is hard to convince lefty Canadians of the once-radical potential of American political thought, much less argue that progressive politics in Canada owe any debt to U.S. inspirations or ideas. It’s more comfortable for us to believe we got all our good ideas from enlightened British aristocrats, or, if you are John Ralston Saul, from the Mi’kmaq and the Iroquois.

But as American historians have rediscovered the radicalism of the American revolution, Canadians ought to acknowledge the influence of American civic republicanism on reformers and agitators like Mackenzie and Papineau, or the later links between American and Canadian prairie populism. This story need not only be of interest to Canadians. What if we stopped defining Canadian identity as simply whatever makes us different from Americans, and tried instead to view Canadian and U.S. history as alternate versions of each other, diverging iterations of an experiment for which the other nation’s history provides the control? How many Canadian reforms grew out of radical traditions imported from, yet thwarted in, the United States? What if we saw Canada’s social welfare state as the continuation and fulfillment of the American Revolution, rather than its abnegation?

Now if you can find six Canadians (or Americans) that believe that


Angels and Octopodes

Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG had a great post this summer with an imaginary Ghostbusters III treatment that was way cooler than any actual Ghostbusters sequel is likely to be.

Halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel–a fallen angel–and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan. Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first. …

Somewhere between AT&T and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of electromagnetized Egyptian mythology. … Manhattan is the wired center of a vast, global haunting, a transmission point crisscrossed by whispers above a magical infrastructure no one fully understands.

A friend of mine tagged the post as “MacDougall bait.” Indeed. Except apparently it wasn’t just MacDougall bait: I saw links to Geoff’s NYNEX angel on io9,, and even Boing Boing. This provokes a reaction in me not unlike the great books of John Hodgman. I know exactly why I think an imaginary Ghostbusters movie about a sentient telephone system, or a po-faced pseudo-almanac about America’s secret hobo wars, is boss to the Nth degree. But I find it hard to believe my tastes are so widely shared. Where were you, Boing Boing, when I was wandering around a European capital cooking up my own architectural secret history action flick? Or my own sentient telephone system? Where were you?

Of course, BLDGBLOG is too great a site for me to be jealous. I just ordered the book, in fact. If I was going to be jealous, it might be of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith, who got a $575,000 advance to write a new book called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Credit where it’s due: Grahame-Smith hit some kind of crazy fluke Snakes On A Plane style zeitgeist funny bone with his mashup of Jane Austen and George Romero. But half a million dollars for Abe Lincoln, vampire hunter? Ignore the fact that there happens to be a webcomic from 2007 with the same title. I have a dozen ideas that goofy before breakfast: St. George Washington versus the Dragon! Ben Franklinstein’s Monster! Teddy Roosevelt and the 36th Chamber of Shao Lin! Obamapunk! Nobody told me these things were monetizable.

But let’s get back to BLDGBLOG, and cross some of the wires connecting AT&T to H.P. Lovecraft and points south. Geoff’s imagined movie climaxes with an showdown inside the AT&T Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street, which he says is a haunt of the ghost of Aleister Crowley. I’m not positive what connection Crowley had with 33 Thomas Street, but surely we can find one. The Long Lines Building is, it must be said, one creepy skyscraper. Its windowless brutalism charmingly evokes the old Bell monopoly’s stately gravitas / contempt for puny mortals.

The Book of Enoch, one of those mysterious texts that got excised from the Hebrew bible, tells the story of a race of Watchers, or “egregores,” fallen angels that fathered the Nephilim. The 19th century occultist Eliphas Lévi described these egregores as “terrible beings” that “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.” Sounds like AT&T to me. Crowley, the Great Beast of 20th century occultism, claimed to be the reincarnation of Lévi, and he wrote about the egregores too. But Crowley altered the concept of the egregore, using the term to describe a magical “thought form” or collective “group mind” that transcends the individual identities of its members and can be said to have a will or existence of its own. That’s a pretty good model for a sentient telephone system: a collective intelligence that transcends its individual members. The fallen angel, Crowley implied, is made out of bits of us.

