Internet idealism was out in full force in San Francisco on Saturday as an impressive roster of activist speakers contemplated the legacy of John Perry Barlow and his years of activism for free speech, transparency and generally good human behavior on both the internet and in life.
Barlow was the sort of character we are unlikely to see much of in our 21st Century world — a rowdy countercultural libertarianish cosmic cowboy with a heart of gold and rust roaming the world with few rules and big appetites — and yet still with some strong ethical grounding. The speakers shared loving stories about Barlow, the character (always massively late to the EFF board meetings); as well as Barlow the philosopher of total transparency, absolute free speech and the belief that humans are creating a sort-of unity of minds — a noosphere — and that this will be a good thing. The panelists spoke of participating with Barlow in organizing for free speech protection, transparency and the freedom to use and transform these tools as we wish — the programming that is being used to collect our data should be transparent and we should be able to use and alter the tools any way we choose.
At the same time, panelists shared some sharp skepticism regarding the utopian edge of the Barlowian vision, acknowledging that things have not gone entirely well — to put it mildly. Joichi Ito spoke of being in the darkest time he has experienced and wondered if those clouds would lift. He advocated bringing some counterculture flavor — a spirit of play and humor — into the powerfully growing social justice movements.
While the panelists referenced the dark complexities we’re currently facing, some aspects of that seemed to go unmentioned.
This difficult moment for free speech might have been best expressed in a conversation I ran here last week wherein Angela Nagle said, “you have a culture that seems to justify all the worst fears about what happens when you allow free speech — extreme misogyny, dehumanizing racism, and just the most cruel stuff the human mind can come up with.” (emphasis mine). This is where the rubber is hitting the road regarding speech and it doesn’t fall before easy answers.
Which brings me to another point that I raised in a piece here — the announcement by Microsoft that they will be censoring speech on a variety of their platforms (including Office… Whaaaa?) And as I noted, the pressure that these giant corporate organisms are reacting to that is causing them to sloppily attempt to gain control over the cacophony of the online world comes largely from people who demand sensitivity towards those mainly bearing the brunt of that “cruelest stuff the human mind can come up with.”
Finally, these sorts of problems call into question the fundamental Barlowian optimism. The notion that minds linked together in cyberspace would become more enlightened. And the question many of us have been asking ourselves for awhile is whether disembodied minds aren’t, in fact, uniquely cruel — more capable of abstracting the people they hurt than those who aren’t sitting behind a keyboard but roaming the actual world. Of course, there have been epic moments of monumental dehumanization of embodied (and soon to be murdered) people that has occurred for the millennia before the internet, so it’s possible that our mutual agitation at seeing what the other “tards” say on the web may prove to be less consequential than it might seem. But it’s certainly an inquiry that needs to be made before the mass casualties pile up.
None of this is meant to distract from the spirit of Barlow or his visions. One of the panelists (I forget which one) spoke of his ideals as being like a north star to guide us through the ups and downs. I’m not so sure about the noosphere thing — seems a bit Borgian to me — but I hope his vision of an online and offline world that is both liberatory and humane comes to pass.
Only a fool would have thought Cecil Taylor was going to give us more work, so I’m not sad for myself. And though I met him, it wasn’t even close to like we became buds or anything. So why am I sad?
I’m sad because he’s the last of his people, the last of the mad 50s modernists who thought they could just Jackson Pollock their way through with art and it would change the world, because everyone would get the Tao that was within it.
Well, they didn’t. The Naked Tao wasn’t popular, and it took too many people too quick, because people can’t take that, I guess. But Cecil could and did. Personally, I guess he was kind of a pain in the arse — he was the times I met him — but artistically? Hell yes he was a pain in the arse. He didn’t like anybody’s way except his own. Thank God.
When I was a teenager, I loved the sound, but couldn’t work out what was going on exactly. I was trying to use my brain. And as it turns out, I don’t have a musician’s brain to work with all those sounds, so that doesn’t quite work for me.
