For a long time now I’ve been wondering what would be the contemporary equivalent to the gatherings of great thinkers from the past like the existentialist cafes or the beat generation. Where are art and philosophy being written right now? And can I join please ^^ ?
In that spirit, and after the release of my latest game, I’ve started doing research to prepare potential future projects. But isolated in exile in the countryside as I was, I was vulnerable to be radicalized by conspiracy theories. It lead me to a chaotic rabbit hole which required this little writeup to make sense of my thoughts. Because sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, especially when you get into meta-conspiracy theory.
As you can probably tell from my work, I’m interested by the border between reality and fiction. That’s why the first thing I did was to make up my lack of knowledge about ARGs. Most amount to bening treasure hunt and puzzle solving on par with escape rooms mixed with transmedia creepypasta storytelling. Yet, a few gems stood out to me, like the Killer at SeventyBroad and Junko Junsui, created by Rob Auten and Patrick Marckesano who then went on to contribute to other cool stuff around immersive art like meowwolf.
One ARG deserves particular attention, though, because of its impact on the world. Going by the name Cicada 3301, it presented itself as increasingly difficult cryptography puzzles designed to select and recruit a few elite puzzle solvers. Theories abound over what really happened in this game. It was never fully solved, and every puzzle solver was sworn to secrecy.
The most likely explanation is that it started out as a passion project from the Debian founder that got gamejacked by a con artist. The structure of the game was very ingenious. Winners were recruited into the inner circle and participated to the elaboration of the next generation of puzzles together. That means that even if the first puzzle turned out pretty simple, this process would yield by an iterative decentralized process harder and harder puzzles, and would select smarter and smarter people. Natural selection applied to game design, in a way.
The project ended up attracting the most hardcore puzzle solvers and cryptography enthusiast. You can imagine that the crowd that formed around this game included many technophile libertarians, cryptomoney enthusiasts, math experts, etc… It’s not unbelievable that they even had ties to stuff like anonymous, defcon.org, wikileaks and intelligence agencies. But it definitely had cultish mafia-like undertones at times.
ARGs also naturally attract the crowd of people who like to figure out links and patterns between things, whether the links are there or not. This brings them pretty close to the field of conspiracy theories. The esoteric themes of most ARGs or the fact that discussions frequently happened on anonymous imageboards certainly did not help.
This is where the picture gets really blurry. Some people just play the puzzle games without caring about the narratives, while other are true conspiracy believers, and everything in between. Adding to the confusion, some people also pretend to care about the narrative: for simple roleplaying fun, to use the game to manipulate people, to troll and create chaos, to say the most atrocious things under the excuse that it is “just a game”, to investigate people’s beliefs as a social experiment…
On an anonymous imageboard, no identity is proven, everyone is playing a role to begin with. I had never before pictured 4chan as a giant LARP, but it is not too far from the truth. That’s well illustrated by the fact that LARPer in these boards has become an insult synonymous to poser/hypocrite/impostor/liar.
It’s no wonder that this place where truth dissolves in chaos is the origin of the biggest ARG that destroyed any hope of sensemaking in contemporary politics. Qanon is most likely a spin-off of the cicada group that got derailed. The first Q posts clearly show signs of ARG game design, and many people involved in the early days stem from same community. After that, much like cicada, Q took up a life of its own and was co-opted by psy-ops and political actors to push the agenda we know today. It was most likely an attempt by some cicada-related people to get some sort of political traction that ended up hijacked by political actors through the Watkins family.
Artistic seeds of post-truthism
But that’s not really the part I’m interested in. I wanted to know if there were people behind the game design aspect of Q smart enough to not fall for all the BS of the conspiracy (and who weren’t con artists). That lead me to a very weird part of the imageboard crowd whom I suspect do not see LARP as an insult, but instead as a self-aware cause to deliberately revendicate. I did not expect to find behind trolls spreading chaos a long legacy of intelectual and artistict practice.
We arrive here at the art part of my wandering. I’ve also happened to have discovered recently the online classes of french’s Centre Pompidou, as well as the work of BBC journalist Adam Curtis. He’s a friend of Charlie Brooker (and Alan Moore) and specializes in tracing back the current zeitgeist through slightly simplistic but accurate documentaries. How I survived so long without knowing his work is a mystery.
He’s been busy examining the current “post-truth” era and unraveling its roots back to the artistic movement of the 20th century that I’ve seen in my classes. The beginning of the century was famously marked by surrealism and dadaism who celebrated absurdity in response to an absurd world (like WWI). They were linked to Pataphysique, an institution that I was surprised to see survives to this day. You might have heard of its most successfull off-shoot, Oulipo, which brought us books like La Disparition, written entirely without using the letter E. It’s still alive and well, with a very active mailing group in ENS where I studied.
