Author Archives: willmerrin

The Mask vs The Uniform

24TH May 1916



As the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire night-club where he and his fellow Dadaists regularly worked their audience into a fury, Hugo Ball was no stranger to the power to shock, but even he was unprepared for the horrific, abstract masks created by Marcel Janco for the performers to wear in the show. Ball wrote in his diary on this date, ‘They are reminiscent of the Japanese or Ancient theatre, yet they are wholly modern’:

‘They are designed to make their effect at a distance and in the relatively small space of the cabaret the result is astonishing. We were all there when Janco arrived with the masks, and each of us put one on. The effect was strange. Not only did each mask seem to demand the appropriate costume; it also called for a quite specific set of gestures, melodramatic and even close to madness. Although five minutes earlier none of us had had the remotest idea of what was to happen, we were soon draped and festooned with the most unlikely objects, making the most outlandish movements, each out-inventing the other. The dynamism of the masks was irresistible.’

‘Inspired by their Protean individuality’, Ball says, from this simple set of glued and painted cardboard cut-outs the Dadaists created entire personalities for these masks, improvising dances to fit their forms. Or rather, they gave themselves over to the personalities they found within them, for the mask is always productive and efficacious, containing and giving rise to an identity that subsumes its wearer.

‘It is a fact’, Roger Caillois opines, ‘that all mankind wears or has worn a mask’. This accessory is commoner than the lever, bow, harpoon or plough, he says: ‘whole peoples have been ignorant of the most ordinary tools. They knew the mask’. The mask, of course is central to the festival, representing in its rituals the gods, spirits, and ancestors who first created the world. As Caillois explains (and as Ball had already discovered) the mere act of putting the mask on causes one to be possessed in turn by it:

‘The eruption of phantoms and strange powers terrifies and captivates the individual. He temporarily reincarnates, mimics and identifies with these frightful powers and soon, maddened and delirious, really believes that he is the god as who he disguised himself, cleverly or crudely in the beginning. The situation has now become reversed. It is he who inspires fear through his possessing this terrible and inhuman power.’

Thus the individual is transformed, becoming prey to the powers that animate the mask. ‘No doubt the wearer of the mask is not deceived at the beginning’, Caillois says, ‘But he rapidly yields to the intoxication that seizes him. His mind enthralled, he becomes completely abandoned to the disorder excited in him by his own mimicry’.

That the loss of the sacred function of masks in the west was also the loss of an entire world view was perhaps never made clearer than in the 15th December 2014 Paris sale of Navajo relics. Having failed to legally stop the auction of seven sacred masks the Navajo nation was forced to travel to Paris to bid on them so they could be returned to Arizona and dismantled and buried. As Rex Lee Jim, vice-president of the nation, explained, these were not works of art to be displayed but were instead ‘living and breathing beings’. In the west the mask as sacred being and force was replaced by the mask as secrecy and covering. Mikhail Bakhtin traces the change to the Romantic era when, ‘stripped of its original richness’ the mask acquired a different meaning and use: ‘now the mask hides something, keeps a secret, deceives’. The Romantic mask, he says, loses its regenerative powers to become something somber, hiding ‘a terrible vacuum’ or ‘nothingness’.

This is precisely how the secretive mask of the hacktivist group Anonymous was perceived by power. Watching a live BBC News interview in 2011 with the ‘Occupy London’ protestors camped outside St. Paul’s I saw the presenter question several spokespersons. She reserved her greatest scorn for the figure in the Anonymous mask, asking ‘Why are you wearing that? What have you got to hide? This is a democracy, why won’t you show your face so we can see who you are?’. She missed the point entirely. This was an ancient not modern use of the mask: it wasn’t hiding an identity, it was asserting one.

It’s true that Anonymous had in part adopted the mask for privacy reasons. Given the famously intimidatory tactics of the Church of Scientology who filmed and harassed protestors, wearing a mask was a useful defence, but any mask could have done the job: what’s important is that Anonymous all chose the same one. Thus in using this mask the St Paul’s protestor wasn’t hiding, they were asserting their membership of Anonymous and their identification with its project. But they were also asserting something else. Because even if the protestor had taken the mask off neither the presenter nor any politician would have known who he was. He was already anonymous within the existing system and the mask served to unify all those like him: those who were unknown and excluded; those whose individual lives, opinions and needs were irrelevant to the representatives who claimed to speak for them; those who formed precisely that 99% that the Occupy movement protested on behalf of. Taking its rightful place in the public carnival of protest, the Anonymous mask transformed the existing anonymity of isolated individuals into a collective, positive force and shared identity whose expression clearly rattled the authorities.

The mask, of course, is of Guy Fawkes smiling. It is the symbol now of Anonymous in both its online and real-life existence and the brand-image too of global protest. Its story is well-known. It was derived from ‘V’, the anarchist-terrorist lead in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic strip V For Vendetta, first published 1982-85. In a future Fascist Britain with a population controlled by concentration camps, bullying police and Orwellian surveillance, V appears, to destabilize the system, blowing up the Houses of Parliament, assassinating key politicians and planning first for chaos, and then for what comes after – anarchism. This would be the freedom of each individual and their control over their own life: a passage through the chaos of ‘the land-of-take-what-you-want’ to the freedom of ‘the land-of-do-as-you-please’. V is no freedom fighter. He isn’t fighting to give people freedom, he’s fighting for the chance for people to discover and realize their own freedom.

V’s appeal to Anonymous and the troll-hackers is fourfold. Firstly, V is a comic character, and comics are cool. Secondly, V promotes a freedom from government control that appeals to the libertarian culture of the internet and to Anons. Thirdly, V is a hacker. More important than his explosive talents is his targeting of the systems of information, surveillance and communication. He secretly controls the government computer system ‘Fate’, taking down the CCTV cameras and hacking into the television station to broadcast his own message. Fourthly, we can all be V. His main appeal is his anonymity. We never learn who he is and his companion Evey refuses to unmask him in death realizing his identity is irrelevant: only the idea he represents is important. She dons his mask and continues his work and we understand anyone can do this; anyone can incarnate that idea. As V says, in a movie-clip widely shared and quoted by Anonymous, ‘behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea … and ideas are bulletproof’.

The 2006 film stripped the story of its ideological elements, raising Alan Moore’s ire, but it did add one important element, changing the ending so that masks are handed out to the public to give the image of a crowd of Vs taking to the street and overwhelming the police. As Moore commented in February 2012:

‘When the film was made during the peak period of anti-terrorist legislation the golden touch of Hollywood was, it seemed, sufficiently persuasive for the authorities to permit a massed horde of extras dressed as the nation’s most famous terrorist to cavort riotously in Parliament Square. I don’t think one need subscribe to any quasi-mystical theories about how the conceptual world of ideas can affect the substantial world of everyday experience in order to agree that, in retrospect, this could be seen as practically begging for it … It would seem that the various tectonic collapses deep in the structure of our economic and political systems have triggered waves of kinetic energy which are rolling through human populations rather than through their usual medium of sea-water. It also seems our character’s charismatic grin has provided a ready-made identity for these highly motivated protestors, one embodying resonances of anarchy, romance, and theatre that are well-suited to contemporary activism, from Madrid’s Indignados to the Occupy Wall Street movement.’

It was an image that appealed to 4Chan and Anonymous. As a ‘hacker group’ Anonymous did two things that were new. In contrast to every group in hacker history they advertised themselves widely and they opened up their membership. Earlier groups such as the Legion of Doom depended upon relative secrecy and limited public knowledge of their existence and activities, whilst membership was tightly controlled and the default position was suspicion. Anonymous is a collective but it promotes itself and its ideology as a brand, aiming for global attention. Though there are key individuals and core groups working within it, it puts forward a collective identity, both covering itself and continually expanding and renewing its numbers and operations through an open invitation for anyone to join. And everyone can. It’s as simple as putting on a mask.

The mask, of course, may be figural as well as literal. As many have noted, anonymity online is easy. The open nature of the internet and of platforms and postings means that individuals can hide behind any username or pseudonym they want or create whatever identity, history or personality they desire – a situation famously satirized by Peter Steiner’s 5th July 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker showing two dogs by a computer with one explaining, ‘on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog’. For critics, such systems are an open invitation to abuse, and abuse them trolls do, using anonymity, false email and IP addresses, fake identities and fake opinions to wind-up, confuse, abuse and exploit others, all apparently for their own sadistic pleasure.

The moral reaction has been regular and predictable. Since the 2010 decision by American Journalism Review to stop anonymous online comments a range of websites such as ESPN, the Huffington Post and USA Today have banned anonymity or closed comments sections altogether. In August 2013 the New York state legislature even debated a bill – S.6779 (and A.8668), labeled the ‘internet protection act’ – which would have required web administrators to remove anonymous posts from ‘social networks, blogs, forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages’. In May 2016 the UK government launched their ‘GOV.UK Verify’ scheme – ‘the new way to prove who you are online’ – enabling people with authenticated identities to access a range of services. Meanwhile others campaign for a morally-ordered, well-behaved web such as The Guardian’s rather limp April 2016 attempt to debate ‘The Web We Want’ and the self-righteous fury of the tabloid-press’ ongoing anti-troll campaign.

In fact neither legislation, government schemes or press campaigns are needed, for the entire thrust of the internet today is towards confirmed identity and away from the chaos and license of anonymity and fakery. Signing up for internet and phone services requires a real identity, but many online services and platforms have attempted to enforce a ‘real names’ policy, including Google+ and Facebook. Even this, however, isn’t necessary. As Bruce Schneier writes in Data and Goliath, data is a by-product of all our computing. Everything we do creates data (much of it metadata) which can be harvested, stored, correlated and algorithmically analyzed This constitutes a vast, legal corporate surveillance of every user to which we can add the huge scale of government surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden which includes the direct hacking into the internet’s cable infrastructure and remote monitoring of technologies.

The end result is that, whether we like it or not, companies, organizations and governments have developed and continue to build an electronic avatar representing our complete behavioural activity. Every service provider, platform or company we interact with creates, stores, analyses and employs a digital simulacrum of ourselves, usually in order to customize services, aid decisions and better target advertising but the long-term civil rights implications are profound. Credit company scores already have a significant impact upon decisions about people’s lives, but when the digital simulacrum can provide a 360-degree account of each individual’s life, going beyond their finances and consumer purchases to questions of health, personal and familial relationships, political and other opinions, sexual proclivities and one’s taste in pornography, then we could have reason to be very worried.

To date legal limitations and the natural competitiveness of companies provide some protection against data retention and use and the amalgamation of databases, but we shouldn’t expect either to last as bulwarks as the corporate and governmental benefits of bringing this information together are too great. Our future is one in which we will exist within fine-grained, individual databases, sorted into informational classes with opportunities and decisions based in each context on the irrefutable facts about our lives. For the digital simulacrum will be truer than true: your doctor will no longer need to ask you how many units of alcohol you drink a week, they’ll have access to the receipts. On 23rd February 2015 The New Yorker published a cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez featuring two dogs watching someone on a computer and commenting, ‘Remember when, on the internet, nobody knew who you were?’.

This is a movement, however, that we can resist. We can, putting it simply, choose the mask over the uniform.

In Man, Play and Games Roger Caillois contrasts the mask with the uniform. ‘The uniform is almost the exact opposite of the mask, and always symbolizes a type of authority founded on entirely opposing principles’. The uniform is also a disguise ‘but it is official, permanent, regulated and, above all, leaves the face exposed. It makes the individual a representative and a servant of an impartial and immutable rule, rather than the delirious prey of contagious vehemence’. The face of order and of authority reveals ‘nothing but calm and rationality, the face of a person specially charged with administering the law’. Whereas the mask disguises identity, the uniform proclaims it, albeit not the identity of an individual, but that of a servant of order and a subject before the law that they uphold.

Everything we do online either adds to the mask or the uniform. The take-off of the selfie, for example, has allowed each of us to embark on the systematic self-papparization of our own lives, documenting our to-die-for fashion sense, looks, moods, sexual appeal, travel, experiences, relationships and activities to our own endlessly-fascinated, personally-subscribed social media publics. What this doesn’t factor in is progress in facial recognition software. In March 2014 Facebook’s ‘Deepface’ software was already claimed to be as accurate as the human brain, whilst in April 2016 a Russian photography student demonstrated how he could use the app FindFace to track down the real identity of people he photographed on the street on the social media site VKontakte. Today we’re busy uploading all the information future companies, corporations, governments and other agencies need for their databases for free. Selfies are one more form working for individual and public transparency and identity, for order and for control. They are one more form working for the uniform.

