RAW resurgence — long version

This is the long version of my Disinfo.com article (which I’d shortened considerably before submission to meet Disinfo’s guidelines on article length).

There’s a wave of interest in Robert Anton Wilson right now — a new biography of Wilson is due in 2017, and a RAW-influenced history of the 20th century was recently published, both of these coming from “mainstream” publishers. This is good to see, of course, although I’m old enough to have witnessed previous RAW resurgences, so I’ll mix a little bit of scepticism with my enthusiasm.

I became fascinated with Robert Anton Wilson’s work in the 1980s, after Bill Nelson (the incomparable British musician) recommended his Secrets of Power recording. I was fortunate enough to see RAW give a couple of hilariously surreal, illuminating talks in London, and I corresponded with him briefly in the mid-1990s — it was a thrill for me when his Trajectories newsletter featured my satirical zine, Anxiety Culture (to which he later gave the wonderful caption, “Endless Enemies: The Engineering of Anxiety”).

I’ve written, previously, about the mutual harmoniousness of RAW’s ideas with current research on cognitive framing, and I’ve described how his notion of “model agnosticism” can be used to open up media criticism and depolarise political debate. There’s so much to say about the side of RAW’s writing which attempted to combat — with optimum semantic leverage — what he saw as the main sources of violence on the planet: dogmatism and closed belief systems, fundamentalism and self-righteous idolatry.

RAW redux

On a weird night in 1990 (or possibly 1991) I took the train straight from my office job in northwest England to see RAW “perform” in central London. There was some sort of Christian demonstration going on in the street outside the venue, and although I couldn’t figure out what they were protesting (it was already dark, and I was in a hurry to get inside), I enjoyed imagining that they’d taken exception to RAW’s joke, On Sodomizing Camels, which compared the Catholic Pope unfavourably to Ayatollah Khomeini.

I think I was the oldest person in the audience that night, although I wasn’t yet thirty. Still in my office suit, I stood out in a crowd of young zippies who looked dressed for a rave. But I felt pretty much at home — these were, I guessed, the people producing (or reading) counterculture magazines such as Evolution/EPi and Head, which occasionally included excerpts from my own obscure zine in addition to material from the likes of Terence McKenna and RAW.

That particular resurgence, which I observed (or imagined I did) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, seemed connected to certain technological developments. Not least, pre-internet, the advances in “desktop publishing”, which led to a thriving underground zine culture — as catalogued by Factsheet 5 in the USA, and Bypass in the UK. RAW himself explored the possibilities of DIY publishing with Trajectories, his “Journal of Futurism and Heresy”, which ran from 1988 to 1997 (in print or on audio cassette), and which covered developments in smart drugs, life extension research, brain machines, etc.

Wilson, together with Timothy Leary, was also a popular figure in the cyberpunk/hacker scene which featured on the pages of magazines such as R.U. Sirius’s Mondo 2000. There’s an article by RAW, titled “Cyber-evolution: montage”, in issue #7 of Mondo 2000 (1989), in which he describes his Schrödinger’s Cat (©1979) as the “first cyberpunk novel”, and writes of his invention, “The Network”, which mysteriously cancels people’s debts, as “the earliest cyberpunk group in fiction”. Bob concludes this article with the intriguing line, “The cyberpunks are the wild cards and in them we must place whatever hope we can muster”.

Fast-forward a quarter-century: new editions of Wilson’s books are now being published in both print and ebook formats by Hilaritas Press; a play based on his book, Cosmic Trigger, from Daisy Campbell (daughter of Ken), first staged in 2014, has been getting a lot of attention, and various events and festivals celebrating — or somehow intersecting with — RAW’s life and works, are taking place or being planned. Certainly more than I can keep track of.

There always seemed to be a buzz surrounding Robert Anton Wilson — he was constantly being “discovered” by delighted new fans among the alienated classes. And, of course, he was just as constantly ignored by the people seen as arbiters of “importance” and “credibility” in our society. For RAW, that meant the New York intelligentsia. In a fascinating interview with Eric Wagner, Wilson said: “the only way to get famous as a writer is to get praised by really important New York reviewers. None of whom have ever admitted I exist… If they ever discover me they’ll come after me with pickaxes and tomahawks.”

Ironies of going “mainstream”

Mostly distant from celebrity culture and “establishment” media, admirers of Robert Anton Wilson have created an impressively encyclopedic archive of RAW-related material from a kind of loosely-connected virtual city of websites, blogs and social media, characterised by a high signal-to-noise ratio and generous interaction and sharing of ideas, creative artefacts and news. RAWilsonFans.org has a treasure trove of hard-to-find magazine articles going back to 1959, and for new insights, pointers and developments, I read the brilliantly erudite Overweening Generalist and the often-updated RAWIllumination.net blog.

From these sources, I recently learned of the forthcoming RAW biography by Gabriel Kennedy, which is due in 2017 from TarcherPenguin, and which has the wonderful title, “Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson”. My first reaction to hearing about this new biography was to wonder if the publisher is the same “Tarcher” which rejected RAW’s masterpiece, Prometheus Rising. Here’s RAW’s recollection of what happened:

“The first publisher to whom I submitted it, Jeremy Tarcher, held it for a full year of meditation before rejecting it; his only explanation for the rejection concerned the mixture of technologese and ‘counter culture’ slang that has since become my most frequent style in nonfiction. […] A month later, I heard from Tarcher again: he had changed his mind and decided he wanted the book after all. I was in one of my periods of acute poverty then (something that happens periodically to all freelance writers) and it was with great effort that I refrained from telling Mr. Tarcher to go fuck himself. I just told him I had a contract with another publisher.” (From RAW’s preface to the second edition of PR)

The Jeremy Tarcher that RAW refers to here was indeed founder of the group (now a Penguin imprint) publishing the new RAW biography — although Tarcher himself no longer headed the group after 1996, and died in 2015.