What did work was getting to see a week long residency at Yoshi’s when it was still out at Rockridge, and there were better nights and worse nights, and then there was the one night where Cecil fucked the whole room with a grand piano.
I don’t say that lightly. He was playing the same figures he usually did; notes happened; there were flurries of rhythmic excitement, nothing unusual. Except this night he was on like Samuel Jackson. His fingers and his brain were doing the talking, but everything they were communicating came from below the waist, and everyone there knew it. The most profanely spiritual experience of my life. And a bit of an excuse me to the bathroom when it was done.
Since (and before) then, I saw him play the bodies of his audience — his true instrument — a whole bunch of times. That was the time he grabbed my whole chakra tree and shook it till the apples fell down to the ground. And then I understood.
Right now I’ve got Garden on, and it’s just him and a studio. That’s just a postcard. I got to be in the place where the postcard photo got taken. And that made all the difference to me.
Thank you Cecil. You were the last of the greats, and now nobody will know that we weren’t talking bollocks about, well, being fucked with a grand piano.
Paul McEnery was the editor who kept things interesting in the latter years of MONDO 2000 magazine
Who? Right away we have this elite avant-garde ultrahipster signaling. I’m just starting to reread part one but I’m sure the entire thing is ultrahipster signaling…
In 2000, I started The Revolution, a political party and ran a write-in campaign for president of these here United States. Now I am annotating the foolish articles that I wrote to propagate the campaign and the party.
The Revolution was pitched at the time as a hybrid of liberal and libertarian politics, which — to use a much abused word — is extremely problematic. It was problematic. Now it’s more problematic. I will probably use that word again and again. Please kill me with opioids (from whence comes the oid? I think it was from advertisements and doctors not wanting to use the good old term opiATEs.) It’s largely today a weasel term used by weenies who can’t enjoy popular culture (or anything) without acknowledging that the fun thing doesn’t fit snuggly into Social Justice perfection. Oh yes, we’re gonna have some fun…
I’m not going to dwell on the liberal libertarian thing much right now except to say that I mostly meant Left and Libertarian and I was succumbing to the conflation of left and liberal so as to skip past the need to get pedantic with the less politically educated. Also, briefly
What libertarians were good for in the 1990s and — to a degree — today.
1: Helping to create develop and do the work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation — those stout defenders of privacy for the people, transparency for the companies, civil liberties and general resistance to overreactions by law enforcement towards benign-ish or at least not-too-awful hackers and the like. Also, gave us Edward Snowden (and the eventual consequent refusal of many liberals to want to know about the trillion dollar surveillance state).
2: Being against the War On Drugs (when the Democratic Party, for example, was in utter lockstep) — which was arguably the worst thing in America’s late 20th Century and is still pretty gnarly. (Much more on that to come in later annotated pieces).
3: Being among those manning (personing) the antiwar movement, particularly during Democratic administrations. Most of today’s activists brush off interventionism and the odd democrat-administered bombing of civilians like JZ brushing his shoulders in that video that Obama mimicked because he was cool. (He was cool.)
4: Actually liking civil liberties and being on it during Democratic admins, particularly during the Clinton Admin when mainstream liberals were entirely absent. We will get into the civil liberties record of the Clinton Admin in a latter entry.
5: Being part of MONDO 2000! … albeit not a dominant part, despite the assumptions of some commentators… and being mensches while they were at it. Oh I will savage libertarians some time later in this sprawling mess… but those are some briefs on reasons to be thankful.
The pieces were initially published on the Disinformation website when it was being managed by the inimitable Richard Metzger, who now runs my favorite site Dangerous Minds… some time in 1999. My annotated 2018 comments are offered in purple. Try to keep up!
ps: The following is a sort of blather-filled preamble. Future sections will look at the actual 15 point proposal from 1999 which was fairly serious and will deconstruct that and playfully offer a new set. Also, everything else weird and challenging that has punched and pulled me — and many others — over the terrible years since.