As the artist Zach Blas notes, in September 2011 the New York City police department resurrected an 1845 law prohibiting the wearing of masks in public to use it against the Occupy Wall Street camp at Zuccotti park. Protestors also discovered they could be held in jail longer if they didn’t agree to an iris scan and that their bail could be affected by whether or not they permitted the NYPD to conduct the scan. It was to oppose this biometric surveillance that Blas created Facial Weaponization Suite – a range of vacuum-formed or metal-wire masks designed to confuse facial recognitions systems by using collective biometric data, thus obscuring individual identities and promoting ‘informational opacity’. The same thoughts had occurred to the artist Leo Selvaggio who, in 2014, developed the ‘Personal Surveillance Identity Prosthetic’, a 3D-printed resin mask made from a scan of his face. As he explains, ‘When you wear these devices the cameras will track me instead of you and your actions in public space will be attributed as mine because it will be me the cameras see. All URME devices have been tested for facial recognition and each properly identifies the wearer of me on Facebook, which has some of the most sophisticated facial recognition software around.’

Against the system of order and value, which wants a single, confirmed identity it can track and monitor and employ the data for its own corporate or governmental benefits, the mask represents formlessness, uncertainty, instability, chaos, transmutation and multiplicity. It is productive, creative and regenerative. As Bakhtin writes:

‘The mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames…’

The mask, therefore, is chaos but so too are we. In her 1995 book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle emphasized how the internet and online games allowed individuals to express and play with multiple identities and aspects of the self, often for therapeutic reasons. ‘When each player can create many characters and participate in many games’, she says, ‘the self is not only decentred but multiplied without limit’. She’s right: we are not one identity, but always multiple. We show different aspects to different people and no-one – not even ourselves – ever knows the whole.

And that is why we are closer to the troll than we might think. The troll is a being of chaos, part of the utangard, outside of social order and morality, continuously moving between identities and facets. But we have more in common with them than we do with Facebook’s real-name profile or with our corporate digital simulacra and its algorithmic predictions. For all the harm we attribute to trolls they are the anti-bodies of a system that is aiming for perfect knowledge, perfect identity, perfect behaviour and perfect anticipation and control. Nothing the troll can do is as harmful, as destructive, as immoral and as dangerous as the singular digital system of identity that is being created.

Because we are not the Cartesian individual – a simple, singular thing that is known by our rational selves by an act of thought or reflection –but instead David Hume’s self –a bundle of feelings, sensations and impressions that cannot step outside itself to perceive a whole – or Nietzsche’s self – that pulsional product of the eddying forces of the will-to-power. We are, in our being, chaotic, formless, unstable, multiple, changeable, and metamorphic. We are not a mask that hides, but a mask that creates identity. And everything we do should add to this mask, should dissimulate identity, should break up our face the same way Blas’s masks do, the same way Selvaggio’s masks do, the same way, indeed, that Janco’s masks did. Hugo Ball again:

‘Janco’s masks, linked in spirit to and realizing in three dimensions the primitivism and angular contortions of Picasso’s cubist experiments, shared the same ability to shock, breaking up understanding the same way they broke up the components of the face.’

There is a common thread here. Dadaism too tried to break the contours of the known and the predictable, in favour of a chaos that opens up new ventures, new ideas, new possibilities, new personalities. This is the lesson we need to learn: be possessed by new masks. Reject the uniform.





Roger Rabbit and the Lulz

22nd June 1988


 It’s a film that’s forgotten now but at the time it was remarkable. The mixture of live-action and cartoon characters had been done before but Who Framed Roger Rabbit? made it believable. It was released on 22nd June 1988, a few years before digital liquid terminators and giant sauropods grazing on trees made its animations look like a relic of a different age, but I’ve always remembered the film for one reason – or, more precisely, for one short scene. In the film private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired to investigate rumours about the wife of the studio star Roger Rabbit. At one point Eddie and Roger become handcuffed together, leading to an awkward chase as they attempt to flee to safety. Finding respite in the back of a bar, Eddie rests their hands on an old tea-chest as he tries to saw through the cuffs. As the crate rocks back and forth, Roger slips out of the cuffs and steadies it with both hands. ‘Does this help?’, he asks, as Eddie replies, ‘Yeah, thanks’, before realizing Roger is free. As he slams the saw down on the crate Roger zips back into the handcuffs and smiles sickly at Eddie. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you could have taken your hand outta that cuff at any time?’ Eddie furiously asks. ‘No, not at any time’, Roger patiently explains, ‘Only when it was funny!’.

One could interpret this as a great comic moment but for me it’s more than that: it’s the best example of the lulz. The two are different. A joke is funny; it’s something you laugh at. But the lulz is a philosophy, it’s a way of life. The lulz is always a project; it’s something you commit to, that you work at and that you sacrifice for. If, as the old joke has it, the secret of comedy is timing, then the secret of the lulz may be the time spent – the dedication to it and the hardship encountered. Look again at the film clip, because there’s actually two moments there. The comedy moment, is when Roger slips out of the cuffs, Eddie realizes what’s happened and Roger slips back in, but the lulz comes when Roger explains why he waited so long. The real humour comes not from the reveal, but from the reveal about the reveal: when we realise and think back to how much effort Roger has had to put in to pull that gag; when we understand what’s he’s given up for teh lulz. And we know that Roger would do this, as a not-so-subtle homage to Bugs Bunny: referencing Brer Rabbit and native American traditions, Bugs, the wise-cracking New Yorker, was always a trickster figure.

The ‘lulz’ as we know, is a corruption of ‘LOL’, the internet acronym for ‘laugh out loud’. ‘LOL’ was first employed on the early bulletin board system (BBS) Usenet, before spreading through the net and even into conversation. No-one is sure when ‘lulz’ became a popular variant but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that 4Chan probably had something to do it. Most internet definitions of lulz are, however, inadequate. They usually emphasize that it’s something undertaken for one’s personal enjoyment and at someone else’s expense, but I’m not convinced by this as the lulz isn’t an individual experience. It only exists if others experience it too. The lulz is a shared project and goal – a unifying, communifying, even festive, form whose experience is collective. As the online Encyclopedia Dramatica only half-jokingly explains (not quite quoting Durkheim and Caillois, but near-enough): ‘Lulz is the one unifying force in the world. Those experiencing it are bonded mentally and emotionally. It is the greatest experience you will ever have’.

But we can take the sacred metaphor further. Compare it again with LOL. Laughing out loud is something you do, where ‘the lulz’ is a noun – it’s the name of something; it’s a thing you do something for. It is the embodied idea – and the spirit – of chaos, disorder, laughter, destruction and overturning. The lulz, therefore, is a minor deity. It is the survival of the trickster god within the monotheistic moral order of rational-individualistic capitalism. And as every deity demands a sacrifice, so too does the lulz. This is why personal enjoyment isn’t the most important element. The payoff – however hysterical, humiliating, insulting, offensive, indefensible or cruel – is less important than the effort that went into creating it. This is the sacrifice to the lulz: the dedication to the cause, the effort in the prank, the risk of discovery, the work invested in the joke, the hierophany of the reveal, and sometimes the price that must be paid for carrying it out.

Consider Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, an out of work German shoemaker who, on 16th October 1906 put on a second-hand Prussian military officer’s uniform he’d bought, went to a local army barracks and assumed control of a small platoon of soldiers. He led them to the town of Köpenick, a small Berlin suburb, whereupon he had the soldiers seize the town hall, hold back the crowds, and arrest the mayor and treasurer on charges of embezzlement. He took possession of 4002 marks and 37 pfennigs from the treasury, issued a receipt for the money, had his new prisoners escorted in cabs to Berlin and then disappeared with the money. Whilst the main motive of the ex-convict was undoubtedly financial, the humour and audacity of the stunt and the humiliation of the army made ‘The Captain of Köpenick’ an international sensation and German folk-hero. Tracked down nine days later he was given a four year prison sentence, though was pardoned after two by the Kaiser due to his popularity. Such was his public status that he made a living reenacting his caper on stage, later becoming the subject of a 1931 play and numerous films.

The British press would reference him four years later in their discussion of the ‘Dreadnought Hoax’. On 7th February 1910 the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy’s most powerful battleship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought, moored in Portland Harbour, Dorset, received a last-minute warning of the arrival of the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage, including an interpreter. He managed to have the sailors standing to attention when they arrived and over the next 40 minutes gave them a guided tour of the ship. The Royal party communicated in gibberish, asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow ‘The Grand Cross of Abyssinia’ on the officers. The visitors acknowledged every marvel they were shown with the repeated phrase ‘Bunga, Bunga!’, which the interpreter explained was Abyssinian for ‘Isn’t it lovely?’, and finally departed to the strains of ‘God Save the King!’. It wasn’t until the following day that the Navy learned that the Royal party had actually been a group of young, upper-class pranksters with blackened faces and flowing robes who’d forged a telegram to gain access. Led by Horace de Vere Cole the group included a young Virginia Wolf. Cole contacted the press, sending a photo of the ‘princes’ to The Daily Mirror and by the 12th February the The Western Daily Mercury was leading with the headline ‘Bunga Bungle!’ The Navy was humiliated. Its sailors were met with cries of ‘Bunga, Bunga’ wherever they went. In the effort, the organisation, and the chutzpah of its enactment this an ancestor of the lulz.

Dada too made an effort for the lulz. Founded far from the western front by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings in Zurich on 1st February 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire was the frontline in the Dadaist’s personal war against the insanity of the age. Here Ball and Hennings, along with Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and Sophie Taeuber would confront their audience with recitals, dances, poems, and music. Chaotic, brutal, experimental and forceful, like the Futurist serate they copied, the cabaret’s soirees were an immediate success. As Ball wrote on 26th February, ‘Everyone has been seized by an indefinable intoxication. The little cabaret is about to come apart at the seams and is getting to be a play-ground for crazy emotions’. As in the Futurist serate, the aim was provocation – to force an experience upon those who witnessed it – and the audience responded as they should, shouting, heckling, even storming the stage and the performers. Writing on 2nd March, Ball recognized this relationship and the cycle it created: ‘Our attempt to entertain the audience with artistic things forces us in an exciting and instructive way to be incessantly lively, new and naïve. It is a race with the expectations of the audience, and this race calls on all our forces of invention and debate.’

It was Ball who would produce perhaps the most iconic moment in the cabaret’s brief history. His diary entry for 23rd June reports his invention of a new genre of poems – poems without words, or ‘sound poems’:

‘I gave a reading of the first one of these poems this evening. I had made myself a special costume for it. My legs were in a cylinder of shiny blue cardboard, which came up to my hips so that I looked like an obelisk. Over it I wore a huge collar cut out of cardboard, scarlet inside and gold outside. It was fastened at the neck in such a way that I could give the impression of a wing-like movement by raising and lowering my elbows. I also wore a high, blue-and-white-striped witch doctor’s hat.’

Strapped into his costume, Ball couldn’t even walk. He had to be carried onstage in the dark and set before his music stands whereupon he began his rhythmical recital. Confronted with this vision lit within the darkness with its wings moving and a stream of nonsensical vowels flowing forth, the crowd couldn’t take it. As Hans Richter says, ‘This was too much. Recovering from their initial bafflement at this totally new sound, the audience finally exploded’. Ball stood his ground. Flapping his wings ‘energetically’, his voice took on, he says, ‘the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation’ and he chanted his poems ‘in a church style, like a recitative’. Finally, when the lights went out, Ball recounts, ‘bathed in sweat, I was carried down off the stage like a magical bishop’.

The metaphor was apposite, with his performance having had a transformative effect upon all the participants. It was apposite too in that after his greatest moment Ball increasingly distanced himself from Dadaism and returned to the Catholic faith. His performance did perhaps prove influential, however, as Talking Heads adapted his poem and gave him a writing credit for ‘I Zimbra’ on their 1979 Fear of Music album and their frontman, David Byrne, would soon appear in the concert-film Stop Making Sense in his own costume, his magically-expanding white suit.

