Zombie Parables

We all know it but someone has to say it: zombies are the new vampires.

Vampires had a lovely sort of fin-de-siècle decadence about them that perfectly suited the mood of the late 20th century. Rising gas prices, the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism, neo-liberal pundits running the world markets into the ground with all of their dot-com bullshit about a “weightless economy,” 9/11 looming on the horizon, boy bands … the party was coming to an end, and, deep down inside, everyone knew it. So why not emulate the monster most likely to eat the other guests (and do so with a modicum of style, at that)?

Style exacts a stiff price, though, even among the undead. Pancake makeup takes a long-ass time to apply smoothly, and all of that black leather, velvet and lace is expensive, heavy and difficult to launder. This is the real reason that the only people interested in dating vampires and their gloomy kissing cousins, the goths, were other vampires and goths: vampires are the ultimate in high-maintenance girlfriends. By the time the beautiful and spooky actually finish dressing and are ready for a night on the town, most of us are pretty much looking for breakfast.

Enter the zombie: the ultimate low-maintenance monster. Crumbling, shambling, moaning, driven only by the neverending search for more brains to consume, the zombie has become the cultural mascot of the early 21st century.

Why? I think it has a lot to do with the failure of our collective longing for transcendence to actually pay off in any sort of immediate and gratifying way. Vampires were symptomatic of a massive cultural delusion that it was possible to escape the inevitable aging and crumbling of the flesh, to be young and beautiful forever. Cyberpunk fantasies about escaping the meat by uploading one’s consciousness into the antiseptic infinity of cyberspace were just a chrome-dipped retelling of the same old story.

Zombies, though, are a walking (okay, shuffling) reminder of the inescapability of decay. You can try to break the shackles of the physical, to rise above the meat all you want, but your mindless, rotting body will catch up with you eventually. This is the horror of the slow zombie: it never ceases to remind you that at some point, you will tire, and it will not. And then, of course, you’re fucked.

*

I spent a lot of time (too much time) last year mulling over the problem of fast zombies, when I could have been thinking about other important matters, like, um, the environment. With the introduction of horror video games and their movie spinoffs (Resident Evil being a case in point), all of a sudden, zombies came in two flavours, and the first question that you as a viewer had to ask yourself when renting a new zombie movie was, what kind of zombie were you dealing with? Fast, slow, or, worst of all, the dialectical resolution of the two — zombies that *seem* slow until you let your guard down and they actually turn out to be fast?

My working theory is that fast zombies are actually a kind of hybrid: equal parts zombie and Frankensteinian flesh re-animated with the aid of the very technology that confounds and frightens us on a regular basis. The zombie Dobermans from Resident Evil are a case in point: if you missed the news, evil US Army biology nerds have actually been able to make those since 2005. Take a puppy that’s been dead less than three hours, pump it full of ice-cold salt solution, then give it a blood transfusion and a little electro-shock, and you’ve got a zombie Frankendog that is fully capable of chasing Milla Jovovich in her little red minidress across the empty post-apocalyptic landscape (it should not surprise anyone that the empty post-apocalyptic landscape is, inevitably, Toronto).

The loveable video-game playing zombie chained in the shed at the end of Shaun of the Dead is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a domestication of the fast zombie. If your XBox skills are so poor that you need to have a zombie n00b as a punching bag, your sorry ass deserves to be eaten.

*

Zombies are, by their very nature, parodic. And yet all too often, businesses and cultural institutions seem to think that they can simply guarantee their own hipness by dropping a zombie or two into their product line without stopping to consider the unsavoury connotations that associating themselves with the living dead might create.

In the latest in a series of what can only be described as spectacularly bad advertising campaign decisions, the City of Toronto’s Live with Culture program has commissioned indie cartoonist Chester Brown to draw a series of strips about a lonely zombie who actually appreciates going to art galleries, bookstores and movies more than eating brains. You can get the whole thing on the City of Toronto’s website as a webcomic.

It’s pretty great, crammed full of all sorts of nasty in-jokes. In one episode, the zombie and his girlfriend go to the Royal for a screening of Bruce McDonald’s never-completed adaptation of Brown’s Yummy Fur (Ed the Happy Clown). Onscreen, the characters are alluding to the fact that Ronald Reagan’s head has been grafted to the end of Ed the Happy Clown’s penis … which is actually kind of awesome, when you consider that three separate levels of government have just paid for you to see that.

A little more problematic is the fact that this selfsame advertising campaign positions you, the citizen “living” (even “living dead”) with culture, as a damned soulless corpse whose only possible redemption lies in the wonderful events and artifacts that our various government granting bodies choose, in their beneficence, to fund. Really, though, they’re just being honest: as I mentioned at the start of this messy little series of meditations, our monsters are us.

