Statistically Improbable Phrases






I am taking on Concordia’s Graphic Novel course in the fall and am rebuilding the entire thing.

Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo’s The Greatest Comic Book of All Time:
Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books
has been enormously helpful, as has Beaty’s Comics versus Art. The latter patiently explains why various formalist definitions of comics in general and the graphic novel in particular all fail: the term “graphic novel” only makes sense discursively. That is, because all of the existing definitions end up excluding important examples in some way, you have to look at who uses the term, and its historical and geographic contexts, in order to figure out why they’re using it. For Beaty and Woo, the term is largely aspirational — that is, over the last half of the 20th century, it appears consistently in arguments about how and why comics can “do more” in their attempt to escape from their lowbrow status. The former uses a variety of approaches, including cultural analytics, to interrogate various sacred truths about the comics canon that has emerged since the 1980s.

These are compelling, carefully argued books. I don’t agree with everything in them, of course (I have some things to say about their argument about Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage, for example), and neither will you, but they scratch a lot of my itches.


I was trying to remember the last time I cared about an album, which is a more interesting question than what that album was. What I realized was that one reason that I don’t care as much any more is that thew risk in discovering new music is much, much lower than it was when I first started buying LPs in the 1970s.

Before I had a job, an album cost several weeks of allowance. I might get one on my birthday, but a poor choice was worse than a new pair of socks because it reflected on my poor taste rather than someone else’s.

After I had my first job, an album was still at least two hours’ worth of wages. To make that kind of investment, the payoff had to be substantial in terms of both the content (did it have enough good songs?) and the cultural capital accrued from my friends by boasting that I’d just bought it. Once I had a cassette deck, in high school, saving up for a box of UDXLII-90s, each of which could usually contain a full album on each side, took longer but was far more cost-effective.

Buying and taping both required discernment. You bought or taped what you heard on the radio or what your friends had played for you because it called to you — that is, you did it to fit in to some sort of ideological imperative. But doing research outside those envelopes required more expense and more risk, in the form of buying and reading music magazines.

The year after I graduated from high school, Spin appeared, and it was my bible. Spin sharpened my taste for punk, then taught me about alternative, hip hop and afrobeat.

By the end of my undergrad years, I was sneak-reading MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and NME off the record store shelves (too much money to buy them). It turned out that punk was for rich kids because the albums were even harder to find and more expensive than usual.

MP3s removed desire, because there was such a glut of them, but they still took effort to find, download, tag and sort. I was told by a lawyer friend who works on corporate IP at high levels that music companies consider Generation X a lost cause. They sold us all our favourite music two or three times — first on LP, then on CDs and then remastered special editions. When MP3s came along, they knew we’d never buy anything again. So they played the long game and built vertically integrated platforms to capture the next generations.

Spotify strips away the risk involved in learning about anything that’s ever been commercially released. What’s not on Spotify I can locate quickly on YouTube. During the BitTorrent years, I listened almost exclusively to bootlegs and live recordings, but have lost track of that world mostly out of sloth; it’s just easier to stream because my phone is always in my pocket.

But with no risk involved in learning about new music, I have to invest less, so I care less.

The only consolation in all of this is I can play music for my kids that was never popular because it’s never been on the radio. And never will be. Still, they think that Rollins singing “Do It” by the Pink Fairies is hilarious. Which counts for something. I think.


Every time I feel like writing a poem I jam two words that don’t belong together, and I take a little trip to one of the sites on the edge of the Web. I look at it for a couple of minutes, and say, nah.

Turns out language poetry was formally identical to the results of the algorithms Amazon now uses for identifying individual texts (SIPs), and the contents of the pages that honeypots use to mislead web searches by humans and nonhumans alike to generate a little extra traffic.

Neil Hennessy and Bill Kennedy and I talked about this many years ago, when we were interested in a program called Sugarplum. Neil ended up writing a paper about it. When I told Bruce Andrews that we could replace him with a few lines of Perl, he was not amused.

So langpo poetics was correct: their writing really was all about the economy. The problem was they were looking at it from the parallax view. What we got was not more democratic poems that invited the reader to contribute to the production of meanings, but autocratic algorithms that surveilled, sorted and ultimately produced us as networked consumers.

“As one knows without saying, we do not write anymore” — F. A. Kittler


The truth of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is The Bourne Identity.

Recent Satellite-on-Satellite Violence





(and if you mention that song by orange juice i will know you for a rock critic and sneer at the downfall of you and your ilk)

I deleted my Twitter history this week. Over 22,000 tweets, written at various moments over the last decade.

I did so partly because I still could, but mostly because, as Cormac McCarthy wrote, there are events that divide lives forever into the then and the now. It was a difficult week because I lost someone important to me.

The contents of my feed was innocuous, if not banal. But it did, over time, provide a pretty good record of my shifting moods and habits. These are things that are visible to a computer working with large aggregates, but not necessarily to a person. And that was beginning to concern me.

Twitter is often rage-inducing, or at least indignance-producing. As Mike Montiero points out in _Ruined by Design_, that’s deliberate. No matter how severe, Twitter makes every problem exactly the same size, and feeds its users a steady drip of anxiety and outrage. The outrage sparks reaction, which the platform sees as engagement, “and engagement brings them money and raises their stock price” (123). In retrospect, it reminds me of watching furious Team Fortress 2 players leap into action every time Valve “rebalanced” the game. “Balance” is beside the point; goading complacent users into constant restless activity is what matters.

There’s something to be said in favour of filter bubbles.

What matters in a tweet, then, is not so much its symbolic content as the emotion it conveys. And I’d rather not share that constantly, thanks. If anything, I’ve come to think of spraying affect all over social media as a form of pollution. Twitter is an ocean choking on a gyre of emotional debris, and every sloppy collision puts dollars in someone’s pocket.