More than anyone till then, however, Andy Kaufman incarnated the spirit of sacrifice-for-the-lulz. In the late 1970s Kaufman introduced a new character to his act, the untalented, offensive lounge-singer ‘Tony Clifton’. As ever, Kaufman caused confusion, presenting Clifton as a real person, often played by him and often played by others when he wanted to screw with the minds of people who’d worked out it was him. It was this Clifton character that would push Kaufman’s comedy further by deliberately pissing people off and provoking anger. In one show someone actually tried to kill him. On the second night of his appearance at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco a German man with a penknife stormed the stage shouting ‘I CAN’T TAKE IT! NOW GET ZE HELL OFF!’ before being apprehended by Kaufman’s make-up man. Security had let him through, thinking it was part of the act. The next night a fishnet was lowered in front of the stage and Clifton, now in riot-squad helmet, came under a hail of vegetables. Just as the Futurist serate had suffered under a barrage of fruit and vegetables, so Clifton’s provocations suffered the same. And whereas it was a potato that famously struck Marinetti in the face in 1913 for goading his audience, Clifton got hit in the faceguard with an apple. He teetered off stage to complete his act and retreated to his dressing room.

Kaufman even used Clifton to sabotage his own career. He’d achieved national fame when his ‘foreign-man’ character became a regular in the popular US sitcom Taxi and now he talked the producers into letting Tony Clifton be a guest star on the programme. Tony Clifton refused Andy’s dressing room and a huge Winnebago trailer had to be hired, with a fully-stocked bar, along with two real call-girls to accompany him everywhere. His read-through was terrible, he harassed late-comers, he smelt, he was obnoxious to the other actors and the producers decided to fire him. It’s unclear who was and wasn’t in on the joke but the three Paramount security staff who bundled the screaming Clifton from the studios and roughed him up before depositing him at the gate had little interest in theatre-as-life performance. Andy was elated by the turn of events though his co-stars felt differently. As Danny DeVito later commented, ‘There were some bad feelings towards … Tony’.

Perhaps Tony Clifton’s greatest moment was when Andy Kaufman answered a friend’s phone in his Clifton-character voice and invited the woman-caller out on a date. They met in Santa Monica and ‘Tony’ took her to the beach, dressed in his suit. He had to find the perfect spot and made her move the towels fifty times until he found one he was happy with whereupon he announced, ‘Okay, let’s go now’. They went back to his place and he convinced her to try a Swiss massage technique that you did in the shower. As Andy’s friend recalls: ‘And she said okay and they took their clothes off and got in the shower and he just started making up this massage technique. Finally, of course, they ended up having sex, which was the point. The next day she called me and said, “I really liked your friend Tony…”’

A decade before Roger Rabbit, Andy Kaufman similarly discovered the comedic potential of handcuffs. In March 1979 twenty year-old Terry Cooney found himself driving Andy round after a show at York College, Pennsylvania. Rifling through the glove-box Andy found something interesting: as Cooney recalls, ‘I couldn’t see what he’s doing and the next thing I know I heard click-click’. Handcuffed together, without the key, they went to a frat party. Women threw themselves at Andy and they felt them up together – ‘Wherever Andy’s hand went, my hand followed’ – after which they went for food, taking turns using the cutlery, then onto another party at 6am that ended with Andy going back with a girl to her sorority house at 9am where they had sex with Cooney outside the door. ‘I was sitting in the hallway with my arm stuck inside the girl’s bedroom door and that was when my hand had the time of its life’, Cooney says.

Perhaps Kaufman’s only competitor for the lengths someone would go to for teh the lulz is the cast of the MTV show Jackass (2000-2002) and its movie spinoffs. It’s easy to dismiss the dumb-ass, gross-out comedy of people attempting to injure themselves just for the fun of seeing if they can and of watching each other do it as the final decline of the society of the spectacle or the Spenglerian end of western civilization itself, but Jackass was a product of the internet age, spurred on by the anything-goes online world whilst simultaneously anticipating the obscenities and zero-fuckery of 4Chan and the self-promotion of Youtube.

With Jackass, Johnny Knoxville and his crew relentlessly pursued pain-as-entertainment – the lulz of self-torture – in an array of stunts including testing self-defense weapons on themselves, running down ‘taser hallway’ (with stun guns suspended from the ceiling), rolling around a floor of mousetraps, snorting wasabi, playing in an ‘anaconda ball pit’, using an electrified limbo bar, ‘bobbing for jellyfish’, swinging a sledgehammer onto a genital-protector cup, making an alligator bite their nipples, getting a tattoo whilst driving in the back of an off-road vehicle, and creating the ‘poo cocktail supreme’, involving a bungee jump strapped into a porta-loo full of horse and dog faeces. To see here only a low-entry, lowest-common-denominator humour misses something important. Their dedication to the lulz combined the Dadaist escalation and desire to offend public morality – what Richter refers to as ‘the freedom not to care a damn about anything’ – with a surrealist conception of the transformation of everyday life through increasingly bizarre juxtapositions – such as the giant ‘high-five’ hand on a lever smashing into people – albeit a transformation achieved here through a Sadeian self-punishment.

The best online pranks and trolls retain this dedication to the lulz – to the pain of the effort, to the reveal, and to the shared experience of the burn. The easier trolling is the more ephemeral it is, whereas the greater the effort, the audacity or the target, the greater the burn. The internet has provided new ways to document the lulz too, with Youtube especially memorializing the greatest jokes. Take, for example, ‘Operation Slickpubes’, part of the afore-mentioned ‘Operation Chanology’, the 4Chan raid on the Church of Scientology that gave rise to the hacktivist group Anonymous.

Really, you have to watch the video for the full, gross-out effect, for the through-the-fingers pleasure of the idea and of watching someone actually carry it out. Rarely has any one person done so much for teh lulz, and, like a hactivist Jackass, suffered so obviously. It was filmed on 8th January 2009 and shows 18 year-old Anonymous member ‘Agent Pubeit’ emerging from a New York Subway dressed only in a ski-mask, shorts, trainers and surgical gloves and covered all over with vaseline to which had been liberally added a mixture of pubic hair and toenail clippings. Filmed by an accomplice, the video is accompanied by a song which, echoing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, recounts ‘The Ballad of Agent Pubeit’:


Brave agent pubit, agent pubeit was very brave

Watch ye friends and ye shall see that he will win the day

Deep underground with stone and trains, vaseline was applied

We handed him pubes, so many pubes so, he may complete his guise

The path to victory and win, paved with pubes accumulated

from the anonymous horde they came to him, fail he could not afford

the various pubes they stuck to him from the vaseline he put on before


Agent Pubeit walks through the streets ‘to the Church of Scientology to tell them to suck his dick’ whilst other anons launch a series of prank calls and faxes to distract them. Entering the Scientology centre at west 46th Street he runs around and attempts to touch as much as possible before exiting:


Brave agent pubeit, agent pubeit ran away

He knocked over shit and he got our pubes all over the place

He touched three guys and they found out,

How slippery one man could be

He spread confusion and our dickhair, with his touch of vaseline


After this he moves onto a nearby Scientology management office where he runs in and mounts a cart of church materials, simulating sex with it before fleeing into the streets:


Brave agent pubit, safely got away

Scientology we strike at thee because you’re fucking gay

Your buildings both we hath spread, our agent covered in pubes

Remember this day we have delivered operation slickpubes


The Church were outraged, accusing the protestors of ‘desecrating a place of worship’, whilst the New York Daily News ran the headline ‘Greasy Vandal in Hate Crime vs. Scientology’.

The operation wasn’t just an attack on Scientology. As Michael Vitale explained, it was also designed to take back Chanology from the ‘moralfags’ who took the ethics of hacktivism too seriously, to emphasize that Anonymous essentially remained ‘the assholes of the internet’, interested in trolling and ‘any sort of motherfuckery’. The world of order, however, is resolutely opposed to motherfuckery hence, on 15th April 2010, Mahoud Samed Almahadin, aka Matt Connor, aka Agent Pubeit, was sentenced in New York City Criminal Court. He was forbidden from going near the Church of Scientology for five years and had to pay damages for his acts and to carry out community service. As the ‘Captain of Köpenick’ had also discovered, the price of the lulz is often a legal one.

Because the order of everyday life prefers the existing system, the system of value, of property rights, of corporate religions and of welcoming, pube-free soft-furnishings in the lobby. It is this world that the spirit of trolling disrupts. As Hans Arp said, ‘the Dadaist thought up ticks to rob the bourgeoisie of his sleep’. The aim was to unsettle this safe world, and, as Richter added, ‘to bring home to the bourgeois the unreality of his world and the emptiness of all his endeavours’. The weapon for this is the lulz and the dedication it inspires.









Georges Bataille and LOLcats

11th January 2007


 The ideas are undoubtedly complex, but what may be hardest to grasp in the work of Georges Bataille is the scale of his project. What we find, scattered among the stories, essays and texts that comprise his singular corpus, is the outline of an entire philosophy of existence. But this is not existence as the existentialist conceives it – as merely the maudlin fate of a lost, mortal individual – but, quite the opposite. It is a vision of the whole of existence: a holistic conception of all life on earth and all matter and energy and their transformations and fate. It is a vision explicitly framed to make our everyday concerns appear for what they are: not small-minded, just utterly small. In part, the aim is a critique of that oh-so-limited world of homo oeconomicus and his calculations of productivity, efficiency and profit and loss, but there’s something more going on here than that. For Bataille’s ideas are also an explicit celebration: a hymn to activities and behaviours that, seen from the perspective of the everyday order of value, of labour and good-sense, appear inexplicable and worthless. Seen from the ‘general economy’ of the whole of life, however, Facebook, LOLcats, Farmville, Angry Birds, animated gifs, captioned memes, Fail videos and trolling all take on another meaning. Here they are no longer a ‘waste’ of time, rather they are its glorious, luxurious expenditure.

Bataille found his inspiration in Nietzsche’s physical conception of existence in the posthumously published notes, The Will to Power. ‘And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror?’ Nietzsche asks, before unleashing the full horror of what he sees: ‘This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself, but only transforms itself’. This is the world as a total system, as a chaotic maelstrom of energy, as ‘a play of forces and waves of forces’, ‘a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back’, ebbing and flowing forever, striving out of the simplest forms towards the most complex, then returning home to the simple out of this abundance, ‘as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness’. ‘Do you want a name for this world?’, he asks, as he gives us the answer: ‘This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power – and nothing besides!’.

This vision of a single energetic system underlies Bataille’s essay ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, published in January 1933 in La Critique Sociale 7. It was an idea he’d return to and expand on in the war’s aftermath in a fuller, more visionary work, The Accursed Share, published in1949. Bataille’s target here is ‘political economy’: the world of rational, individualistic, capitalist calculation. Though presenting itself as the ‘natural’ order of things and the driving force of the entire world, this remains only a ‘restricted economy’ – a small system, founded on the valorization of ‘utility’: of what is useful, what is efficient, productive and profitable for the market. It focuses solely on the actions of ‘economic man’ and so, Bataille says, ‘It does not take into consideration a play of energy that no particular end limits: the play of living matter in general, involved in the movement of light of which it is the result’.

Contrast this ‘restricted economy’ with the entire ‘general economy’ of energy. This begins for us with the sun, Bataille says, which gives its energy without return. This solar radiation produces a superabundance of energy on the surface of the globe, an energy that living matter receives and accumulates, making maximum use of for growth. This life does as much as possible, extending and spreading itself everywhere, in a teeming explosion. As Bataille says, ‘The history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exuberance; the dominant event is the development of luxury, the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life’. Across the globe, therefore, ‘energy is always in excess’, but the growth of any individual being always has limits. As Bataille explains, ‘The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life’. Excess energy that cannot be used for further growth ‘must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically’.

Refusal to squander is not an option, Bataille argues, for energy cannot accumulate limitlessly, ‘eventually, like a river unto the sea, it is bound to escape us and be lost to us’. The luxury of being and its excess is spent in many ways – by being eaten and consumed by other beings, by the death and decomposition of beings, and by the exertion of sexual reproduction which is always ‘the most that an individual has the strength to accomplish in a given moment’. Human activity is part of this general economy, opening up new spaces, transforming the matter of the world and developing the productive forces, but there is still a limit to its accumulation at which point energy must be spent profitlessly. Hence, Bataille argues, the general flow of forces of forces is part of our being and project: man’s activities are destined ‘in a privileged way, to the glorious operation, to useless consumption’.