What other kinds of collective entities were coalescing in Crowley’s day? That occult bible of the 21st century known as Wikipedia has a good guess: “The symbiotic relationship between an egregore and its group has been compared to the more recent non-occult concepts of the corporation and the meme.” What is a corporation if not a collective organism that transcends the individual identities of its members? The “corporation as egregore” idea turns up more than once in the work of Crowley-esque comic book writer Grant Morrison, whose Doom Patrol featured a sentient telephone system lurking beneath another creepy office building, the Pentagon. Here’s an essay on the theme:

The modern corporation is far more than simply a building full of people that creates a product or manages resources. It exists in physical space, data space, and in aetheric space. It is a collective of intentional will committed to self-preservation, growth, and profit. … It is in many ways an individual composed of many cooperative cells. Like the human body, the corporation maintains its identity and function in spite of the continuous recycling of its cells. The structure persists by its own will and inertia. The corporation is not bound to any one location. It can move, disperse, and distribute through data networks. It behaves with a single will, informed by the will of the corporate collective, bent towards the same end: maintaining the existence & continued growth of the corporate entity.

In the muckraking journalism and political cartoons of the late nineteenth century, communication networks like the telephone and telegraph, and the corporations that owned and used them, were routinely depicted as gargantuan spiders, hydras, and octopuses. My old roleplaying game about the occult history of the United States featured the Nephilim / Egregore as monstrous manifestations (should I say “incorporations”?) of the great industrial trusts. And I’ve argued in my academic work that these monstrous images were metaphors of reach as well as size, that they described unease with sectional integration through commerce and the corporation’s new powers of action at a distance. Today our go-to metaphors for corporate power are a little less zoological, but they still tend towards the monstrous or uncanny: see Bryan Alexander’s Infocult for “Google as Vampire” and umpteen more examples.

Now check out this marvelous blog, Vulgar Army, devoted entirely to political images of the octopus. It even features a post about my American Quarterly article on Gilded Age nightmares of the network. From it I learned that the plural of octopus is not “octopi,” as I and the editors of AQ believed, but plain old “octopuses,” or the far cooler and more Lovecraftian sounding “octopodes.”

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

There were good reasons for Gilded Age Americans to fear big business in their day–but the ubiquity of the octopus / monster / egregore metaphor points to something deeper about how we think about groups and individuals, structure and agency. Tales of animate, sentient, tentacled corporations, like conspiracy theories, enact vernacular epistemologies. Lurid and paranoid as they can sometimes be, they express something many feel to be true about the way the world turns. There are times when the sum total of individual choices or actions seem alien and unwanted to the individuals involved. This is how stock markets crash and a Ouija board works. Thomas Haskell and Stephen Kern have both written about a “crisis of causation” in late nineteenth-century America. As railroad tracks and telegraph wires and big businesses shrank the nation, it became harder and harder to imagine ordinary individuals as the solitary masters of their fates. Local sources of meaning and order–the family, the sect, the small town–were “drained of causal potency,” in Haskell’s words, becoming “merely the final links in long chains of causation that stretched off into a murky distance.”

“Drained of causal potency”–that’s good Gothic language right there. It reminds me of this great, lurid passage in Frank Norris’ The Octopus, where the railroad sounds like a creature straight out of Lovecraft:

From Coles, in the topmost corner of the map, to Yuma in the lowest, from Reno on one side to San Francisco on the other, ran the plexus of red, a veritable system of blood circulation, complicated, dividing, and reuniting, branching, splitting, extending, throwing out feelers, off-shoots, tap roots, feeders–diminutive little blood suckers that shot out from the main jugular and went twisting up into some remote county, laying hold upon some forgotten village or town, involving it in one of a myriad branching coils, one of a hundred tentacles, drawing it, as it were, toward that centre from which all this system sprang. The map was white, and it seemed as if all the colour which should have gone to vivify the various counties, towns, and cities marked upon it had been absorbed by that huge, sprawling organism, with its ruddy arteries converging to a central point. It was as though the State had been sucked white and colourless, and against this pallid background the red arteries of the monster stood out, swollen with life-blood, reaching out to infinity, gorged to bursting; an excrescence, a gigantic parasite fattening upon the life-blood of an entire commonwealth.

But The Octopus, and the whole Gilded Age octopus thing, predate Lovecraft by a few decades. Maybe the influence went the other way. Could Lovecraft’s octopoid monstrosities be creatures straight out of Norris? Was Yog-Sothoth a corporation? Was Cthulhu a railroad? I’m not saying Lovecraft was populist in his sensibilities. Ha! His idea of a Populist was probably somebody like Wilbur Whateley, or the degenerate cannibal in “The Picture in the House.” But why are there so many tentacles in the Cthulhu Mythos? Why does Cthulhu have an octopus-like head? Aren’t Lovecraft and Norris playing a similar tune? The crisis of causation Kern and Haskell describe–the irrelevance of the individual in the face of vast, impersonal forces–that’s Lovecraft’s nightmare too.