Beautiful is the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella. _ – Lautreamont_
Who? Right away we have this elite avant-garde ultrahipster signaling. I’m just starting to reread part one but I’m sure the entire thing is ultrahipster signaling… what I would call genuine hipster … or Original Hipster (OH) … or maybe better, actual FREAK. Let me pause to make a historical note. Almost nobody identified as a hippie. Everybody was a freak. True freaks dug punk.. at least the urban ones. Does any of this matter?
It stands to reason that self-righteous, inflexible, single-minded, authoritarian true believers are politically organized. Open-minded, flexible, complex, ambiguous, anti-authoritarian people would just as soon be left to mind their own fucking business.- R.U. Sirius, from ‘How To Mutate and Take Over The World’ Robert Anton Wilson and J.P. Barlow loved this and used the quote. Oh hell, they were right. The personal is political only in the sense of get out of my face about most private behaviors. Stop the pariah hunting, you pinched twatsRead more “The Revolution Party Revisited (ReWrites & Wrongs)”
I like to challenge dogma — the type we once called political correctness before that term was deformed by the far right to mean anything they disagree with. But I was none-too-pleased when I finished reading Unwanted Advances by Laura Kipnis.
Not only did she provide a litany of examples of Kafkaesque (no, actually Kafkaesqe i.e. The Trial) activities taking place on college campuses involving “hearings” related to often bizarre accusations of sexual misconduct, the main subject in the book was someone who I knew, at least virtually, pretty well.
I finished the book with the queasy feeling that I needed to say something about it. The problem was (and is) — given the temper of the moment, and the horrible bigotry-for-all of the current White House occupants — one wished one could be unambiguously in solidarity with “The Resistance.” I weakly mentioned that a former MONDO associate was the subject of Kafkaesque events detailed in Kipnis’s book in a couple of tweets and then more or less let it go. But I went to work on organizing this conversation and now…. the moment of truth
The aforementioned MONDO associate Peter Ludlow was a vocal and frequent contributor to the MONDO 2000 Conference on The WELL, back in the early and mid-90s (when The Well was one of very few “social media” hangouts on the internet). And he became a contributor to How To Mutate & Take Over The Word: An Exploded Post-Novel — the book that I, and my coauthor St. Jude Milhon (RIP), wrote along with “The Internet 21” — approximately 21 people who joined in the creation of that mess as part of a mostly-failed role playing game. Ludlow wrote some essays mocking the style of that periods’ “cyber-critics” — a branch of poststructuralism/postmodernism that had discovered the cyberpunk/cyberculture much to their excited borderline-erotic horror.
In Ludlow’s case, there was a kind of double-jeopardy Kafkaesque trial. Initially, he was investigated for allegedly groping a student who had spent the night in his apartment. In this case, he was not informed of the charges against him nor the evidence against him, nor even what the specific actions were that he had committed. He was not allowed to have a lawyer present, nor was he allowed to question his accuser, whose case later collapsed in a court of law. Even the University did not find evidence of the groping part — even under the very weak “preponderance of evidence” standard. As Kipnis notes, important elements of the student’s accusations were clear fabrications, not least of which that the student had jumped into lake Michigan in early February and then got out and walked outside for an hour to dry off.
When Northwestern seemed intent on getting rid of Ludlow anyway, they later pressured a graduate student and former lover of his to testify against him. Her initial response was that she had merely been in a “deeply inappropriate” relationship with Ludlow (a time when she had a boyfriend in Boston that she would subsequently marry). She had complained to Ludlow that if news about their relationship got out it would “ruin her”. But clearly given Northwestern’s path, news was now going to get out.