The ‘useless consumption’ of our energies is, therefore, part of our being. It is only a ‘waste’ of time and energy within the most restricted and restrictive viewpoint – that of Neo-Liberal political economy, where all existence and effort must be productive; that is, must create products, value and profits. Bataille’s historical examples of expenditure include the Aztec devotion to sacrifice and the gift-giving and ‘potlatch’ of the Northwest Native Americans, but useless consumption has not been entirely eradicated by the profane world of post-Reformation, industrial capitalism. It survives in certain processes, certain phenomena and certain individuals. Indeed, in turning energies away from the limited world of labour and profit, in wasting time that could be better spent working, in forcing people to respond, in pissing people off and annoying the world, it remains a radical, disruptive force diverting us from the physical and ideological imprisonment by capitalism and its tiny, impoverished vision of what we should be doing.

Andy Kaufman liked wasting people’s time. He also liked eating ice cream. You can watch him do both on Youtube. Mounting the stage of a comedy club he tells the audience he’d like to perform his ‘improvisation’ called ‘eating ice cream’. And that’s what he does. He sits at a table on stage and calls a waitress. She comes onstage and he asks for a menu. They discuss the options and he eventually decides on a single scoop of chocolate ice cream in a soup bowl so he can stir it. As she leaves to fetch it, he sits there silently on stage with the audience watching. When the ice cream arrives he stirs it and eats it. He even brings his own tape with a laughter track on for applause as he eats, then when he’s done he shows the audience the empty bowl, expecting congratulations. Smiling, he gets up and says, ‘Ok, that’s it’. Even today half the video’s audience are angry at wasting 6 minutes watching him: ‘These people are laughing at nothing funny?? What is wrong with them??’, one comment splutters.

It wasn’t a one-off. His ‘sleeping-man’ act involved him climbing into a sleeping bag on stage and going to sleep. Rick Newman, founder of the ‘Catch a Rising Star’ clubs later commented, ‘when he did the sleeping bag, people would get up and walk out of the room. When I would see him setting up the sleeping bag, I’d think, shit, there goes 25% of the audience’. At other times he’d simply read from The Great Gatsby whilst the audience booed or threw dinner rolls at him. As Budd Friedman, founder of the ‘Improv’ wonderfully recalls, ‘The Great Gatsby became a bore at times. I remember once it went on about an hour…’ Of all Andy’s on-stage wind-ups, perhaps his simplest – and most genius – was a 1981 show when he took the stage and started singing ‘a hundred green bottles sitting on a wall’. Ignoring the anguished audience reaction, he performed each ‘bottle’ in a different voice and persona, sometimes fast, sometimes painfully slow. As David Hirshey reports, ‘the people at the tables, who were initially annoyed, now became entranced, then fervid, then frenzied’…. And then, at fourteen bottles of beer, he walked offstage! The result was immediate. They’d come that far, they had to finish the song, they had to have the last bottles of beer: ‘the six remaining people screamed in agony and begged him to finish’. The euphoria was remarkable for everyone. Wasting time could be a transformative experience.

For Andy Kaufman there was no separation between onstage performance and everyday life: the world was a stage and wasting people’s time was something he could do at any time. A friend once watched him wait in a very long queue at an ice-cream parlour. When it was his turn to order he went into his foreign-man character, pretending to be undecided about which flavor he wanted and asking to taste them. The staff were trying to be nice, trying to help this foreign person:

‘Then they started getting impatient because he wouldn’t make up his mind. He began to taste every flavor, one after the other, and the line was getting longer and longer, and people were starting to say things and getting more exasperated. I’m thinking, Enough Andy – cool it or someone’s gonna hit you or something. But at the same time I was amazed by his persistence and conviction.’

He settled on mocha-chip, but of course that was the one flavor they didn’t have: ‘And he never stopped, for twenty minutes, took it to the absolute brink where someone was about to jump on him, and then finally – he chose vanilla. That was it. We left and laughed.’ After twenty minutes trying all the flavors, he chose vanilla! Like I said, Andy liked ice cream.

From one perspective these ideas are difficult to apply to the internet, where everything we do online adds to the power and profits of the technology companies we use: when every click, like, search, page-view, purchase, comment and download adds to the creation of databases collecting and correlating information about us to aid customization, the refinement of products and services and the targeting of advertisements. When our most personal thoughts, fantasies and messages are all integrated into and add value to this system, can we ever claim anything as ‘unproductive’ again? This may be the case, but from another perspective the internet offers many opportunities to steal productive time back from capitalism, to waste productive energies and to sow disorder.

Even something as simple as using the internet is unproductive. Within a few years of Facebook’s creation employers were complaining about workers spending their time on it instead of working. A BBC headline on 11th September 2007 was already warning that ‘Facebook costs businesses dear’, claiming that workers using social media were wasting £130m a year: ‘According to employment law firm Peninsula, 233 million hours are lost every month as a result of employees “wasting time” on social networking’. By November 2012 business liability insurance company BOLT were warning corporate America that time spent on social media was costing US business $1.1bn a week.

In February 2016 NBC claimed that social media were ‘costing us trillions in lost productivity’. Based on the idea that Facebook’s users spent an aggregate of 10.5bn minutes per day on the platform (excluding mobile), they claimed ‘that means people all over the world have spent a collective 55 million years on Facebook since the beginning of 2009.’ If these users had spent their twenty minutes a day on Facebook working instead, NBC argued, they’d have pulled in another $880 a year – ‘That’s almost $900 billion in aggregate hypothetical labor last year’. NBC’s conclusion was surreal: ‘Facebook hit 100 million users at the end of 2008, and according to the calculations above, the social network has occupied enough time to inhibit more than $3 trillion in hypothetical labor since then’. They were complaining about a loss of hypothetical labour hours. In the mind-view of the restricted economy every single second you spend not working is a crime against productivity.

To be fair, the internet has opened up innumerable new ways to waste our time, as exemplified by the entire world of memes. 4Chan, of course, has usually been to blame for these. Sometime in 2005 an anonymous 4Chan user posted a picture of a cat waiting for ‘Caturday’. By 2006 captioned images of cats were becoming known as ‘LOLcats’ and by June 2007 Time magazine published an article on the phenomena, reporting that a Google search for the term brought up 3.3m results. On 11th January 2007 Erik Nakagawa set up the weblog-format website ‘I Can Haz Cheezburger?’, posting an image from the comedy website ‘Something Awful’ of a cat captioned with the now famous question. By May it was receiving 1.5m hits a day.

Since then, NBC would be horrified to learn, many trillions of dollars more in hypothetical labour hours have been lost to the creation of cat memes. ‘Limecat’ dates back to at least 2003, and ‘Happy Cat’ predated his ‘Cheezburger’ fame, but the internet has also made stars of ‘monorail cat’, ‘ceiling cat’, ‘basement cat’, ‘long cat’, ‘hipster cat’, ‘invisible bike cat’, ‘chemistry cat’, ‘business cat’, ‘anxiety cat’, ‘serious cat’, ‘Lenin cat’, ‘stare cat’, ‘eyebrow cat’, ‘NONONONO cat’, ‘OMG cat’, ‘grumpy cat’ and innumerable other felines who have had their own 15minutes of captioned fame. To this we can add ‘Nyan cat’, ‘keyboard cat’ playing us out, ‘basket cats’, ‘cash cats’, ‘cat beards’, ‘cats with tights’, photos of ‘breaded cats’, videos of ‘cats with cucumbers’, and entire websites devoted to ‘Kitlers’ – cats who look like Hitler (sample caption: ‘I can haz Poland’). Even Islamic State got in on the joke in 2014, posting ‘cats of Jihad’ posing with their weapons. Each of these memes have been endlessly reworked, remixed, recaptioned and shared by people who, NBC would claim, had much better things they could have been doing with their time.

Of course, wasting your own time is highly-enjoyable, but, as Andy Kaufman realized, wasting someone else’s too is even better. Memes can also help here, as the bait-and-switch hyperlink mugging of ‘Rockrolling’ illustrates, where unsuspecting victims are famously directed to a video of Rick Astley’s 1987 kitsch hit, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Satirist and internet-troll David Thorne provides one of the best examples of the pleasures of taking up the actual rather than merely hypothetical labour hours of other people, gaining fame in 2008 as a result of his ‘spider email’. Contacted by Jane Gilles from his bank claiming he is overdrawn by $233.95, he replies:


Dear Jane,

I do not have any money so am sending you this drawing I did of a spider instead. I value the drawing at $233.95 so trust that this settles the matter.

Regards, David.


Jane replies that ‘unfortunately we are unable to accept drawings as payment’ and asks again for the arrears to be settled. To which David asks:


From: David Thorne

Date: Thursday 9 Oct 2008 10.32am

To: Jane Gilles

Subject: Re: Overdue account

Dear Jane,

Can I have my drawing of a spider back then please.

Regards, David.


Prompting the following exchange:


 From: Jane Gilles

Date: Thursday 9 Oct 2008 11.42am

To: David Thorne

Subject: Re: Re: Overdue account

Dear David,

You emailed the drawing to me. Do you want me to email it back to you?

Yours sincerely, Jane Gilles



From: David Thorne

Date: Thursday 9 Oct 2008 11.56am

To: Jane Gilles

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Overdue account

Dear Jane,

Yes please.

Regards, David.


Upon receiving the spider back in the next email David queries whether it is in fact the spider he sent as it only has seven legs ‘and I do not feel I would have made such an elementary mistake when I drew it.’ Jane reassures him that it is and asks again for the overdue amount to be paid. David replies:


From: David Thorne

Date: Friday 10 Oct 2008 11.08am

To: Jane Gilles

Subject: Re: Re: Whose spider is that?

Hello, I am back and have read through your emails and accept that despite missing a leg, that drawing of a spider may indeed be the one I sent you. I realise with hindsight that it is possible you rejected the drawing of a spider due to this obvious limb ommission but did not point it out in an effort to avoid hurting my feelings. As such, I am sending you a revised drawing with the correct number of legs as full payment for any amount outstanding. I trust this will bring the matter to a conclusion.

Regards, David.


Jane repeats that the bank are unable to accept drawings as payment, which David accepts, saying it was silly of him to assume he could give her something of no value whatsoever, waste her time and attach such a large value to it. As his second spider drawing has not been accepted as payment, he also asks for it back. The exchange ends silently:


From: Jane Gilles

Date: Tuesday 14 Oct 2008 11.18am

To: David Thorne

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Whose spider is that?

Attached <spider2.gif>


If, as Western Marxist thinkers argue, one of the defining features of 20th century capitalism was its extension through and permeation into every aspect of everyday life, colonizing our leisure-time and turning non-work time into opportunities for alienated consumption and profit, then, in theory, wasting people’s leisure time could also be justified as an assault on political economy. Even if it can’t, it can still be fun, as ‘the saga of Bloodninja’ shows.

Though there’s some dispute over who created the chat logs – the website lays claim to them – the conversations between ‘Bloodninja’ and numerous victims have become one of the most famous examples of the joys and the art – of trolling. Possibly created during the 1990s, the logs were posted in 2002 on the quote database In each case Bloodninja confuses, frustrates and infuriates his victim to superb effect. His ‘I put on my robe and wizard hat’ is his most famous log, becoming a meme in its own right:


Bloodninja: Baby, I been havin a tough night so treat me nice aight?

BritneySpears14: Aight.

Bloodninja: Slip out of those pants baby, yeah.

BritneySpears14: I slip out of my pants, just for you, Bloodninja.

Bloodninja: Oh yeah, alright. Alright, I put on my robe and wizard hat.

BritneySpears14: Oh, I like to play dress up.

Bloodninja: Me too baby.

BritneySpears14: I kiss you softly on your chest.

Bloodninja: I cast Lvl 3 Eroticism. You turn into a real beautiful woman.

BritneySpears14: Hey…

Bloodninja: I meditate to regain my mana, before casting Lvl 8 Penis of the Infinite.

BritneySpears14: Funny I still don’t see it.

Bloodninja: I spend my mana reserves to cast Mighty of the Beyondness.

BritneySpears14: You are the worst cyber partner ever. This is ridiculous.

Bloodninja: Don’t f**k with me biznitch, I’m the mightiest sorcerer of the lands.

Bloodninja: I steal yo soul and cast Lightning Lvl 1,000,000 Your body explodes into a fine bloody mist, because you are only a Lvl 2 Druid.

