Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Strange Fiction 9

Note: I've updated the intro entry to a contents page and added a permanent link over on the sidebar, under "Scribbling on Scribbling", so if ye have any mad inclination to read this, but haven't read the previous installments, ye'll probably be wanting to check them out first. Of course, you might equally well just want to shake your head, mutter imprecations, and hope I go back to blogging about piss-ups ASAP.

9. The Old Weird and the Slipstream: or, Estrangement and Modernity

If it's all strange fiction, if a conceit is a conceit (and can be explained, excused or exploited) regardless of whether it's counterfactual, hypothetical or metaphysical, we have problems, I think, in sticking to Suvin's term "novum". I'm going to avoid it from here on in, partly because it narrows the focus, I would argue, to the exploited hypothetical (when a hypothetical conceit is conventionalised as a trope, can we really describe it as a novum?), and partly because it becomes horribly problematic if we want to turn novum into an adjective to decribe this type of narrative in similar terms to those established, with an adjective describing an abstract quality. If the comic narrative exploits the absurd and the tragic narrative exploits the unheimlich, do we have to then say that these strange-fictional narratives exploit the... "novel"? That doesn't put us in a good position to discuss, well, novels that exploit the "novel" and not end up tying ourselves in knots.

There is, of course, the old tried and tested "weird", but in its origin in ideas of fate, in its application to the uncanny and supernatural rather than just the queer or unusual, and in its associations with the religious and fictional conventions of tropic creatures, I think we risk narrowing the focus to the excused metaphysical here, rendering it no better a fit than "novum". The history of this word within the commercial genre also establishes it as a sub-generic term, calling up associations with particular pulp writers like Lovecraft or magazines like Weird Tales. This is very much the reason why I'm wary of the term "New Weird", that "New", in fact, tacitly acknowledging that the label is sub-generic and commercial, placing this fiction in relation to the New Wave as another "movement" within the genre.

We need a term, I think, which can be applied beyond the commercial strictures of genres and movements, one we can apply analytically to those works published before or outside the marketing labels, such that the application is not political and subjective -- as are so many attempts to say that this work or that is SF or Fantasy -- but rather critical and objective. Another option is the French term fantastique, which has a similarly wide application but which is, like "weird", hard to disassociate from the supernatural. This is, I think, perhaps better applied to the metaphysical narrative, as a counterpart to "parallel" and "future" as descriptors of these narratives as (largely overlapping) types.

"Strange", on the other hand -- with its etymological roots in the Latin "extraneous", meaning "of external origin", and its modern application to the foreign, the alien, the queer, the other -- is, I think, an eminently suitable term, with much less conceptual baggage. Personally I would prefer to keep it uncapitalised -- strange fiction rather than Strange Fiction -- to make it clear that this refers to an aesthetic form rather than a commercial genre, but I suspect the habitual use of capitals for SF will be hard to break. So I'm sure I'll forget myself and call it Strange Fiction from time to time.

Anyway... fitting all this into the original three-axes-of-story idea, what I'm positing is a third axis which can be analysed in terms of elements which actively challenge suspension of disbelief, which play with subjunctivity, invoke incredulity:

1. Story elements
try/fail cycle

2. Craft techniques

3. Estrangement techniques
conceit (concrete, unmoored metaphor)
--counterfactual (parallel narrative)
--hypothetical (future narrative)
--metaphysical (fantastique narrative)

There are doubtless other such techniques we could identify, and other genres which might well be made explicable in terms of how they use conceits. One might well look at the occult-history novel in these terms. Like comic, tragic or strange fiction, THE DA VINCI CODE or THE NAME OF THE ROSE exploit a sense of the incredible which challenges our suspension of disbelief. Where these other modes utilise the absurd, the unheimlich or the strange, the occult-history uses the arcane. Like tragedy and comedy there is no dislocation to a non-existent elsewhen; rather it is the links between historic events that are used to weave large scale patterns of conspiracy, to build these up to a point of collapse, at critical mass, into a sense of (incredible) hidden truths being revealed -- the arcanum to Suvin's novum.

One might even look at the occult-history's relative, the mystery novel, where the events are not incredible -- they do not challenge our subjunctivity -- but are intriguing. Like a mundane tragedy we have at least one event, a crime, that "should not have happened" and, while the mystery novel remains a pathetic narrative, in the "could have happened" subjunctivity, rather than going full-steam for terror and destruction, offence to the laws of god and man, how often are the clues it throws at the reader anomalies, things which don't fit, which "should not have happened" (the enigma of the object-out-place) or which "could not have both happened" (the contradiction of different versions of events)... and how much of the very purpose of the book is to reconcile those clues into the solution of "how this could have happened, how it did happen"?

But these are getting beyond my scope. What I'm interested in here is strange fiction, that fiction of elsewhens. Because with this theoretical basis, I want to look at a type of fiction which a lot of people don't even agree exists, but which is constantly labelled and relabelled by writers and critics who have at least a vague sense that there is something to point to, even if they can only point in the general direction. Yes, it's that interslipcrossgenrestitialstream stuff otherwise known as infernokrusher.

Of course, it should probably be obvious from everything that's gone before that I'm not really a fan of sub-genres or movements. Hell, the reason I like the term infernokrusher is that as a movement it revels in its own de(con)struction, it's about romping wildly across all territorial boundaries rather than defining a niche, carving out a territory within or between existing genres. Slipstream? That would require we recognise a boundary between genre and the "mainstream", positioning ourselves in a smeared zone of detritus caught between. Cross-genre? That would require we recognise the same boundaries, characterising ourseles as magpie-style gatherers, sourcing one element of our work here, another there. Interstitial? That still requires we recognise those boundaries but positions us in the cracks between, like weeds between paving-stones.

All of these terms are rendered meaningless, when it comes to strange fiction, by the implicit content-based taxonomies that confuse marketing categories and aesthetic forms. Take a work which uses, say, the counterfactual conceit of a rival 20th Century ideology, the hypothetical conceit of nanotech and the metaphysical conceit of a magical language. Splice in a domestic narrative that focuses on WW1, the Red Clyde and the Spanish Civil War. Do you end up with something that sits across genres, in a gap between genres, or in a zone between genre and mainstream? Or is it just the same strange fiction that writers such as Bester and Bradbury were writing back before these terms were invented, before even SF and Fantasy had been separated out as marketing labels? Maybe even the same strange fiction that other writers were creating long before the whole rift between realist novels and pulp romance, between literary and paraliterary, was opened up and stabilised by the processes of commerce and academia, and then relabelled as "mainstream" and "genre", a nomenclature defined more in terms of commercial and critical marginalisation than in terms of literary form, more politics than aesthetics.

But maybe it's not exactly the same strange fiction. Aeschylus's PROMETHEUS BOUND, Shakespeare's HAMLET and Miller's THE CRUCIBLE are all tragic dramas, but they're not the same type of tragedy. Aristophanes's THE CLOUDS, Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and Orton's WHAT THE BUTLER SAW are all comic dramas, but they're not the same type of comedy. Likewise, Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION and Burroughs's THE NAKED LUNCH can all be seen as strange fiction, but each is a quite different type. The latter is one of those novels which appears on Sterling's list of "slipstream" works, and it's a book which I consider more of a precedent for my own work than more commercial strange fiction. Peter Ackroyd, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Guy Davenport -- I could virtually go through Sterling's list from A to Z and pick out, or add to it, authors that spark a sense of recognition, a feeling that, yes, they are doing something similar, something specifically similar. So if it's not about being situated across genres, between genres, or between genre and mainstream, what is it?

Well, what is it that these works do?

Kessel and Kelly, in their anthology, FEELING VERY STRANGE, follow Sterling in their view of slipstream as a literature of the postmodern condition, of cognitive dissonance, the estrangement that comes simply of living in the 20th / 21st century. How then does this differ from your common or garden strange fiction? Doesn't Suvin say that SF is all about cognitive dissonance? So what's the difference?

In that anthology Kessel and Kelly quote a slipstream discussion that ran on David Moles's blog, the one in which the term infernokrusher was coined by Meghan McCarron. I ended up writing an essay from it, in an attempt to rearticulate Sterling's thesis, or at least to articulate it the way I understand it, my version of it. Rather than go over all that territory again I'm just going to point you to that essay, Why Do I Infernokrush, heretofore to be known as Strange Fiction 9a:

There are problems with that essay, not least in my tendency to fall into the use of dichotomies like "genre" versus "mainstream" or "fantastic" versus "domestic" that are either absurdities or approximations in the schema of strange fiction I'm proposing. But let's just say that, in the infernokrusher spirit, we put a bullet through every instance of those terms, blast them the fuck out of the text. Let's say we give it a lead injection of the incredible -- the absurd, the unheimlich and the strange -- take a flamethrower to it and burn away all that pertains to strange fiction in its general sense, all the commonalities of slipstream works that are, in fact, simply the product of their being strange fiction, whether sold as genre or as mainstream. Explode the very terms "conventions" and "constraints".

By doing so, I think, we can get to the heart of a type of fiction which is not just strange but strange in a particular way. In that essay I break down Sterling's characterisation of this type of fiction into features of attitude, composition and style. Attitudinally there is nothing infernokrusher does that any other type of strange fiction doesn't. Compositionally, many of Sterling's characteristics are simply those of strange fiction which exploits rather than explains with rationalism or excuses with romanticism; and his focus on irrationality, "darker elements" which refuse to be made sense of, simply point towards an overlap between the strange and the unheimlich, the natural co-occurence of the subjunctivity of "could not happen" and "should not, must not happen" and the unease which our inability to resolve this engenders. But stylistically, Sterling is identifying additional techniques of estrangement we have not touched on -- collage narrative (think Burroughs), metafiction (think Borges), typographical layout (think Bester). These are the techniques of the modernists and postmodernists, of course, so perhaps all we are talking about here is a subset of (post)modernist strange fiction.

Maybe so, but there's more to it than a little stylistic experimentalism. Going back to the compositional features he identifies, Sterling's characterisation of the elsewhens of this type of story as not "clearcut departures from the known world", as "integral to the author's worldview", as "in the nature of an inherent dementia" point us to something other -- or something more -- than the dislocations of parallel, future and fantastique narratives. It's clear that he's rejecting any idea that the reader's way out is to reposition the narrative in an elsewhen in which they "could have happened". Does this type of fiction simply not perform these dislocations then? One way to put it might be to say that the reader is indeed dislocated but left hanging in the subunctivity of "could not have happened", that they are refused the stability of an artificial elsewhen under their feet. I think we can look at another way though. We can say that it does dislocate the reader to an elsewhen, it's just that it does something extra. It does indeed rip the reader sideways and forward and up to a parallel, future, fantastique elsewhen.

It's just that it brings the whole fucking reality we live in with it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Clive Barker's Speech

I just found out that Clive Barker's impromptu speech at Fantasycon has been transcribed and put on the web. It was one of my favourite moments at the con.

I think we should cancel the word genre, I think we should throw the word genre out. We are not a genre, which suggests a small or perhaps even somewhat besieged condition - we are a continent and, actually most of the smaller things which came along afterwards like naturalism, realism, these things are a mere 200 years old, to pick up Ramsey’s word, they are striplings. How long has naturalistic fiction been around – maybe 300 years?


