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.

18th January 2012: Cold War Memories & Afterlives

From an email to Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis on 17th January 2012:


Cold War Memories


1. My first ‘encounter’ with the USSR was aged 7 with the televised closing ceremony to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. I had a sense of viewing an alien, strange culture, with sombre music. I distinctly remember the USSR’s mascot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHqdWFpJkpk). The Andropov and Brezhnev eras seemed quick and fleeting: news reports of their deaths.


2. I was holidaying in New Zealand with family and New Zealand grandparents during the 1982 Falklands War. The headlines of New Zealand’s Dominion newspaper focused on the HMS Sheffield’s sinking.


3. US President Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApTnYwh5KvE and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dq6ZsF6bzOA) terrified my primary school class-mates and I. Around the time of the Able Archer exercise, there was a nuclear war scare in Australia focused on the Nurrungar and Pine Gap facilities. In 1984, my primary school (Marong) had a poster of the ABC tele-movie The Day After (1983) in the school’s common room. The school principal used negotiation between the United States and the Soviets as an example to me, during an argument I had with a fellow student; and later formed a class writing syndicate. From this period, I also remember the finale ‘Blake’ to Terry Nation’s dystopian science fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81) modelled on Nicaraguan rebels; WarGames (1983); the mini-series V (1983); the first televising of Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965); the BBC series Threads (1984); and most resonantly for me, the BBC mini-series Edge of Darkness (1985) in which environmental activists break into a nuclear facility. (My mother had died in a car accident when I was aged 4, so I was perhaps more influenced by this period than most.) Class-mates were influenced by the John Milius film Red Dawn (1984). Together with SDI, the Challenger space shuttle and Chernobyl disasters were perhaps generationally equivalent memories to JFK’s assassination: class-mates vividly remember the incidents, and where they were. As a result of Chernobyl, I became interested in 1990 about the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris; Stalker; The Sacrifice).


4. I was holidaying in New Zealand in 1984 when the Lange Government announced it was barring US nuclear ships from its waters. My New Zealand grandmother took me to visit the Beehive in Wellington – the New Zealand parliament. The foyer had peace sculptures. Wellington had social protests from peace groups, at the time.


5. Saddam Hussein’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait was discussed in high school as a social issue. I was again in Wellington, New Zealand, shortly before Operation Desert Storm broke out. I was reading Nostradamus at the time, and seeing social activist graffiti in Wellington’s main street, Lambton Quay (“no blood for oil” was a common phrase). The media focus was on CNN’s coverage; the Patriot missiles; and later, on the ‘highway of death’. During this visit, I discovered a copy of the USSR Constitution in my grandparents’ storage bookcase. They explained that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the USSR had attempted to hire staff from New Zealand’s electricity and geothermal industries, and that copies of the USSR Constitution were circulated during this period.


6. I was preparing for my high school’s final exams when the August 1991 coup d’etat attempt happened with Gorbachev. The first Australian news reports I saw focused on the Gang of 8, and then on Boris Yeltsin’s declaration on 19th August 1991. I was working on a short video film project at the time, and the coup d’etat attempt influenced the scripting and editing. I remember the time as a period of critical uncertainty about the USSR. Teachers tried for several years to explain Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost to us. Participating in a stage production of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men in 1990 helped to shape my interpretation.


Post-Cold War ‘Afterlives’


Grand strategies have ‘afterlives’: legacies that continue to reverberate long after events have ended. Books that have explored this include: Barbara Harlow’s After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (London: Verso, 1996); Kristin Ross’s May ‘68 And Its Afterlives (Chicago IL: Chicago University Press, 2002); Marianna Torgovnick’s The War Complex: World War II In Our Time (Chicago IL: Chicago University Press, 2005); and Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s The World Hitler Never Made (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).


Some of how the Cold War continued to affect me over the next two decades:


7. U2’s imagery for its ZooTV tour (1991-93) — influential amongst my undergraduate university cohort — fused Marshall McLuhan and William S. Burroughs’ media theories; William Gibson’s cyberpunk aesthetic; CNN’s Gulf War coverage; post-Cold War triumphalism; and the geopolitical hopes for the European Union. Circumstances changed when the tour reached the Balkans during the Yugoslav War, in which concerts became experiments in Muzafer Sherif’s social psychology on defusing inter-group hostility.


8. In 1993, I read Peter Ouspensky’s book The Fourth Way (1957) on the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff. Both had been shaped by pre-revolutionary Russia and by escaping the 1917 Russian Revolution. At the time, I was taking La Trobe University undergraduate classes on cinema studies theories. I had the experience of seeing how lecturers and students were influenced by ideologies, during discussions of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser. The discussion of Marxist theories felt out-of-sync to me.


9. In 1994, I worked as a journalist on La Trobe University’s student newspaper Rabelais. Apart from calling “stop the presses” when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain died, three other incidents stood out (amongst many). First, I discovered that the previous socialist editors had envisaged LTU as similar to University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, and had supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba regime (the newspaper was funded and run by a student union rather than the university administration). Second, during an interview with LTU professor Robert Manne about his book The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1994), we talked about The New Republic, Edmund Burke, and centrist political positions (I had taken Manne’s undergraduate class on Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany). Third, the university gave me access to the archives of Rabelais and its predecessor Paringa, and to former editors, now influential in advertising agencies and Prime Ministerial speech-writing. I discovered that Rabelais had adopted a progressive anti-war stance during the Vietnam War; a socialist stance during the 1982-83 Australian recession; and that by the late 1980s, many LTU students were increasingly disconnected from the editors’ political ideology and simply wanted to finish their degrees. On a broad ticket, I co-ran for editor, lost to a scare campaign, and discussed activist psychology during an interview with author J.G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun; Crash). (The editorial team that won the election were taken to court by the state government over union articles which advocated shop-lifting; this incident led to dramatic funding cuts for all university newspapers in Victoria for several years.)


