Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Great Pumpkin (Cyberball and Cybernoid)

Cyber, a prefix meaning "mind," is a prefix generally associated with both the exceedingly low culture end of the Internet and the most rarified and futuristic conceptions of it. That is, we are either, Tron-like, in cyberspace, or we are 1995-AOL-Chatroom-like, having cybersex. The term's origin in its current context of digital computing technology is in 1948, appreciably far before the current context of digital computing technology. Thus the prefix "cyber" is useful to us because its existence as a signifier transcends the actual domain it describes. It is a word that means at the very least everything ever to have to do with digital technology. Certainly it describes a period from 1948-present, and that range can only extend further back. But at least we can, with acceptable precision, say that everything that lies along that spectrum of 1948-present is related in a reasonably immediate sense to everything else along that spectrum of 1948-present.

Shift the lens just over a step. Take a specific point in that context. 1960. Grant Morrison is born. JFK is elected President (An event mythologized in Mad Men, which is thus in part about cyberspace). These events take place alongside the activation of the first CERN particle accelerator. The current CERN particle accelerator is the Large Hadron Collider. CERN existed as a continual organization, entirely within the domain described by "cyber." Alan Moore, our frequent guidepost, for his part, is around before CERN, but is also entirely cyber. Tron came out in 1982, exactly two months before I was born. Its genre is recognizable as cyberpunk, a genre usually viewed as starting with William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984. Chronology runs the wrong way, just like it does when dating the origins of the cyber prefix in 1948, three years after Vannevar Bush wrote "As We May Think," widely viewed as the origin of digital media (although it proposed to use microfilm - essentially photographic technology, suggesting that the digital age and thus the concept demarcated by "cyber" existed all the way back in 1824).

Shift it again. I'm typing these words. It is 1:48 AM on Halloween. I am typing this as a magical ritual. I mean this literally - I am engaging in occultism. I am a practicing occultist and magician and what I am doing right now, on this desktop computer in TextEdit, is a magical spell. You are reading it later than this date. It is retro. It is so utterly dated, a product of its time, as 1:48 AM on Halloween as gogo dancers are 1960s. This paragraph is being written 2010 years after the birth of Christ, an event that happened either four years before or six years after the actual birth of Christ. The foundation of our calendar, in other words, is an event that is imprecise to the tune of about ten years. A year is defined precisely as the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, and also as 31,557,600 seconds. A second, defined in 1967, deep in the age of cyberspace, is the amount of time it takes for the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom to take place 9,192,631,770 (or, more accurately, twice that) times. This is the realm of electricity, first recognized as a phenomenon in the earliest days of civilization, so 6014 years ago. I'll leave it to you to convert that to cesium 133 periods from 1967 and dinosaur extinctions. Two ten-billionths of a second, which is to say, about two flips of a cesium 133 atom, is estimated as the amount of time from the Big Bang to a point where the Higgs Boson particle was still existent. The Higgs Boson, one of the things being searched for at the LHC, is an extremely complex mathematical theory for a particle that would either complete the Standard Model of particle physics, solving a problem dating to 1960, and thus adjudicating a debate within the fundamental theories of being. One such theory currently competing in the scientific consciousness is that the Higgs Boson is so abhorred by nature that it is the reason that bizarre failures of the LHC have been going on.

A coherent scale exists that measures from the timescale of the Higgs Boson to a Godlike particle that sabotages a 17 mile long piece of technology that visually resembles the science fiction machinery of Jack Kirby that inspired Grant Morrison to write Final Crisis, his apocalyptic superhero story that exists as part of his project to make the DC Universe a sentient being. A coherent line of thought runs from Jack Kirby, who was born in 1917, to the creation of the universe. Jack Kirby is understandable as a God.

This is understandable only if we accept the same claim for anyone who can be caught in this web. This web spans from the creation of the universe to a superhero storyline involving Batman that is resolving itself right now - a story that passed through Final Crisis. When I say that the Batman story is resolving itself right now, I mean it literally - the Batman story is being told right this very instant in DC Comics. New information about the story is released on the scale of a day, when new comic books come out (Wednesday, named for Odin). A day is an amount of time measured in cesium-133 periods with a margin of error so big that our language to describe measurements does not apply for it. A language that describes the Higgs Boson cannot describe the error involved in a measurement crucial to understanding the temporal serialization of a Batman story that is riffing in part off of Jack Kirby whose visual style is mirrored in the LHC that the Higgs Boson is magically sabotaging because it does not want to be discovered.

