27th February 2012: The Book of Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies

 

The Book of Oblique Strategies (PDF) is a significant outlier in my body of work.

 

On 27th February 1998, my then-girlfriend/initiatrix/constant and I saw our first episode of J. Michael Straczynski’s science fiction series Babylon 5: the season three finale ‘Z‘ha’dum’. I was unfamiliar with the five-year narrative arc of Straczynski’s series, its characters, and world. The episode seemed to be about betrayal, the evolutionary dynamic of chaos versus order, and the Tibetan Bardo Thodol. I had studied script-writing and decided to take some notes. At about 8pm, I went to the home office of our house in Brynor Court, Preston, Melbourne (Australia) to write. I started in Microsoft Word with the B5’s open credits. The imaginal document then began to change, similar to Ericksonian hypnosis, Jungian depth psychology, and automatic writing. Ninety minutes later, I was exhausted, and The Book of Oblique Strategies was the result.

 

I knew immediately of the document’s personal significance. I had three previous experiences which seemed like tentative rehearsals. In March 1997, I had strange feelings whilst attending an Assyrian art exhibition in Melbourne. On 1st November 1997, after meeting Spiral Dynamics authors Don Edward Beck and Chris Cowan at a Melbourne seminar, I had an internet relay chat with linguist and scholar Connell Monette. During the chat, my subconscious mind demanded knowledge of healing praxis in Bektashi and Naqshbandiyya Sufism. On the evening of 27th January 1998, I had an Ericksonian trance experience which led to E.A. Wallis Budge’s The Egyptian Heaven and Hell (1905). I was reading Robert Svoboda’s Aghora and Riane Eisler’s Sacred Pleasure the week before the document emerged. I was also finding rare books like Hasan Shusud’s The Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia in Melbourne second-hand bookshops.

 

For five years before, I had also studied the literature on anomalous and numinous encounters. Nostradamus, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jacques Vallee’s UFOlogy work on cybernetics, information theory and human deception influenced my teens. I had studied the Gurdjieff Work’s extensive literature. I knew the media references in U2’s 1991-93 ZooTV tour and had studied cyberculture. I had read Exegesis excerpts on author Philip K. Dick’s encounter with a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. I had interviewed author J.G. Ballard, guerrilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson, memeticists Richard Brodie and the late Aaron Lynch; and maverick physicist Jack Sarfatti on their individual experiences and philosophies. Terence McKenna told me that his encounter in the Amazon in 1971 was with the Hegelian Overmind. The Australian artist Vali Myers gave me advice. I had read Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law, John Lilly’s floatation tank logs, Michael A. Aquino’s Book of Coming Forth By Night, Nema’s Liber Pennae Praenumbra, and Don Webb’s Book of the Heb-Sed (historical details). I had seen similar imaginal and noetic works as part of the Temple of Set’s internal literature which echoed the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of secret biographies. Webb had written about the psychological dangers of ‘inspired’ documents. I had Aquino’s ‘Black Magic’ essays and Church of Satan history which were not then publicly available, and had studied the Temple’s reading list. But the actual, informational experience of writing The Book of Oblique Strategies was like a jolting, surging electrical current.

 

My life changed dramatically in the next month. I hit a series of simultaneous inflection points or a Black Swan event cascade that overshadowed the document. REVelation Magazine folded and could not publish my interview with the late ethno-botanist Terence McKenna. 21C Magazine folded and could not publish my interview with space migration advocate Marshall Savage. The real estate manager sold out the rental house from beneath us. The relationship broke up. The 20th anniversary loomed of my mother’s death in a car accident on 28th March 1978. I experienced a period of referential ideation and had a nervous breakdown that my family helped me to recover from. I also struggled to pull together freelance magazine articles and public relations copy. When reconciliation was impossible with my former girlfriend, I attempted suicide in response to her ‘gestalt switch‘ and devaluation of me (which influenced a later article on the Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile). (I was caught in the Fixes That Fail archetype in systems thinking and exposed to iceberg risk.) A few months later I started to correspond with Richard Metzger and to write for the Disinformation alternative news site. I attended an academic seminar on process philosophy. Sean Healy invited me to This Is Not Art. I negotiated re-enrolling in my undergraduate degree on film and politics. Hence, the ‘Ordeals of Transmutation Fire.’

 

Oblique Strategies refers to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s 1975 oracular, aleatory deck. I used readings from this deck in Disinformation’s daily newsletter from 2000 to 2008. Joe Nolan interviewed me about this period. I’ve written about Eno’s 2009 ‘Scenius’ talk and what researchers can learn from him. I’ve also commented on Alfred Hermida’s ambient journalism and its creative implications. But the document isn’t an Eno pastiche. It isn’t an attempt to copy Crowley’s Book of the Law. I wasn’t on a grandiose ego trip: I knew of the ‘magus of the week’ phenomenon on the alt.magick and alt.satanism newsgroups and I didn’t found my own organisation. I was struggling to make sense of cryptic, dense, multi-layered information with multiple meanings and significances. John Lilly likened such experiences to the ‘supra-self meta-programmer’ that can reshape the Self. The first hermeneutic ‘analysis and commentary’ document came to 50 pages. The 2011 commentary is about 30 pages and remains confidential.