Besides, if I have to choose between whether my tax dollars go toward the creation of spiteful, insulting little funnybook narratives that infer that I’m some sort of ghoulish parody of a human being, or yet another magic realist novel about mother-daughter relationships and the painful wisdom of growing old, I’ll take the zombies every time, thanks.

First published as “Alienated 9: Zombie Parables.” Matrix 79 (spring 2008): 52-53.

Dokaka: Air Guitar Jordan

You’ve all done it, so stop pretending.

Your favourite metal tune starts playing. You make a rock-face. You bend your knees, crook your elbows, tighten the fingers of either hand into a claw-like rictus and start flailing away at the invisible strings of your favourite make of imaginary axe.

If you’re particularly ardent about it, you may even do that rapidfire bobblehead neck-snap thing that, to be perfectly honest, makes you look like the Chicken Lady regardless of whether you’re imitating a traditional longhaired Pantene-Pro-using metal guitarist or one of the 90s-flavoured baldhead-plus-neck-tattoo-and-excessively-pointy-bearded ones. And then, inevitably, from somewhere deep in your throat, the horrible noises begin to emerge: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla.”

Take note, hipsters: at such a moment, all irony collapses into the thing itself. Whether you really meant it or not, the cold hard truth is that you still did it and will, in all likelihood, do it again, given the opportunity. I used to work in a record store. I’ve seen you. You probably even came up to me at some point and said, “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla. Can you help me?”

As a matter of fact, yes. Yes, I can help you. Read carefully, for this is the most helpful thing you will learn all day: Dokaka is the Michael Jordan of air guitar, a veritable god, soaring above your puny bobbling head like a great metal condor.

Dokaka became great because of the lameness of others. Others like you. Once, Dokaka had a band. His band members were lame. As each lame band member dropped out of rehearsal in turn, Dokaka began to use his voice to replace the sound of their instruments. Soon, there was only Dokaka. Dokaka, and his greatness.

Using your voice to imitate the sound of a machine is as old as the twentieth century. Even during the heights of the modernist avant-garde, the sound poetry of the Italian Futurists failed to impress Ezra Pound (and, as a fellow Fascist aesthete, he was inclined to be sympathetic). In an essay on the work of his friend George Antheil, Pound ranted as follows:

I am perfectly aware that you can imitate the sound of machinery verbally, you can make new words, you can write ‘pan-pam vlum vlum vlan-ban etc., […] but these are insufficient equipment for the complete man of letters, or even for national minstrelsy. The mechanical man of futurist fiction is false pastoral, he can no more fulfill literature than could the bucolic man.

For Pound, music is nevertheless “the art most fit to express the fine quality of machines,” and “there would be something weak about art if it couldn’t deal with this new content.” Pound was dead wrong about many things, which is why his scrawny, anti-semitic ass eventually was tossed into a tiger cage (sans tigers) in Pisa. But Pound had this much right: the trick would be to complement the human with the mechanical without “humanising” the mechanical by translating it back into words. In the entire history of twentieth-century sound poetry, this happened all too rarely. And, when it did happen, it almost never (maybe ever) rocked like a motherfucker.

Dokaka succeeds where entire generations of barking hippies have failed because he instrumentalizes his voice and structures the results with the aid of the very technology he emulates. Dokaka lays down his vocal analogs for each “instrument” track by track, then layers them together. The result is an amalgam of poetic metal righteousness: human becoming machine, machine becoming human. If the Four Horsemen (the mightiest of twentieth-century sound poetry ensembles) and the Four Horsemen (the ultimately doomed biker-rock supergroup produced by Rick Rubin) banded together to record Metallica’s “Four Horsemen,” it might sound like Dokaka.

Might. Because Dokaka is producing vocal analogues for sounds that, strictly speaking, did not even exist until the late 1980s. Listen to the cover of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on his website – perhaps Dokaka’s finest moment to date, work on Björk’s Medulla included. Slayer is, by almost all accounts that matter, the heaviest heavy thing ever. When Dokaka does that screaming glissando just before the “vocals” would normally start, if everything he doesn’t wasn’t all vocals anyway, that is the first time a human has ever made that noise.

… outside of the voices of those of you that used to come up to me in the record store and begin “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this,” that is. And, compared to Dokaka, you suck. Which makes Dokaka, by extension, the heaviest sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy ever (that he may be the only sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy in history is irrelevant to the crushing power of the logic of this argument).

So then: your path is clear. Study Dokaka. Learn from him. Emulate his moves. His kung-fu style is strong. And, slowly, because of your efforts to improve your own sorry-ass technique, the world will become slightly less lame.

Originally published as “Alienated 8: Dokaka – Air Guitar Jordan.” Matrix 78 (fall 2007): 46-47.

Star Trek Phase II

Star Trek was born in the same year that I was. Some time in the past thirty-nine years, I believe, it replaced Christianity as the major religion of North America.

