Lies in London

Lies in London

By Laurie Penny

Demonstrators sit down on Piccadilly during a protest organised by the Trades Union Congress, in central London. Photo: Paul Hackett / Reuters

What went wrong?

As the dust settles and the slogans are scrubbed off the walls of Fortnum and Mason, that’s the question the entire British Left is asking itself about the events of March the 26th. What went wrong? Where do we go from here? And most importantly, who do we blame?

That last part is easy: we blame it on the kids. The story currently being spun by the police, by parties in government, and by most of the press is that an otherwise successful mass demonstration was ruined by disgusting little vandals with hate in their hearts. That mindless acts of violence were perpetrated by a small, hardcore group of hooligans calling themselves ‘the black bloc’, who trashed banks and businesses at random and attacked the police without provocation. That their behaviour undermined and discredited the half-million citizens who marched to the rally point in Hyde Park. That it was a major own goal for the Left in this time of crisis.

That assessment is incorrect on nearly every level. Unfortunately, the handful of reporters, including myself, who dared to produce accounts of the day that run counter to the mainstream consensus, have been savagely attacked. We have been called thugs, liars and terrorists for having the temerity to put on record the police brutality that some of us observed and experienced in Trafalgar square. We have faced down attempts to bully and threaten us into retracting our testimonies.


Ben, 21, was struck on the head during marches in London.

I feel obligated to restate that the accepted public narrative about the events in London on March the 26th is factually incorrect on several important counts. In the first instance, there were not a ‘few hundred’ dedicated ‘criminals’ on Oxford Street and in Picadilly on Saturday, but thousands and thousands of people, mostly under thirty and unaffiliated, many of whom had come straight from flag-waving and banner-holding on the main march through Whitehall to join in with the peaceful actions planned in central London. These actions had been organised by the campaigning group UKUncut. Some of them, such as the store occupations, were potentially unlawful- but they were peaceful and politically motivated, like all of UKUncut’s previous projects.

Secondly, the ‘black bloc’ – a phrase that will undoubtedly be used to terrify wavering tabloid readers for years to come – is not an organisation, but a tactic. It is a tactic used, rightly or wrongly, to facilitate the sort of civil disobedience that becomes attractive to the young and the desperate when every polite model of political expression has let them down. Although there were a small number of genuinely violent agitators in attendance on Saturday, most of them middle aged, drunk and uninterested in the main protest, a great many of the young people who chose to mask up and wear black in order to commit acts of civil disobedience had never done anything of the kind before.

Those young people came from all over the country. They were students, schoolkids, workers and union members. Nine months ago, many of them were political interns, members of the Labour party or volunteers for the Liberal Democrats. Nine months ago, many of them still believed, however naively, that the democratic process might deliver real change. Now a new spirit of youthful unrest has been born into an ugly and uncomprehending political reality. A generation has been radicalised by the betrayal of their modest request for a fair future, and by repeated experiences of police brutality against those who chose to resist.

Those young people, with their energy and their idealism, briefly looked set to capture the hearts and minds of the nation. Following the events of march the 26th, former sympathisers in the Labour movement and on the liberal left are now falling over themselves to disown Britain’s disaffected youth.

Facing lazy calls to ‘condemn the violence’ or be held complicit in the media backlash, most of the centre-left has condemned, and condemned, and condemned. They have paused only to blame one another for ever entertaining these ‘kids’ and their politics. They have dismissed the angry young people of this country without actually asking themselves how it came to this.

That dismissal cannot be allowed to continue without serious unpacking. Ultimately, it is not these young people who have let down the Labour movement – it is the Labour movement and the Labour party in particular that has let down the young, the poor and the desperate, not once but repeatedly, failing to stand behind their demands for change, failing to offer any alternative to the cuts other than its own re-election on a platform of slightly mitigated austerity. We should not be surprised that so many thousands couldn’t be bothered to listen to Ed Miliband speak, and went to Oxford Street instead to do some direct action.


An injury suffered by Ben, 21, is treated by a medic during marches in London.

Then there’s the third misconception. The ‘violence’ enacted upon the defenceless shopfronts of major financial fiefdoms may have looked terrifying and uncontrolled on camera, but it was far from mindless. These targets were not chosen at random. British banks and major tax-avoiding companies were attacked because these companies are seen by large swathes of the public as being responsible for the banking crisis and for subsequent ideological decisions on the part of the current government to mortgage healthcare, welfare and education. In the rush, Spanish banking giant Santander was also vandalised – and we need to be asking ourselves just what has made our nation’s children so very upset with world finance that they believe any bank is fair game.

Nobody’s children are at risk from this sort of political ‘violence’. Many children were, in fact, part of the protest, singing and dancing on Oxford street or carried on the shoulders of their parents to watch UKUncut’s comedy gig in Soho square. There are serious problems with the way in which the press chooses to discuss ‘violence’ in relation to the protests, and chief amongst those problems is the way in which the violence done to private property is now considered morally equivalent to physical violence against human beings.

It’s the second sort of violence that really does put people’s children at risk, and it’s that sort of violence that I saw dispensed without mercy by police on the bodies of Saturday’s young protesters, the vast majority of whom were engaged in peaceful civil disobedience, almost a hundred of whom were hospitalised for their trouble, with broken limbs and streaming head-wounds.

“The police tried to kettle us outside Fortnum and Mason, and fearing for the safety of the crowd in case of a crush, some of us formed a line in front of the police,” says Ben, 21, whose face is swollen and covered bloody cuts. “This was passive resistance. Our arms were interlocked and we were clearly no threat to the police. Without provocation, an officer punched me six times in the face, hit me three times on the head with the edge of a riot shield, kicked me ten times in the shins and three times in the groin.

“I could not move or defend myself, so I bent my head to shield myself from his blows; it was only when I saw the blood running down my tshirt that I realised how badly I’d been hurt.

‘They were kicking people on the ground and dragging them away to be arrested. That was after blocking us inside the store ‘for our own safety’ and promising we would be allowed to leave peacefully,” says one member of UKUncut who was involved in the quiet sit-in inside Fortnum and Mason. “We were handcuffed and taken to cells across London, made to strip to our underwear and given white paper jumpsuits to wear.

“I was left for eighteen hours without food and woken up repeatedly, once for DNA swabs and fingerprints. It felt like they were trying to scare me away from peaceful protest, treating me like a faceless terrorist when I’m just an ordinary citizen standing up for what I believe in.”