I borrowed a video from fellow GSFWC member Paul Cockburn just the other week, the three-part drama BROND from circa 1987 (just after the Falklands War and not long after the IRA bombed the Tory party conference at Brighton). It had come up in conversation and I was remembering just how weird and slipstreamy it seemed when I first saw it. Based on a novel by Frederick Lindsay (which sadly seems to be out of print), filmed in Glasgow (in places some of which I now recognise as, well, just round the corner from where I stay), it opens with a young John Hannah, in his first (or first major) TV role, as a young Glasgow Uni student who's out jogging. He stops to catch his breath on a bridge ("hey, that's Gibson Street!" says me. "That's the bridge over the Kelvin") where a wee kid is leaning over, looking down into the river. As the Hannah character watches we see Stratford Johns (from classic British cop show, Z-Cars) walk down the road towards him and, in passing, with the utterly casual callousness of a one-handed shove, push the kid over the edge. And then wink at Hannah as he walks on.

It's a killer of an opening, and from there it gets waaaaaay strange as poor old Robert (John Hannah) finds himself sucked completely into the well-nigh incomprehensible machinations of the diabolical Brond (Stratford Johns). It's partly due, I think, to the cutting of a novel down for TV (which has the effect of making it feel, at times, like crucial scenes have been lost, such that you're left rather stumped as to what the fuck is going on), but also just the way it's done -- with scenes that might be dreams or might be real, and with all manner of creepy portentuousness on the part of Brond -- lends it a deeply unsettling air of the irrational irrupting into the mundane -- hints of Dennis Potter or Harold Pinter. It feels like televisual slipstream in the "feeling very strange" sense.

One of my favourite scenes in it, which I was blathering to Paul about the other night and which he hunted down and emailed me, is a conversation between Robert and Brond as regards Primo (James Cosmo), a man-mountain of a "good soldier" who carries out Brond's dirty work from a misplaced sense of loyalty. As I watched it again, it still had the hairs on the back of my neck tingling, not least because I realised that much of these themes crept into VELLUM in the character of MacChuill:

BROND: You shouldn’t upset him like that. He’s a good man.

ROBERT: A good soldier. He told me before.

BROND: Oh yes. Kilts and trumpets at dawn. Loyal and brave. A Scottish Soldier.

ROBERT: How can he be so stupid? Doesn’t he know how much you despise him?

BROND: He has medals, did you know that? Soldiers get them. And he has some that are not given easily, or for nothing. He went to the wars and came home again. He’s a patriot. He’s been going to war a very long time. He’s the man who built the British Empire.

ROBERT: What’s the British Empire to do with this?

BROND: He’s fought against Napoleon, and in the Crimea. In the last war he fought in the desert. In 1916 he fought on the dry plains of the Somme and drowned in its mud when winter came. Kenya, Korea –- he’s been there. He’s still in Ireland. And only last week he came back from a little group of islands in the South Atlantic. And every time he came home, he found things were worse that when he’s gone away – but he had never learned to fight for himself.

I watched that and I thought to myself, and now he's in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The last episode ends with the song, "The Green Hills of Tyrol"

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


So, my first Fantasycon, I have to say, went swimmingly (except for the drive down which was shite). Meself and Mike Cobley piled into Neil Williamson's car and the three of us set off down the M-Whatever (don't drive, don't care), stopping off for a bite to eat and then setting off again into suddenly lashing rain and crawling traffic. Finally arrived, dropped off Mike at the overspill hotel and dumped me own stuff in the room. Lasted a whole five minutes of acclimatisation before knocking on Neil's door to see if he was ready for the bar. Given the shiteness of the drive down, not surprisingly he was quite thirsty. Got off the elevator and actually physically raced each other to the bar.

This, as far I'm concerned, pretty much set the pattern for the whole con. As Neil said on his own blog, Fantasycon reminded us both a whole lot of WFC -- which is a very, very good thing. There were a lot of other writers and editors there, and a light programming thread which means you spend a lot of time just socialising, talking about writing and mad schemes. That's not to be stand-offish about readers, mind. It was great to meet up with Paul and Sam, for instance. The thing is, I think, the different proportional mix actually breaks down the whole Author / Fan dichotomy you can get in other cons. You don't feel self-conscious about talking writing in mixed company, when you can assume half the people there are also in the business... rather than you being the Author (or one of a few Authors) holding court. So it ends up like a pub session with mates who know you as the drunken dipshit whose been doing that wacky writing stuff for so long its dull. The other aspect that reminded me of WFC was the preponderance and vitality of the indie press scene. The one panel I managed to get to, on the Saturday, was an indie vs mainstream editing panel. Turned out to be more general than I hoped -- I thought it sounded neat to focus on the editing aspect rather than just the usual wide view -- but it was still very cool. Anyway, I really hope Fantasycon can build on these aspects, really make itself the British version of WFC.

So who was I hanging with? I'm sure I'll forget people if I try to list everyone I met, so I'll just throw in names, as and when I recall, and don't be offended if I miss ye out. I do remember much of the Friday was spent chatting to Debbie Miller and French publisher dudes, Stephane Marsan and Alain Nevant. The conversation was easily interesting enough that I managed to not get anything to eat on the Friday night. Ended up sitting into the wee hours with Jetse de Vries, the two of us finally toddling off after finishing my hip flask of absinthe, last out of the bar, at 4:30 in the morning or thereabouts.

Saturday, I made it up, surprisingly, before midday. A few Bloody Marys settled any hangover issues and I was quickly ensconced in a comfy couch. Managed a quick trip to the dealer's room to pick up Richard Calder's BABYLON, Jeff Ford's "Cosmology of the Wider World", that bastard Neil Gaiman's ANANSI BOYS (he's very nice I'm sure, but I'm a bitter man, a bitter man, I tell you) and Graham Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT (which came with author dedication and good-natured banter over which book should win the WFC; it's sheer greed in Joyce's case, you know, to want that trophy; he's got plenty to go around, the selfish, selfish man). Spent a good while talking to Mark Newton of Solaris Books, had a brief chat with Ian Watson, both cool guys, and... and this is the point where I lose track of who all I was talking to and offend people by missing them out. Oh well.

At some point in the evening Neil, Mike and meself headed out for curry and, after a wee wander trying to find a place that wasn't full, we ended up in a stunning Thai place. The soup was to die for, to kill for, to rape, maim and mutilate for. Unfortunately the copious consumption of red wine rather rendered me about seven sheets to the wind and counting, and carrying on with red wine upon return to the con didn't help none. So while I remember talking away to Sean Wright, it's all a bit blurry and slurry. Shockingly, outrageously -- and I can offer no excuse here -- I actually headed off back to the room BEFORE THE BAR CLOSED. This deeply concerns me, and I have made an oath unto myself that IT WILL NOT HAPPEN AGAIN.

I will not stand for it.

I crawled out of bed on the Sunday a good while after midday, cursing the temporal limitations of hotel check-out but discovering to my joy that the Britannia had allowed for the laziness of wasters such as me and extended check-out, bless them. So, dumping my stuff with Mike, I staggered into the banquet just in time for the main course (sitting beside Paul and Sam, and the charming Ian Whates), picked at the chicken, scoffed the chocolate cake and settled in with me red wine for the speeches and awards ceremony -- all of which was very life-affirming, with much tribute paid to those who've gone before. As for the awards, congratulations to those who won. It was great, btw, to see American-based writers like Joe Hill actually there to pick up their awards -- another thing that really made it feel like a good con, with a real sense of community. And commiserations to the rest who, like me, were nominated but lost (lost, damn you, lost! and to that bastard Gaiman who eats puppies for breakfast, so I hear). I managed to scavenge spare wine from an abandoned table to drown my bitter sorrows, before being dragged away, sobbing and cursing, by Neil and Mike for the drive back to Glasgow.

Well, OK, so I wasn't actually sobbing and cursing, on account of I knew I didn't have a hope in hell, and Mr Gaiman actually seems like a very nice chap rather than a bastard ("seems like", I say, "seems like"; he's probably evil on the inside... perhaps not as evil as that Graham Joyce character, but evil nonetheless). Anyhoo, yeah, a whale of a time was had, and Fantasycon will definitely be on my calendar for next year.

Grendelsong Release Party

I'm stumbling in not so much fashionably late as ridiculously late, but if you haven't heard about Paul Jessup's Grendelsong, you might want to check out the Release party here.

Or the podcast of Jay Lake reading his short story from the first issue here.

Still Lives


What poetry looks at fruit upon a table
And does not see -- unwilling or unable:
Paintings of rot, varnished, upon the walls
Of a museum; Nero dribbling as he calls

Out in the colosseum, wipes a juice-stained lip;
A cricket ball polished on a grass-stained hip;
A golden apple, chaos, thrown into our lives;
An orange sucked, seeds spit like acid jibes

Between Arcadian shepherds; or, if such
Fancy is for fools, at least a taste, a touch,
A scent, a sound, in imagery of grapes,
Some hint of nectar, and of gods and apes

Gathered around the banquet table for a feast?
Such poetry lacks the hunger of a holy beast.


Here, in this modern fitted kitchen, where
My hands construct banality from five
Bananas bunched and brown, a pair of pears,
An apple just as green, just as alive,

Here on the white formica's urban chill,
Where four bowls sit -- ceramic, wicker, glass
And porcelein -- the fruit in them alive but still
(And did I mention the tomatoes? I must ask)

Here, all arranged in balanced composition,
Here the grapes, here Delia's cookery book,
I now articulate in forms humanity's condition.
Here, I say, come take a closer look.

Here is the fruit knife, short and sharp of blade.
Here is your bloody eye cut out and laid.


"Blind" Phineas stands there in the gallery,
Champagne in hand, fag in his mouth,
Listens to words -- jejune, passe, a travesty --
Whispered and hissed within this harpy's house.

A flick, light as a feather, of contempt and ash,
Flies from a menthol tab, at tap of finger's tip.
He notes their nods -- a glib commercial trash,
Red nails that gleam slick as a lush's lips.

"Blind" Phineas desires what they defile
With words like concept or original or style,
Their magpie intellects unsensual as they peck
For meanings, thieving, picking, leaving not a speck

No matter what they take from him, how much he gives,
It's dust in their dead mouths; in Phineas, it lives.


I, Apettence, father of Foresight, thief of fire
Who lit Highpeering 's chariot as a pyre,
Look out upon the Ocean, hear the Caw, the Cry,
The Crow over the cornfield, in the swirling sky.

Skulls of my fellow titans, greying bone
As fossil fruits now turned to stone,
I lay upon a black and ochre plate,
The hard fruits of my generation's hate.

I lay my feast to paint for Juice, our lord
Who broke the Crow's stone sickle with a sword
Steel as the palette knife I use to mix
The thick red-umber twilight on the Styx.

We were the powers who, in primal time,
Supped on the god of grape, his blood our wine.


Grave me an ode upon a funeral urn,
Sonnets of black and ochre, fine-lined grace
Of classic forms museumed in space
And time. Now put a bullet in it. Turn

And scan history as a war-torn foreign place:
See Babylon fall on your TV sets, see Baghdad burn,
Humvees patrol the road of no return,
The trials of grunts. Soldier... about-face.

Will you paint pictures of sweet fruit to mask sour taste
Of spoiled milk spilled from broken churn?
Or will you, poet, as a panther in the sheepfold, pace,
Savage and true to forms of new rhythms -- fuck the rhyme?

Turn as a corpse behind a car, hung from a streetlight, a dead soldier.
Turn, twist and turn, poet; use the sharp edge of the serrated volte.


Omens in Rome speak of Byzantium's threat.
Omens at home speak of the East and foreign dead.
I see a golden bird, guts spilled to smell the tainted heart.
I see red blood, white fat, and a blue sky of falling stars.