 

The document has several layers and strands. Its structure is closer to hypertext, sampling and popular culture. U2’s Zooropa (1993) and Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997) are juxtaposed with INXSKick (1987) as commentaries on love and existential loss. There’s a ton of cyberculture references (with specific, contextual and philosophical meanings) from William S. Burroughs (The Cities of the Red Night), Blake’s 7 (the finale Blake’), Doctor Who (‘The Ark in Space‘ and ‘Logopolis‘), King Crimson and Celtic Frost (Tristesses de la Lune) to J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Frank Herbert (Dune), the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster and Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. I was a cinema studies undergraduate major hence the film list. There’s a strand on post-traumatic growth and resilience; on the epistemology of conscience; on Aleister Crowley, George Gurdjieff, and Anton LaVey; on Michael A. Aquino’s battle to clear his name in the Presidio scandal (PDF) and the resulting lawsuits and internet conspiracy theories (which circulated at the time of writing); on the Temple of Set’s internal politics, leadership, and initiatory system; on the Hindu goddess Kali and the Semitic goddess Astarte; and on the Laibach documentary film Predictions of Fire, the Balkans genocide, the design of early warning systems, and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in international relations. A recent personal paper (PDF) describes the future — one of several counterfactual possibilities — that  emerged.

 

Most poignantly, a section foreshadows the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT). ‘Dakshineswar’ = both the Kali worship centre of Dakshineswar, India and ‘War Shines Da(r)k’. ‘I return Home in the Year of the Fire to unleash fiery Helter Skelter’ = the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks and the ensuing confusion. (The internal representation of these lines was an image of fire seen from space: probably the influence on me of the 1982-83 nuclear war scare.) Bush announced the GWOT on my birthday — 20th September 2001 — as I was in-flight to attend author Howard Bloom’s wedding in New York City. The document thus has an underlying, consistent and self-generative metaphysics, ontology, cosmology and epistemology that emerges with hermeneutic analysis. I later discovered that others like Zeena and Nikolas Schreck had their own experiences with Kali and war archetypes at a similar time-period. Whilst studying counter-terrorism in 2005, I discovered that cyberculture had also influenced Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo cult members. Elsewhere, I have explored the moment that the GWOT emerged and the initial media reactions to it.

 

I am making The Book of Oblique Strategies publicly available (PDF) for others to comment on. Just make sure you read Robert W. ChambersThe King In Yellow (1895); Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter’s When Prophecy Fails (1956); John Lilly‘s The Deep Self (1977); and Jacques Vallee’s The Invisible College (1975) and Revelations (1991) first. Watching Inception might also help.

13th February 2012: Dan Drezner on the New Al Qaeda

Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner on the new Al Qaeda and threat escalation:

 

That said, I’m going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago.

 

I reached a similar conclusion here using Richard Ned Lebow‘s counterfactual method. As did John Mueller, and Adam Curtis in his documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004). September 11 could have been much worse.

2nd May 2011: Osama Bin Laden Dead

Obama Announces UBL's Death (Doug Mills/New York Times)

Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday during an attack on Abottabad, Pakistan (NY Times story).

Prior to the White House’s official confirmation, the story leaked onto Twitter (NY Times story).

Bin Laden’s death changes a case study chapter I was beginning to outline about Al Qaeda.

Some resources:

Transcript of Obama’s comments on Osama bin Laden’s death.

New York Times obituary of Osama bin Laden.

• George Packer: Better Late Than Never.

• David Remnick: Obama and Osama.

• Lawrence Wright: Hey, Hey, Goodbye.

• Google Maps display of Bin Laden’s compound.

• PBS Frontline episode Hunting Bin Laden.

• Bin Laden biographers: Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer, and Lawrence Wright.

• Steve Coll on Young Osama (New Yorker).

• Lawrence Wright on Rebellion Within Al Qaeda (New Yorker).

13th December 2010: GWOT Counterfactuals

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, suggests that the 2003 Iraq War was a significant recruitment tool and self-justification for Al Qaeda. This prompts what political scientist Richard Ned Lebow calls a counterfactual: an alternative history or series of events if different choices had been made. What if the US neoconservatives had not strongly influenced the Bush Administration’s foreign policy? What if the US had pursued a more multilateral and international approach to fighting Al Qaeda? What if the US had killed Bin Laden at Tora Bora in late November or early December 2001? What if the US had not invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

The Bush Administration — along with many counterterrorism analysts and policymakers — embraced the frame ‘Global War on Terrorism’ or GWOT immediately after September 11. Apart from making war on a tactic, this immediately locked the Bush Administration into a line of thinking based on historical analogies including to previous wars and antifascism. It didn’t leave a lot of room to maneuver when conditions worsened in Afghanistan and pre-surge Iraq. Lebow’s counterfactuals approach suggests that rather than taken as a given, GWOT unfolded as a series of foreign policy decisions where other possibilities and strategies existed and that remained unexplored. Perhaps that’s why in his second term Bush quietly abandoned the term, and the successor Obama Administration has conceptualised its national security in a different way.