When the second group of charges came, Ludlow was again not informed of the specific charges against him and had to meet with the university “investigator” — a former prosecutor — for several hours without a lawyer present. The initial charge against him turned out to be a date-specific occasion of nonconsensual sex (the student woke up naked one day just before Thanksgiving break, and did not remember having sex, but concluded she must have). When Ludlow produced a hotel receipt showing he wasn’t home the evening in question, and text messages from the following day showing Ludlow trying to break up and the student trying to preserve their (by then) nearly two month old relationship, the charges drifted. Now the charge was that Ludlow had used his power and “charm” — charm is actually the word used by the investigator — to manipulate the student into a relationship that lasted from October through December. The student, a 25-year-old who had already been through a master’s program and dated a previous professor, did not have the tools to make such a decision on her own, it seems.
Kipnis notes that the graduate student said to the investigator that “it was only years later” that she realized that she had been manipulated by Ludlow, and that a key woman in the philosophy profession convinced her of this. So, by her own admission it seems, she concluded that her “consent” to a relationship that lasted for three months and thousands of text messages could be withdrawn years after the fact. It seems her advisor not only had the power to tell her what she should consent to; she also had the power to tell her what she did consent to. The paradox, is that “consent” is no longer an act of the student’s will; it is now the decision of an academic superior, and that decision by the superior can overwrite previous willful acts of consent by the student.
Some may assume that only those awful “cisgendered” males have been on the receiving end of these accusations and quasi-legal prosecutions/persecutions. In fact, an awful lot of gay teachers have faced the Kafkaesque “trial,” and more than a few women. The author of the book was subjected to a Title IX investigation for seven words in an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education referencing one of Ludlow’s accusers case, though not naming the woman. (Kipnis was brought up on Title IX complaints a second time over the book, and is now also being sued over it.) One gay woman was accused of looking at a girl’s breast while whispering in her ear. The offending act took place in a library.
I organized this brief email conversation between Laura Kipnis, author of Unwanted Advances Sexual Paranoia Comes To Campus and Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies: online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Nagle’s book was discussed and excerpted in an earlier MONDO 2000 article. Both women are leftists who have been getting a ton of angry shit from what one might call the identity left for challenging their dogmas.
I’ve also sprinkled a few quotes from the books of both authors throughout the discussion. Some of Nagle’s excerpts from the prior article are worth repeating.
Laura Kipnis: In the official version of events, causality can run in only one direction: Ludlow alone can be the prime mover; Cho can only be someone things happen to… What use to anyone is a feminism so steeped in self-exoneration that it prefers to imagine women as helpless children, rather than acknowledge grown-up sexual realities.
R.U. Sirius: These are two very different books from two very different minds… but a commonality may be that both of you are leftists and your books have upset some other leftists (which isn’t hard to do but…). And I think it’s because you’re telling them about things they don’t want to know. Particularly with Laura’s book, even I got to the end and thought… I wish I didn’t know about these events. Now I guess I have to say something about it.
I’d like to get both your thoughts on this… and do you think it’s a unique phenomenon of our virtualized times or is it just the same old circular firing squad? Also, any specific nastiness you’ve incurred that you’re willing to share….
Laura Kipnis: The Left has always been riven by sectarian differences and idiocies, but my problem answering this question right now is that I’ve lost a sense of who or what the left is. It seems to have become monolithic, at least when it comes to campus issues, which has lately been my subject, and where the nominal left starts seeming like a bunch of prigs, hysterics, censors, and authoritarians. As far as the feminist left, is there one if by “left” we mean attention to some version of redistributive justice along with the tenets of gender equity? They’re not either/or propositions obviously, but class has become the ugly stepsister, the identity that dare not speak its name, when it comes to the intersections of concern on the campus left.