But more: from Empire's cradles and Republic's graves
Dead babes crawl, grow, and learn to walk as slaves,
Naked but for a shroud of privilege, a veil of rights
Gifted by grace of their elected sovereign, Might.

Free speech whipped up to moans upon a frightened whim,
The social contract stripped, draped now in battle hymn,
Serfs to the senators, the ministers, they groan and come.
Listen. The voice of the obeying mob is heard as one.

Legions of Caesar, be not afraid that your new century will fall.
Your dead march on and, from the cots, new corpses crawl.


Paint me a picture of a presidential dish
Laden with heads of baptists, eyes of fish
A harvest of swords and words of war,
The lie of an apple mouthed by a fat boar.

And us? New fruits and rotting old,
Plucked hearts heaped up to gather mould
In a display of piles, shingles and hives --
These are the sitting death of our still lives.

Mute the TV to silence that might better show
The fruit sprung from this poison tree we grow,
Terror's temptation, sold and bought:
Revenge is a dish we serve gunbarrel-hot.

We are the fruit and worm in it, the lips and seeds they spit,
The spreading branches of a tree rooted in shit.


Where is salvation, where the paradise on earth
When we return to Eden with a bomb, a gun
Or our own sword of fire? Gods of the hearth
Weep at the heathen infidels we have become:

No shepherd Tammuz, just ten Haji martyrs to the cause
With car-bombs aimed to kill their brothers and our boys,
Or a brave Tommy, filming war crimes to applause --
Heroes to make us proud or make indignant noise.

Into the stone age we will bomb you, hear the leader say.
Age of the goddess of the grain store, beer and bread,
I ask, what difference lies between the stone age and today,
Age of the god of broken words, damnation and the dead?

Where is salvation, where the paradise, where will Jerusalem be built
In this scorched earth, salt-sown and torn, this barren land we've tilled.


Bring me my cluster-bombs, bring me my M-16,
Bring me my pen, bring me a fucking poem,
Bring me my chariot of words obscene,
And we'll destroy Jerusalem, Byzantium and Rome.

How long is it since Dulce et Decorum Est?
What land is holy mired in blood and spoil?
Do we now shrug that Owen spoke in jest,
To be forgotten in his foreign soil?

Here is another fruit, a life, let waste
But this one lives still, as we frown and nod
At how it's crafted, worded, paced,
As fit and fine as is to die for God.

We must rebuild our holy cities in our flesh, our deeds,
Or be the flesh on which the Holy Emperor feeds.


Can we restore the idyll of the bread and wine,
The humble painting of an apple in a rhyme?
Can fury turn to joy in the mundane,
And muted sorrow at a meal's mortal remains?

I say it can't if we see this and only this,
Or rot the apple to recall a traitor's kiss.
I say it can't if we see bread without the bill,
A feast of shallow melancholy. But, I say, but still...

O, but I say it can, it will, it does,
In relish of a butt with peachy fuzz,
In life seasoned with salt of spunk and sweat,
In the flesh of our lives on our own table set.

Choose to devour ourselves, relish our lives as strange,
And in that choice, that moment, everything will change.


In Bremen: a flop-fringed German horror boy, sapling tall
In hip jeans, bullet belt slung low, black tee waist high
In revelation of cotton (O, a waistband); O, a distance to fall
In failures of language, failure to read a glance, failure to try.

Out in a pavement cafe sun, I read a verse or two
Out of Uche Abaji's book exchanged, drawn
Out of his black leather satchel after chat grew, flew,
Out of his lecture and my circling thoughts on Others. Hail, response!

In Germany for other reasons as the World Cup plays
In every bar, cafe and restaurant but this, I dine
In Kapelle, eat rindergeschetzeltes, watch arms raise
In roaring celebration in the streets, balls booted high. O, the divine

Moments we spend unmoored from our locality, our tongue:
These are the precious, ticking, talking, aging seconds that keep us young.


To be strange, to be a stranger, is to live.
I offer up the strange fruits of this as a gift,
Worth little, free and simple as a plum,
A bletted medlar from a drunken, ranting bum.

A doggerel of sonnets, ripe to pluck
Laced with the usual vodka taste of fuck,
Fruitbasket from a fruitcake and a fruit,
I chuck the rotten things with no excuse.

Medlars are best, I understand, this way,
Taste richened by the rot, the flesh's decay.
As fallen fruits ferment in their own juice,
Life has a strange taste that I think of as the truth.

If there is one thing being strangers to each other gives,
It is to know that Dionysus, as the stranger in our midst, in us, still lives.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nothing Here, Go There

Brian Malone posted some cool thoughts on VELLUM. If you haven't read the book yet, be warned -- in terms of the ending this is as spoilerific as it comes, virtually gives you the last scene. But if you have read the book and came out with a "yeah, it rocks along in a way I like, doing this that and the other, but then it gets to the end and that bloody Duncan just leaves the reader dangling, waiting for INK, the cunt" then ye should read this. He's spot-on in terms of the thematic resolution I was striving for, and it's great to see someone get that. It's been interesting to see how the two-book structure affects people's readings. A lot of people seem to read the book as having a "cliffhanger" ending, thinking of VELLUM as just the first half of one big book. So it's good to see someone click to it as it's intended, seeing the closing scenes as tying things together, making sense of what's gone before.

Happy smiley me.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Power and the Piss

A follow-on from the sacrilege post, and Ben's response:

Ben: I was kind of hoping I could argue for disregarding religion as a special category, for eschewing the notion of holiness as a consideration for Art, leaving you to defend the idea of the sacred, just because that would feel like such an amusing reversal of our positions in the Great Religion Debate that it would, I am sure, delight us both aesthetically. However, I believe you have mucked that up by arguing so convincingly above for (a hypostatized) Art's double role as true believer and cynic.

Heh. I could see it going that way, thought I'd derail it before I argued myself into a corner... in a church... with a hymn book in my hand.

I'll deal with the Madonna / Mapplethorpe question here first -- which is, um, actually the Madonna / Andres Serrano question, Serrano being the "Piss Christ" artist rather than Mapplethorpe. Anyway, I'll deal with this first because I think the heretic / apostate distinction is a red herring. While I am making a distinction between culture and religion, it's one that posits religion as one of the discourses that constitute culture, one of the discourses that constitutes individual identity. So Catholicism is as much a cultural tradition as it is a religion. The old platitude that "You can take the boy out of the Bible-Belt, but you can't take the Bible-Belt out of the boy" is relevant here, in so far as I don't think you can simply jump ship from one religion to another and reset your psyche to a tabula rasa. You will always be a native of your culture in some important respects.

Let me try and thrash out what I mean though.

For the sake of argument, let's say that Serrano (who was also raised strict Catholic) would also, like Madonna, be best described as apostate rather than heretic, traitor rather than revolutionary, that in the same way Madonna has defected to *ahem* "Jewish" *ahem* "mysticism" *cough cough*, Serrano abandoned his native faith entirely for balls-out atheism (I have no idea, but, as I say, for the sake of argument...). It might be seen by some as abrogating your right to criticise the community you've abandoned if you gave up a similarly formal cultural membership like nationality, for example, by emigrating to another country. You've given up your citizenship. Who are you to pass judgement? You're no longer a member.

But if that country is South Africa under apartheid, say, and you consider it intolerant to the point of insufferable, I think you're entitled to save your skin first, get the hell out, and then, from a nice, tolerant (and perhaps crazy, red-Kaballa-ribbon-wearing) country, speak up against the repressive mechanisms of the state you've rejected. Indeed, your anger might be fuelled by this self-imposed exile because there is much about that country that you love and cherish, the beauty of the land itself, a land you consider home. It's not the land that you hate but the system that has been imposed upon it.

I think this is often the case with sacrilegious art. Hell, I think it's the case with my somewhat sacrilegious art (and why I continually end up in Great Religious Debates :->). The drive to to challenge, to confront, may be voiced as an opposition to the whole religion (or the whole nation), Catholicism (or South Africa) such that the sacrileger is basically saying, let's tear this whole shit-house down and start again. They may even have an ideal(ised) notion of another system that could be built in its place -- atheism or Kaballababble (representative democracy or divination-by-cuckoo-entrails). But I think there's often an underlying desire to reclaim the sacred domain (the land). Because your roots, cultural and familial tell you that this is home, and you can't help but feel a loyalty to those still living there. You know that the people living there are human beings, so empathy-plus-ethics tells you that you've got to try and persuade them to either leave like you (and that imperative won't end until the religion/country is empty) or advocate for the overthrow of the system itself, so that your homeland, your native culture can be rebuilt as something less oppressive.

The "Piss Christ" is interesting in this context because visually it's actually quite sensitive, quite beautiful. With no knowledge of the title whatsoever, no knowledge of the liquid used, I'd say, a devout viewer's response might well be positive. This is an attempt to show the mystery of Christ, the other-worldliness, the state of suspension between material (solid) and spiritual (air), how that becomes a liminal existence. Is that murkiness, a Christian might ask, how Christ experienced our "unclear" world? It ties into many of his teachings about our "occluded" state, I'd say. But add the knowledge of what it actually is, call it "Christ in Urine" and you shift the message to something more controversial but still arguably Christian. After all, if God is -- as much of the Gospels tell us -- everywhere, in everything, isn't he also in urine. In so far as Jesus was made flesh and blood, born in a stable in straw and donkey-shit, lived his life among the beggars, cripples and criminals, rejected asceticism, equated wine and bread with his spirit and body and thereby sanctified food and drink as if to say that even the most basic biological acts may be holy, and eventually died beside a common thief in an execution reserved for the lowest of the low -- in this sense, a "Christ in Urine", I'd argue, could easily be seen as an attempt to reassert that core message. And change that title to "Piss Christ" and the message becomes fiercely passionate. Stripped of euphemistic or clinical terminology, rendered with an unashamed vulgarity, Serrano's title becomes a direct challenge to the aspect of the religion which now rejects the low, the base, the vulgar. It's challenging the very "Christianity" of the offended, not in the sense of saying that "it's piss", I think, but in the sense of saying that if you recoil in horror at the disrespect of the juxtaposition, you are not a true Christian. This is my reading of "Piss Christ". It may not be what Serrano intended but I think the work supports it.

Whether the "Piss Christ" is saying this from a heretical or apostate perspective is not, I think, terribly relevant. Whether we read this sacrilege as saying, "rebuild the temple my way" or "tear the fucker down completely", it still reads to me as an attempt to reclaim the sacred domain. It doesn't matter if the sacrileger is in here in the market or out there in the desert, a rebel or a deserter, a heretic or an apostate, they're still a prophet crying out against the wicked priests.

So, I don't think that Madonna and Serrano can be classed as appropriators in the way that they could as Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists. This, of course, raises the question -- what if they were? But before I get to that, let's deal with another alternative scenario. What if Catholicism was a tiny cult of a marginalised community? Would I still support the "Piss Christ" if it was in a context where Serrano was most clearly not attacking a dominant culture?

So. The question of power.

And I submit that it's disingenuous to deny that the issue here is power. Were the Mayans dominant, cutting out the hearts of Baptists atop their ziggurats, you would be, I submit, more sympathetic to a "Piss Yatoch K'un" than a "Piss Christ". Were the Ojibwa the dominant power in North America, a "Piss Dreamcatcher" from a Fox-loving apostate would command your "fuck yeah!"