Commentators are not wrong in calling march the 26th a loss for the Left. It is unfair, however, to blame that loss on the thousands of young people who chose to demonstrate outside the approved march route- although undoubtedly mistakes were made by organising parties in picking targets and anticipating the size and energy of attendance. The implication that the day would have been a success had everyone just played by the rules is a vastly disingenuous statement unworthy of the many respected liberal commentators who have made it.

After the event, Vince Cable released a statement to the effect that the March for the Alternative is to have no impact whatsoever on the speed and savagery of public spending cuts. The speed with which the statement was released strongly implies that it had been written before the first protestor had got on the coach. What ‘ruined the day’ was not young people committing acts of civil disobedience and spoiling it for everyone else. What ‘ruined the day’, if the day really was ruined, was the state’s determination to ignore the weight of public opposition to its savage programme of spending cuts.

This is not to imply that the march was a waste of time, nor that those who marched were wrong to do so. Not everyone feels able to risk their job in order to occupy a bank. What the march and its aftermath reveal, however, is that the model of opposition and public mobilisation offered by the unions and the Labour party is totally inadequate to the task at hand, and alienating for a great deal of workers and families , as well as the many thousands of people who are already too desperate to protest quietly and obediently.

Marching from A to B to voice vague objections to government spending plans, marching behind Labour and union leaders who fail entirely to offer a coherent alternative, is no longer a sufficient response to these cuts. It is not sufficient because this government, like the previous government, is not at all worried by the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people marching from A to B. They are worried about the prospect of a truly popular people’s uprising. They are worried about losing the ideological argument over the necessity of destroying the welfare state. They are worried by the prospect of a run on the banks engineered by digital people power, as just occurred in Holland, and they are worried about the prospect of a general strike. It’s safe to say that the government has a lot less to worry about this week than it did last week- and activists, anarchists, unions and the Labour movement all need to be asking ourselves why.


Police confront demonstrators at a march near Picadilly Circus in London.

This government isn’t scared of mass vandalism. The public, however, is – and that is precisely why fistfuls of images of young people in masks smashing up the Ritz and throwing smoke bombs have been tossed at our screens for five days now. The state requires us to be fearful so that it can acquire our consent for its spending cuts, and the public fears disorder even more than it fears mass unemployment and the decimaton of public services. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the images of officers of the law assaulting unarmed young people, and the images of riot cops arresting an entirely peaceful protest group on orders which are rumoured to have come right from the top, have largely been been overlooked or dismissed.

Meanwhile, UKUncut – a group whose modus operandi is inclusive, creative, defiant people power of the type that really does scare the government – has been brutally suppressed. A hundred and thirty eight members have been detained, including a fifteen year old girl who was so frightened in jail that she was made to sign a form excusing the police from culpability, should she go on to commit suicide. There has been very little public outcry. The next wave in the battle for the hearts and minds of the British public has truly begun.

This is the follow-up to an earlier article published at the New Statesman.

Ghost Babies

Ghost Babies

by Mark Dery

The traffic in dead babies is booming, on eBay.

There are daguerreotypes of dead babies, ambrotypes of dead babies, tintypes of dead babies, cartes de visite of dead babies, cabinet cards of dead babies; dead babies from the Victorian era, the Edwardian era, the roaring ’20s.

Here’s a listing titled “POST MORTEM DEAD BABY CABINET PHOTO”; in the thumb-nailed image, a little girl in a lacy white burial gown lies propped on a pillow, crowned with a wreath of flowers. Click the ENLARGE button, and you can just make out a sliver of lusterless white peeping from one sunken, slitted eye. Another offering, this one for a daguerreotype of an “Exquisite Post-Mortem Girl,” is accompanied by a description that strikes an uneasy balance between graveside elegy and auctioneer’s patter: “The young girl is surrounded by blankets and quilts. Very dramatic poignant image. Excellent!”

“Poignant” is a pet word in the collectible postmortem photo category. As in: “POIGNANT POST MORTEM BABY,” an antique photograph of an infant, asleep forever in her toy casket. Her arched eyebrows give her a fretful look, querulous but a little quizzical, too, as if she’s startled to realize that death, unlike gas, doesn’t pass. The chrysanthemum-sized bows on her bonnet ties look tragicomically big beside her little doll head.

“Heartbreaking postmortem photo,” notes the item’s description, conceding the obvious. Should we read this as a moment of silence–a brief halt in the hum of commerce, in recognition of the fact that this lugubrious curio was the last, precious glimpse someone had of her child, before the undertaker dropped the lid? Or is it a lucky charm against the charge that buyers and sellers of such artifacts are trafficking in tears? Or just more of the mawkish morbidness that characterizes the American Way of Death?

When Marx wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man” than the “naked self-interest” of the cash nexus, he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, “You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death. He/she is laid out for viewing on a bed or table covered in lace, and dressed in a long white christening dress. This may have been the only photo taken of this precious child.”

Browsing this obscure corner of eBay feels like wandering through an Orphanage of Ghost Babies, in which the Shirley Temple-esque moppet in the listing for a “POST MORTEM CDV DEAD LITTLE GIRL POIGNANT PORTRAIT!!” (“beautiful portrait of a little girl posed by an window, which bathes her in natural light”) racks up multiple bids while the pitiable “POST MORTEM Dead Child with SUNKEN EYES in COFFIN” languishes unloved by any bidder. After all, who wants a used baby with sunken eyes? Even here, the beautiful command the highest bids while the unlovely dead go for bargain-basement prices.

Fittingly, some sellers court the goth bidder; eschewing Forest Lawn sentimentality, they accentuate the macabre: “Haunting Open Eyes Original Post Mortem Cabinet Card”; “EERIE POST MORTEM MAN Cabinet Card”; “1910s PHOTO! POST MORTEM DEAD WOMAN in GLOWING CASKET!”

Demand for postmortem images is sufficiently high that some sellers, fresh out of dead people, do their best to drum up business for dead-ish people, as in the unwittingly hilarious listing for a carte de visite of “CIVIL WAR ERA 2 WEIRD CADAVER-LOOKING MEN.” Despite their baleful stares and unsmiling rigidity, the two men in the photo are victims of photographic technology in its infancy, nothing more: the long exposure times required by the cameras of the day compelled subjects to assume a rigor-mortis stiffness. At the time of this writing, the item, offered for the BUY IT NOW price of $30, remained unsold.