But it’s worse than that. If you’re talking about — or with — students, for the most part the politics are incoherent. I’m willing to say, as an academic leftist, that it’s leftwing professors who’ve stopped teaching students how to think. I recall an exchange I had last year with a student at my own university (now graduated, I believe) when I wrote a letter to the school paper about due process. I was for it. (And against rushing to judgment without evidence, as had happened in a campus incident involving anonymous accusations against a frat.) There was the one response, from a student I didn’t know, about what I’d written:
“The letter refuses to hold hegemonic structures accountable for their endorsement of misogynistic masculinity and subsequent dehumanization of female-assigned bodies. This unwillingness is connected to the structures that secure white, cis privilege among faculty at institutions such as NU. These are the very structures that produce a confirmation bias against and invalidate survivors. The rhetoric that demands “we know exactly what happened” before taking action is trauma-inducing for survivors. I would hope any educator would feel that same obligation toward allyship to their students, some of whom are among the survivor community.”
Where does this gobbledegook come from? This was someone who, I presume, would describe herself as on the left. Yet she has no concept of democracy, which requires due process. I’m sure she would describe herself as “on the right side of history,” while overlooking the histories of false accusations against sexual and racial minorities. She spouts boilerplate phrases. And I suspect she learned all this as a student at an elite university, from professors spouting slightly more polished versions of the same boilerplate. Read more “Sexual McCarthyism and the Neopuritanical Left: A Conversation with Laura Kipnis & Angela Nagle”
It mainly struck people as bizarre. The news item struck last week that Microsoft was banning “offensive language” from Skype, Xbox and even Office. Many of us wondered how the whole Office thing would work, like, for any living grown up writer of books or movie scripts or pretty much anything.
Twitter, of course, has been excising “bad actors” in a random way for several years and Facebook has always tossed anybody in Facebook Jail on the basis of a complaint or two.
The law that killed the Craigslist personals — related to legitimate concerns regarding sex trafficking — was the result of pressures from some-but-not-all feminist activists, along with law enforcement and religious conservatives (97 senators voted for it).
On the other hand, the pressure that is being placed on monster companies like Microsoft to tame the wilds of the internet comes pretty much entirely from the cultural left, liberals and mainstream media. (Who are the language police?)
An understandable panic over the increasingly open bigotry of most right wing extremists and misogynists, as well as the impact of “fake news,” the palpable consequences of bizarro conspiracy memes and destructive medicinal folklore (“Down with vaccinations!”) has created a backlash that has resulted in people holding the hosts of this digital cacophony responsible for the behaviors of their guests. For one example — almost daily, I see people outraged that someone else is still allowed to have a platform on Twitter.
These giant “siren servers” are now in a consistent state of panic over how to enact the demands that they be responsible. Did you think they were going to extract bad actors (or people some of us perceive as bad actors) carefully, with tweezers? Fuck no. They’re bringing the bulldozers! And, in fairness, given the numeric quantity of their guests, they have no choice but to approach it all that way.
What Is Being Enacted?
When the panic over ‘fake news” went quantum with the election of the Chaos President, companies like Google started ranking a number of legitimate sites — including many progressive and anti-war sites — as fake.
What is being enacted? The rise of white nationalism… the Russian program of making chaos in the west with subterranean support for all dissident factions and the mainstreams’ overreaction to it, the anger over the defeat of Hillary Clinton, has created an environment in which what is considered palatable or allowable is increasingly constrained to materials that don’t challenge the neoliberal narrative. And the questions regarding what is considered outside those boundaries are increasingly consequential — about active censorship by companies with power in the area of communication far greater than any government.
It doesn’t help that the identity left has adopted “you better watch what you say” as its raison d’etre, relentless minting new celebrity pariahs out of anyone who wanders even slightly off the reservation. (Burn The Jesters!) There’s no easy answer, but privileging free speech and not panicking is the thing least likely to bite us all in the ass.
afterthought: some will quibble that only government censorship is proper censorship. given the size of most of the entities we’re talking about (such as Microsoft’s various apps), and the expectation of an open internet, this is trite.
Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog, aka wolftone, aka Montserrat Snakeankle, aka Sparrowhawk Perhaps) died on the 10th of August, 2008. She was found in her Northern California apartment face down on her bed. Jack, her black Lab, was waiting at the door when she was found by the building manager. Her death certificate (Santa Cruz County, #08-07590) says that there was neither biopsy nor autopsy, but the official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia and lupus erythematosus. Other factors were involved. For several years, because of the effects of her lupus, Carmen had been taking medication that kept her heart pumping. Once upon a time she said — as a joke, we guess — that if she ever wanted to die, she just had to stop taking her heart meds.
Was it passive suicide? The evidence is circumstantial, but compelling. Her online accounts, profiles, and avatars — at least 9 of them — had been canceled in the days before she died.
It might be clear what had happened, but the more urgent question is why it happened, and as it turns out, understanding this requires a journey into a deep rabbit hole involving over a decade of online life, virtual relationships, BDSM roleplay, and a virtual island Kingdom. And at the end of journey, one confronts a single frightening truth:
The thing that killed Carmen was the thing she spent her entire online life warning us about.
We met Carmen Hermosillo in 1993 on an electronic conferencing system called the WELL. The WELL (short for Whole Earth ‘Lectonic Link) was spawned by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue and was populated by lots of granola crunching, fattie-huffing techie visionaries ranging from Howard Rheingold to Mitch Kapor to John Perry Barlow. The official dogma of the WELL was that electronic communities were supposed to move us all into a new utopia of virtual barn raisings, thoughtful online salons, and democratic town hall meetings. Or that was the dogma before Carmen appeared under the name ‘humdog’ and called BS on the whole thing.
In an essay called Pandora’s Vox, she vented:
The WELL occupies an interesting niche in the electronic-community marketplace. It markets itself as a conferencing system for the literate, bookish and creative individual. It markets itself as an agent for social change, and it is, in reality, calvinist and more than a little green. The WELL is also afflicted with an old fashioned hippie aura that lead to some remarkably touching ideas about society and culture. No one, by the way, should kid themselves that the WELL is any different than bigger services like America OnLine or Prodigy. All of these outfits are businesses and all of these services are owned by large corporations. The WELL is just, by reason of clunky interface, a little bit less obvious about it.
Timothy Leary ranted to Lord Nose and myself for High Frontiers at his Hollywood home in 1987. In honor of our new president and his death penalty schtick, I now present the part where he goes off on Ronald Reagan and the War On Drugs, which the Reagan’s really started (you could say they escalated it, since Nixon announced the War on Drugs. It really became a well-funded “war” under Reagan.)
There are some obviously flaws. It was spontaneous, and of its time. Still… I love this rant.
The Reagan administration is an extraordinary recurrence, or flare-up, of the basic American disease, which is the Protestant ethic, the original Massachusetts Bay Puritan notion of predestinarianism. The idea that there are the elect and the damned. Naturally, white Protestants are the elect and everyone who’s not a white Protestant Puritan is damned. Therefore they have no rights, can be offed, enslaved, can be treated basically as in the service of the Devil.
People like Reagan because he’s got enthusiasm, energy, charisma. He smiles and feels good about himself. My god, if your president doesn’t feel good about himself, if he’s dragging his ass around like Mondale, what message is he sending to the herd or to the tribe. But I think everyone would agree that at the level of creativity, open-mindedness, tolerance — the basic intellectual virtues — Reagan is a 1 on a scale of 1 to 8.