Actually I agree that the issue in the case of sacrilege is power, but it's the power differential between the religion and the individual rather than between the dominant culture-as-community and the marginalised culture-as-community that's the deciding factor for me. Even if the Mayan culture had a tiny stronghold in a minute corner of Mexico, where they were cutting out the hearts of their own, I'd support a "Piss Yatoch K'un" created by a Mayan apostate. If the Fox controlled most of the North American continent without recourse to slavery while the Ojibwa had a tiny territory from which they raided nearby Fox tribes for slaves, that apostate who created the "Piss Dreamcatcher" would still get my "fuck yeah!" It's not so much that I'm trying to tease power out of the discussion as that I'm trying to find the actual power differential that is most relevant (to me) in the different types of acts that get lumped together as cultural appropriation. To that extent, I think it's important to challenge this specific idea that the sacrilegious act is validated by the dominance of the culture it's committed upon -- dominance in terms of its relationship to other cultures, that is. So it's not because the Ojibwa are marginalised as a culture that I see no justification for a "Piss Dreamcatcher"; it's because I see no use of those dreamcatchers to justify slavery in the present-day, no association of the artefact with tyranny that would justify sacrilege as statement.

I've got no desire to fall into that romanticism trap, btw, so I should probably have been more rigorous, made it explicit that in the presence of "tyrannical power-structures" all bets are off; I meant to give a culture I know little about the benefit of the doubt here, rather than suggest that the New Age "respect" is actually founded on an accurate representation -- hence the caveat vis-a-vis New Age perceptions and the "if" attached to "fair assessment". A major reason I single out the dreamcatcher as a point of contrast is exactly to do with that sort of lack of knowledge.

This does open us back up, I think, to a point where we can talk about the power differential between dominant and marginalised culture and how it does or does not validate (sacrilegious) appropriation, because it brings us to the question I posed above -- what if Serrano was raised Muslim or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist and came to us with his "Piss Christ" from that perspective? Or inversely, what if he were a devout Catholic and gave us a "Piss Mohammed" or "Piss Moses" or "Piss Shiva" or "Piss Buddha" (or "Piss Yatoch K'un" or "Piss Dreamcatcher" for that matter)?

Now I do think the power differential becomes hugely important here, but is it important as a thing in and of itself, or is it because of its effect on the motives and results of appropriation? I think there's a compelling case to be made that, by and large, an appropriator from a dominant culture carrying out such an act is likely to be doing so for negative motives and to negative results, that historically such cross-cultural sacrilege is motivated by misrepresentation and discrimination and aimed towards furthering misrepresentation and discrimination. In this sense, appropriation as a hostile act is functioning as a means to an end. You're absolutely right that power is important here. From the oldest civilisations to the present day, stealing a culture's holy artefacts has been an act of psychological warfare, an attempt to disempower.

To that extent any such act has a charge to answer with regards to motives and results. That's the focus of my "voudon ritual" example in the original post. And your example of control of commodification as regards the dreamcatcher (versus the historical "deal" involving smallpox, forced marches, etc.) ties into my own references to theft and swindling as entirely unethical appropriations. (And the fact that appropriation as a means of generating wealth is all but excused in the capitalist system -- where the power-differential can be passed-off as a difference in competitive nous rather than privilege -- and whether and how you can actually prevent this sort of Robber Baron exploitation without any sense of "communal property" -- is a meaty topic we've hardly touched on). But, yes. Power.

You're right, of course, btw, that my "ethics is aesthetics" stance makes a lot of my sacrilege notion look like it's about, well, tacky versus cool, imitations versus the "real thing". Ethics is the aesthetics of behaviour, as far as I'm concerned, "good form". But I think, applied to motives and results -- and with the power differential firmly in mind -- that notion of ethics can go deeper than just dismissing the commodified dreamcatcher as "tacky" like a galleria art snob; and it's not an either/or situation in which the exploitation is an alternative, contradictory reason for condemning the commodified dreamcatcher. It all becomes a part of the how of the aesthetic form's use. So, OK, yeah, I'm sentimentalising the ritual (and, yes, the actual belief involved in "don't worry, kiddo, this will catch your nightmares" is probably more analogous to that involved in telling kids about Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny than to that involved in telling them that Jesus will be watching over them when they sleep, say), so there's an extent to which my criticism is about the crassness of commercialisation, the puerile attitude of the adult consumer, and other such aesthetic crimes (like spelling "aesthetic" without the "a"; man, that's just ugly! :->). But it's like the appropriation of Santa Claus (another icon in the "public sacred" domain which stands for a conceit rather than a true belief) by Coca-Cola; it's not simply that this "cheapens" the cultural product, but that it transforms the way it's used. I find it hard to look at an image of Santa Claus without having that fucking "holidays are coming" jingle in my head, which is exactly what Coke want -- a powerful positive association. And I find it hard to look at a dreamcatcher without thinking "New Age bullshit", which is exactly what the Ojibwa, I would think, don't want -- a powerful negative association. And the one leads to more actual power for Coke, less actual power for the Ojibwa.

Anyway, yes. Power.

So I am -- I stress -- in no way attempting to suggest that appropriation not being intrinsically wrong means that it's just neutral, so forget it. Indeed, in saying that it is intrinsically neutral, that it should be viewed as an act in and of itself, applicable in contexts other than between a dominant and a marginal culture, I'm saying that it gains its value of rightness or wrongness from the context. So where the context involves a power differential it is within this power differential that we must look for how this makes the appropriation right or wrong. To me this actually focuses us on the important thing -- the power differential -- and the specifics of the context -- the motives and results, the misrepresentation and discrimination -- where collapsing context and act into a shorthand concept only succeeds in saying "this is bad; don't do it".

As long as we do this someone will always ask "but why?", and we will never be able to give them a straight answer.

That answer is, indeed, "power", but if we focus on the act, with its definition so closely focused on cultural integrity, communal rights, we lose sight of the context of power differentials, misrepresentations and discriminations, blinker ourselves to alternative contexts of more complex power differentials, positive representations and attacks-on-discrimination where that act may take on an entirely different value. The very assumption of a power differential being between a dominant culture and a marginalised culture forgets that what we are dealing with here is individuals, that it's individuals who carry out the acts and individuals who suffer the results.

Maybe this is because I'm of a group whose members are subaltern in relation to most any culture they might belong to, dominant or marginalised. Being queer puts you in a group which, lacking the automatic familial cohesion of ethnicity, religion or other such inherited cultural bonds, can either construct itself into a set of sub-cultures, sub-communities within (and perhaps linking between) those communities, or exist as a set of non-culturally-bonded individuals each subaltern to the culture they identify with. This changes the whole situation when it comes to appropriation.

The point is, my position is such that as a member of the dominant culture attacking my own dominant culture with an act of sacrilege I can either validate that with reference to the power differential between the dominant culture and the marginalised individual or with reference to the power differential between cultures, dominant and marginalised. To do the latter requires me to identify with a "gay community", which may well render me "apostate" as far as the dominant culture is concerned. Those who would say "this doesn't matter; that's the dominant culture, so it's valid" are supportive and well-meaning, but their words only fortify the defences of the dominant culture by allowing them to deny that a) they are actually dominant (by characterising themselves as a minority); b) this is valid (by pointing to the inherent double-standard).

These are the practical issues I've already gone over though, so I won't repeat myself. Another, more crucial, difficulty here is that this places loyalty to the marginalised culture in opposition to loyalty to the dominant culture. And where that marginalised culture is a construct rather than an ethnicity, it is more difficult to justify the choice of loyalty as affirmation of one culture rather than rejection of another. It becomes necessary to argue -- quite possibly incorrectly -- that one is "born gay", that it is "not a choice", in order to validate one's (divided or repositioned) loyalty as being loyalty to something other than an artificial, anti-societal sub-culture.

This viewpoint is even more problematic though when it comes to a member of a marginalised culture attacking their own marginalised culture with an act of sacrilege. To validate this by the same logic requires a recharacterisation of the marginalised culture as dominant in relation to the sub-culture. This is no great logical leap, and it theoretically leaves the doubly-subaltern in the same position of validity as the singularly-subaltern. We can still say "this doesn't matter; that's the dominant (straight) culture, so it's valid". But by this logic, only a native member of that marginalised culture is in the clearly valid position. By this logic, a queer member of the dominant culture is on dubious ground if they, rather than a native member, attack the marginalised culture with an act of sacrilege.

Are they "not appropriating" because they are subaltern in respect of sexuality, or are they "appropriating" because they are dominant in terms of ethnicity?

In order to validate this as "not appropriating" we have to scale up the idea of a gay culture from a local "gay community" to a universal "queer nation". If we do so, however, we may well end up with a "queer nation" that vastly outweighs many marginalised cultures in terms of populace and resources. Within that culture many of the members will be coming from backgrounds of great privilege in comparison to straight members of ethnically marginalised cultures. Where those members use that privileged background (better access to education, funds, contacts in the establishment, etc.) to establish themselves in positions of power within the community, to shape the culture of that community, what you may end up with is a culture that, in relation to ethnically marginalised cultures can only be percieved as dominant and dominating.

Does this then, paradoxically, entirely invalidate any such attempts to undermine institutionalised, religiously-validated homophobia within marginalised culture by acts of sacrilege, rendering them automatically illegitimate as cultural appropriation? Does this, in fact, invalidate any attempt to tackle homophobia within those marginalised communities -- whether by imposing legislation, criticising prejudice, advocating change or simply supporting the queer subaltern trying to do this from within -- as cultural imperialism?

Many within those communities would, I think, argue that it does.

The very concept which seeks to articulate the wrongness of prejudice thus becomes a mechanism by which systems of prejudice are maintained. The very concept which seeks to protect the subaltern becomes a denial that I, as a member of a dominant culture, have the "right" to attack the marginalised cultures in which those subaltern are persecuted. By protecting the very artefacts and aesthetic forms of culture which are used to validate prejudice and persecution, it denies me, or anyone in a similarly privileged position, the right to attack the aspects of systems that play, I think, a crucial, central role in perpetuating persecution and which, I think, I am most equipped to deal with as an artist. You know what I'm going to say here, right?

Fuck that shit.

So what if we want to argue that this sacrilege is valid? It becomes an exercise in excuses and exceptions. Well, this culture is marginalised, so it's appropriation, so it's bad, except that the gays within that culture are more marginalised, so it's good, except that it's the gays outside that culture who're imposing their own values, so it's bad, except that they're doing it to help their fellow gays, so it's good, except that it's harmful to the marginalised culture, so it's bad, except that culture is homophobic, so it's good, except that it's still appropriation, which is just bad, except that it's fighting homophobia, which is just bad, except that being an appropriator makes you part of the problem, which is bad, except that being homophobic makes you a part of the problem, which is bad... and so on, ad infinitum.

I don't think we can afford the luxury of that intellectual white noise. I'm personally not interested in arguing over how subaltern I am with respect to every other culture, dominant or marginal, on the planet, and whether or not I'm engaged in appropriation if I blah blah blah blah blah.

Absolutely it's all about power, but it's individuals who wield power and individuals who are denied power. And if the concept of cultural appropriation grants any marginal culture's equivalent of Jesse Helms the power and privilege to say that an individual is a second-class citizen because of their sexuality, and takes away the power and privilege I have to piss on his sacred whipping-post, I reckon we're working with a concept that's FUBAR, that needs to be stripped down and overhauled. Not scrapped. Not by any means. But rebuilt from the ground up.


As a (hopefully brief) postscript, to address your other point(s):

There are few religions less heirarchical, in the strict sense of "religious practices and products are reserved to the class A, denied from the class B, within the religion" than American Bible-belt Protestantism.