My theories about the intricacies of this transformation are fairly convoluted, but to keep this article rolling along, I have thoughtfully prepared a concise little chart:

Star Trek: The Original Series = Roman Catholic (moribund, baroque, and hokey, but nevertheless inspires worldwide fanaticism)
Star Trek: The Animated Series = Mormon (adds a whole bunch of preposterous shit to the canon that defies comprehension and continuity)
Star Trek: The Next Generation = High Anglican (full of pomp and circumstance; claims a direct line of succession but isn’t fooling anyone; dominated by a British guy)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine = Lutheran (isolationist, stark, uncompromising in its doctrinal purity; oddly successful in the short term, if ultimately doomed)
Star Trek: Voyager = United/Episcopalian (the touchy-feely, inclusive side of God’s army)
Star Trek: Enterprise = Scientology (um … yeah … let’s hope it was all just a Holodeck simulation)

Here’s the thing about religion: it demands active participation from its adherents. After the ST: E debacle, 2006 is the first season in a quarter century that Paramount has not produced a new series for the faithful. In other words, an ideal time for a heretical new sect to emerge, led by zealots and prophets and sun-staring visionaries, ranting and foaming and speaking in tongues. Or, failing that, nerds.

Jack Marshall, who is also as old as Star Trek and me, is a keeper of the True Faith. By one quasi-credible account, he may be the force that produced the infamous fan-based Reformation of the other major SF religion: Star Wars: The Phantom Edit (for those who have already moved out of their parents’ basements, SW: TPE is a Jar-Jar free version of George Lucas’s loathsome Episode I: The Phantom Menace). In any event, Marshall is indisputably the original director of Star Trek: The New Voyages — now retitled “Star Trek Phase II” (Ed. Note) — , an online, fan-produced, acted, edited and filmed continuation of the series that started it all.

Remember how, in the introduction to Star Trek: The Original Series, Kirk informs anyone within earshot that the Enterprise was on a five-year mission? Paramount made a liar out of Kirk three years in by cancelling the show. Star Trek: The New Voyages is all about filling in those missing two years, albeit with a younger, less paunchy and wrinkly cast. Their website offers the following by way of explanation for the outraged:

[We] feel that Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest should be treated as “classic” characters like Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, Gandalf from Lord of the Rings or even Hamlet, Othello or Romeo. Many actors have and can play the roles, each offering a different interpretation of said character. Though the character is the same, the interpretation of the actor is what’s in question. We feel that the crew of the Enterprise has more to teach us about life and each other than has been explored to date. We also feel the new actors can add to the legend in a believable and contemporary way. Yes, some may have a problem separating Shatner from Kirk — all we ask is that you give it a try and see whether Kirk and the crew still have something to say to you.

So who plays Kirk? James Cawley, the other major participant in the New Voyages project, and a professional Elvis impersonator by trade (you can’t make copy like this up … the real world is far too strange by comparison). Dude spent over a hundred thousand dollars constructing an exact replica of the bridge set from the original show in his granddaddy’s barn. For that kind of devotion, I say he should get to play Uhura if he wants, as long as he waxes his legs.

The rest of the Star Trek holy trinity is rounded out by a video store clerk named Jeff Quinn (Spock) and a urologist named John Kelly (McCoy) who has — I shit you not — a Batpole in his house behind a sliding bookcase. Evidently urologists make good money and have plenty of spare time.

No one you’re likely to see in a New Voyages episode is going to appear on the Actor’s Studio any time soon. Nevertheless, they garner enough respect for their project that members of the original cast have deigned to appear in their productions. The pilot and first New Voyage episode feature assorted spear-carriers from the old days recognizable only to the Comic Book Store Guy types that walk among us, but “To Serve All My Days”, their second official episode, now in post-production and slated for release on September 8th, 2006, will star none other than Walter Koenig, the original Chekov. The third episode, “World Enough and Time”, scheduled to be released some time in late 2007, will star George Takei, reprising his role as the original Mr. Sulu.

Even the original special effects people are starting to offer their services (so far, New Voyages is a not-for-profit gig, which is the reason the Roddenberry estate tolerates it). Ronald B. Moore, the visual effects supervisor who has oversaw SFX on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise and the Star Trek: Generations movie, is one of the latest of the old school to throw his hat into the new ring.

Cawley’s reaction to Moore’s association with New Voyages spells out the sort of dreams that represent the in ultimate wish fulfillment for the thousands of people cranking out fanfilm all over the globe: “You know if someone had told me three years ago that I’d be working with all these incredible talents that brought Star Trek to us on TV and the big screen I would have never believed it.” Anyone can sit down and write a story set in the Star Trek universe. It takes a little more determination (obsession) to make a fanfilm, but when the fanfilms begin to elicit the involvement from the principals in the original, then the simulation is no longer a simulation: it has become the thing itself.