Pataphysique is supposed to stay clear of politics, but that is not the case of the artistic movements it inspired. I had heard of the situationist movement, who borrowed surrealist ideas to fuel their struggle against the establishment, but I didn’t know it was recognized as a bona fide established art movement (in spite of their will). It was kinda lead by Guy Debord who famously coined the concept of “Society of the Spectacle”. Situationism also continues to this day.
This was also echoed on the other side of the Atlantic. Any science fiction afficionado will be familiar with the work of Philip K Dick, but I’m ashamed to say that I only now found out about Robert Anton Wilson. He dealt with much the same themes as PKD. On top of that, he was a great admirer of Joyce and he was close friends with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, figures of the Beat Generation, which could be linked back to surrealism.
To help the counter-culture fight an oppressive controlling government (remember, it was the period of Nixon…), he advocated guerilla ontology, which he developped in the Illuminati trillogy. It draws on ideas of a neoist parody-but-also-serious-by-definintion religion called Discordianism, created by Kerry Thornley. The idea was to spread absurd theories and taking everything as a joke would undermine everyone’s faith in a single reality, thereby preventing totalitarian tendencies of governments and dogmatic thinking. It was a form of culture jamming dubbed “Operation Mindfuck”. It spread too well, and I don’t think I need to tell you that it kinda backfired.
Anyone living in our times knows that this kind of initiative only fueled further the appeal of conspiracy theories. Interestingly, some people also deliberately threw more oil on the fire to further their own ends by manipulating the resulting chaos. Most notably, russian “grey cardinal”, political influencer and artist Vladislav Surkov, deliberately used this to further his regime through avant-garde theater techniques. This clip from Adam Curtis says it all:
So there you have it. Most conspiracies are fakes, though most have a kernel of truth. A few of them are true, though. And one of them is actually people conspiring to spread out conspiracy theories. How delightfully meta! Not to mention how ironic that the cultish forces behind Q are so similar to what it pretends to fight…..
In a weird way, discordianism won, as Douglas Rushkoff puts it. It is now the new normal. But I’m not happy with what it brought. It didn’t even lead to an improvement in journalistic principles… Instead of bringing humility and agnosticism, the chaos allows all dogmas to go unquestioned.
Seeing these anarchist artistic techniques co-opted and used with incredible success by the far right to promote white supremacism, anti-vaccine conspiracies, nationalism and so on (the exact opposite of the initial aim) is as sad as it seems unavoidable in retrospects.
Nevertheless, some theorists like journalist John Higgs in this great manifesto, keep hope and promote the idea of an “Operation Mindfix” or “Operation Mindfuck 2.0” to “save the world”. The whole current need not be extinguished. The extreme agnosticism promoted by Robert Andon Wilson does not mean that all perspectives are equal, some are closer to the truth.
In that spirit, Alejandro Jodorowsky, mostly known for revolutionizing Hollywood by failing to direct the Dune movie and succeeding to write the Incal comics, proposed a decentralised interactive art meta-ARG called theGame23. It’s pretty hard to get information about it because it seems pretty niche. The few people who know about it are part of it, by definition, and seem to keep pushing the boundaries of absurd as far as possible while mixing truth and fiction in true discordian fashion.
I absolutely love the idea of theGame23. I do think the call for radical openness, compassion and creativity is warranted. An accelerationist pancreativist approach might be the best possible answer to an extreme postmodern nihilism. Laugh and radical play strike me as a very reasonable response to people who take so seriously the idea of a cabal of baby eating politicians. In fact, we must not consider these absurdities as anything but a gigantic farce. Where arguments don’t work, we must laugh in their face. You don’t talk back to a stand up comedian. We need to rebuild the wall between comedy club and the political debate.
But expecting humans to realize how ridiculous they sound has not worked great so far. The danger in the discordian approach is pretty clear in the fact that I genuinely cannot tell who is an artistic scholar and who is a potential terrorist. If you play hard enough, it becomes the truth. Some people on imageboards explicitely revendicate connections to thegame23, pataphysique, oulipo or discordianism. Maybe their games created Qanon.
Discordianism flirts with the perverse side effect of worshipping chaos for its own sake. I think it treads too close to actual conspiracy theories, harmful scams, and irrational esoterism to be efficient. It has roots in objectivism and libertarianism, other disastrous failure of the history of thoughts. This kind of thinking greatly overestimate the reasoning capabilities of humans and underestimate complexities of societies and their incentive structures. Reality keeps pushing the boundaries of the amount of idiocy humans are willing to believe in and the media are willing to report on.
Faced with the dangers and failures of discordianism, I think I’ll chose to take another route. I recommend a positive alternative, like Mark Fisher’s acid communism, which strikes me as relatively close to the core values of the mouvement, like radical openness. Or the work of the Wu Ming group or RiVAL lab. But I suppose I’ll still be playing the game 23. Only as a casual player, though.