The conclusion is simple and inescapable. The language that describes the Higgs Boson cannot describe the Higgs Boson. I would contend that this paradox is a mystical experience. Let us zero in on that experience. Where did it begin? This Batman story that is going on right now, that this present instant is a part of, intersects with Jack Kirby's character of Anthro, a caveman character who interacts with Batman in Final Crisis. This caveman is an aspect of God, and is present, right now. This story that is happening spans all of human history. The entire history of the universe can be viewed as culminating in this moment, the most complete conception to date of a story involving Jack Kirby's New Gods who are visually reminiscent of the machinery that searches for the Higgs Boson. This present moment with all that it contains is a valid metaphor for anything in the history of creation, and since all that it contains is a set co-equivalent with a set containing everything that has ever happened, any given thing that has ever happened can serve as a metaphor for any other given thing.

And thank God, because that chain of significations was getting oppressively large. But we know that it all began with the prefix cyber. So here's what I want you to do - I want you to count the number of mental equivalencies, metaphors, synechdoches, etc that got us from Cyber to the beginning of this paragraph. How many signifiers are between there and here? Count them up, and write that number down. Let's call it X. Now, I'm going to do a magic trick.

We've already established that the number of signifiers you wrote down brings us to a point where information overload has rendered the point unfollowable. In other words, that number of signifiers is at least a critical mass that overloads language's signifying capacity. So if we can find a set that we know for certain contains X signifiers, we know that we can overload the signifying capacity of language and thus create an apocalyptic moment - an end of the world. Because the world is just a psychic phenomenon occurring momentarily in the synapses of a brain. That brain manipulates something. There is some base unit of measurement that captures a single discrete particle of braincontent - of idea. That particle is a fundamental particle of the universe because without a conscious observer there cannot be a world to observe. So if we overload that particle, we end the world. So if we ever find a set that contains X signifiers, we cause the end of the world.

So the problem for me is that I don't know what X is. So lets take a conservative estimate. I count 1086 words in X - although that number was reached before I started revising the earlier portions of the post, so it is approximate. Each word is a signifier determined in its contextual place within the sentence - so every iteration of every word is a signifier. So any set that has 1086 signifiers in it is an apocalypse.

Cyber, the prefix that is bringing us to this apocalyptic moment, includes among its body of signifiers two NES games - Cyberball and Cybernoid. Cyberball came out in 1988. Cybernoid in 1987. It takes one year to generate two signifiers. So it takes 543 years to generate an apocalypse, measured on this scale.

So let's take an apocalypse - a specific one - a 543 year period. Let's pick the apocalypse that began with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, dated to 1439. The apocalypse, then, took place 543 years later, in 1982. It is thus plausible that I am the apocalypse, as my birth took place in 1982. Of course, so did some number on the scale of 100,000,000 other people who could also be it. That is 1/1000th of the people who have ever been born, give or take, or the world population in 500 BC. In 500 BC, the Roman Kingdom was existent - the earliest version of the Roman government, which began in 753 BC. Its foundation was mythologized by Virgil in the Aeneid in a story that features the gods in major roles. So in a world that is 253 years past the age where the gods walked the Earth, there are enough people on the planet for one of them to be the apocalypse. This means that it is appropriate to treat people 253 years old this year as gods. That includes William Blake, born November 28, 1757.

The cyber prefix we are talking about here is used throughout its cyberpunk usages futuristically. It is meant to describe a future state of technology. It is us imagining the future. Perhaps the most famous imagining of the cyberpunk future is Neal Stephenson's in Snow Crash, written in 1992. This 18 year old book is hopelessly dated, offering a view of virtual reality that is exceedingly bound up in the punk portion of its aesthetic, an aesthetic that owes more to the 1980s than to the future. Indeed, this is true of all past visions of the future - they owe more to the past than the future. It is necessarily and obviously true that Snow Crash owes more to works from 1974 like John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than it does to works from 2010. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an old-fashioned spy adventure story starring George Smiley, a World War II veteran, is a greater influence on Snow Crash's sense of aesthetics and cool, hip badassery than 2010 does, despite the fact that 2010 is more or less when Snow Crash is set. The past is more important to the present moment than the present moment itself.