BritneySpears14: Don’t ever message me again you piece.

Bloodninja: Robots are trying to drill my brain but my lightning shield inflicts DOA attack, leaving the robots as flaming piles of metal.

Bloodninja: King Arthur congratulates me for destroying Dr. Robotnik’s evil army of Robot Socialist Republics. The cold war ends. Reagan steals my accomplishments and makes like it was cause of him.

Bloodninja: You still there baby? I think it’s getting hard now.

Bloodninja: Baby?


Bloodninja plays with the form of the chatroom. In a situation where words create the reality, he decides he is a rhino:


Bloodninja: Ok baby, we got to hurry, I don’t know how long I can keep it ready for you.

j_gurli13: thats ok. ok i’m a japanese schoolgirl, what r u.

Bloodninja: A Rhinocerus. Well, hung like one, thats for sure.

j_gurli13: haha, ok lets go.

j_gurli13: i put my hand through ur hair, and kiss u on the neck.

Bloodninja: I stomp the ground, and snort, to alert you that you are in my breeding territory.

j_gurli13: haha, ok, u know that turns me on.

j_gurli13: i start unbuttoning ur shirt.

Bloodninja: Rhinoceruses don’t wear shirts.

j_gurli13: No, ur not really a Rhinocerus silly, it’s just part of the game.

Bloodninja: Rhinoceruses don’t play games. They f**king charge your ass.

j_gurli13: stop, cmon be serious.

Bloodninja: It doesn’t get any more serious than a Rhinocerus about to charge your ass.

Bloodninja: I stomp my feet, the dust stirs around my tough skinned feet.

j_gurli13: thats it.

Bloodninja: Nostrils flaring, I lower my head. My horn, like some phallic symbol of my potent virility, is the last thing you see as skulls collide and mine remains the victor. You are now a bloody red ragdoll suspended in the air on my mighty horn.

Bloodninja: F**k am I hard now.


Perhaps the pinnacle of his sexual trolling is when he fails sexually. In a form in which every sexual encounter is perfect, in which anything one wants to do can simply be imagined and described, he describes a disastrous encounter:


Wellhung: Now I’m unbuttoning your blouse. My hands are trembling.

Sweetheart: I’m moaning softly.

Wellhung: I’m taking hold of your blouse and sliding it off slowly.

Sweetheart: I’m throwing my head back in pleasure. The cool silk slides off my warm skin. I’m rubbing your bulge faster, pulling and rubbing.

Wellhung: My hand suddenly jerks spastically and accidentally rips a hole in your blouse. I’m sorry.

Sweetheart: That’s OK, it wasn’t really too expensive.

Wellhung: I’ll pay for it.

Sweetheart: Don’t worry about it. I’m wearing a lacy black bra. My soft breasts are rising and falling, as I breath harder and harder.

Wellhung: I’m fumbling with the clasp on your bra. I think it’s stuck. Do you have any scissors?

Sweetheart: I take your hand and kiss it softly. I’m reaching back undoing the clasp. The bra slides off my body. The air caresses my breasts. My nipples are erect for you.

Wellhung: How did you do that? I’m picking up the bra and inspecting the clasp.

Sweetheart: I’m arching my back. Oh baby. I just want to feel your tongue all over me.

Wellhung: I’m dropping the bra. Now I’m licking your, you know, breasts. They’re neat!

Sweetheart: I’m running my fingers through your hair. Now I’m nibbling your ear.

Wellhung: I suddenly sneeze. Your breasts are covered with spit and phlegm.

Sweetheart: What?

Wellhung: I’m so sorry. Really.

Sweetheart: I’m wiping your phlegm off my breasts with the remains of my blouse.

Wellhung: I’m taking the sopping wet blouse from you. I drop it with a plop.

Sweetheart: OK. I’m pulling your sweat pants down and rubbing your hard tool.

Wellhung: I’m screaming like a woman. Your hands are cold! Yeeee!


When he finally appears ready to clinch the deal, with ‘Sweetheart’ saying, ‘I can’t stand it another second! Slide in! Screw me now!’ he announces he’s got a problem: ‘I’m flaccid’. ‘What?’ says ’Sweetheart’. ‘I’m limp. I can’t sustain an erection’.

Bloodninja wastes Sweetheart’s time but he doesn’t waste ours. Like Kaufman and Thorne he shows us that both hypothetical labour hours and actual labour hours are all worth wasting. Indeed, anything we can define in relation to productive time and effort is worth wasting. In contrast to time spent writing work emails, reading work emails, answering or deleting work emails and time spent taking work seriously, time spent being deliberately, gloriously, deliriously unproductive and even spent forcing others to follow too, can be among the most human experiences we have. As Bataille said, ‘man is the most suited of all living beings to consume intensely, sumptuously, the excess energy offered up by the presence of life to conflagrations befitting the solar origins of its movement’. Even grumpy cat might agree.







The Festival of Chanology

10th February 2008

There is a history of chaos, of disorder, of disorganization; a history of overturning, unmaking, destroying, tearing down; a history of the unleashing of human desires and dreams; a history of license and the pleasures of untrammelled, unrestricted behaviour. There is a history too of the attempts to stop this. There is a history of the forcible imposition of order and rule; a history of the eradication, expellation and punishment of its opposite; a history of attempts to convince us that disorder is unnatural, undesirable, dangerous, destructive and evil; a history of the replacement of its forces with safe, simulated forms that reinforce rather than challenge the established order. These histories are not separate, for disorder and order and misrule and rule are intimately connected. They come together in the history of the festival. The festival’s form and fate helps us understand both the productive role of disorder and the reason why western societies grew less and less able to countenance the eruption of its energies. It explains how we created the permanent profane of a completed order and of a controlled everyday life, what we lost when we did and why the festival still remains our most radical – and human – possibility.

Our starting point here is French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s 1912 book the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which built on his nephew and pupil Marcel Mauss’s earlier work on sacrifice (1899) and magic (1902) in ‘primitive’ societies. One of Durkheim’s most important contributions to this tradition is his discussion of the religious division of the world into two opposed categories, the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ – the former representing the mode of being of the divine or holy, the latter constituting the realm of everything outside this, the everyday world of ordinary existence and individual life. For Durkheim we live, lost and alone, in the profane but we desire the experience of the sacred, hence societies exist in two phases: that dispersed state in which economic activity predominates as individuals and small groups work to live and accumulate, and those moments of collective union, when communities gather in periodic, organised religious festivals to express, renew and reproduce their collective ideals.

These festivals are transformational. ‘The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant’, Durkheim says: ‘Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation’. Thus in the collective excitement each member is raised up beyond their individual lives. Though not a genuine transcendental force, the experience of the sacred is a real one, giving rise to a higher, more fully-human mode of being against which the individual life appears impoverished:

It is not difficult to imagine that a man in such a state of exaltation should no longer know himself. Feeling possessed and led on by some sort of external power that makes him think and act differently than he normally does, he naturally feels he is no longer himself. It seems to him that he has become a new being … And because his companions feel transformed in the same way at the same moment, and express this feeling by their shouts, movements and bearing, it is as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinarily lives, a special world inhabited by exceptionally intense forces that invade and transform him.

In the ‘general effervescence’ of the festival, ‘people live differently and more intensely than in normal times’, Durkheim argues: ‘man himself becomes something other than what he was’. In the ‘communication’ of the sacred individual isolation is overcome and ‘a real communion’ is achieved. Repeated for weeks, such experiences lead him to believe two incommensurable worlds exist: ‘In one world he languidly carries on his daily life; the other is one that he cannot enter without abruptly entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world and the second, the one of sacred things’.

Spread through Mauss’s teaching, Durkheimian social anthropology was influential on a new generation of thinkers in the 1930s, including those who formed ‘The College of Sociology’ from 1937-39, a group whose stated aim was the study of ‘sacred sociology’: ‘the study of all manifestations of social existence where the active presence of the sacred is clear’. It was one of its members, Roger Caillois, who developed the most systematic ‘theory of the festival’ in his 1939 work, Man and the Sacred. The festival, Caillois writes, is ‘a paroxysm of life’, cutting violently into the ‘anxious routine’ of everyday existence. Standing apart from the profane, these festivals:

‘… oppose an intermittent explosion to a dull continuity, an exalting frenzy to the daily repetition of the same material preoccupations, the powerful inspiration of the communal effervescence to the calm labour with which each busies himself separately, social concentration to social dispersion, and the fever of climactic moments to the tranquil labour of the debilitating phases of existence.’

 This is ‘a time of intense emotion and a metamorphosis of … being’: a time, Caillois says, of prodigality, excess, gift-exchange, sacrifice, destruction, frenzy and celebration, removed from the world of profane life.

What Caillois adds to Durkheim’s analysis is an emphasis on the festival’s meaning and its fate. For Caillois the festival is more than a re-enactment of the ancestor-spirit’s founding of the world. Rather, in donning the masks and personas of the ancestors and acting out the creation-myth, the festival becomes the actual event itself. As Caillois says, ‘no clear-cut distinction can be made between “the mythical base and the actual ceremony”’. This the festival is not an imitation or commemoration, but instead a ‘return to the beginning of the world … to the powers which at that time transformed chaos into cosmos’. Through this return the profane world that gets old, declines, accumulates waste and wears out and dies gains access to the original fertile, creative powers of the primordial age and is made anew.

The festival, therefore, returns its participants to the primordial era of creation, to ‘a time in which the order of the universe is suspended’. It is a time of feasting, sexuality, debauchery, violence, extravagance, waste, destruction, normlessness and the overturning of laws, precisely because, as a time of chaos prior to the founding and ordering of the world, no norms or laws have yet been established. This metamorphic experience of excess and being stands fundamentally opposed, therefore, to the profane world of order, taboos and rules and of labour, routine and social roles and duties. It is, Caillois concludes, ‘the paroxysm of society, purifying and renewing it simultaneously’.

What we take from Caillois’ theory of the festival is the idea of a metamorphic transformation and experience of a higher mode of being in the festival that stands opposed to the everyday, dull, profane world of isolated individual life and labour; the idea of a delirious frenzied explosion of energies and passions and the pleasures of its license that shatters the rules, conventions and structures of the profane world; and the idea that this force of chaos is originary, productive, positive and fundamental to human and social existence in re-founding, reinvigorating and regenerating the world. Caillois’ festival reveals that the explosion of disorder into an order that has grown overly secure, over-confident, old, stale and unhealthy is not only necessary but is the expression of our highest being. Order cannot be renewed unless it is overthrown and we cannot experience what it means to be fully human without participating in the festival of its overturning.

Traces of these festivals survived in early western civilization. The Greek Athenian festival ‘Cronia’, held in honour of Cronus, god of grain, in late July/early August celebrated ‘the golden age’ when Cronus ruled the world and people did not have to work, being fed by the earth’s abundance. Reflecting a time before order, the festival was marked by social egalitarianism, freedom from work, feasting and games. The distinction of masters and slaves broke down with slaves being considered their equals: as the Roman playwright, Lucius Accius says, ‘In nearly all fields and towns they happily feast upon banquets and everyone waits upon his own servants’. The same traditions continued in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, devoted to Saturn, again a god of grain believed to have ruled in the golden age. Held from 17th December (running through to the 23rd), it began with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and was followed by a public banquet and ongoing festivities. As befitting a time before order, the festival was marked by gift-giving, gambling, dice-playing, drunkenness, gluttony, libertine behaviour and a carnival atmosphere. Again, social norms, rules and rank were overturned, with slaves being given a banquet or being served by their masters and having the liberty to abuse and disrespect them. Some sources refer to a King of the Saturnalia who issues whatever commands he likes in this chaotic world and must be obeyed.

Saturnalia survived until the 4th century CE, with elements being incorporated into the Christian Christmas and New Year traditions. Links can also be drawn to the European medieval Christian festival of the ‘feast of fools’, celebrated by the clerics and laity from late December to 1st January, which lasted from the 5th-16th century CE. In it, again, power was reversed and overturned. As Harvey Cox explains:

‘On that colorful occasion, usually celebrated about January first, even ordinarily pious priests and serious townsfolk donned bawdy masks, sang outrageous ditties, and generally kept the whole world awake with revelry and satire. Minor clerics painted their faces, strutted about in the robes of their superiors, and mocked the stately rituals of church and court. Sometimes a Lord of Misrule, a Mock King, or a Boy Bishop was elected to preside over the events. In some places the Boy Bishop even celebrated a parody mass. During the Feast of Fools, no custom or convention was immune to ridicule and even the highest personages of the realm could expect to be lampooned.’

