Friday, December 03, 2021

The air loom gang and our present emergency



 Mike Jay is an interesting writer. He gets ahold of fascinating topics, but sometimes this means he gets ahold of a drawerful of research notes and throws them in the public’s face, like in his last book on Mescaline. Excellent topic, excellent intro, and then a march through historical particulars as arid as spray on deodorant.

My favorite of his books is a more Shandian venture, illustrated beautifully, about a lunatic assassin, one James Tilley Matthews. Jay goes into the nitty gritty of this story from the 18th century – 1796, to be precise, with a story that goes on into the early 19th century – with a much more able touch. The book is entitled The Air Loom Gang, for it is this gang that had entranced and imprisoned the mind and body of James Tilley Matthews, with an intricate demonology worthy of one of  Blake’s longer poems. Matthews went mad, it seems, in the Paris of the Terror, where he was confined to his apartment and suspected of being an English spy. What he was really doing in Paris, and whether he was, indeed, a secret envoy from the British government, is one of those questions that were solved in one of those Sherlock Holmes cases that Watson was always going to publish, but never got around to.

 Matthews’ lunatick ideas was that of an airloom machine, by which a 'magnetic gang', working in the bowels of London, was able to exert control over the thoughts of the powerful. Matthews lunacy was, in its way, epic, peopled by such as the Glove Woman and Billy the King, all endowed with what we would now, after a century of comic books, call “superpowers”.

Matthews was arrested in the House of Commons for making a scene. He’d screamed “treason” at the Prime Minister and seemed to be in a state of agitation – he was of unsound mind. He was condemned to be treated in Bedlam. There he was treated by John Haslam, published a full account of Matthews case, including illustrations of the Air Loom gang, thus enshrining Matthews in the Pantheon of the Schizophrenic, then Psychotic, the Paranoid – up there with Schreber and the Wolf Boy.

Jay contends that Matthews stories about being a spy were true. But he is not enshrined in the Pantheon of spies. What he came up with was a vision of a machine that emanated rays, waves of air – as well as odors – that controlled his mind, and that of others.  well, was possibly a spy.  Haslam ‘s account is the first detailed one we have of a motif that crops up over and over again.  Mind control machines – ‘Beeinflussungsapparates’, as Victor Tausk called them – appear as a standard delusion among the paranoid schizophrenic.

Tausk found this out in WWI, when he worked in clinics in Slovakia. In his most famous paper, “On the origin of the influencing machine in Schizophrenia”, in 1919, he discusses the pattern and its meaning. He introduces a very famous case to the literature in this passage:

“In machine dreams, the sleeper awakens, more often than not, with her hand on her genitalia, after having dreamed of manipulating the machine. It may, therefore, be assumed that the influencing apparatus is a representation of the patient’s genitalia projected to the outer world, analogous in origin to dreams….

… The patient is Miss Natalija A., thirty-one years old, formerly a student of philosophy. She has been completely deaf for a number of years, due to an ulcer of the ear, and can make herself understood only by means of writing. She declares that for six and a half years she has been under the influence of a machine made in Berlin, though this machine’s use is prohibited by the police. It has the form of a human body, indeed, the patient’s own form, though not in all details… The trunk (torso) has the shape of a lid, resembling the lid of a coffin, and is lined with silk or velvet.”

Matthew’s fits came almost ten years after Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, but I think we can already discern something like Matthews notion of an underground Airloom in that wonderful work. The Rights of Man begins with a full court assault on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The first issue that Paine takes up is Burke’s insistence that, in England, the right to revolution had been signed away in 1688:

“…That men should take up arms and spend their lives and fortunes, not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have not rights, is an entirely new species of discovery, and suited to the paradoxical genius of Mr. Burke.