Still, the trade in darkroom apparitions of the antique dead, whether “poignant” and “heartbreaking” or “eerie” and “weird,” is brisk, attracting eager, sometimes naive buyers and more than a few guileful sellers. As a public service, Jack Mord, an expert on “early postmortem and memorial photography” who maintains a collection of such images at his Thanatos Archive website, has posted a bogus listing for a “SAD and POIGNANT!” Civil War-era carte de visite. The photo, of two little boys in their Sunday best, is innocuous enough; what makes it postmortem is the stranger-than-fiction fact that it was taken by a dead man. “Although you cannot see him in this photo (because he is behind the camera), the photographer is dead and propped up with a stand,” Mord deadpans, in his sales pitch for the item.

Then he steps out of character:

Yes, this is a joke. The lesson is this: NONE of the “standing postmortem” photos you see on eBay that show standing people being “propped up” or “supported” by a stand…are postmortem photos. Not a single one. […] The stand seen behind these people is a posing stand, used by photographers of the time to keep the person still and on mark for the photograph. You can usually see the base of these stands between the person’s feet.

The people you see on eBay who sell these “standing post mortem” photos are scam artists, banking on your ignorance to dupe you into paying them as much as possible for a 50-cent photo of a live person.

To dissuade gullible buyers from taking his instructive hoax seriously, Mord priced the item at a preposterous $500. Naturally, someone bid on it anyway.

In his seminal study, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, the anthropologist Jay Ruby notes that “the custom of photographing corpses, funerals, and mourners is as old as photography itself.” A direct descendant of the posthumous portraits commissioned in earlier centuries by the well-to-do bereaved, the practice was widespread in 19th century America; “secure the shadow, ere the substance fade” was a popular tagline for photographic studios, exhorting customers to preserve lasting images of the near and dear, even if death had already claimed them. As early as 1846, an ad for the Boston photographers Southworth & Hawes proclaimed,

We make miniatures of children and adults instantly, and of Deceased Persons either at our rooms or at private residences. We take great pains to have Miniatures Of Deceased Persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a deep sleep.

Death was a fact of life in the 19th century. Until 1885, childhood mortality took one out of every five children in her first year, two out of every five by their fifth; children were carried off by cholera, dysentery, diphtheria, typhoid, yellow fever, scarlet fever, or measles. Losing all of one’s children to an epidemic, in a matter of days, was not uncommon. “From [baby] carriage to coffin was the fate of over 30 percent of 19th century children,” writes Stanley Burns, M.D., in his pioneering study, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America.

In the 19th century, especially in rural America, families prepared their own dead for burial by laying the body on a board and washing and dressing it for the wake, traditionally held in the front parlor of the family home. Unlike residents of big cities, people who lived outside urban centers typically had no easy access to a photographer; thus, a postmortem photograph was often the only image kinfolk might have to remember a person by.

This was especially the case with children cut down too soo
n to have had a studio portrait taken. As evidence for the belief that “parents were often desperate to have one picture of their dying child,” Ruby includes a copy of the carte de visite of a baby named Florence May Laser, noting, “An adult hand supports the child while on the back of the image someone has written, ‘Taken while dying.'”

By the first decade of the 20th century, however, death was disappearing from everyday life, swept aside in the cultural housecleaning that would soon be called modernism. The Machine Age had arrived, banishing the lugubrious specter of Victorianism (or so it looked, in retrospect). In modernism’s revisionist vision of the passing era, the late 19th century was the age of the hidebound bourgeois paterfamilias, snug and self-satisfied in his sense of entitlement, ruling his domestic castle in a Lilliputian parody of England ruling the waves. And nothing better served the modern caricature of Victoria’s reign as a time of rigorlike social stiffness, stultifying class consciousness, and tight-lipped prudishness than the Victorian conception of stylish decor: rooms stuffed with hulking furniture and bric-a-brac and plunged into a sepulchral gloom by dark colors and heavy drapes.

Nothing, that is, except what James Stevens Curl, in his book of the same name, calls “the Victorian celebration of death.” Death, for the Victorians, was a subject for polite conversation, and postmortem photographs were prominently displayed in the home. Mourning was a protracted agony, formalized into periods (a premonition of Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of grieving?), each of which required its own expensive wardrobe, accessorized with memento mori in the form of brooches and lockets containing a lock of the deceased’s hair or a photograph. For women of means, widowhood was a two-year sartorial death sentence and, in some cases, a lifestyle: think of the Widow of Windsor, Queen

Victoria herself, who after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 retreated into melancholy seclusion for a decade; after emerging, she wore mourning costume for the rest of her life, inspiring punctilious Englishwomen to follow her example.

All of which has fostered the inextirpable myth that postmortem photography died with the Victorians, a fiction encouraged by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Woven from 19th-century newspaper clippings and photos, some postmortems among them, Lesy’s poetic history of the aptly named Black River Falls mythologizes late Victorian America as a comic-gothic nightmare of morbidity and depravity. Darkly satirical in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Wisconsin Death Trip helped cement the popular perception of the Victorians as death cultists, a vision symbolized by the postmortem photograph. “Some of the most affecting [images] show dead infants in their coffins,” writes the visual-culture critic Rick Poynor, in a Design Observer essay on the cultural impact of Lesy’s book. “Such photographs were commonplace then, but many viewers, including me, saw them here for the first time.” To be sure, formal postmortem photography did indeed disappear “in mainstream middle-class America” in the 1920s, as Burns points out. But as he also stresses, amateur postmortem photography persisted, most commonly among so-called ethnic groups, as it does to this day. Of course, given the prevailing view of postmortem mementos as morbid, “people who want to photograph their deceased loved ones do so surreptitiously.” Wary of social taboos, families take covert photos at funerals, to be circulated among a trusted few to help heal what Ruby calls “the social wound of death.” (In the flashbulb era, funeral directors often found spent flashbulbs in the wake of a wake.)

In his discussion of the contemporary perception of postmortem or funeral photography as morbid, Ruby notes that “even the idea of collecting 19th-century examples of these images upsets some people and causes them to assume the collector has a morbid, unhealthy fascination with death.”

Before we ask why people traffic in such images, let’s consider the easier question: when did the subculture of collectors whose obscure passion is antique postmortem photography emerge?

The historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen speculated in an interview for this article that “the traffic in postmortem photographs probably picked up at roughly the same time that the trade in photographs as collectibles began to accelerate, sometime in the 1970s”–an uptick in collector activity that coincides with the publication of Wisconsin Death Trip in 1973. Batchen agrees that books like Levy’s and, later, Burns’s, “probably stimulated the market.” Even so, he points out, “there have always been private collectors who specialize in such things. It may seem strange to non-collectors, but it’s not nearly as strange as collecting, say, lynching photos, which some people also do.”