Nor is a cross an artifact which is reserved for use by the priesthood; indeed, for European premodern peasantry or in villages in the Christian third world today, it is precisely the sort of thing parents make and hang up over the beds of their children to protect them.
You're dead right here.

On the one hand you have a religion that's a product of exactly the sort of Dionysian rebellion I'm talking about, in which the sacred domain was reclaimed from the priests. Think of the translation of the Bible, the smashing of "Papist idols", the rejection of indulgences, and on, and on, and on. It's kind of ironic that Jesse Helms would be outraged at the "Piss Christ", given that it's not just a cross, but a crucifix, which is itself, in early Protestant terms, a sacrilegious idolatry.

And on the other hand, you have an aspect of Catholicism in which it clearly demonstrates its own affinity with the sort of "public sacred" domain I'm positing. You could extend this to statues of saints, rosaries and other such personal (anthropologically speaking) fetishes. In some sense, what I'm talking about here as a public sacred domain can be made sense of in terms of a fetishistic component to religion -- gods of the hearth and kitchen magic.

So does this undermine my argument about sacrilege being based on taking an item out of a sacred domain defined in terms of where, when and by whom a sacred item may be used? Where is the hierarchy of elect claiming to themselves, and only themselves, the privilege to use these items in the only correct context?

In both cases, I do think we can see an attempt to lay claim to a privilege of proscribing and prescribing the use of such items, but they're almost mirror-images of each other in approach. Protestantism, having stripped away the multi-level hierarchy of Catholicism, has replaced it with a two-level system based on demagogues and their congregations, in which the sacred domain is defined largely in negative terms -- things that nobody is entitled to do. Its attitude seems to me to be similar to that of Islam or Judaism with regards to key words and images. Nobody can say this -- that's blasphemy. Nobody can represent this -- that's idolatry. It's maybe interesting (and definitely necessary in order to be fair), in that sense, to look at a distinction in these three forms of monotheism between the demagogues like Jesse Helms, Fred Phelps, etc., whose position seems to depend on having things that they can persuade others to be outraged about, and the non-demagogues -- those ministers, imams and rabbis who are following the model as intended (or at least, as it seems to me to be intended), performing in a ministerial capacity to their congregation.

I think my own Protestant-bound upbringing -- seeing from an early age the abhorrent "Reverend" Iain Paisley playing demagogue just over the water in Northern Ireland, seeing a strong strain of that type of demagogue in Calvinist Protestantism thoroughout Scotland (especially focused in the "Wee Frees" up North), and gradually getting clued-in to the prevalence of this type of character in American Protestantism -- Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, etc., etc. -- has focused my attention on that distinction between demagogue and minister. Seeing it also in the radical imams at the heart of Muslim fundamentalism, and in the major forces of 20th Century politics, I wonder if the demagogue is perhaps the most adaptive form of the latter-day Pentheus in the Modern era, the age of mass-communication. I think that might well be the case, and -- together with the focus on the "Word" as God-given (which lets the demagogue characterise themself as the mouthpiece of God, simply telling his Word as it is) and the focus on (potentially violent) suppression of dissent in much of that Word -- I think that's why these demagogues seem to me a dangerous enough threat to warrant sacrilege.

Flipping the coin to look at Roman Catholicism, there's much to the "folk religion" aspect of it, the focus on this "public sacred" domain that appeals to my heathen sensibility. It has so many neat toys in all those rosaries and Russian icons, statues of the Madonna and the saints. In many ways Protestantism threw the baby out with the bathwater when it went all iconoclastic on Catholicism's ass during the Reformation, Europe's Cultural Revolution, complete with pre-Maoist Maoism. But at the same time you do still have this hierarchical system which, even as it grants the laity their fetishes, their public sacred aesthetic forms, redirects the reverence for material things into a reverence for the Church as material manifestation of "God's Kingdom". One must go to a priest in the confession booth, to have the correct use of the rosary prescribed to you. The icons are in altarpieces. Tha Madonna and the saints map the hierarchy of the "Mother" Church and its bishopric. While many of those saints are appropriations of pagan deities who would have had their own temples, their own cults, they now serve as subordinates in a unified system. Everything feeds in to that single power-structure with the Pope at the top of the pyramid scheme dispensing doctrine in a similarly demagogic fashion to the self-elected leaders of Protestantism.

Does this not happen in other religions, those of marginalised "pagan" cultures, polytheistic, dualist or monotheistic? I'm quite sure it does. So is it more about these religions being part of the dominant culture than any difference in terms of "tyrannical power structures"? In some senses the expansionist policy of Christianity and Islam does mark them out as fundamentally imperialist threats to marginal cultures, does make it about the power-differential between the dominant and the marginalised at a cultural level. But I'm more concerned, and always will be, I think, about the effects on individuals rather than on cultures.

The scale makes it more important but it's in the structure that the problem lies, if that makes sense.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Magic 101

Two big-ass Duncan's Wacky Ideas posts in the one day... there must be something in the water. And, no, it's not LSD. This is actually an interview a Religion and Philosophy Studies student at Georgia State University asked if I'd be up for, in relation to his thesis on quantum interconnectedness and sympathetic magic. I thought it might be interesting, even if it does prove that I'm a nut-job.


For the record, what is your name?

Hal Duncan.

Many would say that “modern magical practice,” as spoken of by people like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Phil Hine, and those others counting themselves as “modern magicians,” rests in an idea of the manipulation of language as a way to manipulate concepts and thereby dictate perception and interaction with the world.

a)Do you think that if there is a “magic,” then it rests in this kind of manipulation?

b) How would you define a magic in which you could believe?

a) I think it would have to. I'm an atheist, nihilist, existentialist, materialist, when it comes down to it, albeit with an idiosyncratic view on materialism which doesn't preclude the irrational, the indefinite and the downright chaotic, so any theory of magic that requires a spiritual / material distinction, that posits it as an appeal to supernatural entities or incorporeal agents active in a "higher" realm, doesn't hold water for me. If magic were to exist, to me it would have to be a natural phenomenon.

I wouldn't make a distinction between language, concepts and perception here, as I think all three are part of a single system. Perception involves the modelling of received information through relationships of arbitrary symbols, what some would refer to as qualia maybe, but what I would call aesthemes (in parallel with the phonemes and morphemes of language). Conception involves the creative recombination of those aesthemes and one aspect of conception is that it fires off the "inception" of actions -- interactions -- which are themselves perceptible. So the whole process is a feedback loop in which the language(s) of sensation function as the key mechanism for translating and thereby transforming that little part of the cosmos (perhaps artificially) isolated as "me" and the slightly larger part of the cosmos that it interacts with.

Since the idea of magic is that this "me" can interact with the cosmos by means other than direct physical manipulation and thereby achieve effects which seem to violate causality, it would have to, I think, be a result of that essentially linguistic process of perception>>conception>>inception>>perception.

b) I would define it as interacting with the cosmos at point A so as to create a manipulative effect at point C, which appears indirect, non-physical and / or acausal -- i.e. lacking an obvious connecting line B. If a medium of force, a line B which is simply not yet found, could be theorised and tested for such that those effects might be shown to be in fact direct, physical and causal (i.e an empirically falsifiable hypothesis), I'd be as happy to believe in magic as I am to believe in gravity. Practically speaking, if you could show that some sub-atomic particle was, like the graviton, exchanged between matter, but also interacted with the sub-atomic activity in neural systems, functioning as a mechanism of information exchange, then you have a medium by which my desire at point A can be communicated to you at point C. That might well be a theory of magic I could believe in. I want X to happen; you, without even knowing it, make it happen. It would essentially be positing an actual physicality to Jung's idea of the mass unconscious, which is an intriguing speculation. I'm not sure that kind of theory covers the full scope of magic as people imagine it, though; it doesn't allow for manipulating the activity of non-sentient systems, which would require an exertion of force in a way that I'm quite sceptical of.

In the absence of that sort of unknown but discoverable medium of connectivity, a theory in which the line B was untestable but rationally formulated (in the way that some highly speculative theories of cosmology can be expressed quite coherently in maths or physics but can't ultimately be tested-for), if it modelled the behaviour of the system well (and assuming that we could find sufficient examples of A-to-C activity to require an explanation), then that would be something I was willing to at least entertain. Even if I wasn't willing to believe it on faith, I wouldn't actively disbelieve, since absence of proof is not proof of absence.

A more abstract theory of magic which comes out of mysticism and which I'm not entirely averse to is one in which we have a deeper underlying connectivity -- as in the idea of the Quantum Universal Interconnectedness Principle or the theory that the universe has an implicate order like a holograph, where each fragment contains an image of the whole. In this idea, the deep structure might result in a basically atemporal and therefore acausal patterning. It wouldn't be so much that A causes C by way of line B, as that A and C are, at a deeper level, the same event seen from different perspectives.

While this is entirely speculative it appeals to me immensely, I have to admit.

In your novel, Vellum, you seem to employ an understanding of sympathetic magic (“a thing that is like a thing is or can affect the thing”). Did you study J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, in order to correctly apply this theory?

Did you read any other modern treatises on magic? If so which?

I've had The Golden Bough on my shelf for years as a reference book, dipping into it regularly -- though never actually reading it cover-to-cover -- so that is part of where my familiarity with the notion of sympathetic magic comes from. From other works of comparative mythology such as those of Joseph Campbell, or even just a general familiarity with anthropology, it's not hard to pick up the essential idea. I read a lot of this stuff pretty fast and loose when I was in my early twenties, trying to synthesize ideas from various sources. To give you an idea of where this all comes from it's probably easiest to list some of the relevant books on my shelf: James Gleick (Chaos); Fritjoff Capra (The Tao of Physics); Steven Mithen (The Prehistory of the Mind); Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness); Carl Jung (The Science of Mythology; The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature); Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God; The Flight of the Wild Gander); Migene Gonzalez-Wippler (The Santeria Experience).

Add to that an interest in the occult -- Kabbala, Tarot, the I Ching -- which led to me reading works (which I can't remember the name of, unfortunately) by or about Aliester Crowley, W.B.Yeats, Madam Blavatsky, Jack Parsons, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and so on, and this gives you the context in which the ideas I work with in Vellum originated. The idea that "As above, so below", which is deeply embedded in much of this seems to tie in very much with the principle underlying sympathetic magic.

The principle of quantum entanglement is described as a state in which two or more objects must be spoken of in relation to each other, such that the operations performed on one can be said to have an effect on the other(s). Do you believe that there is a meaningful similarity between the principle of sympathetic magic and that of quantum entanglement?

If so, is this similarity a driving force in your work?

I certainly think there's a similarity and that it's interesting, but I'm not sure if the meaning is more a product of our pattern-hungry nature than anything else. When I came across the idea of QUIP for the first time it made a lot of sense to me and as a writer of strange, speculative fiction it fired off a lot of hypothetical answers to questions raised by supernatural claims. What I mean is, leaving aside the notion of magic as a force -- manipulating the activity of non-sentient systems -- for a moment, if you could scale the effects of quantum entanglement up to the required level could it be seen as the mechanism for exchange of information, or as a deep-structural connectivity that makes that unnecessary? Does it mean that information encoded at point A doesn't have to be transferred to point C, but is actually already there?