The method which Mr. Burke takes to prove that the people of England have no such rights, and that such rights do not now exist in the nation, either in whole or in part, or anywhere at all, is of the same marvellous and monstrous kind with what he has already said; for his arguments are that the persons, or the generation of persons, in whom they did exist, are dead, and with them the right is dead also. To prove this, he quotes a declaration made by Parliament about a hundred years ago, to William and Mary, in these words: "The Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, do, in the name of the people aforesaid" (meaning the people of England then living) "most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterities, for EVER." He quotes a clause of another Act of Parliament made in the same reign, the terms of which he says, "bind us" (meaning the people of their day), "our heirs and our posterity, to them, their heirs and posterity, to the end of time."

Mr. Burke conceives his point sufficiently established by producing those clauses, which he enforces by saying that they exclude the right of the nation for ever. And not yet content with making such declarations, repeated over and over again, he farther says, "that if the people of England possessed such a right before the Revolution" (which he acknowledges to have been the case, not only in England, but throughout Europe, at an early period), "yet that the English Nation did, at the time of the Revolution, most solemnly renounce and abdicate it, for themselves, and for all their posterity, for ever."”

This is a mind control machine indeed. And I believe, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that it is very much present in conservative thought. That a document – square pieces of paper in a book – could bind future generations for ever is, of course, a commonplace not only in the discourse of evangelical literalism, but in its twin, judicial strict construction. Here is an object that takes over the mind and the subject. Here is an objectification of all our sexual anxieties, and the solution to same.

In a peculiar way, Paine sees in Burke’s logic something like Natalia A.’s coffin double: this is a coffin double of England, constructed by the dead to control the living.  To us, this notion of the claims of the living and the need to ward off the dead casts an ethical shadow insofar as, from the aspect of the imagination, the living, now, are potentially the dead of the next generation. Thus, out of Paine’s idea, we can see an ethics that addresses the question of our limits, as the living – notably, our limits on using up the resources of this planet, or damaging it in some way. That this ethical issue should, on the shadow side, be a struggle against paranoid schizophrenia is … well, something we are seeing enacted before our eyes as the body of women are nailed shut by a supreme court in thrall to the most paranoid reach of Burkean conservatism.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Negative twenty questions modernism

Negative twenty questions modernism

There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.

There is something rather eerie about Wheeler’s game of negative twenty questions. It produces a community that is founded not on addresses and maps, but on being lost – on a continual re-matching of addresses and maps, a battlefield in which inconsistency is the rule and consistency is continually catching up. The game brings into focus a certain modernist other – a modernist fantastic, stretching from Balzac’s Le peau de chagrin to Freud’s Der Unheimlich. This is the modernism in which the rules of reason overcome and mug reason, which becomes, simply, a way of having rules. And that way of having rules obeys a rule that makes the outcome of rule following radically uncertain. None of the players can predict it.

Freud, eventually, found his way out of the red light district in Rome he kept compulsively finding himself in. In Balzac’s tale, a curse and power is written on an onyx’s skin.  The Wild Ass’s Tale, written when Balzac was coming out of his apprenticeship in pulp novels, is considered the first novel in the vast Human Comedy universe. Here is the premise of the book, unrolled at the very beginning, when we follow Raphaël de Valentin, a poor student, as he walks about in a fever, waiting for night to come so he can throw himself off a bridge. In the course of his wandering, he comes upon a shop full of odds and ends, and in it he finds a mysterious talisman made of onyx hide. The talisman is inscribed with a phrase in Arabic. Balzac, that master of cod learning, reproduces it and allows Raphael the knowledge to read the “Sanskrit”, as the owner of the odd shop calls it. promises to make the wishes of the person who uses it come true. “If you possess me, you will possess all. But your life belongs to me. God wills it. Desire, and your desires will be realized. But regulate your wishes according to your life. It is there. For every wish, I will shrink, like your days. Do you want me? Take me. God grants it to you. So be it!” And so the desire for fortune, the want realized, is paid for in kind – by a counter-gift of the days of one’s life. The talisman is the very image of one way of looking at the almost magical supply of goods and services that already, in 1830, could be felt on the horizons. The culture of growth never shakes off Nemesis, who balances and casts an evil eye on the “too much”. The balance between desire and lifespan, here, is encoded in an object whose material existence is the very correspondent of the material existence of its user. This isn’t exactly addiction. It is more like the guessing in Wheeler’s game, where the object keeps changing as the guesses multiply. In Raphaël’s case, of course, there’s a romance – a mystery beauty named Foedora, whose allure is heightened, in that Balzacian way, by her wealth, which is exactly measured – somehow, everybody knows she her networth is 80,000 francs.