Jack Mord believes that eBay played a pivotal role in ginning up interest in the genre. “In my 12 years as a member of eBay,” he told me, “I have seen the number of postmortem photos for auction there–as well as their prices–skyrocket.” Spiking collector interest in postmortem images has given rise, in turn, to niche obsessions, he says–“collectors who tend to collect only a certain type of postmortem image–a mother holding a baby, for example–and are willing to pay plenty for them.”

As well, says Paul Frecker, “serious collectors” of “PMs” (postmortems) will pay top dollar for “anything out of the ordinary.” A collector and seller of 19th century photography who maintains an extensive archive of postmortem photographs at PaulFrecker.com, he notes that postmortem photographs of children posed to look as if they’re asleep are dime-a-dozen common. Many of the antique postmortems for sale on eBay are paper prints such as cartes de visite and cabinet cards, dating from the latter half of the 19th century, when the aesthetic of the day euphemized death as “eternal sleep.” Deceased children were often posed with a favorite toy, as if they’d dozed off while playing; deceased adults were posed with open books on their laps. At the dawn of the daguerreotype era, by contrast, no attempt was made to conceal the cold, hard fact that the sitter was a cadaver. Its title notwithstanding, Sleeping Beauty includes ghastly images from the 1840s–shocking by today’s standards–of corpses, neatly attired and ceremonially laid out, but with blood oozing from their noses that no one had bothered to wipe away before the photo was taken. “The terror of death was still taught by some religious sects,” writes Burns, “and little attempt was made to beautify the image.”

According to Frecker, “There are umpteen PMs available of children that have been posed to look as if there asleep. But a photograph of a dead child with a trickle of dried blood running out of the corner of its mouth would be in a different league altogether, not because it’s grotesque but because it’s so much more unusual and the photograph has a punctum, a hook that draws you in and establishes a personal relationship with the image and generates a bigger emotional response.”

Frecker uses the term “punctum,” Roland Barthes’s coinage in Camera Lucida for that aspect of an image (often a seemingly incidental detail) that “pierces” the viewer emotionally, charging the photograph with a significance unique to that viewer. In so doing, he directs our attention to the deeper question: what is it about antique postmortem photographs that casts such an uncanny spell on collectors?

For Frecker, such images “resonate in a way that not many other genres do. These are photographs of dead people, yes, but someone loved them and wanted to commemorate their life–to have one last (or perhaps an on
ly) portrait of them before putting them in the earth. One simply doesn’t get that level of emotion in a view of Brighton pier. The message of any photographic portrait is ‘I was here’; with a PM, that message becomes all the more poignant.” In psychoanalytic terms, the image is cathected–charged with emotions so deeply felt they still reverberate in the viewer’s mind, a century or more later.

Unsurprisingly, such photographs strike a responsive chord in viewers who’ve lost a child. “Sadness is definitely part of their appeal,” says Jack Mord. “Many postmortem collectors are mothers who’ve lost children of their own. Their own sadness draws them to these photos, which in some way comfort them.” Grieving mothers who take cold comfort in these images are close kin to the women who find some measure of consolation in the “memorial dolls” sculpted by Jennifer Stocks-Dearborn–commissioned reproductions of babies who died, disconcertingly photorealistic down to the last hair on their little clay heads. Like postmortem photos of dead children, Stocks-Dearborn’s dolls flicker irresolvably between pathos and uncanniness, an unsettling ambiguity that seems to divide the minds of many–including the artist herself.

On her website, My Tangible Peace, Stocks-Dearborn (who lost her own infant daughter to SIDS) speaks earnestly of using her talent “to create portrait pieces for families who have lost children in pregnancy, birth, to SIDS, or other illness,” one-of-a-kind simulacra “small enough to be tucked away in a drawer and kept private until an emotional collapse.” In interviews, however, she swerves into dead-baby-joke territory, referring to her sculptures as “creepy, naked babies” and wisecracking that, because the final stage in her production process involves baking Mohair or Tibetan lamb’s hair onto their heads, “I always have a baby in the oven.”

Similarly, comments in an online discussion about her memorial dolls give voice to a wide range of reactions, from shudders of revulsion (“Burn the abominations”) to heartsick tendresse (“I requested one of these ‘creepy’ babies in memory of my daughter who passed away at 23 days old. If you think that these dolls are creepy, [you] obviously haven’t experienced the death of a child”) to profound ambivalence (“This is very morbid. And disturbing. Not unlike the photobooks of the dead. Having had three miscarriages, however, I would have wanted to have had something-anything-like a baby, at least to bury”).

Likewise, postmortem photographs, especially those of babies and children, inspire radically different reactions, inflected by the viewer’s experiences with death. As Mord observes, such images may trigger sympathetic emotional vibrations in mothers who’ve lost children. But for palely loitering souls who wave their fascination with the macabre as a flag of transgression—codeword: goth, a demographic whose youth more or less ensures that it hasn’t experienced death up close and personal—a postmortem photograph, prominently displayed, is subcultural shorthand for conscientious objection to Middle America, with its Julia Roberts smile and its power-of-positive-thinking homilies. The artist Edward Gorey, the unwitting granddaddy of goth, was fond of postmortem photos.

Then, too, postmortem photographs reverberate with uncanniness because their dead are doubly dead, –done in by disease or wrongful death, then killed again by the camera–trapped by the wink of a shutter in a moment that will last forever. (Not for nothing do they call it “shooting.”)– Yet the human subjects of such photographs, or for that matter of any photograph, are simultaneously undead, and therefore uncanny–phantoms materialized in darkrooms, on glass plates, and given ageless immortality as images, images that stare back at us across the gulf of time. Spectrum, spectacle, specter: the common root is instructive. Barthes called photography the flat death; Sontag called it the soft death; Derrida believed that film is “the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms.” All photography is necromancy, raising the dead or, put another way, embalming the present. Barthes speaks, in Camera Lucida, of “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.” No wonder, then, that he finds photographs of the corpses especially ghoulish: because photography, like formaldehyde, fixes life–that is to say, it preserves “the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment)”–yet the subject, in this instance, is dead. “If the photograph then becomes horrible,” he reasons, “it is because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing.”

Daguerreotypes of Victorians–who, with apologies to Baudrillard, seem in their photos to be Always Already dead–embody these qualities par excellence. Alejandro Amenábar’s movie The Others, a ghost story with a Henry Jamesian plot twist, exploits this uncanniness to spooky effect. The scene in which the lady of the house discovers, by stumbling on a photo album of postmortem daguerreotypes, that her servants are ghosts, is a study in sepia-toned horror.