Another recent RAW-related book from a mainstream publisher is John Higgs’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine, which is presented as “an alternative history of the 20th century”, and is heavily influenced by Robert Anton Wilson, both in its cast of characters (Emperor Norton, Korzybski, Crowley, etc) and in the treatment of ideas such as “model agnosticism”.

Higgs’s book has a very good section on the relevance of multiple-model agnosticism in a society which currently seems plagued by strident forms of dogmatism and intolerance. I think his readers would benefit from being directed to the mother lode on this topic, namely Bob Wilson. Oddly, though, Higgs doesn’t credit or acknowledge Wilson anywhere in the book (the only mention is a listing for Illuminatus! in the bibliography) — although he does acknowledge his debt to RAW elsewhere:

“RAW was so integral to the thinking that went into the book […] Bob was the scaffolding that this book was built around. It’s tidied away when the thing’s presented to the public, but it couldn’t have been built without him.”

Multiple-model / Frame Semantics

My enthusiasm for RAW’s ideas precedes my interest in the somewhat drier linguistics work of George Lakoff by about 20 years. I owe my appreciation of the importance of Lakoff’s Frame Semantics to those two decades in which I internalised RAW’s multiple-model neurosemantics approach. As a prime example, I would cite Models, Metaphors and Idols, the first chapter in RAW’s book, The New Inquisition. Here, Wilson writes that to want something is, metaphorically, to be empty — “want” and “vacant” coming from the same root — and that talking of desires as “appetites”, etc, expresses the same metaphor.

He then writes about how the structure of language metaphorically programs how we think. For example, consider the convention which makes us say, “it is raining”, even though we no longer believe in rain gods, and would find it difficult to say what the “it” refers to. This is because of an Indo-European language convention that a verb should be preceded by a substantive noun — “that an action must be attributed to some isolated and allegedly reified Actor” (to quote RAW).

Another example which Wilson provides to illustrate the same point is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes says he tried to doubt everything, but couldn’t doubt this proposition. This is because, RAW argues, he lived before the discoveries of 19th Century linguists — including Nietzsche (a classical philologist in his early career), who pointed out that Descartes couldn’t doubt the proposition because he knew only Indo-European languages. In contemporary terms, we might say that Descartes’ thinking was limited, constrained or shaped by what RAW calls “the structure of a system of metaphors interlinked into a code or language”. In that metaphorical system, for Descartes, the act of thinking had to be attributed to an “isolated actor”.

This approach to metaphor, not as peripheral or a poetic flourish — but as central to thought, a fundamental mechanism of mind — seems very similar to that of Lakoff et al. In the above case, Lakoff would probably say that “hypocognition” was involved — meaning that Descartes lacked the metaphorical frames to conceptualise the act of thinking in any way except that of having a “direct cause”, a reified “I”.

This lack of conceptual metaphors for “systemic” causation (or, say, for a statistical type of thinking about probability and complex correlation) apparently persists in our culture, with important consequences. Lakoff says this is one of the reasons why public figures find it difficult to communicate on climate change and other urgent issues which require understanding of systemic causes (as opposed to blaming some bogey-entity in more easily understood direct-causation framing).

RAW, I think, makes related points regarding the urgency of the “neurosemantic project” and the potentially dire consequences if we don’t semantically “wise up”. (Daniel Kahneman, meanwhile, explains and catalogues — in somewhat different terminology — how traditional thinking about behaviour and causation doesn’t equip us for the major social challenges we face. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he uses the metaphor of a hammer hitting an egg to illustrate how we conceptualise causation, while pointing out that this type of thinking doesn’t help us to “explain” various statistical scenarios for which we reflexively, but mistakenly, crave simple direct “causes”. Incidentally, I’ve noted elsewhere the regularity with which newspaper headlines frame complex social correlations with the inappropriate metaphor, “hits” — as in the 2011 example from The Telegraph, “Minimum wage hits jobs for young”).

RAW also talks about the importance of using multiple models, and stresses the dangers of getting stuck with one model, one metaphorical construct, which we mistake for “reality”. His emphasis on this chimes with what I call the “metaphoric pluralism” approach of Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their groundbreaking work on conceptual metaphor, Metaphors We Live By:

“Successful functioning in our daily lives seems to require a constant shifting of metaphors. The use of many metaphors that are inconsistent with one another seems necessary for us if we are to comprehend the details of our daily existence”. (Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson — my emphasis)

RAW’s ideas have been around for a while, but the study of conceptual metaphor pioneered by Lakoff is fairly new, and radical, in cognitive linguistics. I encourage people to see the connections — we’re only just starting to see the huge potential of this field.

Note: The RAW/Lakoff section, which this piece concludes with, isn’t intended as some kind of “comparison” between two (very different, after all) intellects. That would be stretching things, and would prove little — even if I could contrive it. Where there do appear (to me at least) to be various interesting connections and similarities, I find it fascinating and helpful to explore — that’s all. For example, I could write about RAW’s moral and political sensibilities, or his interest in dual-category systems (patriarchal-matriarchal, oral-anal, etc) in terms of Lakoff’s “strictness” vs “nurturance” moral framing thesis… and I probably will do (no doubt for a small and perplexed audience).