So the antiquated, historical future of cyberspace embodied by these two games in the late 1980s extends back to the aesthetic of World War II. World War II, in a grim and literal sense, is the endpoint of the aesthetic of Aleister Crowley, born 1875, and thus alive for the Jack the Ripper killings. Crowley, in fact, appears in Alan Moore's From Hell, an explicitly magical work, a magic spell, just like this one. Alan Moore also has done magical works in the form of spoken word pieces, including one, Angel Passage, that is about William Blake. William Blake is a God. Angel Passage was performed nine years and 273 days ago, which is somewhere between 8.81 and 9.75 months. So the aesthetic of cyberspace is potentially filled with gods.

Oh dear. if Cyberball and Cybernoid are deities, I have been treating them most disrespectfully. Let's start over, and treat just one of them, Cyberball, with the respect it deserves. Cyberball is the first football game I've played since 10-Yard-Fight in my very first entry. The game boasts that it is the Football of the 21st Century. Which would be now. Of course, this is the 21st century of 1988, not the one of 2010, so it's mostly about giant robots. This is the diseased and crass state we find the future in in 1988. So why are we so surprised that, 22 years later, when we are living in that future, it's a diseased and crass future. We dreamed a future that was Cyberball. Just because giant robots don't play football doesn't mean we're not living in the future we designed for ourselves.

When the Michigan Wolverines college football team fill Michigan Stadium to its 109,000 capacity, .1% of the world of 500 BC is gathered in one place. A crowd of that size is unthinkable within the paradigm of 500 BC - a throng of the sort that rarely happens in a human lifetime. .1% of the world has never gathered in any one physical location within the United States. Again, it is easy to forget that every single moment of human existence in 2010 is so massive in scope that it would be a worshippable object to past cultures. So why is it not to us? Why is the default claim among my generation a claim that people are "spiritual but not religious," or atheist or agnostic? Why is this the line we go for instead of overt shamanistic mysticism? Why do we not just go ahead and treat the entirety of our mass culture as a religious experience? What if the arc of religious experience from shamanism to polytheism to monotheism to secular atheism is not an arc but a circle, with secular atheism and shamanism in fact being indistinguishable, so that the present moment is not an endpoint but a beginning?

If the present moment mirrors human history behind it, the present moment includes within its signifier a future as long as human history. As above, so below. We can thus understand every moment as apocalyptic. There are numerous equivalent theories to this one - the idea of the Singularity, Robert Anton Wilson's idea of information doubling, Terrence McKenna's Timewave Zero. These are all theories of an informational apocalypse - theories that were generated in the past, in the gestalt of cyber. Cyberball and Cybernoid are part of the culture that spawned these theories of information apocalypse. But I would argue not that it is not time to move on from these theories, but that we have moved on. The singularity happened. Timewave Zero arrived. Alan Moore, in 2003, predicted that "our culture is turning to steam," a little known quote that nevertheless clearly caused the rise of steampunk culture, itself a variation on the cyberpunk culture that his rival Grant Morrison was embracing with The Invisibles. But by 2003, as Moore was settling on utopianism, Morrison was abandoning his utopian reaction against Moore's dark 80s, writing miserable titles like New X-Men and The Filth and, yes, Final Crisis. Only now has Morrison made the move that Moore made back in the 90s, moving from dystopia to utopia. These are huge cultural shifts that now take place in a matter of years.

My generation endured its long dark night of the soul from 2001-2008, the Bush years, marked by 9/11 and cynical, corporatism. We liberated ourselves from 2006-2008 with a liberalization that culminated in the election of Barack Obama and his iconography of hope and changing the world. Now we're already on the counterswing, our 2 year utopic moment given way to poor economy, with me and many of my friends wasting expensive college and graduate degrees on jobs with no advancement potential, spinning our wheels in the ruts of the culture. We were the millennial generation, the class of 2000. We were the singularity. We came of age in what we had been told all our lives was the commencement of the future. As the cliche goes, we are living in the future. How fucking bleak. Now our swings go faster and faster. We go through arcs of history in seconds, in instants, in flips of cesium 133.

Where is our mythology? We grew up keeping it safely stored in the future, and now that we have arrived we seem to have forgotten it, stored it in high school lockers whose combinations we've forgotten. Or worse, it's been stolen - all our mythology emptied out in the night, absconded with. All we're left with is the wreckage of technology and the myths we brought with us, wrecked up stories of Cyberball, mundane banalities of sporting events.