In the here and now, antique postmortem images are riveting because they emblematize the Authentic in an ever more mediated world. In a time when we interact, more and more, through Tweets, text messages, and Facebook pokes and likes, the black-and-white dead of the 19th Century condense raw emotions; at a moment when the here-and-now seems increasingly like a fading afterimage of our vivid imaginative lives on the other side of the screen, they confront us with the inescapable fact of embodiment, more corporeal for the dead weight of death, more real for the trickling blood, blood that dried 100 years ago but through the necromancy of photography looks blackly wet all over again, every time we look at it.

“The post mortem photograph is a relic of a past that has been erased by modernity,” says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. “And in that lost world, people had more direct and less mediated experiences of shit/sweat/blood/piss/grime/dust/phlegm/pus. And less mediated (less medicated) experiences of death, with a lot more suffering.”

Postmortem photos force us to look death in the face, up close and personal. Irony of ironies, the 20th century–one of, if not the, bloodiest in history, when the Nazis applied the logic of Henry Ford’s assembly line to genocide and the Americans brought their genius for push-button solutions to the vaporization of whole cities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki–bore witness to the medicalization of dying, the professionalization of funeral rituals, and the repression of death in everyday life. Death decamped to the hospital, and the ritualized leave-taking of the Loved One moved from its traditional domestic theater–the front parlor–to the funeral parlor, stage-managed not by the eerily named undertaker but by the more antiseptic-sounding funeral director. (This, by the way, is why the front parlor was transformed, by the emphatic decree of a Ladies’ Home Journal editor in 1910, into a living room.)

As the cultural critic Mikita Brottman told me, “There’s something fascinating about the juxtaposition of home and death” in postmortem photos. “Those things just don’t go together any more. Home is the realm of shelter magazines and Sunday supplements, and death is the realm of sterile drips, hospital beds, heart monitors, health insurance. To see a corpse in the home is now a jolting juxtaposition.”

Our plasma-screen TVs, videogame consoles, and multiplexes are awash in CGI gore, yet few in the so-called first world, where medical advances have made the science-fictional Right to Die movement a reality, have ever looked into eyes of a dead man, trying to meet the gaze that—in the memorable words of the hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler—you can never quite meet.

Except in a photo
graph.

Mark Dery (markdery.com) is a cultural critic. His byline has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet; his books include Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. In 2013, the University of Minnesota Press is bringing out his essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. He is currently at work on a biography of the artist, writer, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey.

Images courtesy of The Jeffrey Kraus Collection and Shorpy archive. Typeface: Mike Allard (Note: This essay is an extensively revised version of a piece previously published in the Australian magazine Photofile and subsequently reprinted in the technoculture webzine 21.c.Many thanks to Ashley Crawford, editor of both publications, for commissioning and editing the original version of “Ghost Babies.”)

Errol Morris: What’s in my bag

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Errol Morris is an academy award-winning documentary filmmaker. His films include Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, and Standard Operating Procedure. Roger Ebert said, “After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.” Recently, The Guardian listed him as one of the ten most important film directors in the world.

Our two French bulldogs, Boris and Ivan. I think they look like the Olsen twins, no? When I am packing to go away, they try to get in my bag either because they don’t want me to go away or because they want me to take them. No checked luggage. If it can’t go in overhead, it’s not worth taking. Sorry bulldogs, next time.

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Reading glasses. Many, many pairs. I don’t like hanging them around my neck, so I’m constantly losing them. Ten pairs should be enough. 1.5 for reading music. 3.5 for reading books. (I buy 100 pairs for $69.00.)

Three pairs of Brooks Bros. khakis…

Five white shirts, button-down collars… The only way I am able to get up in the morning is to have a uniform. (How else would I be able to make a decision on what to wear?)

Extra pair of blue Sperry Topsiders. These are absolutely essential. I wear them everywhere. I got my Oscar in them. Tuxedo and Sperry Topsiders. An unbeatable combination.

Tape recorders. Two. An Olympus WS-210S and an Edirol R-09HR. You never know when you are going to have to tape someone. Be prepared. Also extra batteries. AA and AAA. Better safe than sorry. (Truman Capote said that he had a “photographic” recall of interviews. I think he was lying.)

iPad“>iPad. I have two hundred electronic books. It ‘s nice to know that I can take the complete works of Alexander Pope everywhere.

Gillette disposable razor.

A couple of books. Even though I carry electronic books, I also take real books. This is what I plan to read on the plane tonight, Allen Shawn’s Twin.

And Susan Jones’ Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax. This promises to be a a conversation-starter, I also take material related to one of the New York Times essays I’m working on. (Esoteric literature keeps people from talking to you, not that people are inclined to talk to me, anyway.)

Cello music. Now, you can download music from the internet. But I still like having my teacher’s bowing and fingering. It reminds me I should practice.

The National Enquirer. An invaluable resource. But why isn’t the entire archive of the Weekly World News available on your iPad?

A copy of We Froze the First Man, the basis for a screenplay of a movie that I plan to direct.

And another related book, Man into Superman, Robert Ettin
ger. (Freezing people for future resuscitation. Is this the ultimate tabloid story?)

What’s In My Bag: James GurneyJoi ItoMore features

James Gurney: What’s in my bag

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James Gurney is the author and illustrator of the Dinotopia book series . His most recent books are called Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist (2009) and Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (2010). In 2008, he traveled with writer Alan Dean Foster to North Africa on a watercolor expedition, painting portraits of wild macaques in Gibraltar, Berbers in Moroccan casbahs, and Arab guards in the alleyways of Fez. But he’s just as happy sketching in American laundromats and old diners. Follow his blog, Gurney Journey.

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This is my most compact bag, which I bring just about everywhere. It’s got everything I need for pencil, pen, or watercolor sketching. (Click here for full-size photo.)

Waist Pack. A Black Diamond waist pack adorned with Dinotopia enamel pins. The zippers are quiet, an important factor when I’m opening the bag in places like funeral parlors or classical concerts. But the zippers stayed closed when I was hustled by Barbary apes.

Brushes. (Left to right): Sable travel brush; Winsor & Newton Series 995 1/2″ flat; Three Yasutomo Niji water brushes. The first is filled with water, the next with a 50% gray wash, and the last with pure black Higgins Eternal ink. The last one is an Escoda brand Kolinsky sable round. Link to blog post.

Colored Pencils. (Left to right): Caran d’Ache Supracolor brand water-soluble colored pencils (#171, 009, 067, 070, 059, and 049). They dissolve into a smooth tone with application of water. The last one is a sanguine Caran d’Ache Neocolor painting crayon. Link to blog post.