I don’t think that being illegal is going to stop people from taking ecstasy. America’s going through a hysterical fanatic paroxysm of religious intolerance. These Protestant types truly believe they have to have an enemy to be against… it was the Soviet Union. For the last twenty years we’ve been at war with Central America, Nicaragua, Cuba. We have to have colored people, or different language people, or different religions as scapegoats. These South Americans are obviously dirty sinful people because they don’t sing Protestant hymns. So the American government has to have an outside enemy to whip up the military fervor, and it also has to have an internal domestic civil war going on at all times. So that we started with the Civil War 100 years ago, which was a total disaster; an unnecessary war, whipped up by this insane Protestant desire, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and then, just in the last century, the scapegoating of Wobblies and trade union people, then the Jews have always been scapegoats of the Protestant ruling class, and then the Japanese for awhile during World War II. And then after World War II it became reds and communists and pinkos. If you were not a total rightwing republican, you were a communist. Because it’s either/or. There’s no shade. You’re either a god or a devil. So they had to have a new domestic enemy and, of course, drugs are the perfect scapegoat. People that use drugs are young and they tend to be dissident. They don’t tend to be Born Again Christians. They tend to be everything that’s sinful and horrible to a Protestant ethic predestinarian. So the war on drugs is a religious war, and in a religious war there’s no pretense at honesty or clarity or tolerance — anything goes, propaganda, lies, persecution. That’ll end, hopefully, by 1988.
They built a god.
They’d been building a god since the sixties.
They just didn’t know it.
I’m sure there were a few who knew, people like Genesis P,
the aging rattle and clank sex hippy of the cut and paste
I was never into the
Kit Pedler knew; though he downplayed it. For him it was
more a “Man is dead, long live the super computer.” kind of
Loebler was afraid and Madden died before some of
his “projects” could be
When Kathy Acker smiles, her face shifts 2000 years in time, from Periclean austere to postmodern punk.
Embedded in one of her front teeth is a jagged chunk of bronze.
She is her own text, her own gallery. She’s a body builder in more than the usual way: her muscles animate spectacular tattoos. She has seized control over the sign-systems through which people “read” her.
You may also read her books. In Empire of the Senseless (1988) she systematically kills the patriarchal father, tries (but eventually fails) to imagine a society freed from Oedipal considerations and all taboos, and introduces a file of outcast myths—cyberpunk, modern primitive, pirate, motorcycle gang—to explore control over one’s life and the use of signs to create the meaning of that life. In Memoriam to Identity(1990) inhabits literary and historical materials—the work of Rimbaud and his relationship with Verlaine, Heian court writing, Faulkner—to present a contemporary version of the myth of romance.
During her expatriate years Acker became a major figure in postmodern and feminist fiction. Her novels (with spectacular Robert Mapplethorpe photographs on their covers) were attacked from right and left. Some feminists were made queasy by Acker’s depictions of emotional and sexual masochism, her obsession with obscenity. Some loathed her analyses of political and cultural repression; others, her takes on 1960’s Hippie utopianism. After a dicey decade in London, Acker moved back to the states, specifically San Francisco, where she teaches writing at the Art Institute.
Past mistress of the cunning juxtaposition and the Fine Art of Appropriation, her writing betrays a multitrack outlaw intellect. And she doesn’t shrink from mining outlaw “low culture” genres like SF, pornography, and detective fiction. The net effect of her work is not merely to deconstruct, but to decondition.
Acker is passionate and articulate, energetic and authoritative. Laughter and self-irony punctuated her rapid-fire presentations delivered in a heavy New York Jewish accent.
This time last year, my friends Chelsea Manning and Heather Hewey-Hagborg were still depending on me in order to communicate effectively; so they could collaborate on their art and research projects together.
Heather and Chelsea’s collaborations started way back in 2015, when some folks at Paper magazine orchestrated their first collaboration. Using only the good old U.S. mail, Chelsea sent Heather swabs of her DNA and answered a number of powerful questions to start a discussion about DNA and privacy that continues to this day. Boy was it cool being in the middle of that conversation. 🙂
Heather had developed a method for creating portraits of strangers based on DNA, and was speaking around the world, explaining both the wonders of forensic phenotyping, and how the technology is inherently problematic.
Meanwhile, Chelsea, in prison, in 2013 was not being allowed to be photographed or recorded. (After a charismatic Daniel Ellsberg won over the hearts of millions in the 1970s, the Feds sure weren’t going to make that mistake again.)