License, buffoonery, the attack on authorities, the promotion of chaos – even if appearing in an attenuated form, all of this links these festivals back to that spirit and force described by Caillois.

It was the Feast of Fools that the Russian literary-critic Mikhail Bakhtin had in mind when, independently of Caillois, he developed his own theory of ‘the carnivalesque’. Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, written by 1940 though not published until 1965, takes as its theme the ‘boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations’ that ‘opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture’. This folk culture, with its carnivals, comic spectacles and rituals had an important place in the life of medieval man, he says, constituting ‘a second world and a second life outside officialdom’, that people directly lived:

‘Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. Such is the essence of the carnival, vividly felt by all its participants.’

Whereas the carnival returned people to ‘the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance’, in contrast the official feasts and celebrations created no second life, instead sanctioning and reinforcing ‘the existing pattern of things’. Monolithically serious, incapable of laughter or disorder, their aim was the maintenance of a given, controlled order and its structures. The festive character, however, was ‘indestructible’, hence it had to be tolerated and even legalized outside the official sphere, finding expression in popular folk culture.

Promising ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order’, the carnival ‘marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions’. It was this overturning of hierarchies, Bakhtin argues, that enabled ‘truly human relations’ – ‘a special type of communication impossible in everyday life’. It was also this overturning of hierarchies that the Christian church increasingly saw as blasphemous. Criticism of the Feast of Fools and similar events mounted and Ecclesiastical authorities finally banned it in the Council of Basel in 1431. By the time of the Council of Trent (1545-63) the practice had died out. As Cox says, in its attack on power:

‘The Feast of Fools … had an implicitly radical dimension. It exposed the arbitrary quality of social rank and enabled people to see that things need not always be as they are. Maybe that is why it made the power-wielders uncomfortable and eventually had to go. The divine right of kings, papal infallibility, and the modern totalitarian state all flowered after the Feast of Fools disappeared.’

The demise of the feast, Cox argues, ‘signaled a significant change in the Western cultural mood: an enfeeblement of our civilization’s capacity for festivity’. Order, he says, would no longer tolerate ‘such strident satire’.

Bakhtin and Caillois also saw the end of the festival as a historical loss of a mode of relations, life and renewal. The Durkheimian tradition, especially, felt its contemporary absence. They attributed its decline to the scientific revolution that had turned the world into an object for a subject’s knowledge, the Protestant Reformation that had made the individual the centre of the sacred, the industrial revolution that had completed the disenchantment of the world by seeing it purely as inert matter and raw materials, and the rise of a capitalism whose devotion to the utilitarian employment of all matter, energies and effort led to a permanent profane aiming at the maximum yield of labour, products and profits.

Such a society, Caillois argues, cannot tolerate the festive outpouring of energies and the interruption to the profane world of labour-time. ‘general turbulence is no longer possible’, he writes, hence the festival is replaced by safer forms such as fairgrounds and modern carnivals that simulate the sensations within controlled boundaries that pose no threat to the economic order. Most famously, Caillois argues the festival as the coming-together of society is replaced by ‘the vacation’, which, in separating people from each other, represents, he says, ‘not the flow of collective life but its ebb’. It’s no coincidence that the most important heir to the Durkheimian tradition was the philosopher Jean Baudrillard whose career was devoted to the critique of the loss of human relations and meaning and their replacement by simulacra: by a system of sign-objects and media images and messages that eclipsed and was consumed as the real. The permanent profane ends, therefore, with the totalitarian control of everyday life and all our experiences and relationships.

Against such a perfected system, we will always dream of the license, the upheaval, the pleasures of the festival. Even Marxism fell for its charms, with the idea becoming a touchstone of the post-war, Western Marxist critique of consumer capitalism. Looking for an alternative to the ‘bureaucratic society of controlled consumption’ that had colonized the whole of everyday life, Henri Lefebvre turned to the festival as a revolutionary ideal. Writing in Everyday Life in the Modern World (1968), Lefebvre explicitly theorizes the revolution’s overcoming of alienated everyday life and revival of human relations and experience as ‘a liberation from the quotidian and the resurrection of the festival’. The same Durkheimian ideas would permeate the writings of the Situationists too. Debord, Kotanyi and Vaneigem’s 1962 ‘Theses on the Paris Commune’ declared ‘the Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century’; the 1966 S.I. pamphlet, ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ ended with the claim ‘Proletarian revolutions will be festivals or nothing, for festivity is the very keynote of the life they announce’, whilst Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 The Revolution of Everyday Life announced, ‘Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society’.

But the festival is not the revolution. It is simultaneously more conservative and more radical than that. It is conservative because it ultimately does not change anything: it overturns order but it does so in order to regenerate and renew it. For just as the festival itself is inevitable, so too is its end, for the sacred is temporal and cannot be lived for long. The profane world will return and the energies, license, and pleasures of the festival will end to be replaced once again by order, by structures of power and by new or renewed authorities. Unlike the teleological process of revolution – that secular, political version of Christian eschatology – there is no final state to realize but rather a continuing cyclical exchange between disorder and order. But this is also precisely why the festival is more radical than the revolution. The revolution is a burden. One must work for it, establish the conditions, build the consciousness and organize and mobilize the masses. It is always further away than where we are and requires a political labour. The revolution is something one must wait for; something whose preparations, rules and ideological code one must obey.

The festival is different: the festival does not wait. Indeed, the festival is the radical potentiality of every moment. Every relationship, every communication, every situation can be transformed in the moment through disorder, license, pleasure and the overturning of rules, conventions, order and rank. There is no order that cannot be disrupted, no authority that cannot be lampooned or undermined and no situation that cannot be transformed by chaos, confusion, disrespect, fakery, stupidity, disobedience, jokes, laughter and provocation. It is this that the avant-garde recognized in the early 20th century, in the Futurists’ serate and the Dadaists’ cabarets and stunts, and it is this too that every prankster, hoaxer, griefer and troll instinctively understands today. There is always the chance to act and always the chance to connect through chaos. The festival is simply the creation of a second world, the eruption of license, the sharing of pleasure, the overturning of the everyday order and the communion of the chaotic.

Arguably, it was a festival that inaugurated Anonymous.

The hacking collective emerged from the image board 4Chan, originally established in 2003, whose ‘anonymous’ members engaged in a range of pranks and trolling activities including ‘raids’ on other sites. The most famous raid was on the children’s virtual world Habbo Hotel in July 2006 when, in protest at perceived moderator racism, hundreds of /b/ board users converged on the site, creating identical grey-suited, afro-wearing, black avatars who disrupted conversations, blocked access to the pool (repeating ‘pool’s closed, due to AIDS’) and formed themselves into swastika shapes. It was partially to make a point; partially to piss people off, and mostly for fun. The group-lulz of these raids led, however, to a growing awareness of the ability of 4Chan’s ‘anons’ to act collectively and strike at those who opposed their hacker ethics and internet ethos.

Their first major target was the Church of Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise gushing embarrassingly about Scientology was leaked onto Youtube on 14th January 2008, the Church tried to force websites reposting it to take it down. Simultaneously loving the lulz and offended by the strong-arm attempt to censor the internet, 4Chan went into action with a trolling campaign that included blocking Scientology’s telephone lines, phoning in with prank calls, ordering pizzas for delivery, sending black faxes to use up their ink, and launching DDOS attacks against their websites. On 21st January a video message was uploaded to Youtube entitled ‘Message to Scientology’, featuring, for the first time, a computerized voice speaking the words, ‘Hello leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous…’ The group had decided that their organisation should be destroyed, it said: ‘for the good of mankind; and for our own enjoyment, we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form’. It was followed on the 28th by another video, ‘A Call to Action’, calling for a day of real-world protests against the church on 10th February.

On the day over 7000 people protested in at least 100 cities worldwide. Unsure how many people to expect when they arrived, demonstrators were surprised to find hundreds of others marching on Scientology buildings, wearing V For Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks, chanting slogans (‘Don’t drink the Kool-aid!’, ‘Religion is free’, ‘We want Xenu’) and internet memes (‘Long cat is long!), and holding placards and banners (including the reassuring ‘Don’t worry. We are from the internet’) in a real-life ‘raid’. Protestors played Rick Astley through boomboxes and chanted ‘never gonna let you down’ in a live Rickroll of the church. In Tel Aviv Palestinian and Israeli protestors stood together and even held each other’s flags. London was claimed to have around 600 protestors whilst Los Angeles had up to 1000. Everywhere there was a carnival atmosphere as internet ‘anons’ met each other in real-life. As one commentator in the documentary We Are Legion said: ‘All of a sudden you’re not alone. You are with fucking five hundred others, they all know the same jokes as you, they all clearly have similar interests to you. Here’s your culture. You meet your own people finally’.

With the turnout including a significant number of women, there was even a hint of the sexual license of the primitive festival. As one commentator says, ‘And you know there were a lot of these guys who weren’t socially good. They were very awkward, they still lived at home at 23, half of them virgins, and I’ll tell you the amount of those people who got laid from these protests happening is in the thousands … that would not have! For years probably…’. It was a festival that consolidated a new movement and a new anti-political politics: a politics of the lulz, a lulzism that would soon shake governments and exasperate and annoy the authorities and keepers of order.








Funkiest Monkey That Ever Popped!

16th November 1979


The trolling spirit is inseparable from the sacred and its forms and history. As we’ve seen, perhaps its earliest links are with the cosmological form of chaos itself – chaos as originary, productive, natural, inevitable and necessary and as a force of anti-order, continually locked with its opposite into a cycle of making and unmaking. But another way trolling is kinked to these traditions is through the mythological figure of the ‘trickster’. The links are well-established, but they’re worth pursuing here within the broader context of the relationship between chaos and the sacred, helping to further elucidate the character of the troll. And they also provide a wonderful excuse to talk about Monkey.

‘Tricksters’ are spirits or deities (such as the Native American coyote or raven spirits, or the Nordic god, Loki) who are part of the pantheon of the sacred but who simultaneously work against the gods and their order, rules and conventions through their trickery or thievery. They are forces of chaos and disorder or rebellion who play an important role in the moral lessons of many, largely-oral religions. Tales in which their behaviour backfires teach one moral lesson; tales in which they succeed through their wits teach another. Trickster figures are especially prominent in Native American and African beliefs, but also appear in the folklore and myths of Europeans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and the Aborigines of Australia.

Tricksters are usually highly-intelligent, anthropomorphized animal spirits, or shape-changers who can take on animal forms. They operate outside the divinely-established order and the framework of right and wrong, refusing to recognise the rules of society. Their personalities are changeable: they are childish, selfish, egotistical, lustful, nasty, as well as clever, cunning and wise. They joke, conspire, plot, plan and survive – sometimes even death itself. More than anything tricksters are mischievous. They push at authorities, rules, and order, and win more than they lose. As such the trickster is an admired – even an aspirational – figure: it is one we love; one whose pitfalls and successes we revel in; one whose cleverness and defiance of the gods we secretly enjoy.

The most famous discussion of the trickster is Lewis Hyde’s 1998 study Trickster Makes This World. As figures of chaos, standing apart from the traditional, settled order, tricksters are ‘lords of in-between’, Hyde says. They do not live near the hearth or home but remain always moving – always ‘on the road’; a road that is as much spiritual as physical, as the spirit moves easily between heaven and earth and the living and the dead. In short, Hyde says, as befits one simultaneously existing within order and as its antithesis, ‘trickster is a boundary-crosser’. He moves across borders, distinctions, categories and modes of being and ordering such that it may be easier to say that ‘the boundary is where he will be found’. For Hyde, therefore, ‘Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox’.

Once again, chaos here is positive and progenitive. As Hyde remarks, ‘in spite of all their disruptive behaviour, tricksters are regularly honored as the creators of culture’. Like tricky Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods to give to man, the trickster is a shaper of culture, helping make this world inhabitable for human life. Trickster is a ‘culture hero’ whose seemingly a-social actions actually help the world and life to continue. Hence, Hyde says, the apparent paradox ‘that the origins, liveliness and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on’.