Cup and Clip. Nalgene water cup (60 mL) for watercolor painting. The top screws down securely and never leaks. The binder clip is for holding the watercolor set to the open sketchbook. Link to blog post.

Erasers. A Staedtler Mars plastic eraser cut down in size. It’s good because it doesn’t leave oil before watercoloring; Design brand kneaded eraser, which is non-abrasive and good for blending.

Pencil Box. A Japanese metal box with an Apple logo that I painted on with a Sharpie enamel paint marker. Link to blog post.

LED Light. I bought this at a dollar store. The packaging says it’s supposed to have 300 days worth of run time on the three watch batteries. I clip it to the brim of my cap to shine on my book for night sketching.

North Africa Sketchbook. This drawing book is 3.5 x 5.5 inches, small enough to fit in a pocket. The U.S. State Department did the Arabic translation of my bio when they displayed some of my paintings in the embassy in Yemen. The glue stick is handy for pasting tickets and other scraps into the endpapers. Link to blog post.

Origami Cranes. These were a gift of a young Dinotopia fan. I store them in a lens filter case, and leave them behind, one at a time, tucked away in bookstores and coffee shops to brighten someone’s day. Link to blog post.

Paint Rag. I use scraps of old flannel sheets and cotton t-shirts. The watercolor stains wash out, so I can keep reusing them on long trips.

Pencil Sharpener. The Maped brand has the all-important crumb catcher and two different sized pencil holes, but all sharpeners seem to leak shavings into the bag.

Pencils, Pens, Knife. Faber Castell graphite pencils, 2B and HB. Waterman fountain pen with spare cartridge (which I refill with a hypodermic syringe). I like the soluble ink, which dissolves under the water brush. Victorinox Swiss Army knife. Link to blog post.

Pocket Watch. When my wristwatch battery went dead a while ago, I revived my railroad watch. I like the feeling of winding it and the sound of its ticking.

Watercolor Book. A Moleskine watercolor sketchbook, decorated on the front with gold, red, and yellow Sharpie paint markers. The idea of the “Report from Planet Earth” is to pretend that I’ve just arrived from another planet. My job is to carefully document what I see so that the alien minds back home can understand this weird world. Link to blog post.

Watercolor Set. A Schmincke set of half pans, with a few pans swapped out for full pans. The big ones are raw sienna and sepia. In the space between the rows of pans is a piece of paper with test swatches so I can see the colors better in dim light. Link to blog post.

Joi Ito: What’s in my bag

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I change my bag depending on whether it’s likely I’ll be riding a bike, snowmobile, etc. I also sometimes carry an iPad. The amount and type of dive gear and camera(s) changes with where I’m traveling to as well. (Click here for full-size photo.)

However, this is a pretty good sample of what is typically in my bag these days.

Joichi Ito is the Chairman and CEO of Creative Commons. He is a co-founder and board member of Digital Garage JSD:4819.

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The Chrome messenger bag is an old favorite. It work fairly well in the airport and is super on bicycles, snowmobiles and other fast moving vehicles. Downside is that the buckle is a bit bulky and cheeky people can hit it and the bag falls from you back.

I use my Galileo Sol as my main dive computer and the ScubaPro XtenderV3 as my backup. The Xtender is only available in Japan and is small enough to be used as my primary watch.

I carry rope and a knot guide and practice knots during landing and takeoff sometimes.

The oxygen analyzer is necessary to test Nitrox diving cylinders.

The first aid kit is obvious.

The “barrier” is a plastic thing you put over someone’s face to protect you from cooties when giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation during CPR.

I carry various dive certification cards and insurance cards with a few dive log pages and leave the rest of my logbook at home.

When I am on the plane, I load up my wallet with the credit cards, metro cards, ID cards, membership cards, currency and other local things I will need in the place that I will land and stash the other cards and currency in a big wallet thingie.

I keep various crypto keys on a keyring together.

I used to have at least one hard disk failure on my MacBook Pro each year until I switched to SSDs. I removed the DVD and put in another SSD which is RAID mirrored because I’m not paranoid. I carry a full backup on an external hard disk and put all of my images on a separate external hard disk.

I have a Blackberry Bold with an etisalat SIM with a global data and email roaming plan. The iPhone 4 is unlocked and I swap SIMs on the plane based on where I’m going. The Nexus One also gets a local SIM. The Nokia 1200 is for when I need 390 hours of standby battery time and up to 7 hours talk time. I have USB data modems from Etisalat in the UAE, Verison in the US and emobile in Japan.

I carry a Leica M9 with a 35mm Sumliux. I used to carry the 50mm f/1 Noctilux, but I decided it was too heavy and airports tended to scrutinize it more than my 35mm.

I use the Flip MinoHD for video although sometimes I use a GoPro HD HERO.

I carry a universal power supply adapter that I restock at Narita airport since I often give them away.

I found that the hand sanitizer in the United Airlines amenity kit to be exactly the right size so that airport security don’t notice it in your pocket.

I carry a Livescribe pen and notebook that allows me to upload the notes to my computer which does handwriting recognition and search against my notes as well as link sound recordings to the notes.

I still sometimes use my HP12C because I like the way it feels.

I carry backup batteries for my Leica and my Blackberry.

I have various earbuds and headphones and switch between them depending on how long my flight is and how much space I have in my bag.

Valentines’ Day Boardgame Remix Kits

Valentines’ Day Boardgame Remix Kits

The game-redesigning-geniuses at London’s Hide-and-Seek have released a V-day add-on for their clever Boardgame Remix Kit (download the pdf).

For those of you who missed it the first time around: the BRK is a set of playtested alternative rules that treats the box-contents of Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue (AKA Cluedo) and Trivial Pursuit as raw material for a series of fun, fast, exciting games.

The Valentine’s Day edition has four new lovestruck games to while away the after-date/pre-nookie hours.

ROFDLT

A game of acronyms that may well lead to lewdness. This two-player game requires a Scrabble set and a partner, preferably one with whom you are in a relationship. Make acronyms that describe something you can do to them!

Download this game (Or get them all in the complete PDF)

Divorce!

A game for two grumpy players. Get through the three inevitable stages of a relationship – Wooing, Marriage and Divorce – and come out with more property than your ex. Naturally, this game for two players requires a Monopoly set.

Download this game (Or get them all in the complete PDF)

I Brought You This Piping To Show You My Love

Bring your beloved the perfect gift and make their heart melt. Rope? A candlestick? A nice sharp practical knife? Requires 4-6 players and the game of Clue.