In essence, this would mean we're networked to an information-rich inner structure within the cosmos -- I'll call it the Mainframe as an easy shorthand. If this were so, then a lot of weird anomalies which we otherwise have to deny as impossible or explain with intricate -- and, I think, implausible -- spiritualist conceits can be made sense of. Rather than rule out every alleged instance of telepathy, remote viewing, ghosts, reincarnation, precognition and so on as frauds or delusions, can we treat them objectively as empirical data to be theorised? If my thoughts at point A are as much located in the Mainframe as they are in my head, then you at point C have instant access to them since your thoughts are also equally located in the Mainframe. You can, it seems, read my thoughts. You might equally well access information in the Mainframe that allows you to visualise a place you cannot see directly, to reconstruct past events and their participants and superimpose that on your perception of the place where they occurred, to reconstruct and experience as your own the memories of a person who died before you were born, and perhaps even -- if the Mainframe is as temporally co-located as it is spatially co-located -- access information pertaining to events that have not yet happened. All of these phenomena would have a unifying physical, albeit acausal, explanation which could probably even be limited to an unconscious level of access between different conscious beings.
To get to sympathetic magic, however, you have to go an extra step and postulate that we as clients are able to perform operations within the Mainframe that are more than just data-retrieval. Sympathetic magic would have to be seen as a sort of command protocol in which our desires can be codified, where the Mainframe has a system or systems which translate those command protocols into physical activity.

This brings us firmly into the territory of religion and mysticism, but it's a fascinating territory to explore, and this is exactly what I'm trying to do in a lot of my fiction. Subsitute "the Vellum" for "the Mainframe" and "the Cant" for "command protocols" and you have part of the underlying metaphysics I'm playing with. Where the religious would tend to personify the Mainframe as a God or as a pantheon of gods each with separate functions, I prefer the mystic's depersonalisation of that, the treatment of it as a non-anthropomorphised deep structure rather than a conscious being. In dealing with the ramifications of that level of connectivity as an atemporal thing, I'm also drawn to the idea that this localised "me" might be only one part of a distributed system of "me", that a localised event might be only one part a of distributed system.

What works on modern ideas in quantum mechanics, if any, did you read, in preparation for your work on Vellum?

What I haven't already mentioned, I can't really remember, I'm afraid. Most of my initial reading was done so long ago and in such a jackdaw manner (scavenged from wherever and quickly woven into the nest) that I can't think of individual titles and authors now.

The Jungian conception of the Collective Unconscious and the archetypes, therein, would seem to allow that these symbols and forms can be mapped onto any person, just so long as the proper conception of self is employed. As an author, is there the temptation to map too much of yourself into a story, and do you see a danger of too much of the story mapping itself onto you?

Too much is never enough. That might sound glib, but what I mean is I think there should be no half-measures if you want your fiction to address the unconscious on a collective level rather than simply model your own personal psychology -- the relationship between your conscious and unconscious, and the subject-specific relationships between the various archetypes that constitute that unconscious. It's not that the latter is less worthy. There's a lot of great fiction where writers are mining their own neuroses and psychoses, bringing their own variants of the archetypes to the surface to be manifested as avatars in characters, then set into interaction with each other. And this makes for powerful writing because as often as not the psychodrama that results is one we can't fail to recognise. It's also one which, in the differences between the relationships of the archetypes in that author's psyche and the relationships of the archetypes in ours, expands our understanding of those archetypes' full potential. It's also, however, easy to use those archetypes quite shallowly.

So, suppose I recognise seven key archetypes: the Persona, who for me is Reynard, the writer and voice of reason, an ideal self-image; the Id, who for me is Jack, the firestarter and voice of passion; the Anima, who for me is Phreedom, the female principle; the Self, who for me is Puck, a puer aeternus, the classic Inner Child; the Ego, who for me is Seamus, the social being who has to deal with reality; the Shadow, who for me is Joey, the cold, dark force of opposition; the Mana, who for me is Don, the old soldier, made stoicly wise by hard experience.

You can use these characters quite superficially to construct a Star Wars style "Hero's Journey" where the wish-fulfillment hero is a cipher for the Id and the villain is just a cipher for the Shadow, and so on. This type of use is common in genre and over and above entertaining the reader, it can be, I think, a map for both writer and reader to get to a certain state of mind. The forms here are well-established conventions. The map is already drawn and so both writer and reader can navigate their way through this manifestation of the collective unconscious with ease, though without really addressing it. The archetypes simply go through a little dance, fighting and fucking, at the end of which the story is basically a picture of the relatively stable and desireable psychological state. In terms of magical terminology, you could call this the "Right Hand Path"

Taking this further, however, breaking from established routes like the Hero's Journey and trying to map the wilder territories, deliberately going off the track and into the wildwoods where the monster's lurk -- where it ultimately becomes about accepting and integrating the Shadow rather than defeating it (because the defeated Shadow is only really repressed and will therefore always return) -- this can be the start, I think, of Jung's process of individuation. It might simply be a rather disfunctional display of the writer's fucked-up mentality, a fictional manifestation of their internal struggle -- and as such it can be powerful and profound as outlined above. But to make that work as a map of the collective unconscious requires, I think, absolute commitment, because you have to deconstruct yourself as completely as possible, not just negotiate a truce with your demons but take them apart and see what makes them tick, find the aspects of each archetype that would be demonic to others even if its a positive force to you. In terms of magical terminology, you could call this the "Left Hand Path".

This is where failure becomes a matter of not mapping enough of yourself to the story, I think, where those absences and blind spots paradoxically function as negative spaces which continue to define the story largely in terms of your personal psychology, the disacknowledged aspects of it. It's like giving the reader the map but holding back half of the key so that it only partially makes sense to them. By putting yourself in there as wholly as possible, carved open and laid out for scrutiny, you're providing them with the full key, or at least as much as it's possible to give.

Again in practical terms, you need to show the personal nature of the archetypes as you present them, how that relates to an individual psychology and how these avatars relate to the archetypes in their impersonal indefinite states of potential. I try to do this by playing multiple avatars off against themselves as well as each other, exploring permutations and potentialities, while at the same time grounding that in some intensely personal experiences.

Would you find it accurate to say that, in the act of writing, one taps into the collective unconscious to drag out the archetypes necessary to properly affect the perceptions of your readers?

It's not necessarily the case. Much writing has little or nothing to do with the archetypes at all, never mind using them in a project to, well, fuck with the reader's head. But that is something that's going on in a lot of heavily archetypal fiction, I reckon. I think of those seven archetypes outlined above as common to us all, and I think many psychological states can be viewed as surfacings of (our own personal versions of) those archetypes. In narcissistic rage, for example -- that irrational wrath at something as trivial as a traffic jam -- it seems to me like we're seeing the world through the eyes of the Shadow. For that moment, it's our flip side that's in control (hell, we even refer to it as "flipping out").

With archetypal fiction you're offering the reader views of your fictive world and by extension the real world through the eyes of your versions of the archetypes. In identifying with those characters, in the resonances of those characters with the reader's own versions of the archetypes, it's possible that they're going to be at least temporarily looking at the fictive world and the real world beyond through the eyes of not just your avatar but through the eyes of their own avatar of that archetype. Indeed, in the immersive experience of reading, if your written avatar is functioning as their identification figure for the duration of the experience, then with luck you might actually be giving them a view they're unfamiliar with, offering a new angle on and from-the-viewpoint-of their own unconscious alter egos.

What are the ways in which you, as a writer, feel that you can/should/want to affect the world? What is your quest?

All fiction is, I think, capable of altering a reader's worldview. You can be cynical about such statements, scoff at the idea that a book can really have any significant effect, but I don't think this is an overly-optimistic, self-serving inflation of the value of fiction. Quite the opposite. If this wasn't the case you wouldn't have propaganda. The Bible and other scriptures wouldn't have the power they have, and half the world's religions would be out of business. Not admitting of this power leaves it in the hands of the Right, who know fine well that you can shape society with the right stories. So I think it's important to recognise that writing can affect the world through its effects on the reader, if only to ensure that you're not affecting the reader in a way you wouldn't want to -- reinforcing easy stereotypes, expressing dodgy subtexts -- and better still so you might actually try and counteract some of the conservative and reactionary messages readers are receiving from elsewhere.

To that end, much of my aim is focused not so much on shaping people's worldviews but on the idea of unshaping them, attacking stereotypes and moral absolutes, trying to wedge a crowbar into the cracks in people's minds and jimmy them open. I think you have to have a sense of... humour and perspective about exactly how much effect one book or one writer can have, so quest is a bit too grandiose for my liking -- a bit inflationary and egoistic -- but, fuck it, there's something to be said for the Quixotic holy fool, setting out to save the world from what might be windmills but might just as well be giants. So, taking these insane ambitions with a cellar-full of salt, I want to write a bestselling book that rewires people's heads, something that takes a sledgehammer to the doors of perception and gives the reader the map to what's beyond.

If I could, if it's possible, I'd like to write a book that would sell even to a reader who was a full-on motherfucker of a bigot -- a homophobe, a racist, a sexist. I'd like to draw them in with a rollercoaster of a ride, pull them through Hell and have them come out the other side rooting for every underdog they used to hate. Or in a real -- a practical -- sense, I'd like to write a book that some downtrodden kid in Nowhere Town, Idaho or Killmenow, Scotland might read and find some hope in, suddenly see that going Columbine on their classmates asses is not the only option. I'd like to put even just the smallest hole in the wall around that kid's dying soul, just enough for them to see the light on the other side and realise that no wall is totally invulnerable.

And that's the sort of magic I definitely believe in.

Again, with respect to those who work in fiction, today, drawing directly upon the things in which they believe, how much does your work stem from your personal beliefs?

Directly, intensely and thoroughly. Bearing in mind that I'm a nihilist / existentialist and my most passionate belief is in nothing, that we die and that's the end of it, that the universe is devoid of any essentialist pupose, and so any beliefs over and above that are temporary and contingent, theories more than beliefs, I do reckon that if you're going to make a choice you may as well throw yourself into it with passion. My brand of nihilism isn't that pissant ennui stuff where the lack of intrinsic purpose means that any option is met with a lacklustre "why bother?" Fuck that shit. If you're a bona fide nihilist, you should be asking yourself "why the fuck not?"
That whole attitude informs both Vellum and Ink. It's what they're about and it's my attitude to writing them. If you're thinking of writing a 400,000 word Cubist fantasy diptych that strip-mines the Jungian unconscious and has "people die" as it's core message, then you sure as hell better throw yourself into it, and you sure as hell better be sincere.

What are you reading, at current?

Jeffrey Ford's short story collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant.

What is your favourite colour?

The colour of sandstone in the early evening.


Interesting aside:

So I'm three quarters of the way through this interview, past the bit where I go off on a big riff about quantum interconnectedness as potential explanation for things like memories of past lives -- not in the regressive hypnosis sense (priestesses in Atlantis and bullshit like that) but as in those cases where it's some infant blithely talking about a past life recent enough that their previous family may actually be traceable. I've always found this the most interesting of all those weird phenomena, as it's the most testable, and it was after reading about Phil Dick's post-pink-light experiences with speaking koinos Greek and such that I started kicking ideas around inside my skull about whether such things might not just be a matter of information access rather than the soul transfer of reincarnation (cause, well, I don't believe in the soul.). Data-mining, basically. Anyway, these old ideas are now kicking around in my head again because of the interview when I take a break to grab some grub and switch on the TV. Flicking channels after a cartoon, I'm just about to go back to the laptop to finish off the interview when this Channel 5 documentary comes on called "The Boy Who Lived Before", about a four-year-old kid from Glasgow who remembers a past life on the island of Barra. And of course it's full of the sort of verified descriptive facts that make such things awfully compelling (but with contradictions that one might argue point to exactly the sort of reconstruction job I'm hypothesising, where it's information being downloaded by the rememberer rather than a "soul" being passed on by the dead-and-gone).