Such an argument is already familiar to those who’ve followed the cosmological roots of chaos: of a force that both begins the world and that, in its repeated eruption and overcoming also helps renew and remake it again. Confirming what we already know, Hyde explicitly distinguishes the trickster from Satan. He is a figure of chaos not evil: ‘trickster is amoral not immoral’. He belongs to a polytheistic world, not to the single morality of a single order. He lies and steals, but he does so not to get rich or benefit himself but rather ‘to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds’. The trickster creates new experiences: he reveals the possible within seemingly fixed and moral orders.

What we can add to Hyde’s account now is the fact that what the trickster reveals is the continued existence of the element of chaos. The cosmogonies make it clear that all existence comes from the overcoming of an originary chaos, and that the continuance of that order and life requires the re-enactment of this chaoskampf by heroic gods. The trickster myths, however, show that this chaos survives all around us. Here it sheds its dangerous, anguine form to manifest itself instead in the everyday animals with whom we pit our wiles – the birds, coyotes, rabbits and foxes with whom we compete for life, land and game. These are never finally defeated, but use their cunning and wit to evade our traps and play their own tricks back on us. These minor spirits frustrate us in life but we respect them for their survival: we admire their defiance and tell stories of their games. Most importantly we have a respect for the trickster and laugh along with their antics.

To illustrate this we can take one example – that of Sun Wukong, the ‘Monkey King’, a leading character in Wu Cheng’en’s classic 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. Based on the real-life journey of the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang from 626-645 CE as recorded in his Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, the novel tells the story of the monk Tripitaka’s journey from China to India to bring back sacred Buddhist texts. Journey to the West, however, is a very different text to Xuanzang’s: part comic folklore, part Buddhist tract, it tells the story too of the spirit-gods who help the monk on his way – the banished heavenly spirits Zhu Bajie (or ‘Pigsy’), Sha Wujing (‘Sandy’) and Sun Wukong (‘Monkey’) – beginning with the story of how Monkey was subdued and forced to aid Tripitaka’s quest.

Journey to the West opens with a rock that, under the influence of heaven and earth and sunshine and moonlight, becomes magically pregnant, giving birth to a stone egg that develops into a stone monkey ‘complete with every organ and limb’. For his bravery in finding them a cave home, the other monkeys proclaim him ‘Handsome Monkey King’ but this isn’t enough. Desiring to cheat death he travels to find a master from whom he learns the secret of immortality and the seventy two transformations. Growing in magical power his actions – including striking out his own name in the file carried by the servants of death – angers the Jade Emperor of Heaven who commands his presence. When informed of this request Monkey replies ‘That’s very convenient, I have been thinking lately of making a little trip to heaven!’

The Emperor tries to make the impudent Monkey behave by giving him a job in heaven, but Monkey rejects the menial rank of stable-groom and returns home. The Emperor tries to have him arrested but Monkey fights off the Emperor’s emissaries until the Emperor agrees to award him the title he wants – ‘Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. ‘I hope we shall have no more nonsense’, the Emperor says afterwards, whilst those appointed to attend him in his newly-built heavenly offices beg him not ‘to get in any way excited or start again on his pranks’. Monkey, inevitably, wreaks havoc in heaven. Appointed by the Emperor to look after his peach garden he helps himself to the magical peaches, absorbing all their powers, then he gatecrashes a banquet to which he hadn’t been invited, drugs the attendants, and drinks all the Emperor’s wine. Hiding in the house of Lao Tzu he steals and drinks his elixir, ‘the highest treasure of the immortals’, before fleeing heaven for his home cave.

Enraged, the Emperor cordons off the mountain and orders Monkey be captured. Monkey, ‘all alone, cudgel in hand’, fights off successive waves of heaven’s forces, much to the Emperor’s annoyance: ‘This is preposterous! Am I to believe that a single monkey-spirit is so powerful that a hundred thousand heavenly troops cannot deal with him?’ Captured, finally, by Lao Tzu’s snare, the attempted execution fails, as does Lao Tzu’s attempt to reduce him in his crucible. Instead the immortal Monkey flees and, armed again with his cudgel, runs amok in heaven. Eventually Buddha manages to trick Monkey and buries him under a mountain for 500 years, releasing him only when he agrees to help Tripitaka in his quest. The rest of the book tells the story of the journey of Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy and their successful return of the scriptures to China. At the end, for his embrace of the great faith, for overcoming monsters and demons on the journey and for overcoming his selfishness Monkey is rewarded by Buddha by being made ‘the Buddha victorious in strife’.

This is how the book ends but I didn’t learn about Monkey from the book. I first learned about him at 6pm on 16th November 1979 when BBC2 broadcast the first episode of Monkey, a Japanese TV adaptation, made by Nippon TV from 1978-80 and dubbed into English by the BBC with dialogue written by David Weir. The opening credits remain seared into the minds of a generation. A voice-over tells the story of the birth of Monkey from a stone egg, excitedly exclaiming ‘the nature of monkey was … irrepressible!’ as a man in a bad monkey suit bursts from it, to hang in mid-air. A disco theme-song then explodes over a fast-cut montage of clips introducing the main characters:

Born from an egg on a mountain top,

Funkiest Monkey that ever popped,

He knew every magic trick under the sun,

Tease the Gods and everyone can have some fun.

Monkey magic, Monkey magic,

Monkey magic, Monkey magic,

Monkey magic, Monkey magic ooh!


What followed was a remarkable, formulaic nightmarish concoction of a show, following an unpalatable group of heroes on an endless journey fighting hideous monsters and demons, the whole accompanied by huge 1970s sideburns, badly-dubbed ‘oriental’ accents, poor special effects and a voice-over delivering inscrutable cod-philosophical wisdom of dubious provenance as a weekly moral lesson. What captured the audience’s heart, however, was the regular dose of frenetically-choreographed martial arts. A generation too young for Bruce Lee thrilled to the sight of Monkey’s twirling staff, all to the disco-beat of ‘Monkey Magic’. As a lecturer in media I’m now aware of the fact that audience reception is contextual and complex and that there’s no causal link between screen violence, for example, and violence enacted by those who’ve seen it, but the simple fact is that the moment I saw Monkey I picked up a broom handle and proceeded to whirl it at and whack anything and anyone I could find.

It is unlikely, of course, that this was the effect Wu Cheng’en was aiming for when he wrote Journey to the West. It was designed as a Buddhist text, to show the error of Monkey’s egotistical, stupid ways, the superiority of Buddha, and the importance of following the true way, but this isn’t what we get from the book at all. For most readers the moral lesson fails when confronted with the sheer delight of Monkey and his antics. Indeed, subsequent translations and adaptations (such as Arthur Waley’s 1942 English edition and Nippon TV’s show) demonstrate how much the Buddhist morality has been eclipsed, in ignoring the journey and its enlightenment and simply renaming the text after Sun Wukong himself. For it is Monkey that is the real hero of the book.

Though this, perhaps, does him a disservice. In late 1970s pop culture I had no shortage of ‘heroes’ to root for: whether in UK shows like Dr Who and Blake’s 7, the cast of Battle, Action and 2000AD comics, or US TV imports such as The Man From Atlantis, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk and Star Trek. It hadn’t been long since Star Wars had hit my local cinema and cast the shadow of its dualistic cosmic war between the dark side and light over every other film and TV show. But Monkey was different. Monkey wasn’t a hero. Even his help wasn’t voluntary, being enforced by Tripitaka using a pain-inducing golden head-band. The trickster Monkey wasn’t a moral agent of good: he was an amoral agent of chaos and this is why we loved him.

In Chinese thought the idea that the hierarchy in heaven was a replica of the government on earth was widely accepted, hence Monkey’s enduring appeal as a folk-hero. Monkey is anti-order: he is anti-authoritarian and anti-bureaucratic. He defies heaven, pricks its pomposity, refuses its appointments and duties, ignores its rules, steals its treasures, inflates his own status and position, implicitly mocking the titles of the officials and gods, and finally faces down its entire armies and might. It is Monkey we root for when we read the book or watch the show, not the Jade Emperor, Buddha or Tripitaka. We care little for the quest, or about the journey to enlightenment or the moral lessons along the way. All we care about are the pranks, the tricks, the fighting, the joking, the arrogance, the impudence, the anarchy of Monkey.

Hence what the trickster tales ultimately reveal is not simply the continued existence of the element of our chaos, but our desire for it. For all our obedience to authorities and their hierarchy we enjoy their tail being tweaked more; for all our own conformity to power we love to see its commandments flouted; for all the respect we show to its post-holders we revel in their humiliation and public derision; for all our fear at any break in the natural order of the world we take huge pleasure in disruption and disorder. Thus the trickster is significant not just for what it tells us about the character of the troll, but, more importantly, for what it tells us about ourselves. Because the point is we love the trickster. Our pleasure at their jokes and antics and our identification with them against the forces of authority shows that, truth be told, we’re on the side of the trickster. For all the moral outrage – and press campaigns – the established and invested authorities can whip up against those who misbehave and those who challenge the dominant values and order, we should never forget that it is these figures whose life we sing in our most favoured tales. Because the trickster is our secret soul. It is who we really would most like to be and if we can’t be them then we’ll watch them and laugh along with them. For theirs is the fundamental ability to play with power and make us smile; a talent perhaps never better expressed than in the disposable pop of the ‘Monkey Magic’ theme-tune: ‘Tease the gods and everyone can have some fun’.





From Chaos to Evil

Creation: Date Unknown

 Everything begins with chaos. Before we had civilization, or order, or life, or the world, or even the universe for its repose, there was chaos. Chaos precedes it all and gave everything to us.

The figure of ‘chaos’ appears in many classical cosmogonies, most famously in Hesiod’s Theogony which gives us a key insight into the nature and importance of this concept. Written in the Epic dialect of Homeric Greek, the Theogony is a poem composed by Hesiod c. 700 BCE. Intended as a synthesis of many Greek religious traditions, organized now into a narrative of the gods and their lives, it serves two purposes. It is simultaneously a cosmogony – an explanation of how the universe and the world came to be – and a theogony – an explanation of the birth and the lineage of the gods.

Hesiod begins his poem by hailing the nine Muses, the goddesses of inspiration for literature, poetry, science and the arts who taught Hesiod himself his song whilst he was shepherding his lambs on Mount Helicon, breathing into him a ‘divine voice’ to ‘sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally’. Hesiod greets the Muses and beseeches them to tell him the story of the gods:

 ‘Hail, children of Zeus! Grant lovely song and celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever, those that were born of Earth and starry Heaven and gloomy Night and them that briny Sea did rear. Tell how at the first gods and earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above, and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things, and how they divided their wealth, and how they shared their honours amongst them, and also how at the first they took many-folded Olympus. These things declare to me from the beginning, ye Muses who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them first came to be.’

The poem is the Muse’s reply. Responding to Hesiod’s plea, they tell him:

‘Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.’

Chaos (‘Χαος’) here means a great chasm – an emptiness, abyss, or gaping, yawning void – which is then filled by the cosmos and the gods. It can be understood as a state of absence and formlessness which form then occupies. But Hesiod’s simple lines contains so much more than this. Chaos may be a void of non-being, but it is also a ‘thing’ that the Muses must account for and which ‘came to be’, whilst the Earth which comes after it doesn’t simply follow but rather, in a book devoted to the lineage of the gods, is implicitly something that Chaos gives rise to, produces or births. Chaos, therefore, is a being, one of those things that are: precisely one of those divine forms or gods whose existence and life the Theogony traces. Chaos is not something abolished, left behind, or replaced by form, rather, like all the gods Hesiod names, it survives, remaining a positive, productive and inevitable force before and behind what comes after it.

The idea of chaos can be found in numerous earlier mythologies. The Egyptians constructed several cosmological systems explaining how the gods appeared and how all that exists was created. The cosmology that developed at Heliopolis, for example, saw ‘Nun’ (or ‘Nu’), the primordial ocean of Chaos, as existing before creation. Described in texts as ‘the Father of the gods’, Nun contained within himself the germ of all things including a ‘spirit, still formless, who bore within him the sum of all existence’. This was Atum, who, by an act of will one day, rose from the waters to manifest himself on the primeval hillock as Atum-Ra, or Ra, who became the creator of the Gods and men, and – in time – the sun god, the sovereign of the sky and creator of the earth. Chaos, therefore, was a positive, productive and progenitive force lying behind all existence and life. Far from being left behind, its powers were demonstrated annually in the flooding of the Nile whose waters receded to leave behind the silt that fertilized the land for growing crops, giving life each year to the Egyptians.