Download this game (Or get them all in the complete PDF)

WLTM Humpty Dumpty

A quick, silly fill-in-the-blanks trivia game. Build up your very own personals ad using answers from the Trivial Pursuit questions.: Single Hans Holbein (the younger) WLTM a speed bump or sleeping policeman.

Download this game (Or get them all in the complete PDF)

Remixes: Hide-and-Seek • Post: Cory • Layout: Rob

Visit the Boardgame Remix Kit homepage

Monté: King of the Atom-Age Monster Decals!

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For the past five decades, mystery has surrounded the identity of Monté, the reclusive decal master who tossed a cherry bomb into the toilet of Eisenhower-era conformity, and then vanished. Now, author Bill Selby’s Monté: King of Atom-Age Monster Decals uncovers the remarkable and ultimately tragic story of Monté, from his early roots pinstriping cars and motorcycles in Los Angeles to his eventual rise and fall as America’s decal king — including Monté’s ill-fated team-up with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to create the iconic Rat Fink.

–Colin Turner, associate publisher Last Gasp

Click the thumbnails above to see images and captions.. All rights reserved

Millions of adults still recall with nostalgic relish those crazy, colorful “Originals by Monté.” They were monster water-slide decals from the late ’50s and early ’60s – bought for a dime apiece in hobby shops, and then rebelliously applied on bicycles, models, toys, transistor radios, and lunch boxes. Informed decal aficionados worldwide agree that of all the water slide decals ever produced, Monté decals were the first to zap the collective psyche of defiant, late-50s juvenile (delinquent!) America.

Often imitated, but never surpassed, Monté’s process is explained, along with hundreds of examples of his work: retro eye-candy guaranteed to raise a smile and a fond childhood memory. This authoritative book includes Monté’s complete line of monster decals, a 9000-word biographical essay, rare sketches, and private family photographs. There’s even a reproduction bonus pack of Monté water-slide decals included — just add water and — voilà!

“If my memory serves me correctly, Monté visited the office I shared with ‘Big Daddy’ early in 1964. Although Roth was very parsimonious about his affiliations with other artists, I remember that he had great respect and admiration for ‘his decal man’s’ abilities. In retrospect, it appears ‘Big Daddy’ was quite fortunate to find some real talented local guys that helped him build his ‘Finkocentric’ empire.” –Ed “Newt” Newton

“All these years I’ve wondered about Rat Fink’s origin. I knew Roth couldn’t have done it. I’d worked beside him at car shows and knew it had someone else’s hand. Sorry, big daddy fans. I’m a huge fan of Roth too – Big Daddy played a giant part in my life – but now that I can put it all together, I see it was the hand of Monté screaming out in the Rat Fink. Bravo Monté!” –Stanley Mouse

“Originals by Monté” were an eclectic blend of Hot Rod bravado, Beat generation hipness, and Atomic Age paranoia, mixed with the craziest cartoon monster lunacy this side of Basil Wolverton. An American original in every sense of the word, Monté’s life was one of incredible highs and devastating lows, but he lived it as a true bohemian while at the same time remaining a loving and devoted family man. A labor of love, Bill Selby has pieced together Monté’s compelling story along with the wonderful designs that captured the imaginations of a generation, myself included. –Todd Schorr

“When I was decorating my first bicycle, I took the ‘MINE!’ Monté decal that I’d ordered from Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and stuck it right on top of the bike’s Tuffy logo. Monté helped me stake out my personal turf. All these years later, I still find myself appropriating Monté, sometimes much too directly. But, when you encounter mad genius you just have to get out of the way and let their freak flags fly.” –Art Chantry

“In regards to Monté creating Rat Fink for Ed Roth, all I can do is quote Artie Shaw, the big band leader who said, ‘Never be first, because if you’re first you’re lost in the onslaught of greedy sleezeballs who are running to get in front of the public eye.’ ” –Robert Williams

“This book confidently gives us the best and most probable theory for the birth of the classic 1963 proto Rat Fink character. Numerous scenarios have been tossed around discreetly by the cognoscenti of hot rod monster art for years, yours truly in that sect. Luckily, Bill Selby has taken up the cross of showcasing the genius of Señor Montéverde while no doubt stepping on the toes of self-proclaimed ‘Roth experts’ and writers guilty of under-researched R.F. origin rehashings.  –Johnny Ace & Kali / Johnny Ace Studios

“If you’re a monster kid, a fanatic of 1950s kitsch, or a hot rod culture enthusiast, this book will knock your socks off — GET IT!” –August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman and Godzilla

Don “Monté” Monteverde

Egypt in Chaos

Egypt in Chaos

By Xeni Jardin on Friday, Jan 28, 2011

A protester stands in front of a burning barricade during a demonstration in Cairo January 28, 2011. Police and demonstrators fought running battles on the streets of Cairo on Friday in a fourth day of unprecedented protests by tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Protests are raging throughout Egypt today, the largest mass demonstrations yet demanding an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Thousands took to the streets today, after Friday Prayers.

A roundup of recent Boing Boing posts related to ongoing events in Egypt, and throughout the region:

Egypt turns off internet, Lieberman wants same option for US
Joe Biden says Mubarak isn’t a dictator, questions legitimacy of protesters’ demands
Egypt: to thwart protests, government attempts to leave the internet
NYT: Wikileaks cables reveal details of US-Egypt diplomacy
After Egypt, Tunisia unrest, Syria cranks up the ‘net censorship
What is happening in Egypt, explained
Egyptian activists’ protest plan, translated to English
Guardian reporter beaten, detained at Egypt protests; records audio throughout
Egypt: Protests inspired by Tunisia and fanned by social media break out all over
Egypt’s men in Washington
Internet Society statement on Egypt ‘net shutdown
Egypt: yet another iconic photo of a brave protester smooching a bewildered cop
Egypt: without internet, country may face “economic doom” Monday
Mubarak: I’m dissolving Egypt’s government, new one forms tomorrow, I’m not going anywhere

For continuing live coverage, we recommend following Global Voices’ coverage of Egypt, with eyewitness reports throughout the region. (RSS feed here).

Al Jazeera has live streaming video coverage here, and a liveblog of today’s events here.
Their Creative Commons-licensed Flickr stream of images is here.

The Guardian’s live blog is here.

Salon’s live blog is here.

And CNET has an update on Egypt’s internet going dark, with confirmation that carriers were ordered to halt communications within the country.

Everybody loves cephalopods

everybody loves cephalopods

by Maggie Koerth-Baker

Everybody loves cephalopods—that class of animals containing octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish. But why? What makes these non-fluffy, non-mammals so appealing?