Ken Hite, my go-to guy on all things Lovecraft, said of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

Lovecraft wrote from the Gothic tradition, but for the twentieth century; the threat to order isn’t villainous, swarthy Catholics (although …) but the actual circumstances of reality. Lovecraft has taken all the core Gothic tropes — the alien (but powerful) Outsider, the threat of miscegenation, the inevitably corrupt ancient wisdom, the symptomatic disorder of Nature, the “haunted castle” or ruin, even the insipid hero, and — often literally — enlarged upon them. Made them vaster. And brought them out of the “shudder tale” and into the world of science, and hence into science fiction. [more]

Which brings me, finally, to my own Ghostbusters pitch. Not a sequel but a prequel, a Lovecraft-Norris-Hite-Ramis mashup set ninety years before the 1984 original in a Gilded Age America where the squamous, tentacled nightmares of the Populists are all too real. The Standard Oil Octopus is an actual gargantuan octopus, with half the country in its crushing tentacles, and the Bell and Western Union Spiders are blanketing the plains with their copper webs. Thorstein “Pete” Veblen, Oswald “Egon” Spengler, and Ray Stannard “Stantz” Baker are the Trustbusters–a random and chronologically eclectic trio, I grant you, but I can’t resist an 80s movie reference. Who ya gonna call?


The Golden Age of Blogging

I like the opening of Jonathan Sterne‘s first post back after summer vacation so much, I’m stealing it whole:

Jonathan Sterne: Greetings, loyal rss aggregators, assorted robots, and extremely dedicated readers. After a summer hiatus, this blog awakens refreshed. Sure, blogging is so passé that it’s cast as a quaint, dated practice in Julie and Julia, but that won’t stop me.

I’ve been hearing this more and more lately, but if both Julie and Julia are saying it, it must be true: Blogging is dead, alas, or at least not what it used to be. Bloggers are posting less, readers are clicking less, and nobody is getting undeservedly famous anymore. The Church of What’s Happening Now has moved on.

Mark Athitakis: I suspect that when somebody says that blogging had a “golden age,” the person means that there was a time (circa 2002) when it felt new and exciting, and the media wanted to do stories about it, and some people got a lot of attention really quickly (book deals! movie options!), and everybody got to have lively discussions and post pictures of puppies or argue about string theory, and it was a thrill because we all had a brand-new toy to play with and we knew who was reading us and we were finally, finally, getting some interesting e-mail.

To which I can only say, thank you for stopping by, zeitgeist. I was never any good at being ahead of the curve or, worse yet, of the moment. Go to your FaceTubes and TwitSpaces with my blessing, o shiny snackable media people. Behind the times is when this blog belongs.

If the Golden Age of Blogging is over, bring on the Silver Age: more apes, weirdness, and self-doubt. When I started blogging, on the first day of the 21st century, it seemed like a weird if not sordid habit. I have no real problem with it going back that way again. Blogging’s almost always been weird. Now it’s old and weird. Why do those two adjectives ring a bell?

Yes, OK, I’m on Twitter, and I can feel the lure of it. That’s where the party is this year, no doubt about that, but it’s the kind of party that feels more like work than hanging out to me. Maybe the reason “teens aren’t tweeting” is that it isn’t really all that fun? Twitter seems to be the inevitable evolution of the networking side of blogging. Content is shaved to a bare minimum, leaving only the imperative to tweet and be retweeted, work the room, work the room. It’s the Hobbesian waltz of the A-list, the wanna-bes, and the very long tail, laid bare.

Caleb Crain: The internet is inhospitable to quietness. … A text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. … The internet is always saying, “Heyyy.” It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, “You know me,” in a collusive tone of voice, and “Wanna hear something funny?” and “Didja see who else is here?”

On the other hand: the telephone didn’t kill the telegraph, at least not for fifty years. In fact, the new medium became a vital feeder network for the old, the same way Twitter now channels people to blog posts and other long form articles. When television hit big in the 1950s, it didn’t kill the movies; it made them bigger and better, as Hollywood (re)discovered what they could do on the big screen that television couldn’t. A friend pointed out that the signal-to-noise ratio on LiveJournal, of all places, has gone way up since the “Which Wiggle Are You” quizzes and “25 Passive-Aggressive Things About Me” memes migrated to Facebook. (Mind you, “signal” in this instance refers to Twilight/Jonas Bros. slashfic and long pieces bashing Twitter.) What will blogs become when they no longer have to do double duty as resumes, book proposals, and online dating profiles?

Thank you, loyal aggregators, Googly spiders, and patient robots, for visiting this quiet, cobwebbed corner of the web. Stick around if you like. There is more to come.