I shit you not.

Synchronicity or what?

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Sacred Domain

In my last post on cultural appropriation, I said:

Where we're talking about cultic artefacts, where the right to exclusivity is founded, I would argue, on a legitimate religious concern, I think this has to be respected. So the appropriation of voudon rituals, sand-paintings and such-like is unethical.

Ben Rosenbaum replied:

In trying to distinguish between the cultic and the merely tribal or social, it seems like you're engaging in the kind of blurring you oppose above.I'm thinking of Russian Orthodox anger at the Madonna show where she ends up on the cross, or Jesse Helm's at Mapplethorpe's "Piss Christ". Can you muster the same indignation at these as at dreamcatchers and sand paintings? I'm reckoning you can't?

Yet as *representations*, let's assume that the dreamcatchers and sand paintings are faithful, careful, loving reproductions, or artistically legitimate extensions, non-fetishizing, non-demonizing and non-infantilizing.

So it's clearly not the representation that bothers us, right?

But doesn't this run counter to the argument you make above, that appropriation must be considered as an act legitimate or illegitimate in itself? If the argument "it's okay for non-Europeans to appropriate the novel, because they're disenfranchised, but it's not okay for white Americans to appropriate hip-hop, because they're dominant" is illegitimate because there are no such "communal rights" to be arbitrated, what's the difference between a sand painting and a cross?

Your argument that there are no communal rights to image owned by a group of subalterns (or anybody) is coherent. But I don't really follow the distinction you're making between religious and "merely cultural" artifacts.

(Maybe because I'm from a tradition that's a bit conflicted about whether it's a religion or a culture).

It's a good point. I wasn't sure how far I wanted to go into this part of the debate because I think sacrilege is something of a separate issue here which complexifies things greatly, so I probably gave the Art and Religion relationship short shrift. But maybe I can open up this contradiction in a way that makes sense.

So, in answer to the question of whether there's a contradiction here:

Yes, and worse: one of my other examples is, in fact, even more fuzzy round the edges. In order to explain what I mean with regard to religion, I think I need to deal with that first to set the foundation. So...

Works which have definable ownership within a community with an informal but clearly accepted equivalent of copyright (i.e. an explicit moral injuction against reproduction without permission), like any intellectual property deserve to be treated in accordance with that informal law. So to simply replicate a form -- a song, a story, whatever -- without consent, remuneration and/or accreditation as required is unethical.

Doesn't this also set up a contradiction, by recognising exactly the sort of communal ownership I'm rejecting? Isn't this just reintroducing cultural appropriation by the back door?

Not, I think, if it's definable ownership, explicitly limited by at least informal law. Hereditable, transferable and joint ownership is not utterly anathema to Art; it's just that Art doesn't accept it as a de facto state, I think. It doesn't accept that, say, my friends and family members are entitled to -- as a "community" -- lay claim to Vellum and exclude others from using it. Or rather it does within a very limited definition of the community (with the inheritance of copyright by a recognisable estate) and with limitations of duration (70 years). And Art, as a discourse, doesn't necessarily "agree with itself", I would say, on whether the legalities and moralities are in synch.

Without getting sidelined into the conflict of legality and morality -- or to allow myself to be sidelined for as briefly as possible -- the point is that I think there is some recognition within the ethos of Art that cultural products can have a community of owners /caretakers who reserve controlling rights on them as intellectual property. Existing copyright legislation has negotiated a tenuous and often argued over compromise where we don't have works held in the private domain to the umpteenth generation, but where the estate is not completely denied their inheritance. Morally speaking, even beyond these legal restrictions, if we can recognise a distinct community of owners / caretakers at all, we'll often feel that there's a strong sense of obligations-required-for-reproduction which goes along with that recognition. So if you visit the Appalachians, say, and learn traditional bluegrass tunes from musicians there, even if those traditional compositions are themselves not legally copyrighted or even copyrightable, even if your own arrangement of them is entirely original (because I'm not talking about sampling or plagiarism here, or other such tangential issues of individual copyright), that sense of obligation will, one would hope, still kick in.

To what extent consent, recompense and/or accreditation are morally obligatory would not, I think, be hard to ascertain by asking those musicians a few simple questions. If they are to be your teacher, it's only good form to find out if they're happy in that role, if they would like something in return. Largely, even across the boundaries of factionalised culture, the default moral seems to be based on an idea of paying tribute -- an explicit gratitude to sources and influences -- and of paying dues -- proving your own skill and/or commitment. Largely, it seems to me, there's an informal open-door policy in such communities whereby you don't have to be officially permitted entry; you just have to pay sufficient tribute and dues until you're recognised as "one of us", even if only on an honorary level. Hell, in many cases just doing a good enough job with your own version may be enough to earn the respect that equals informal membership. (Which is why Eminem, for example, is not condemned-on-principle as a white American appropriating rap by all of his black peers; for the most part, it seems, he's considered to have paid his dues, paid tribute to his influences, and proven his own skill.) But I don't rule out the validity of more stringent traditions where they are established as such. If a strong master/apprentice tradition exists, for example, where you're expected to gain a master's consent to teach you, and to "recompense" them with a period of submission to their teachings, if that's what "paying your dues" entails, then disrespecting those mores is disrespecting those sources / influences / teachers by refusing to pay the expected entry fee.

You can, of course, believe that the price is too high, disproportionate to the actual creative debt, but in terms of the ethos of Art as I would characterise it both parties do have valid cases. I do think Art is inherently uncomfortable with measures over-and-above the "tribute-and-dues" default (because that conflicts with the learn-and-develop imperative to the expense of the learner), but I think it is probably equally uncomfortable with disregard for the "tribute-and-dues" obligation (because that devalues the creative process to the expense of the teacher). My case is really not to deny that cultural appropriation in this sense exists, or to say that the whole concept is illegitimate; it's more to argue two points:

1. Where cultures are defined at a level transcending these specific, recogniseable (sub)communities of owners / caretakers, there is no legitimate claim of "copyright", even at the most informal level. Assume it's 100 years after my death and any inherited copyright has long since lapsed. Being a Duncan, or being gay, or being Scottish, or being white, or male, or whatever, does not grant you any more moral rights as regards my work than it grants to anyone else on the planet.

2. Where there are specific, recogniseable (sub)communities that function as communal owners / caretakers of cultural products and aesthetic forms, unless use of those products and forms is expressly limited to members of the community, with membership restricted by criteria clearly explicated in the mores of the community, the default requirements are simply to pay tribute and to pay dues. Assume all the current members of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle name the group itself as literary executor and, although it's 100 years after all our deaths, a new generation of GSFWC members have developed a shared-world based on all our works. Unless the GSFWC has developed over that period a stringent set of traditions as to who gets to write in this shared-world, not being a member of the GSFWC does not impose any more moral requirements on you -- other than an appropriate level of tribute and dues -- than you would have as a member.

Which brings us, the long way round, to religion. Point 1 is saying that the public domain is not factionalised at that level. Point 2 is saying that we can nevertheless have non-legal but morally-recogniseable communal private domains. In many ways, I would say, religion can be understood as a special case of communal private domain(s). The special purpose of cultural products and aesthetic forms generated by art for religion invests them with such a level of importance to that community that their use is only sanctioned in specific contexts and / or by specific authorised persons. Breaching these criteria is explicitly forbidden to the extent that we have a number of terms for such misuses as moral crimes: profane; blasphemous; sacrilegious. Further, membership of the community is explicitly limited to those who meet stringent criteria of faith and devotion (though of course one can cheat by faking it with lip-service rather than sincere faith and devotion) and often defined hierarchically such that even believers are not accorded the right to use these sanctified cultural products and aesthetic forms, only a higher level of initiates or priests.

It's interesting that you pick Madonna and Mapplethorpe as examples in this context because both are quite specifically dealing with their own cultures, both reacting against the Catholicism they themselves were brought up in. As members of the culture-as-community they cannot be culturally appropriating the image of the cross. Rather the furore over their (mis)use points up exactly the distinction I'm making, where it is not a matter of a factionalised public domain but rather of a distinct sacred domain. Another example which complements this intra-cultural sacrilege, as a case of cross-cultural sacrilege, is that of the Mohammed cartoons. What makes these images interesting here is that the sacrilege lies in the creation of a cultural product, an aesthetic form -- an image of Mohammed -- which is reserved from all use whatsoever. In so far as those images do not and cannot therefore actually exist within the source culture this can hardly be seen as an act of appropriation, but it is, I think, sacrilege in exactly the same way as Madonna's or Mapplethorpe's use of the cross.

Where you would have a true case of cultural appropriation -- if Madonna used an Islamic call-to-prayer in a song, or Mapplethorpe photographed a man with "Allah" written in Arabic on his back, and a bullwhip up his arse, or an Islamic artist created a "Shit Nativity" -- the non-member status of the artist may well be far less incendiary than the sacrilege involved simply in using a cutural product or aesthetic form which is not in the public domain (factionalised or otherwise) but explicitly reserved to the sacred domain. So the furore in the culture-at-large (i.e. believers who may well have no more right-of-use over those icons than) over such misuses, I think, is less about a sense of outsiders raiding the village and more about anyone raiding the temple.

To some degree, I respect that sense of sacred domain. While I tend to defend balls-out, full-on sacrilege in anti-religious art which has something to say and the skill to say it well, I dislike much of the cheap and easy sacrilege you see in the New Age movement or pop culture, where the result is devoid of value either as religion or as art. If you're going to do sacrilege it shouldn't be for trivial self-gratification or shallow sensationalism. But whether I personally condone the transgression or condemn it (and these judgements are entirely subjective, so I can easily understand other apostates like myself condemning Madonna or Mapplethorpe on the same basis I condone them), I can at least recognise the boundaries that are being transgressed.

In contrast to the fuzzy idea of communal property rights residing in a culture-as-community, here you have a very much definable ownership with very much explicit limitations, limitations laid out in laws that are not just informal but as formal as they come without being legally sanctioned by the state. Indeed, ownership, limitations and laws are institutionalised, codified in a way that few sub-communities of owners / caretakers could ever dream of. Often they are legally sanctioned by the state. When it comes to using these sacred cultural products and aesthetic forms in a profane context then, it can be assumed that consent is denied and no amount of recompense and accreditation will be considered sufficient. I think it would be disingenuous of me to deny the crystal-clear, open-and-unswerving, moral claims of these communities and I don't think Art is any more disingenuous about this than me.

Still, you're right. My own views on the legitimacy of these claims have been pretty thoroughly explicated elsewhere (not least in the Great Religious Debate we had a few months back). I'm an unrepentantly profane, blasphemous and sacrilegious apostate-cum-heretic, and while my own roots are Protestant, I don't restrain myself to that culture if I'm of a mood to kick against the pricks (I can just hear the wry voice from the back now: "Fuck, do you even know the meaning of the word restrain?"). So how do I reconcile that with a respect for the sacred domain? How do I justify any sort of misuse of sacred cultural products and aesthetic forms, whether it be cross-cultural or intra-cultural, appropriative or not, if I accept the very idea of a sacred domain? Why would I not be indignant at something like Mapplethorpe's "Piss Christ"?