Last August, I attempted to answer that question in a presentation for a University of New Mexico IGERT symposium. “Those Fabulous Octopus Brains” is a 30-minute speech linking cephalopod neurobiology to cephalopod behavior, and asking what it really means to call a species “intelligent”. It’ll get you caught up on what we do, and don’t, know about cephalopod smarts—and what studying these amazing creatures means for the future of human technology, and our understanding of the human brain.

Don’t have time to watch the entire thing? Never fear. Our intrepid editors at Boing Boing Video have put together a highlights reel that will enlighten you in 1/3 of the time.

VIDEO LINKS: Uncut version (30 minutes) / Short version (10 minutes)

(Special thanks to Boing Boing Video editor Eric Mittleman)

Psi-Fi: Popular Culture and the Paranormal

Psi-Fi: Popular Culture and the Paranormal

by Jeffrey Kripal

We grossly underestimate the weird powers of reading and writing. Take the Library Angel, so named by the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler. These are not subtle beings with wings, but magical moments in which one picks up a book or turns to a page, seemingly at random, and—Whammo!—there is a precise answer to one’s own mental state. Such Library Angels can be very humble (the right page at the right time) or very dramatic (a book literally falling off the shelf to be noticed).

I met a humble one last week in BoingBoing’s reposting of Brent Lambert’s “Buddhist Temple Design Inspired by Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Keanu Reeves.” The piece features the Wat Rong Khun Buddhist temple in Chiang Rain, Thailand, which sports on its interior walls paintings of various pop-cultural and astronomical scenes: Superman (with the end of his cape subtly imitating the “fiery” style of Thai architectural art), one of those psychedelic pterodactyls from Avatar, Neo of The Matrix, an exploding nuclear bomb (or is that a meteor strike?) somewhere in the north Atlantic, and—not to be missed—NASA’s international space station.

I live just a few miles from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and am a big fan of NASA, but it was the superheroes that really got to me, mostly because I immediately recognized in the Buddhist Superman a most striking confirmation of a book I have just finished on some of the extraordinary ways that the paranormal experiences of artists and authors have helped inspire pulp fiction, science fiction, and superhero comics. These paranormal patterns were so strong in the 1950s and 60s that sci-fi fans began speaking of Psi-Fi. Think pulp editor Ray Palmer’s use of his colorful clairvoyant dreams to write short stories. Think sci-fi master Philip K. Dick’s mind-blowing experience of “Valis,” that Vast Active Living Intelligence System that zapped him with its bright pink light in the winter of 1974 and led him to believe that his earlier novels were predicting, intuiting, leading up to this. Think legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby absorbed in the ancient astronaut theory and playfully predicting a Spider-Man cult in 2450 in the editorial pages of The Eternals. Or think the famous comic strip writer Alvin Schwartz writing two metaphysical memoirs that draw on Tibetan Buddhism to understand the synchronistic ways that Superman and Batman functioned in his life and work—like Tibetan tulpas, it turns out. With the Wat Rong Kuhn temple, we don’t quite have Kirby’s Spider-Man cult (but, hey, it’s only 2011) or Schwartz’s Buddhist Superman and Batman in Tibet, but we do have Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man in a Thai Buddhist temple.

Close enough.

I’m reading a Marvel graphic novel at the moment entitled Ultimate Galactus Trilogy. Long story, but it features things like a discussion of the Brazilian psychedelic tea ayahuasca as a kind of plant machine that our bodies, as biotechnologies themselves, can click into and “ride,” or an image of an invading alien presence whose twisting, multidimensional form looks exactly like a photo of, of, well, something that appeared over Stephenville, Texas, a few years ago. Indeed, the graphic novel image is that something. I remember well the Stephensville flap, just a few hundred miles north of here, which extended from early 2008 well into 2009. Some witnesses described a floating ship “as big as a Wal-Mart.” Deliciously, the newspaper that did most of the reporting on the flap was the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, in short, the Stephenville E.T.

A Buddhist temple featuring Superman and a Marvel comic reproducing an actual UFO photo? A pulp fiction editor using his own precognitive dreams to write short stories and a sci-fi master getting zapped by an alien space machine? What is going on here? It would be easy to fall into an either-or mentality, as in “This happened, and that didn’t.” or “This is true, and that is false.” That, I want to suggest, is precisely what is wrong with much of our thinking about popular culture and the paranormal. Much better to pay attention to all the back-and-forth loops, that is, the incredibly messy, “loopy” ways in which popular culture informs paranormal events, which in turn informs popular culture, which in turn informs … well, you get my point. I mean, where exactly are we supposed to draw a line between the real and the unreal in, say, a graphic novel and an actual UFO sighting? It would be easy to suggest that the graphic novel is pure fiction and the UFO—whatever it was—non-fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that the UFO encounters of the second half of the twentieth century often followed, down to precise details, the pulp fiction fantasies of the first half (for more on this, see my discussion of Bertrand Méheust in Authors of the Impossible). It would also be easy to call it all fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that people really experience such things, all the time. There were F-16s chasing that floating Wal-Mart. Not your typical piece of fiction.

We need to be more sophisticated about this. Perhaps, as a humble start, we need to let go of our hyper-rational either-or mentalities and embrace the both-and of the imagination and the fundamentally paradoxical structures of consciousness. Perhaps we will then begin to understand that we are both being written by the stories we tell ourselves (as in “religion”), and that we are also writing these stories ourselves (as in “popular culture”). We also, I think, would do well to leave the door open to the possibility of entirely outside influences on our stories. Humanity has traditionally understood these latter forces in religious terms. Today more and more people are reading, and experiencing, them in sci-fi or pop-cultural terms. That is, we are beginning to author ourselves, even as something else continues to author us. Hence a Stephenville UFO sighting appears in a Marvel comic and Superman flies on the wall of a Thai Buddhist temple.

It’s a loop and a both-and, not a dividing line and an either-or.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has just finished a two-volum
e study of the paranormal in theory and culture. The first volume, Authors of the Impossible, appeared in 2010 and received a Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award. It treats four of the most sophisticated writers on anomalous phenomena: Frederic Myers, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Méheust. The second volume, Mutants and Mystics, treats the intersections of science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal. It is due out from the University of Chicago Press this coming October. He is also presently working with XL Films of Richmond, Texas, on a feature documentary on Authors of the Impossible. For summaries and discussions of these and Jeff’s other books, see http://kripal.rice.edu/

Words: Jeffrey J. Kripal • Illustration and design: Rob Beschizza