We Can Be Happy Underground

From the “Further Readings” section at the back of Paul Collin’s wonderful Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change The World:

There is one very simple way to see what Beach’s railway [19th century New York’s secret, unfinished pneumatic subway] looked like, and blown up far larger than any plate in this book could manage. Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture. Graze pensively on your Baked Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips. Ponder the vagaries of ambition.


Survival of the Fittest

Searching for something else, I just came upon a comment I’d clipped and saved by Timothy Burke at Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous. The post is a few years old; SEK was talking about how “Social Darwinism” never really existed, at least not in the simple, coherent form handed down to us by Richard Hofstadter. Tim says:

There are a very substantial number of tropes, terms, events and so on which are taken as historical truths which, when you take the trouble to trace them back, rest on very slender … scholarly foundations. You could spend your life as a historian just doing skeptical investigation of many commonly reproduced ideas about the past… Eugenics is an interesting example that’s closely linked to “Social Darwinism”: it differed very substantially from nation to nation, but in England and the United States, it actually had very little to say about people of color, contra the commonly received view (which I often see in humanistic writing). It certainly had a powerful racial referent, but a lot of that was implicit, and almost always directed at white people, at a notion that the hierarchical place of whites was threatened by their ebbing biological strength due to their over-civilization. In other words, it was a lot weirder than the commonsensical invocation of it often looks.

But this is also of course where a truly intricate sense of intellectual history can enter the picture: you could ask why the idea of “social darwinism” as a past construction which we imagine ourselves to have overcome (but which can be invoked in the present to criticize some opponent) became so appealing. In other words, excavating the historiography of “Social Darwinism” can turn into a backdoor intellectual history of the time at which Hofstader published his work. You could observe that perhaps the term was so appealing at the time because it was a useful mythography for New Dealers trying to sum up how their form of capitalism was a moral triumph over the capitalism of the robber barons. Or perhaps it was also a comforting term for mid-century biologists and social scientists, stressing the evolution of proper formal boundaries and precision between disciplines. … “Social Darwinism” almost invariably gets used as a way to stress the moral and intellectual distance between late 19th Century America and now, that we are both better scientifically and morally.

When a guy’s comments–not his blog posts, his comments on someone else’s blog–are this smart and useful, maybe the rest of us should just pack it in?


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?


There Will Be Zeppelins

Brett Holman (Airminded) is paleoblogging the phantom airship scare of 1909. Exactly one hundred years ago this month, Britain was bedeviled with a wave of mysterious zeppelin sightings. Brett’s written on the Age of Scareships before, but now he is actually walking through the panic day by day. It’s great. You could ask for no better guide to the Edwardian UFO invasion.

This is only tangentially related, but it’s also cool: Here’s a quotation a student of mine found for a paper on Percival Lowell and the Martian canal controversy.

The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 28, 1907:
Look back upon the year 1907 and pick out what has been, to your mind, the most extraordinary event of the twelve months. Certainly it has not been the financial panic … That is, after all, a mere temporary disturbance, a mere passing cloud. The most extraordinary development has been the proof afforded by the astronomical observations of the year that conscious, intelligent human life exists upon the planet Mars.

Yeah. Get a sense of perspective, people!