What I am looking for now is a form of sustainable online presence.

I deactivated my Facebook account on 2014-07-06, and good riddance to it. Throughout the process, Facebook was there the whole time, whispering in my ear, enabling: “Are you sure? You’re going to miss your friends.” When I finally reached the end of their emotional gauntlet, it was a pleasure to push the button.

Killing my Twitter feed was much more clinical.

Only the last 6 months of the feed were even visible until I started to kill it. I paid 9 bucks to Tweeteraser and started clicking. Layer after layer of tweets disappeared down an atemporal _cul de sac_, 3300 or so at a time. My personal account is still there, but locked and empty, except for a notice that points to this post.

We live in the era of digital incunabula. Much is gone whether you want it to be or not. But perversely, the stuff you want to go away will probably be around forever. Governments are already looking at social media profiles during border crossings, and denying people entry not just for things they have written, but for things their friends have written.

As a card-carrying Gen X member, I am acutely aware that we are the last generation that doesn’t have its childhood and early adult life online. This is one of the few advantages we have, and I’ll be damned if I’ll give it up without a fight.

So what does a sustainable online presence look like to me now? Because I am old, it looks like blogging, or perhaps mailing lists.

Blogging and mailing lists have a different temporality than social media: a more deliberate time of writing, a more controllable time of circulation, and time of reception that allows others to choose to receive them (or not) at their leisure. From my perspective, blogs have an advantage over mailing lists in that they’re cheaper and don’t rely on an external service to work.

I took a few hours to begin cleaning up Alienated, which is now 20 years old(!). There’s precious little to show for it too; random fragments of old versions of it litter my hard drives, getting in the way of what actually matters. That process will be completed over the next week or so, to be succeeded by a few small posts during the week, and a longer squib like this.

The guiding question for me is, what can I add that’s not already here? The answer is both my formal research, at the Residual Media Depot and elsewhere, and odds and ends of things that I can’t find online, or are somehow unnoticed. My inspirations are Warren Ellis’ _ORBITAL OPERATIONS_ and Patrick Tanguay’s _Sentiers_. Go and read them now.

I’ll keep reading Twitter, but what I write on it will be indexical, pointing here. Let’s see how long that lasts.


Our infrastructure fights and fucks now.

The Economist’s (July 20, 2019) briefing on War in Space was worth a read, because it told me more about “Satellite-on-Satellite Violence” than I knew. Within a decade it’ll be reported on the evening news like any other ongoing military conflict or planned shooting.

Down on the ground, more and more cities are building “sexual infrastructure.” On the edge of Köln, there’s now a sort of sex drive-in that looks a lot like a wand-wash. “The stall is designed so that the driver’s door can’t be opened, but the passenger one can” and there’s a safe room in each stall with a lockable door and emergency button to call for help. There are also social workers present on site.

The only short-sighted thing about sexual infrastructure of this sort is that it presumes people will keep having cars.


As all Canadian academics know, the Canadian Common CV deserves to be put out of our misery. Read about the alternatives and sign this petition before its inevitably crap third version comes into its full, terrible, being.

(HT @BiellaColeman)


One of my last few tweets concerns _VIRUS 23_, a zine I did with some friends at the end of the 80s. After tweeting, I discovered, as one does, that the sole copies I had placed online were inaccessible (digital incunabula), which I suppose is what you get if you rely on Icelandic pirates for your archivists. Anyway. I did some digging and rectified the situation.

From 1989 to 1992, I fell in with a group of sun-staring visionaries from Red Deer, Alberta — chiefly Bruce and Eric Fletcher, their friend Paul Pype, and later, Gunnar Blodgett (collectively known as ADoSA, the Alberta Department of Spiritual Affairs). I met them in 1989 in Edmonton, when I had arranged to interview a then relatively-unknown science fiction author named William Gibson about his work, because I was writing my MA thesis on it. When I showed up to the interview location, aside from William Gibson and his friend, the science fiction writer Tom Maddox, there were these other guys already there, and they had beer. Needless to say, we became friends very quickly.

Over the next four years, we released three thick zines crammed full of the zeitgeist of the moment — what, in retrospect, might be called industrial culture or early cyberpunk. (We were all young enough and happy enough to still be flirting with nihilism.) Our contemporaries were the pre-digital _bOING bOING_, _Mondo 2000_, _ReSearch_ and many others. In a pre-Web era, _Virus 23_ nevertheless developed a worldwide audience (we sent copies to every continent except Antarctica) thanks to the underground mail networks. Mike Gunderloy’s fabled _Factsheet Five_, the definitive zine about other zines, was particularly helpful, twice naming _Virus 23_ its Zine of the Month.

For an infrequent publication from northern Canada, _Virus 23_ had considerable cultural impact. When Gunderloy published his book _The World of Zines: A Guide to the Independent Magazine Revolution_, the blurb on the back cover cited _Virus 23_. I’ve lost track of many of the talented artists, writers, musicians and photographers who contributed to this project, so I can’t do much of a “Where are they now,” but I do know about the half-life of my own work from this period. After I interviewed Guy Maddin about his brand-new movie _Archangel_, he liked the zine so much that he put a big number 23 on the original movie poster for his next film, _Careful_. Digital versions of my William Gibson and Jack Womack interviews still show up all over the web, as does “WARNING,” a version of an early poem by Christian Bök that I adapted into an ad for the zine and posted to Andy Hawks’ FutureCulture mailing list in about 1992.

Other than the long-vanished MySpace page that Bruce Fletcher built for the zine many years ago (at and an unreliable set of files on my Ubuweb page, there has been no authoritative source for this material, until now. It has never been available in digital form in its entirety. Several of the editors do not even have their own original copies. Complete scans of the three issues are available on this site.