Fans, Hackers, and Invisibles

on January 1, 2014

After posting the previous entry, I kept thinking about the association between horizontalism and creative imagination, and it struck me that the roots of this association can be found in the subculture that grew up around science fiction in the 1930s and early 40s.

When the horizontalism vision was taking shape in the 1930s, science fiction fandom was one of its earliest manifestations. In an era dominated by top-down mass media, fandom was bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and free of any kind of centralized leadership. It was a functioning anarchy in everything but name, being carried on by amateurs who were held together solely by a commonality of interests.

As summarized by Wikipedia, “Science fiction fandom started through the letter column of Hugo Gernsback’s fiction magazines. Not only did fans write comments about the stories — they sent their addresses, and Gernsback published them. Soon, fans were writing letters directly to each other, and meeting in person when they lived close together, or when one of them could manage a trip. In New York City. David Lasser, Gernsback’s managing editor, nurtured the birth of a small local club called the Scienceers, which held its first meeting in a Harlem apartment on December 11, 1929.”

These early relationships flowered over the next decade into an extensive network of clubs, fanzines, and conventions, climaxing with the grandly-named First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939.

Over exactly this same period, the genre of occult horror was entering a long-term decline. It had started to seem stodgy and implausible, and particularly after the death of H.P. Lovecraft in 1937, a number of the younger members of his circle abandoned Weird Tales and started turning out stories that might appeal to science fiction editors like John W. Campbell.

Some of those stories had the appearance of rationalized fantasy, others of science fiction with occult trappings, but taken collectively they marked the start of the cross-breeding between traditional occultism and the pragmatic, engineering attitude of mid-twentieth century science fiction that would eventually form the foundation of neo-paganism.

For the next three decades, science fiction and fandom developed within a kind of pocket universe, ignored by the outside world but actively generating their own distinctive attitudes and belief systems. The result was a uniquely sophisticated association between horizontalism and what was about to emerge as the creative imagination vision.

That association began to find its way into the larger culture starting in the 1960s, and the result has been an ever-expanding — though still largely unrecognized — wave of cultural transformation.

The first opportunity for expansion was provided by the 1960s counterculture. A couple of fans with an interest in rock music produced the earliest rock fanzines — Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy (1966) and Greg Shaw’s Mojo Navigator (1966) and Who Put the Bomp? (1970). Others soon followed.

The second opportunity came when neo-paganism adopted both the non-hierarchical organizational structure of fandom and the arguments for magic-made-plausible that had been developed within science fiction and promoted them well beyond the science fiction community.

The third arrived by way of the computer hacker subculture that flowered in the 1980s and 90s. Many of its members had started out as science fiction fans, and many also had neo-pagan affiliations.

In the second edition of Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler reported the results of a questionnaire she had handed out at three pagan festivals in the summer of 1985. To her amazement, the most common response to a question about careers had been “computer programmer, system’s analyst, or software developer.”

From the other side of the equation, Eric S. Raymond, in The New Hacker’s Dictionary (1991), listed “neo-pagan” as one of the most common hacker religious affiliations, along with agnostic, atheist, and non-observant Jewish. He also commented, “Hacker folklore that pays homage to ‘wizards’ and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.”

It seems likely, however, that most hackers were attracted less to feminist paganism than to its close cousin, chaos magic, which was born in Britain in the late 70s. For instance, Raymond included Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy in his list of “books you can read to help you understand the hacker mindset.”

Despite its name, chaos magic has very little to do with the chaos vision, which was the standard interpretation of inner experience in the 19th and 20th centuries. The name derives instead from the dichotomy between order and chaos which was developed in science fantasy in the 1950s and 60s, passed from there into Dungeons and Dragons, and by the late 70s was becoming part of the self-image of certain practitioners of ceremonial magic.

Chaos magic is perhaps the purest expression of the creative imagination vision, as well as being the most extreme representation of the pragmatic, engineering attitude that entered occultism from science fiction back in the 1940s. Where garden variety neo-pagans invoke a variety of traditional deities without taking them altogether seriously, chaos magicians will invoke absolutely anything — even purely imaginary entities ripped out of the pages of pulp magazines — as long as it gets results.