What are we to make of all this? Christian Bök maintains that all of fanfic and fanfilm falls somewhere in between wanking off in front of your TV set (he had K/S fanfic in mind at the time, I believe, but I think the point still holds) and stalking celebrities. Me, I try to emulate something Elvis Costello once wrote: I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused. At this point in my life, suspension of disbelief is mandatory. I’m reasonably certain that one day before too long I’ll be watching some child playing Baby Kirk at the school Christmas pageant.

Originally published as “Alienated 4: New Voyages.” Matrix 74 (summer 2006): 2-3.

You Whores: Bill Drummond Knows Your Price

We all have our price. What’s yours?

Bill Drummond knows. And he ought to: on August 23, 1994, he burned a million pounds of the hard-earned money that you paid for the albums he produced as one half of the KLF, aka The Jamms, aka The Timelords, aka The Justified Ancients of Muu Muu. It took about an hour, and, by all accounts (okay, only one: that of journalist Jim Reid, the sole witness), it was kind of boring.

Gimpo, a frequent collaborator of the KLF, filmed the entire incident. Only one print of the film exists, and, from time to time, Gimpo will screen it in a gallery somewhere. After the first showing of the film, Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the other Justified Ancient, asked the audience the following question: “Is It Rock ‘n’ Roll?”

Consensus was that it was not rock and roll.

One of Drummond’s more recent projects, You Whores, is more amusing and less expensive. Launched in 2004, You Whores is Craigslist with a brain, or the infamous eBay auction “I Will Kick Your Ass” with less malice and more density.

You Whores is an exercise in style. It strips the classified advertisement down to its very core, flensing away utility until all that’s left are the obscure objects of desire:

Ill of the Dead
For just £25 per week, I will speak ill of the dead. Let me know which dead person you want badmouthed, and I’ll invent some scurrilous yet believable stories about their sexual deviancy/wife-beating prowess/shoplifting exploits/secret serial-killing sprees (delete as applicable), and relate said stories to at least five people per week until your money runs out. A special cut-price offer is available on Richard Madeley, even though he’s not dead yet. Apply for details.

Jimfahnn@hotmail.com
United Kingdom – 23/08/04

—–

be polite
I will, for no funds, hold open the door for you after I have passed thru it, I will dispose of my litter sensibly and not spit or piss in the street, I will smile nicely at you, I will however, call you a cunt if I think you deserve it.

tim the polite of peckham
politetim@hotmail.com
United Kingdom – 14/07/04

—–

Imagine if there was a chick out there who lusted after *YOU* every single time she masturbated
Now, here’s your chance.

For a price, I will think of you and only you every time I commit acts of self-love during a time period.

I will picture you in my mind, and pretend that all pleasurable touches come from your hands. I will pretend the rubber manhood thrusting in and out of me belongs to you. I will breathe your name heavily. I will lust after you. I will dream of you. I will long for you. And I will always fully believe that you have a huge cock.

Every orgasm will be with the thought of you in my mind. I will scream your name as I come repeatedly.

Prices in US Funds:
$10 a day
$45 a week
$300 a month

During each time period, I vow to commit acts of self-love to orgasm, at the very least, once per day, no matter what.

For $5 extra per day, per request, I will cater my self-love to your whims. Bondage? Sure. I’ll tie myself up tightly and enjoy it. Anal penetration? Sure, I’ll give that a go. Whatever your fetish, I’ll do my best to do whatever you want me to do, and I will love it.**

For $400 extra, the next time I actually get laid, I will scream your name at the height of passion. I will pretend it is you, and I will think of you the entire time.***

Pictures and self descriptions are optional, but will greatly assist in the full capture of my lust for you.

** I reserve the right to know my limits. Prices may rise depending on how far past my comfort level your requests go.

*** Price rises to $750 if I am serious about the guy I will be screaming your name to, unless you happen to share the same name.

SombreHippie
sombrehippie@yahoo.com
Canada – 20/06/04

—–

Say Nice Things About You At Your Funeral
Worried that the day to mark your passing is going to be an Eleanor Rigby type affair?

Fear not, for 20% of your estate (or £1000, whichever the greater) plus travel and overnight accomodation expenses, I will pretend to have known you, deliver a stirring eulogy, and then get drunk at your wake.

Applicants must supply either an annually updated biography (1 page max) or a link to their blog.

Dave Read
mail@monkeymagic.vcisp.net
United Kingdom – 19/06/04

… and so on.

The general process behind You Whores is not particularly new. Doulas Huebler’s 1973 conceptual art project Secrets is a direct ancestor. Huebler asked gallery attendees to write a secret anonymously on a slip of paper and to drop it into a collection box, then documented the results in book form. Secrets shares the same unhinged declarative mode ab> better or worse than You Whores, just more poignant in places:

I loathe my husband.