10. In 2001, I wrote an undergraduate essay (archived version with dead links and in-text errors like ‘Hoover Institute’ instead of ‘Hoover Institution’: http://is.gd/MwT0o6) on early Cold War disinformation for LTU’s politics senior lecturer John Chiddick. The essay quality is questionable, but the main experience was discovering a wealth of Cold War literature and archives in LTU’s Borchardt library. Many of the Soviet sources were undoubtedly declarative propaganda, yet it was fascinating to find a ‘different’ history to the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War and the 1946-50 period. Today, many of the journal archives have been replaced, in order for the library to have more space for computers and collaborative group meeting rooms.


11. When Saddam Hussein was captured in ad-Dawr, Iraq on 13th December 2003, I knew immediately from the site names ‘Wolverine-1’ and ‘Wolverine-2’ that this referred to the John Milius film Red Dawn (1984).


12. In 2005, I discovered that cyberpunk film imagery that had influenced me from 1983-97 had been used as a screening tool for some Aum Shinrikyo members.


13. In 2005-06, I decided to follow the SDI thread and looked at Herman Kahn’s career and theories for Masters research at Monash University. This was also a reaction to discussions in 2002-04 with critical futurist Richard Slaughter at Swinburne University’s strategic foresight program about Jonathan Schell’s ‘abolitionist’ approach. Slaughter was highly critical of Kahn, so I wanted to go to the source and evaluate it for myself. I applied Herman Kahn’s work to North Korea’s covert nuclear weapons program (http://is.gd/ibQCD5).


14. In 2010 during PhD preparatory research, I found and took notes for the Aviation Week Video Magazine documentary SDI: The Technical Challenge (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986) in which Robert Zalisk interviews SDI scientists on ballistic missile defence systems, and narrates conceptual videos on SDI’s planned capabilities.


September 11


15. Al Qaeda’s attacks occurred late in the evening of 11th September 2001, Australian time. I found out the next day, late in the afternoon, from a Herald Sun newspaper headline (I was concentrating on finishing my undergraduate degree after a stint in publishing). I did not see much televised coverage of the attacks, their aftermath, or the United States bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001.


16. I spent 20th-25th September 2001 in New York City: the first and (as yet) only time I have visited NYC. The plane played the films Shrek and Bridget Jones’s Diary as in-flight movies. I stayed with author Howard Bloom and saw the dust cloud over ground zero from the roof of his Park Slopes, Brooklyn apartment block. The Brooklyn fire station had memorials to dead fire-fighters, and the streets had missing person posters. At the time, I edited the US-based alternative news site Disinformation (http://old.disinfo.com/archive/) with a different approach to its current incarnation. I met with co-founders Gary Baddeley and Richard Metzger, and discovered that the attacks had taken out our server, and that the FBI had interviewed our designer Leen Al-Bassam. Metzger (now curator of DangerousMinds.net) and I talked in his Christopher St apartment about the attack’s psychological effects on New Yorkers. Manhattan was blocked off below 14th Street. I saw street vendors selling World Trade Center memorabilia and anti-Osama Bin Laden t-shirts. The local media did not cover protests in Washington Square Park, New York. Then-Disinfo.com contributor Preston Peet and I saw the Rollins Band play Irving Plaza on 24th September 2011, where Henry Rollins gave a pre-show patriotic speech to New Yorkers, and I felt like being in an historical moment (http://is.gd/92NApr).


17. In the week after the attacks, I turned to Susan D. Moeller’s Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York and London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 166-170) for a four-stage cycle on assassinations to explain media coverage: (1) replaying the initial event; (2) disclosing the perpetrator’s identity and seeking justice; (3) funerals and public mourning; and (4) closure: “when the media reassert the supremacy of the established political and social order.” (p. 167). For the next several years, I did not publish anything on September 11 conspiracy theories. The Disinformation Company subsequently reversed this decision when it published material by Alex Jones. I left TDC in February 2008.


Iraq War 2003


18. I was in the common room for Swinburne University’s Faculty of Business & Enterprise when senior lecturer Joseph Voros glanced at the television and told me the United States forces had started bombing Iraq. We both remarked that the day felt very strange.

PhD: Academic Publications & Scholarly Research History

For the past five years I’ve been working on ‘draft zero’ of a PhD project on counterterrorism, intelligence, and the ‘strategic culture’ debate within international relations theory and strategic studies.

The project ‘flew past me’ during a trip to New York City, shortly after the September 11 attacks, and whilst talking with author Howard Bloom, culture maven Richard Metzger, Disinformation publisher Gary Baddeley, and others. An important moment was standing on the roof of Bloom’s apartment building in Park Slopes, Brooklyn, and seeing the dust cloud over Ground Zero.

The ‘draft zero’ is about 240,000 words of exploratory notes, sections, and working notes; about 146,000 of these words are computer text, whilst 80,000 is handwritten (and thus different, and more fragmentary).

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll write about the PhD application process, and the project when it gets formally under way, to share insights and ‘lessons learned’.

For now, here’s a public version of my CV and academic publications track record (PDF).

This is part of the background material prepared for the target university’s formal application process. In the publications section, the letter and numbers relate to Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) coding for the annual, institutional process of Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC); and the 2010 final rankings of peer reviewed journals for the Australian Research Council‘s (ARC) Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) program. Universities and research institutions in Australia use the ARC, ERA, HERDC and DEEWR codings for bibliometrics, inter-institutional benchmarking, and to inform the strategic formulation, development and review of research investment portfolios.