The way I see it, it's not so much whether I'm indignant or not that matters here, whether I personally respect or disrespect those moral claims. It's whether the indignance of the devout is valid in the ethos I'm ascribing to Art, whether Art itself accepts the sacrosanct status of religious symbols, whether Art respects or disrespects those claims. My own view on it is idiosyncratic, even schizoid to some extent, and is based partly, anyway, on (what I see as) Art's ethos -- which is far more interesting in its complexity than mine.

As I said in the previous post I think Art and Religion have a love/hate relationship. For me it all hinges on that shared sense of purpose in inducing "enthusiasm". In the segregating out of these cultural products and aesthetic forms -- not even as worthy of reverence in and of themselves but as objects sacred for their capacity to induce reverence -- in establishing this sacred domain, religion is acknowledging the importance of art to human life. Literature is important, we are being told. Painting is important. Sculpture and drama, music and dance -- all of these things are important. They're not just important, in fact; they can be sacred, the most important you can get, to all intents and purposes.

Art, of course, already knows this. Art wouldn't be Art if it didn't think these things were important. Art, in fact, is divided as to whether this whole "sacred" thing Religion has going isn't, perhaps, Religion recognising the supreme importance of Art itself, simply misnaming it, misunderstanding it. Art, no stranger to schizophrenia, hallucinogenics, obsessive compulsions, grandiose delusions and apophenic rapture, knows as much about inspiration as religion. And in its familiarity with the crafts of illusion and affect, it may well think it knows more. Art knows the distinction between actual truth and the sensation of certainty, and it knows how easy it is for that distinction to be lost, how tempting it is to surrender to the glory of a beautiful idea. Art is constantly crossing back-and-forth across the line between harsh critic and true believer.

As true believer, Art can see Religion's sacred domain as a legitimately protective reverence of the true, the profound. Indeed, where Art surrenders to the glory of ideas, it often enters into a deeply symbiotic relationship with Religion, with Religion as a parent or patron whose support and guidance is of immense value, Art as the prodigal and prodigy whose works are all aimed, ultimately, at winning the respect of the power that invests everything it does with meaning. Even in challenging conventions, rebelling against the norms, Art as true believer may be less in opposition to Religion and more simply the cutting edge of it. Every prophet is a prodigy, a poet who can sing the praises of their god better than anyone around. And every prophet is a prodigal, a poet whose song is so strange and new that they must sing it alone in the wilderness until the priests in the temples hear and understand the truth of it.

As harsh critic, however, Art may come to see that sacred domain as an illegitimate protective reverence of the false, the illusory. Where Art refuses to surrender to the glory of ideas, it often becomes a fierce opponent of Religion, seeing Religion as a despot or deceiver whose laws and lies are travesties of the truth, seeing its own role as that of a rebel and a rabble-rouser whose domain has been invaded and usurped by a power that justifies every heinous act of soul-destruction with a sham of sanctity. Every iconoclast is a rebel, a prophet who knows the illegitimacy of the god-king's reign and how that may one day bring it down. Every iconoclast is a rabble-rouser, a prophet handing torches to the mob and leading them to storm the temples, smash the graven images, and burn the throne-room to the ground.

The two are, of course, not mutually exclusive, I think. Art as an iconoclast for one Religion may be a prophet for another. Art as a true believer in an atheistic, nihilist, existentialist metaphysics cannot be other than a harsh critic of theistic, absolutist, essentialist systems. Art's sacrileges are often religious acts. I said before that "Dionysus knows no nations" does not mean "Dionysus knows no gods", but I do think we could say that Dionysus knows a false god when he sees one, and that he will not accept being bound by such a tyrant's lies. Phil Dick, in his visionary madness, understood the metaphor at the heart of The Bacchae, wherein Pentheus, King of Thebes and "King of Tears" (literally, sorrow), imprisons Dionysus and his followers, and is destroyed for it -- though Dick, in his visionary madness, literalised this metaphor into a Gnostic metaphysics where Thebes is our reality seen as a Black Iron Prison and Dionysus the divine redeemer who will liberate us all.

Dick was insane, but as both true believer and harsh critic of his own ideas, I think he hit upon a truth about the relationship between Art and Religion. "Beware if you imprison Dionysus," he said, if I recall correctly, "the god of small, trapped animals." I'm not sure that Art-as-Dionysus is so altruistic in his motivations that he becomes rebel and rabble-rouser whenever his people are bound by Religion-as-Pentheus, that wherever humanity have become these "small, trapped animals" shackled by religious orthodoxy Dionysus will inevitably return to what is fundamentally his domain, and bring the halls of Pentheus crashing down. Or maybe I do have that sort of idealising faith in Art, it's just that I'm also, like Dick, both true believer and harsh critic of my own ideas.

I know that Art can be bought, that he's irresponsible and selfish, a drunkard and a wastrel. Still, there's a part of me that "knows" that because Dionysus lives in the pubs and clubs where the drinking and the dancing takes place, because he of all the gods, all the discourses I'm personifying as gods, is the most devout follower of the Way of the Flesh, the most commited celebrant of feeding and fucking, because he is the god of joy and sorrow, salty as blood and tears and sweat and spunk, because he of all the gods is the most dedicated to the notion that divinity can be experienced, manifested in life, in humanity, in the sensation of enthusiasm, having the god within -- because of all this, eventually, somewhere along the line, the tyranny of any would-be Pentheus will inevitably become a binding force that acts directly on him, leaving him with no choice but to rebel. So, as mad and foolish as I know it is, I'll happily sing and swing for that shameless charlatan because he is, I'm "sure", my kinda guy.

Dionysus suffers no false gods.

I know that's a lie. I know it's self-delusion. It's that knowledge that makes me (at times) cautious about my own acceptance of acts of sacrilege and (at times) cautious about my own acceptance of the notion of sacred domain(s). Where I respect that notion, I know, it's because I'm buying into the idea that the importance of cultural products and aesthetic forms which instill enthusiasm in its most profound sense is so over-riding that such things can and should be valued, prized to an extent that can only be classed as reverence. Where it offends me, I know, it's because I'm buying into an idea that we can still have that level of reverence even if we don't found it on restriction-of-use, even if we don't seal off those cultural products and aesthetic forms within their own special territory of "holiness", their own sacred space, their own special domain, with only the privileged few allowed to use them, in the "correct" place and time, and in the "correct" way.

In trying to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs-cum-delusions, I find myself gravitating towards a synthesis in the notion of a public sacred domain, I think. I don't accept the legitimacy of hierarchised institutions, where their ownership, their limitations and their laws have, I think, resulted in systems of power in which those cultural products and aesthetic forms serve only to legitimise false dogma and unjust discipline. I do accept the idea that certain cultural products and aesthetic forms can be demeaned by being misused for vacuous self-gratification and cheap sensationalism, but I also think they may be used improperly in the service of Religion and used quite properly in the service of Art, where the former is trying to impose power and the latter is trying to invoke enthusiasm in its ancient sense. So I find myself rejecting the legitimacy of many of the appointed guardians of the sacred domain and supporting the incursions of many of the iconoclasts. Further, while I do accept the idea that use of these "sacred" artefacts and art-forms outside the "sacred domain" demeans them, I don't accept that this contextual domain can only be defined in terms of where, when and by who such items should be used, but would argue that legitimate limitations might simply rest on how such items should be used. So while an item in a private communal domain cannot be simultaneously in the public domain, the same is not true of items in the sacred domain; such items could be, I am arguing, revered as "sacred" without that status isolating them from free use.

This depends, admittedly, on a notion of the sacred domain that is at odds with pretty much every institutionalised religion on the planet. It's ironic that the most guarded of those religions themselves were clearly founded on radical reimaginings of the cultural products and aesthetic forms of previous religions, that those which seem to hold most strongly to the separation of the sacred and the public were born in acts of sacrilege. Mohammed was a pop singer who used his lyrics to rewrite the Torah as he thought it ought to be. Jesus was a performance artist whose greatest piece was called "Dead Messiah". Moses was an experimental poet, his most influential work a cut-up and fold-in of Sumer's sacred tales. Each of them rejected the boundaries of where and when and who that rendered them illegitimate users, sacrilegers in the moral orthodoxy of the culture they were revolutionising, because the how, to them, was all that mattered. Each had a new how that they thought so much more true as to make their sacrilege worthwhile. I'd refer someone like Jesse Helms to the origins of Protestantism, to the way in which Wycliffe's translation of the Bible into his native English was abhorred in terms that all but shout "sacrilege!" at us across the centuries: "The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity"; "[T]he pearl of the Gospel is cast forth and trodden under the feet of swine."

I suppose what it comes down to then, for me, is that in contrast to the hypocricy and hierarchy of these religions, which often makes me grin to see some deviant Dionysus tearing pious Pentheus a new one, the very appeal of less institutionalised religions to the New Age, I think, often lies in a perception that in these traditions the sacred is more integrated into domestic life and that they are thus more democratic -- religions of and for the people. When a dreamcatcher, for instance, in the Ojibwa tradition, may be made by a parent -- not a priest but a parent, any parent -- as a charm to protect a sleeping child from nightmares, it does seem like there is little distinction being made between the sacred and the public domains. If this is a fair assessment then those folk traditions seem more worthy of respect to me. In the absence of boundaries of where and when and who, with no tyrannical power-structures to challenge or subvert, what justification can there be for Dionysian rebellion? Would that sort of sacrilege even make sense?

In the absence of such boundaries the only real sacrilege, it seems to me, can be in the how of an item's use. Since I'm talking about aesthetic forms as much as end-products, that use includes manufacturing, the use of the idea, and here is where I think the New Age fails -- because a dreamcatcher mass-produced in Indonesia and shipped to the UK, to be sold in head-shops as alternative lifestyle accessories, reduced to the level of a keychain even, is a bastardisation of the whole idea. This is what bothers me most, I think; it's more the sacrilege than the appropriation. I don't think I would be anywhere near as scornful if that dreamcatcher was not bought but rather hand-made by the person who wanted it, and if they wanted it not to hang over their own bed but to hang over the bed of their son or daughter. Manufactured and distributed as a mere trinket for mass-consumption, though, it seems a hollow mockery of such a simple, elegant idea.

I think this is, in the end, consistent. If we bear in mind that this sort of public sacred domain doesn't preclude the similarly-sacred equivalent of a (more relaxed) private communal domain, a tradition of owners / caretakers more like the bluegrass example given above, but with story in the place of song, folklore in the place of folk music, then without the wild assertion of de facto communal rights residing in a culture at large, we can even, I think, unravel some of the rationale that underlies that assertion. Because with that in mind we can critique the cultural appropriation of, for example, folklore in terms of ignorance of mores of consent, recompense and accreditation as well as in terms of sacrilege. In particular, with regard to cultures heavily focused on oral transmission, we can talk of the master / apprentice relationship and how that alters expectations of "tribute and dues". If I, as a white Scotsman, write a Coyote story is that wrong simply because I'm appropriating from a marginalised culture to a dominant one, or is it wrong because I haven't served my time learning that story from a teacher who's accepted me as student, because I haven't paid my dues, because I'm not paying proper tribute, because I'm breaking from the oral tradition, because I'm telling it in the wrong way, in the wrong time and place, for the wrong reason? If the story had been passed down in my family from a Scots-Cherokee ancestor who walked the Trail of Tears, does that make it any less wrong or does it depend far more on those other factors above than on the line-in-the-sand of a cultural boundary?

Ultimately it makes more sense, it seems to me, to break the idea of cultural appropriation apart in this way, to try to sort out the variety of transgressions which all feed into the debate so each can be evaluated individually.