I’m scared of men

I’m happy to be leaving my job of 33 years

I fucked my dead mother on a table in Siberia.

I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do with the baby

I think I am obsessed by sex

No one knows but I am one of the 40 virtuous people for whom God does not destroy the world.

A girl friend of mine has a case of the clap but I haven’t told her.

I’ve always wanted to be somebody

I am a failure

It’s possible to argue that with You Whores, the use of the Web as a combined collection and publication device makes all the world into an art gallery, but that would be missing the point: a few lines of code obviates the need for either the presence of the gallery system or of a self-identified artist. Not that You Whores renders the world of galleries and blue-chip artists obsolete; big art is a closed, self-sustaining system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the whimsies of a former music producer and a handful of antisocial but clever adolescents. Nor does You Whores quite finish the project of democratizing art that conceptualism promised but never delivered. The Web doesn’t turn everyone into an artist; it turns everyone into a nerd.

In the end, it’s a lot like taking a million pounds to the Isle of Jura in the middle of the night and setting fire to them fifty quid at a time: briefly entertaining, but not rock and roll.

Originally published as “Alienated 2: You Whores.” Matrix 72 (fall 2005): 8-9

under difficulties semi colon: Cockroach Typewriting

In 1912, a young journalist for the New York Evening Sun named Don Marquis began writing his own daily column, “The Sun Dial”. Producing a daily column is arduous work that requires patience and discipline. Though he was a creative and prolific individual, Marquis was neither patient nor disciplined, and, as a result often found himself pressed for material.{{1}} In 1916, he hit upon a brilliant solution: get an insect to do it. Or (more abject still) a poet insect.

Marquis comes into his office early one morning only to find, to his considerable surprise, “a giant cockroach jumping about on the keys”:

He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.{{2}}

This is Archy, or archy, depending on which side of the fierce debate over the orthography of his name you occupy. As it requires the force of his entire body simply to make an impression on the key and, due to his diminutive size, it is impossible for Archy to work the shift key, he is usually unable to type any of the keys that require a shift, including upper-case letters. Thus, he signs his own name “archy.” As E. B. White observes in his introduction to a major Marquis collection, “Archy … was no e. e. cummings”, which connotes not only the inferior quality of his verse, but that Archy typed his name the way he did out of necessity rather than affectation. White adds that Marquis himself was in the habit of capitalizing Archy’s name when referring to him.{{3}} In one famous piece, “archy protests”, the cockroach implies that his all-lowercase is a signifier of his implicit protest against his appalling working conditions and the philistinism of critics who fail to note those conditions:

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
caps period
archy period {{4}}

Archy normally does without punctuation entirely, but his decision here to spell out the punctuation is ingenious. Not only does it give him access to the characters he cannot normally employ, but he can also emphasize the arduousness of the act of typewriting itself.

In any event, Archy is a “vers libre bard” (yet another typing poet) who “died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach”.{{5}} As if the struggle of typing poetry itself were not enough, a struggle that Archy repeats night after night “for you / on your typewriter”, a rat named Freddy (another reincarnated poet) habitually first scorns Archy’s poetry, then eats it, erasing an entire night’s work.{{6}}

Archy is, of course, a thinly veiled analogy for the people that White refers to as the “thousands of poets and creators and newspaper slaves”{{7}} that fill all of the column inches of the daily papers of the modern world with typewriting, especially Marquis himself. In his descriptions of Archy at work, White writes, “Marquis was writing his own obituary notice”.{{8}} “{{Marquis}} was never a robust man”, observes White, adding that he “usually had a puffy, overweight look and a gray complexion”.{{9}} Marquis’ writing career and home life were anything but smooth. After nearly burning himself out on his column, he switched to playwriting, and, after making a small fortune on a play based on another of his characters, The Old Soak, lost it all on his next play, about the Crucifixion (unlike Mel Gibson, Marquis was a skeptic). A dalliance with writing for Hollywood left him bitter and vituperative. Most difficult of all, Marquis lost two children and two wives in less than fifteen years, and died penniless, sick and blind after a series of strokes in 1937.{{10}}

Archy was, as White observes, “the child of compulsion, the stern compulsion of journalism”{{11}}, meaning that not only did his cockroach typewriting reflect the material quality of Marquis’ writing life, he also solved a number of problems for Marquis on a technical level. Because Archy wrote in free verse, Marquis suddenly had license to write very short lines, lines which did not have to fill the whole width of his oppressively wide column. Runover lines were no longer an issue, because every line was broken. Without uppercase or punctuation to worry about, there was less to copy edit. In addition, Marquis could rely on the logic of rhyme and other paratactic structures to power his writing forward when normative syntax failed him; doggerel is always easier to produce than incisive journalistic analysis. “Thanks to Archy,” White writes, “Marquis was able to write rapidly and almost (but not quite) carelessly”.{{12}}