This is what we have to build our mythology and gods out of. We have no other choice - we cannot construct the future because we have already learned that constructed futures are lies that never happen. We have to construct the present, which is itself the same as the future we used to mythologize. If we could be entranced by Cybernoid in 1987, a game where you fly a little robot guy around a space station and get blown up a lot, then this same mythology in a world where we can literally play video games 24/7 and fail to exhaust the medium, fail even to exhaust the good parts of the medium, ought be more than sufficient. I stress often that these are not great games, but that hardly matters. Even mediocre games signify divinely. I loaded Cybernoid up to take a screenshot and got a bugged version - the graphics replaced with random symbols. I took the screenshot anyway, a moment of encoded game, playable but not quite the game. This is the mythology of the Matrix, lived for real, right now, this afternoon. That future, a decade old, is here, today, tonight, this Halloween. The search for greatness, like the search for the transcendental moment where consciousness shifts, is a lie. It already happened. It will never happen.

This is a magic ritual for Halloween, a derivative form of Samhain, a harvest festival marking the beginning of the darker half of the year. We celebrate Halloween by celebrating goblins, spookiness, and revelry. It is a celebration of death. Halloween is a day to which the eschaton is sacred. It is a day we dedicate to gods of the apocalypse. And look out, and you see what? Cartoon ghosts and pumpkins dancing along synthetic wrappers to food that is more chemistry than cooking? Chocolate peanut butter horrors? Late autumn gold across the landscape, and the cinnamon burn of cider and pie? These are how we celebrate death, and so they must, tautologically, be death gods. Let us not mistake this as some cheapening or lightening of death. Here are other death gods - the horrible visages of the Tea Party we are going to elect into power in two days time. Rand Paul and Sharon Angle and Pat Toomey. Political monsters that make the Reagan-Thatcher axis of the 1980s - the politics so bad that they formed the dystopic vision of Cyberpunk in the minds of artists - look like cuddly kittens. Far-right wing Republicans of the 1980s are now ostracized from the party as excessively moderate, downright liberal. This is a death god too - the worst and most evil government we have ever elected is gong to come into power in two years, forming the horrifying and final collapse of our two year stretch of utopia.

The only possible salvation is this - that the eschaton moves so quickly now that by Wednesday they will already be out of power. That they already are by Tuesday - that even when they are elected they are old news, almost as old as this post, as Halloween. The ghosts, when they arrive, are already giving way to All Saints Day.

You have your number. X. The number that, if there are more signifiers than that, your brain will collapse into a mystical state of confusion, overwhelmed by information. The number that achieves the singularity. How quickly can X signifiers be generated? How many times over have I generated them within this entry? That's the world we live in. Not one of awaiting the singularity, but one where every single instant, every single flick of a cesium particle, is the singularity. Cybernoid is the singularity. My MacBook Pro, generated out of the mind of Steve Jobs, itself a product of psychedelic acid culture, a set of ideas so dangerous that we have criminalized the drugs that enable them, is Timewave Zero, a Halloween death god. My coffee cup contains the Great Pumpkin Spice Latte of Charlie Brown. I can find more symbolism and meaning in the crass and banal cultural objects sitting around me than is the signifying content of any past religion. There is more arcana and secret to be discovered in DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than there is in any holy tradition.

The Nintendo Project has a narrative arc that is determined by my thought. For several posts in a row I have discussed the idea, in the abstract, of creating a mythology of 8-bit video games. The idea that there is enough in the NES to constitute a functional pantheon for the present moment. This post, this Halloween ritual, is a transition - the death of that phase. Here is our new hypothesis:

In every post, I have developed an excess of concepts. It is a given that any video game can be mythology, that the web of connections coming from any point here is large enough to be a theology. One can worship Cyberball or Cybernoid as easily as any other god in history. We know that these things can be gods, because we have seen their vast scope.

Next question: How do we turn this fucking thing on? How do we activate our new gods?

Happy Halloween.


  1. Excellent post.

    Am I right in thinking you're configuring the NES library in a similar way to how Morrison envisages his approach to the DC Universe?

    I'm very interested in where you take things from here!

  2. You are very much right.

    One of my favorite scholars, Greg Ulmer, describes his work as "not following in the footsteps of the masters, but seeking what they sought." This describes my view of Moore and Morrison pretty well.

  3. I'm thinking some of those "criminalized drugs" may have played a part in this and possibly other posts.

    Keep up the good work (if not the drugs).

  4. I'm actually drug free, a fact that increasingly alarms me given the blog.