It might not be misplaced to describe chaos magicians as the hipsters of the occult world. Their tendency to jump from one occult system to another while maintaining an ironic distance from all of them is very hipster-like, as is their belief that effects matter more than meeting an unattainable standard of absolute truth. Both of these seem like valid strategies for dealing with a universe that is perceived as a realm of uncertainty and illusion.

If there really are such things as hacker-hipster-anarchist-wizards, though, they are probably not to be found among self-described chaos magicians — who appear to be a relatively sober and philosophical lot — but among the lulz-driven adherents of Anonymous.

Anons aren’t given to openly displaying their philosophical underpinnings, but many of their statements imply that there’s a strong element of chaos magic in their makeup. It’s also clear that much of their inspiration comes by way of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, whose comics of the 1980s and 90s represent the ultimate literary fusion of anarchism and chaos magic. And although Moore’s V for Vendetta is the more widely known, it’s Morrison’s The Invisibles that may best explain how Anons typically see themselves.

The original Invisibles were an imaginary conspiracy of the early 1600s, rumors of which were inspired by the publication a few years earlier of the Rosicrucian Manifestos. These announced the existence of a hitherto unknown esoteric order, the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, and called for a Europe-wide cultural and spiritual reformation. They also invited like-minded applicants to join but gave no actual contact information. This set off a prolonged intellectual furor, with young freethinkers attempting to seek them out, charlatans claiming to be them, and defenders of orthodoxy denouncing them as subversive.

The Rosicrucians may or may not have been a hoax, but the Invisibles definitely were. As described by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince in The Forbidden Universe, “In 1623 notices appeared in Paris announcing that members of the ‘College of the Brothers of the Rose Cross’ were present in the city on ‘a visible and invisible stay’, prompting the rather evocative nickname of the Invisibles — a sure carrot to dangle before all conspiracy theorists. Announcing the presence of the Invisibles generated a Jesuit propaganda campaign whose hysteria matched that of a witch hunt. Here were members of a secret magical brotherhood — sorcerers no less — abroad in the city.”

References to Morrison’s The Invisibles show up fairly often in Anonymous-realted contexts, but the strongest indications I’ve seen that some Anons genuinely see themselves as constituting a benevolent conspiracy appear in the self-presentation of Barrett Brown.

Brown, a journalist who is often inaccurately described as a spokesperson for Anonymous, founded Project PM in 2011 to analyze the files of internet security firm HBGary after they were made public by Anonymous hackers. He is currently in jail, awaiting trial on seemingly over-inflated charges of conspiracy, fraud and identity theft, most of which are the result of his having posted a link to the files of private intelligence company Stratfor that had been obtained in the same way.

Project PMIn the present context, however, it’s the symbol of Brown’s Project PM website that is of particular interest. It’s a variation on the chaos symbol or “Chaostar,” originally designed by sword and sorcery writer Michael Moorcock in the 1960s and later modified by chaos magicians. But in Brown’s version, the central hub, instead of being a blank disk, is a five-petaled rose, seemingly a reference to the rose that forms part of the Rosicrucian symbol of the Rosy Cross.

Early in 2011, Brown was interviewed by Michael Isikoff of NBC News and told him, “You have to remember, we’re the Freemasons. Only, we’ve got a sense of humor. You have to wield power with a sense of humor. Otherwise you become the FBI.”

This seemingly off-the-wall remark didn’t make it into Isikoff’s own published version of the interview. And on one level it’s clearly ludicrous, because Anonymous has almost nothing in common with the complex organizational structure and elaborate rituals of the Freemasons. But the Freemasons themselves are widely believed to have originated as an attempt to emulate the elusive Rosicrucian Brotherhood — and if you take Brown to be saying, “You have to remember, we’re the Invisibles,” his statements make perfect sense.

It appears that we’ve now moved beyond the fictional wizardry of 1940s SF and the serious make-believe of 1970s neo-paganism to something with real-word influence and the ability to send governments scrambling to exercise damage control. And that is certainly a momentous development.

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