That relative freedom allowed Marquis to produce, via Archy and his friend Mehitabel the cat (a reincarnation of Cleopatra), an enduring body of literature. Since its first appearance in 1927, Archy and Mehitabel has been in print continuously, perhaps because it delineates the agonism of typewriting in a fashion that is lighthearted and poignant by turns. Archy does have his small moments of triumph:

I THOUGHT THAT SOME HISTORIC DAY
SHIFT KEYS WOULD LOCK IN SUCH A WAY
THAT MY POETIC FEET WOULD FALL
UPON EACH CLICKING CAPITAL
AND NOW FROM KEY TO KEY I CLIMB
TO WRITE MY GRATITUDE IN RHYME {{13}}

… but even on this singular occasion, which Archy marks by putting in the extra effort to rhyme his composition, a sudden capricious attack by Mehitabel unlocks the shift and knocks archy “right / out of parnassus back into / the vers libre slums i lay / in behind the wires for an hour after”.{{14}} Mostly, Archy’s lower-case world is a kind of prison, and even his dreams of machine aided-transcendence take the form of a plea:

[…] say boss please lock the shift
key tight some night
I would like to tell the story of
my life in all capital
letters
                      archy {{15}}

It never happens again.

Originally published as “Alienated 1: under difficulties semi colon.” Matrix 71 (summer 2005): 6-7.

[[1]]White, E. B. “Introduction.” In Marquis, Don. The Lives and Times of Archy & Mehitabel. Illus. George Herriman. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1950. xvii-xxiv. xviii.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid, 20.[[2]]
[[3]]White, E. B. “Introduction.” xviii.[[3]]
[[4]]Marquis, Don. “archy protests.” The Lives and Times of Archy & Mehitabel. 202-03.[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid.[[5]]
[[6]]Marquis, Don. The Lives and Times of Archy & Mehitabel. 21.[[6]]
[[7]]White, E. B. “Introduction.” xix.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid, xvii.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid, xxiii.[[9]]
[[10]]www.donmarquis.com/don/index.html[[10]]
[[11]]White, E. B. “Introduction.” xx.[[11]]
[[12]]Ibid, xxi.[[12]]
[[13]]Marquis, Don. The Lives and Times of Archy & Mehitabel. 203.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid, 204.[[14]]
[[15]]Ibid.[[15]]

Gravedigger: An Autobiographical Fragment

“Get your dancing partner and take her over to Four Apostles.”

Those are the first words that I hear most mornings from Arnold the foreman during the summer of 1988. I’m working as a gravedigger at the Chapel Lawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery Crematorium & Funeral Home, just outside Winnipeg. Four Apostles is one of half-a-dozen football field-sized burial gardens, almost all with bland, inoffensive Biblical names: Good Samaritan, Last Supper, Resurrection. (Almost all. Right inside the gates, always, inexplicably, there’s Babyland.)

My dancing partner, a.k.a. The Pounder, is a five-foot tall cast-iron cylinder that weighs more than I do. On one end are two wooden handles, a trigger, a gas tank and a spark plug. The other end — the business end — is a piston tipped with a rubber foot the size and shape of a barstool. Thumb the trigger and the whole mess jumps a foot straight up then comes right the fuck back down, hard. God help you if you take it on the chin or land it on your boot.

We spend the day dancing on graves.

The Pounder packs everything down tight: grass, dirt, coffins, bones. Wayne follows with a wheelbarrow full of topsoil. In a few weeks we’ll resod and water and roll. Occasionally The Pounder will punch into a hollow spot or a gopher hole and I’ll have to get Wayne to help me pull it back to the surface. This never fails to creep me out. By 11 The Pounder is hotter than an elephant’s ass and I’ve already got some bad burns on my forearms.

Mourners hate The Pounder but discretion is impossible. This is southern Manitoba. We’re the only vertical things for thousands of yards.

When I’m not dancing with The Pounder, I’m usually attached to some other small, hot, noisy, diesel-belching, dangerous machine for a full eight hours: lawnmowers, wire-tipped weed whippers, hedge trimmers. There is nothing bucolic about gardening on this scale.

Every now and then there is a real change of pace. We spend three weeks digging trenches for a sprinkler system, eight inches across, two-and-a-half feet down, so the pipes will sit below the frost line. Every morning before I go to work I soak my hands in hot water to get them to unclench. Once I spend three days in the morgue making cardboard coffins and mopping out the crematorium. The furnace itself is a big blue box that looks like a pizza oven. It empties through a little drawer on the side. Sometimes when I punch in, there’s a small cardboard cube sitting on the stack of time cards. If you shake it it sounds like it’s full of gravel.