Foedora - what a name! A perfect name for a silent movie star. One imagines her slinking expressionistically into some crooked room in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Wheeler’s game was supposed to get to some scientific truth about quantum theory – a way of making us understand the role of measurement. The hole in the game is, of course, that it is unclear what it would mean to win it, and how winning could be agreed upon by a community that is so radically atomized that its objects are private.

An image for political philosophers, surely -  but one only a novelist could love.  


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The (gasp!) twitter horror! a janitorial response to Patricia Lockwood's No one is talking about this


When I was eighteen, I took an early graduation route from High School, which allowed me to have the mornings by myself. The afternoon and evening was taken up with my job at another high school – I had stuck my thumb into the great bureaucratic pie of the Dekalb County School system and come up with a plum job as night janitor. I worked at a school near Chamblee – it is now, I believe, a charter school, alas. Back then, I was in a self-educating mood and thought of myself as a distant follower of Tolstoy. Physical labor and soulful preparation, that was the ticket.
My mistakes in life stem from eventually quitting that job and going on to college. But destiny is fate – and not fat. If destiny was fat, I’d have become head janitor and retired at fifty four with a belly like the boss janitor.
I learned a lot from that job – in terms of cleaning supplies, for instance – and I’d take the great books to read on the break. I read Montaigne’s Essays in the break room, much to the amusement of one of the other janitors. Although the spotlight on my weirdness was dimmed a bit, as the janitor who cleaned the downstairs – the gym, the locker rooms, etc. – spent his time on break playing a flute. He was, in my memory, a pretty aethereal guy. Which goes with flute.
Anyway, I learned something from the job that decades later came in handy – which is that underneath our writing and reading culture, there is another writing and reading culture. Long before kids were sexting each other, they were writing notes, on paper, sexting each other, and I would come across these notes every day as I swept up. As well, in the boy’s and girl’s bathroom, there was a constant message – denigration barrage of graffiti going on.
Thus, when I find so many people up there in the ranks “shocked” at Internet culture, twitter, Instagram, tik tok, what have you, I am amused. These were the kids who, evidently, never passed notes or graffittied on the walls of the toilet stall.  They absorbed the lesson of the first level of reading and writing culture – that this is where the power is. But they took that to mean: this is where all the reading and writing is. Sure, there’s the pulp crap out there, the wankbooks, the romances, the lunkhead sci fi, but this was all like animal sedative business. The internet, it turned out, was not the bringer of the singularity, that idiotmeme from the 90s, but the bringer of school note culture writ large.
I find this pretty undisturbing. Or, perhaps I should say, I find it great. I still have a bit of the Tolstoyan belief in the peasants and their wisdom. Or the janitors and theirs. Any janitor who paid attention could have predicted twitter.
These thoughts are brought on by reading Patricia Lockwood’s No one is talking about this. Or the interviews and reviews of that book. Every interviewer and reviewer is very careful to deplore twitter, the internet, social media, et and et and et cetera. I find that extremely funny, since in many ways it is exactly the outrage of white homeowners in the 60s discovering that the laws forbidding discrimination in housing mean that ‘THEY” get to move in.

Monday, November 29, 2021

In the self help section - a poem by Karen Chamisso


Unfriended ape, in my lines
You’ll find plenty of gam room
And who knows how much horse-power
Is under this beauty’s hood?
Between the driving and the clambering up
The golden bough or Highway 61
You are caught in a tailless cunning
All your ownsome.
- Karen Chamisso

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...