The way Chelsea’s voice was being silenced angered and, ultimately, intrigued Heather. Perhaps she could turn it around into something anti-oppressive, and utilize this technology to give Chelsea the public face she had been denied, by creating portraits of her, from her DNA.
By the time I came along, they had already completed Stranger Visions and Radical Love – so I had a lot of catching up to do, at first, just to understand Chelsea’s artistic preferences. Chelsea would often have ideas that she had written up, and I would take notes and read them back to Chelsea exactly, so I could convey the information accurately to Heather. Then Heather would write back with her ideas, and I would have to make sure I understood those well enough to explain them to Chelsea the next time we spoke.
On November 23, 2016, Heather sent me an excited email with a great idea for “taking some of the writing I have been doing and working with an illustrator to make a comic book or animation bringing things to life.” This would become the Suppressed Images comic book, which tells the story about their friendship and artistic collaborations, and specifically how Chelsea learned it’s important to “Never Shut Up” when someone tries to chill your speech.
Although both Chelsea and I loved the idea, we didn’t think there was enough time to complete the project, and didn’t want to pressure them. But Heather and illustrator Shoili Kanungo worked very very hard to meet their own intense deadlines, in order to finish it in time to be published during President Obama’s last week in office. (When, historically, commutations happen.) As it turned out, it was published in the morning on the same day her commutation was announced. (As the White House announced Chelsea’s commutation in the early afternoon, east coast time.)
This comic book had become our attempt to visualize a reality where Chelsea was commuted – in a world where everyone else had told us that it was impossible. (Now, amazingly, in that same world, everyone acts like it was inevitable 🙂
I was asking different people all over the world to visualize Chelsea out in the regular world with them. Playwrights visualized Chelsea sitting in the audience at their plays. Band members pictured her rocking out at their shows. DJs pictured her dancing to their beats. And now, this comic book literally provided illustrated pictures of the possibilities.
Just one month after the comic book was released — and of course — one month after we had received the good news about Chelsea’s upcoming release — in February, 2017, I got to do it again.
This time last year, it really did still fee like a dream. Chelsea was still in prison but we had begun working on the expanded installation – our collaboration on ProbablyChelsea – that would mark and celebrate her release. I shared some initial rough ideas with the audience about even at the end of the talk, although they grew and changed in important ways over the next months.
I also described our graphic short story that Chelsea and I wrote together with illustrator Shoili Kanungo which advocated and envisioned her commutation – to the audience – and told them the amazing and miraculous story of publishing the comic on the very morning that Obama actually granted her clemency.
Now I am so incredibly honored, humbled, inspired, and filled with gratitude to be able to stand on the stage together with Chelsea in person to discuss art, technology, and politics — like it’s just totally normal to be here together.
LR: I remember the morning we heard the news, on January 17, 2017.
HDH: For me, on the east coast, it was in the early afternoon 🙂 The comic went live early morning my time and I heard about the commutation that afternoon.The announcement of Chelsea’s commutation was one of the most jubilant and overwhelmingly emotional moments of my life, and certainly my artistic career. It was incredibly meaningful to me.
LR: It also felt important the whole time you guys were working on that comic book too. It was an incredible experience for me, as a historian and archivist, to not just meet or read about, but actually be the conduit that worked between you guys on those projects (Suppressed Images and Probably Chelsea).
HDH: Looking back, it was, and is, such a dark time. After Trump in the U.S. and brexit in Europe, Chelsea’s commutation was like a beacon of hope; a way of showing us how important it is to really incant the future you want to see, and how the power of words can be used to make the changes you want.
Of course her release was the result of a lot of different things coming together — and the comic we wrote, anticipating, asking for her release, felt like this little sprinkle of magic potion that catalyzed this reaction. To revisit that today is such a powerful reminder that positive change is really possible.