I get two 15-minute coffee breaks and an hour for lunch. Conversation during breaks covers four topics: what we drank last night; what we’ll drink tonight; the Sun Girl; country music — puzzling, because most of the guys that work at the yard are into hardcore punk. But true nonetheless. A typical exchange between Wayne and Ernie, an older guy from the Qu’Appelle Valley to whom Wayne is vaguely related, goes like this:

Wayne: Hey Ernie.
[forty-five-second pause]
Ernie: Yup.
[forty-five-second pause]
Wayne: You like, uh, Randy Travis?
[forty-five-second pause]
Ernie: Nope.
[forty-five-second pause]
Wayne: Huh.
[extra-long pause, maybe sixty seconds]
Wayne: How come?
[forty-five-second pause]
Ernie: Can’t sing.

That’s five minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

Do I actually dig graves? The backhoe does that. Except in Babyland, where Steve and I use a small, hot, noisy, diesel-belching, dangerous posthole auger to make scaled-down versions of the normal graves. This happens more often than I care to think about.We square the graves off with shovels then hide the dirt under sheets of astroturf.

Do I like it? Fuck no. But it’s the best-paying job I can get that summer with a BA (First-Class Honours) in English. Being a writer might not pay better, but at least computers don’t burn diesel.

Originally published in BRICK 72 (winter 2003).

Ruby Slippers and Yellow Brick Roads

According to the Optical Society of America, it is possible to identify somewhere between 7.5 and 10 million distinct colours. “Ruby” is presumably one of them, but how would we agree on which one it is? In his essay “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” Umberto Eco notes that the majority of attempts to discriminate between colours fail dramatically. In the Farnsworth-Munsell test, which involves categorizing 100 different hues, 68% of the test subjects (colourblind people excluded) make betwee­n 20 and 100 errors; only 16% of subjects make fewer than 16 errors. {{1}}

Even if we could agree on a particular shade like “ruby” (a dubious proposition, evidently) odds are that we wouldn’t be able to discuss it. After pointing out that the majority of the Farnsworth-Munsell test subjects lack the linguistic means to identify even the hundred colours in the test, Eco observes that the largest collection of colour designations in English, A. Maerz and R. Paul’s A Dictionary of Color (New York: Crowell, 1953), assigns names to only 3,000 hues, and that of these 3,000 names, only eight occur in common usage. In other words, “a­verage chromatic competence is better represented by the seven colors of the rainbow.”{{2}}

“The names of colours,” concludes Eco (from these and other scientific, linguistic, and philosophical observations), “taken in themselves, have no precise chromatic content: they must be viewed within the general context of many interacting semiotic systems.” {{3}} So any useful discussions involving the status of “ruby” must immediately move over (the pun is irresistible) the rainbow and into the realm of systems of cultural meaning and exchange.

Which brings us to the Ruby Slippers, the most immediately identifiable North American cultural icon associated with the colour ruby since the making of the film The Wizard of Oz in 1939. But if we can bracket Judy Garland and camp, and the burning question of whether or not there were more than seven pairs of slippers made for the movie for just long enough to compare the film to the source text, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, something much more interesting becomes apparent: the ruby slippers were originally silver.{{4}} This disjunction leads to an examination of the semiotic values of ruby, silver, and gold as signifiers of financial exchange, and how the reading of a key cultural text shifts dramatically because of the seemingly innocuous decision made by one Noel Langley, a screenwriter for MGM, to substitute one of these hues for another.

This isn’t just quibbling over details; there’s a serious argument to be made for reading Baum’s Oz as a complex symbolic allegory describing William Jennings Bryan and the Free Silver Movement of the 1890s, and it all hinges on the fact that Dorothy’s slippers are silver, not ruby.

William Jennings Bryan believed it was unnecessary for the government to maintain gold reserves equal in value to all the paper currency in circulation. During his presidential campaign, Bryan advocated the coinage of silver at a fixed ratio with gold (16 ounces of silver coin for every ounce of gold reserve), which he hoped would break the Eastern banks’ monopoly on gold-based currency, and simultaneously inflate the meager prices that farmers received for their crops, easing their debt burden.

So then: Is reading Oz as a pro-Bryan allegory dabbling in economic conspiracy theory pseudo-criticism worthy of Ezra Pound? Let’s weigh the evidence.

“Oz” is the abbreviation for “ounce,” the official unit of measure for gold and silver. The road to the Emerald City, the seat of fiscal and political power, is made of, um, yellow bricks. You’re beginning to get the idea.

The allegorical reading of Oz was first suggested by historian Henry M. Littlefield in his article “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.”{{5}} Littlefield argues that the characters also lend themselves to allegorical interpretation. Dorothy (everywoman from the Midwest) inadvertently slays the Wicked Witch of the East (the bankers), then heads down the golden road in her new silver shoes (means of circulation) to free the “little people.”

Dorothy accomplishes her task with the help of the Scarecrow (an uneducated farmer), the Tin Woodman (an industrial worker and the epitome of alienated labor. The Woodman was originally a human being, but the Wicked Witch of the East cast a spell on him that caused him to chop off part of his body every time he swung his axe; his flesh was gradually entirely replaced by metal prosthetics that rusted and failed—as did the factories themselves in the 1893 depression) and the Cowardly Lion (Bryan himself, a committed pacifist and anti-imperialist). The Wizard (President) turns out to be a carpet-bagging opportunist, carny, and master of illusions who is eventually debunked by the scarecrow, educated by his recent experiences. Dorothy drowns the Wicked Witch of the West (wiping out the drought) and the Wizard flies away in a balloon full of his own hot air, leaving the government of the land of Oz in the hands of the enlightened triumvirate of Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion.

As with all allegorical interpretations, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line with Oz (as David Antin notes, “Allegory is a very corrupt figure, a figure notably incapable of supporting fact”).{{6}} Over the years, scholars have suggested, with diminishing credibility, that the Flying Monkeys represent the First Nations (“‘Once,’ began the leader, ‘we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit, and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master.'”), Winkies represent the people of the Philippines (under US control after the Spanish-American War), and even that Toto represents the teetotaling Prohibitionists.{{7}}

Tenuous associations aside, problems with reading Oz as a pro-Bryan allegory arise when scrutinizing Baum’s actual politics. L. Frank Baum was not a particularly political animal, but was known to have marched in several torchlight parades promoting Bryan’s presidential campaign.

The flip side of the coin, though, is detailed in David B. Parker’s article “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism.'”{{8}} Parker provides two pieces of evidence that suggest that Baum was actually a Republican, not a Populist. The first is that in 1890, Baum bought a small newspaper, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Parker remarks that “the Pioneer was obviously a Republican paper. During the municipal elections that spring, Baum editorialized in support of the Republican candidates; after they won, he wrote that ‘Aberdeen has redeemed herself… [a]fter suffering for nearly a year from the incompetence of a democratic administration.'” Later that same year, Baum editorialized against the Independent movement that evolved into the Populists.

The second piece of evidence Parker provides is that on 12 July 1896, the year of the election that would mark what has been called “the Climax of Populism,” Baum published the following anti-silverite poem in the Chicago Times Herald:

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
There’ll be a jollification
Throughout our happy nation
And contentment everywhere!
Great will be our satisfaction
When the “honest-money” faction
Seats McKinley in the chair!

No more the ample crops of grain
That in our granaries have lain
Will seek a purchaser in vain
Or be at mercy of the “bull” or “bear”;
Our merchants won’t be trembling
At the silverites’ dissembling
When McKinley gets the chair!

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
The magic word “protection”
Will banish all dejection
And free the workingman from every care;
We will gain the world’s respect
When it knows our coin’s “correct”
And McKinley’s in the chair!

Prominent Baum scholar Michael Patrick Hearn quoted this poem in a 1991 letter to the New York Times (20 December 1991), arguing that there is “no evidence that Baum’s story is in any way a Populist allegory” and that Littlefield’s allegory “has no basis in fact.” A month later, Littlefield himself recanted and agreed with Hearn, writing that “there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology.” (New York Times, 7 February 1992).

The real irony, though, doesn’t lie in Parker’s partial deconstruction of Littlefield’s allegory. It lies in the fact that rather than recontextualizing Oz as an ironic or parodic allegory, or pushing the whole argument into a kind of De Manian treatise on allegory and unknowability, Parker turns around and contends that Oz is, in actuality, a Theosophist allegory.{{9}}

Don’cha love academics?

[[1]]Umberto Eco, “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 167.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., pp. 167–168.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., p. 173.[[3]]
[[4]]For information on this history, visit the following websites: www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Hills/6396/rubyslip.htm (dead link.) www.ukans.edu/carrie/kancoll/books/baum/oz02.htm (dead link.).[[4]]
[[5]]Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, no. 16 (1964), pp. 47–58. The entire text is available online at www.amphigory.com/oz.htm (dead link.).[[5]]
[[6]]David Antin, Talking at The Boundaries (New York: New Directions, 1976), p. 149.[[6]]
[[7]]See www.ukans.edu/carrie/kancoll/books/baum/ oz14.htm (dead link.) and www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/ 6641/ozpopul.html (dead link.).[[7]]
[[8]]David B. Parker, “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism,'” Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians, vol. 15 (1994), pp. 49–63. The complete text is available at www.geocities.com/ Athens/Parthenon/6641/ozpopul.html (dead link).[[8]]
[[9]]See David B. Parker’s “Oz: L. Frank Baum’s Theosophical Utopia,” available at www.geocities.com/Athens/ Parthenon/6641/oztheos.html (dead link).[[9]]

(Originally published as “Colors: Ruby (and Beyond)” in Cabinet 4 (Fall 2001).