Chaos survived too in the daily life-cycle of the Egyptians. Since it was believed the primeval ocean continued to surround the ordered cosmos, the creation myth was reenacted each day as the sun god Ra rose from the waters of chaos and rode his solar boat for twelve hours from east to west across his kingdom. Chaos was embodied too in the serpent god Apep (or Apophis), a spirit of darkness and destruction who Ra battled every night in his journey through the underworld. As the enemy of Ra, the creator, who had brought life and order into being, this ‘Lord of chaos’ was considered evil and had to be defeated to secure the world for another day, but the evil it incarnated could never be finally extinguished. For the Egyptians, chaos itself, or ‘Izfet’, remained essential for harmony, existing in a dualistic cosmic balance with ‘Ma’at’ – which was both the daughter of Ra, the goddess of justice and truth, and the overriding principle of order that Ra upheld.

Chaos was also central to the Mesopotamian religion – the beliefs and practices of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian peoples living in Mesopotamia (encompassing modern Iraq, southeast Turkey and northeast Syria) from the fourth millennium BCE. In the creation story, told in the seven tablets of the Enuma Elish from the 12th century BCE, water – that symbol of formlessness and chaos – is the primordial element. In the beginning there existed only Apsu, the primordial ocean, and Tiamat, the tumultuous sea, and it was from the merging of these masculine and feminine elements that the first gods were born:


When in the height heaven was not named,

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,

And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,

And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both

Their waters were mingled together,

And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;

When of the gods none had been called into being,

And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;

Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,

Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…


Formless water, therefore, is a living and positive force. It is that which gives life, which births. It is, again, fertile and progenitive.

As the personification of the sea, the goddess Tiamat comes especially to represent the force of chaos, with ‘the glistening one’ often depicted as that other common symbol of formlessness, the serpent or dragon. Tiamat, was eventually slain by the storm-god Marduk and it was from her body that the world was created. Piercing her with his spear, Marduk ‘overcame her and cut off her life’, then, standing upon her corpse, ‘he split her up like a flat fish into two halves’, making from this division the vault of the heavens and the solid earth. He also organized a dwelling for the gods in the sky, installing the stars in their image, fixing the length of the year and regulating the course of the heavenly bodies. Here again, therefore, chaos stands before the created order and from it the world is made, organised and ordered. Again, too something of this chaos persists in this order, for Marduk fashioned humanity to live in this world from the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s son. Chaos, it seems, runs within the heart of us.

The Egyptian story of Ra battling Apep and the Assyro-Babylonian story of Marduk battling Tiamat find echoes throughout the realm of mythology – in the Hittite story of Tarhunt slaying Illuyanka; the Vedic story of Indra slaying Vritra; the Zoroastrian story of Fereydun defeating Zahhāk (or Aži Dahāka ); the Greek myth of Zeus’s defeat of Typhon; The Norse myth of Thor’s battles with the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr, and even, centuries later, in the Christian story of George and the Dragon. Many cosmologies and myths share in the story of a chaoskampf – a heroic struggle with and defeat of a chaos serpent, or water snake. Sometimes, as with Tiamat, this founds the world, but even when it takes place in an already-created world it represents the same process: the overcoming of the forces of disorder and the reinforcement of the world of order, the world as it has been ordered.

Similar ideas reappear in Norse mythology, where, again, chaos stands at the origin of life. In the ‘Gylfaginning’, the first part of Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century collection, the Prose Edda, Gangleri asks, ‘What was the beginning, or how began it, or what was before it?’ to which Hárr answers, quoting the 10th century poem Völuspá:


Erst was the age / when nothing was:

Nor sand nor sea, / nor chilling stream-waves;

Earth was not found, / nor Ether-Heaven, –

A Yawning Gap, / but grass was none.


Positioned between the homelands of elemental fire and ice, ‘Muspelheim’ and ‘Niflheim’, this ‘yawning gap’ – or ‘Ginnungagap’ – was a chaos of perfect silence and darkness. It was here, however, that the creeping frost of Niflheim met the spluttering flame of Muspelheim and the drops of melted ice formed Ymir, the first of the godlike giants from whose body more giants were formed. From Ymir came Buri, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri’s son Bor married Bestla, the daughter of the giant Bolthorn among whose children was Odin, who became the chief of the Aesir gods.

It was Odin’s slaying of this chaos-giant Ymir that gave birth to the world. As Hárr recounts, afterwards: ‘They took Ymir and bore him into the middle of the Yawning Void, and made of him the earth: of his blood the sea and the waters; the land was made of his flesh, and the crags of his bones; gravel and stones they fashioned from his teeth and his grinders and from those bones that were broken.’ From his blood they made the sea, laying it in a ring around the earth; from his skull they made the heaven, setting it up above the earth with each corner held by a dwarf, named East, West, North and South. From the gods eventually came the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, made from tree trunks, and the Gods built a fence around their home, Midgard, to protect them from the giants. In all of this, chaos is the root, the productive possibility of existence, spawning beings who echo and extend its essence and from whose form the world itself is made and the order of the heavens established.

But, again, chaos is never vanquished, remaining as a threat to civilization, to order and to the village and home. Hence the essential distinction in Norse thought between ‘innangard’ (the Old Norse ‘innangarðr’, or ‘within the enclosure’) and ‘utangard’ (the Old Norse ‘útangarðr’, or ‘beyond the enclosure’). Thus fences and barriers played a psychological and spiritual role as well as a physical one in Norse thought, marking the border of order against chaos and delineating everything outside it as another order of being. The law too, represented the ‘within the enclosure’, separated from the anti-social. Hence in Old Norse the outlaw was called ‘skógarmaðr’, or ‘man of the forest’, living physically and morally outside of civilization and order. The ‘Nine Worlds’ of Norse mythology reflected the same principles. The homes of humans and of gods, Midgard and Asgard, are utangard worlds, within the realm of order, whereas others lie outside it. Jötunheim (or Utgard – itself another name for utangard) was the land of chaos, the homeland of the Jötnar, or giants. Sometimes called ‘trolls’, these beings of chaos work ceaselessly against the forces of order and the domain of the innangard.

Because order may exist from the overcoming of disorder, but disorder will always threaten and will inevitably return. In Norse mythology this is most often seen in the fear of ‘Ragnarök’ – that cyclical overcoming of order by chaos and its waters before the gods and life rise again – but it is there too at the very centre of their cosmology. For the Nine Worlds are centred upon ‘Yggdrasil’, the ash-tree of life and centre of order and existence, and beneath it lies the dragon ‘Nídhöggr’, the serpentine symbol of chaos that threatens to return it to the yawning gap. As the ‘Gylfaginning’ says: ‘Ash Yggdrasill / suffers anguish, / More than men know of: / The stag bites above; / on the side it rotteth, / And Nídhöggr gnaws from below’.

This, however, was a world-view that we would lose.

As Norman Cohn notes in Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come (1993), the cultures of the Ancient Near East understood the world in terms of a static, unchanging cosmological order: ‘everything in heaven and earth, in nature and in society had been established and set in order by the gods and was still watched over by the gods’. This was an order that remained perpetually unstable and threatened by chaos, but it was also one in which order would be reestablished and chaos overthrown: the originary ‘combat-myth’ would be replayed by a heroic god, to restore the way of things. Chaos and order, therefore, were both inevitable and bound together.

For Cohn it was Zoroastrianism that changed this, introducing ‘a totally new perception of time and of the prospects for mankind’. Here the combat-myth of the battle against disorder became elevated to a ‘cosmic war’: ‘a conviction that a mighty spiritual power intent on maintaining and furthering life in an ordered world is locked in struggle with a spiritual power, scarcely less mighty, intent on destroying life and reducing the ordered world to chaos’. What was new here was the idea that this battle could be – and would be – won. Its aim was not simply to restore order but ‘to remove every form of disorder from the world, wholly and forever; to bring about a state in which cosmos will no longer be threatened by chaos’. Hence the perpetual exchange between order and chaos was transformed into a linear, teleological eschatology. With Zoroastrianism the combat-myth is transformed into ‘an apocalyptic faith’. This idea would be most clearly realized in Christianity.

Cohn traces the path of the Israelites from the polytheism of the monarchical era (where Yahweh was first of all one god among many, still subordinate to El, and serving as the patron god of the Israelites and of the kingdom), to the post-exilic movement towards monotheism (where Yahweh became identified with El as the creator god, then became the single deity accepted). He explains the origins of the ‘Yahweh alone’ movement as a response to the Israelite’s political decline and defeat, and describes the formulation of the Judaic law and the new sense that God was acting in history, towards a purpose. This purpose was a final defeat of the forces working against the land and the establishment of a new glorious order for the benefit of Yahweh’s devout. Thus the ideal of an all-embracing order, Cohn says, ‘would be realized in every respect, and the most impressive manner imaginable: everything that might impair that order would have been eliminated’.

Exilic and post-exilic prophecy builds on this, developing the idea that the direct intervention of Yahweh will establish ‘a radical transformation of the world: the present order of the world, imperfect and precarious as it is, is to be suddenly replaced by a perfect and indestructible order’. These prophets would have a huge influence on the 3rd-2nd century BCE ‘Jewish apocalyptic’ writings who increasingly emphasized a dualistic, eschatological world-view in which a force of evil was at work in the world (named as Mastema, or Satan, or Beliar), who would be defeated by god, leading to a final judgment and an age of salvation: the ever-lasting empire of a resurrected, transformed elite. Possibly influenced by Zoroastrianism, Cohn argues, these ideas would be realized in the ‘Jesus sect’ and, after his death, in the early Christian church. The Hebraic world-view had now been left far behind. In the Book of Revelation, for the new elect of god, the Christian faithful, the combat-myth of an eternal struggle against chaos was replaced by a final battle and absolute victory: by the end of the old time and by a totally new era. ‘In a word’, Cohn concludes, ‘the world would be forever untroubled, totally secure’.

Two things are different about the Christian world view, therefore, compared with other cosmogonies. Firstly, the battle against disorder was seen as something that could and would be won. Secondly, that disorder was increasingly theorized as a force of evil, rather than simply of chaos. True, the links between the two were always close: in ancient Egypt, the chaos-serpent Apep was considered a force of evil in opposing Ra’s order whilst the transgressors against Ma’at were promised an eternal torment in the netherworld that anticipated the Christian concept of hell. But Christianity was responsible for the transformation of chaos and disorder into evil, against which not merely a struggle, but a moral campaign of purification would be launched.

Consider, for example, the creation-story. Though the claim of ex-nihilo creation is usually seen as a second-century development, the 6th century BCE writers of Genesis appear unable to countenance anything existing prior to and birthing the single, perfect god, Hence the opening lines:

‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’

Thus there was no originary, progenitive chaos. Chaos here exists after God, as the temporary product of his creation – as the darkness and formlessness of the divinely-created heaven and earth in those moments before he finally orders the world, dividing day and night and the firmament and dry-land from the waters (1:3-10). God looked upon his work, we are told ‘and saw that it was good’ (1:10): that is, as the product of his hand and expression of his plan, this ordering is both correct and morally right. But chaos returns now, in the traditional figure of the serpent who provokes Adam and Eve to break the divine injunction and eat from the tree of knowledge. Here, in breaking the divine order, the snake is not merely an agent of chaos, but rather a force of evil who is ‘cursed’ for its actions (3:1-14).

Punishments for breaking the gods’ rules were common in polytheism of course, but we can speculate here that with the evolution of monotheism there was also the growing belief that with one order, made by one god, there was implicitly one truth and one way to live. Anything that broke from this order – any force of chaos – was by definition now a force of evil and immorality that had not merely to be struggled with but hunted down and exterminated. With the rise of monotheistic beliefs, therefore, disorder, disbelief, and disobeying all become intolerable: that which opposes the single order has to be hounded from the world and definitively extirpated.

The older cosmological idea of an eternal struggle between order and disorder hasn’t entirely disappeared, being found, for example, in the metaphysical speculations of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) and the warring principles of ‘Thanatos’ and ‘Eros’. Its, most important survival, however, is, ironically, in the physical sciences. What else do the laws of thermodynamics describe except the endless, repeated chaoskampf between the order of a thermodynamic system and the forces of entropy that work ceaselessly to dissolve all bound energies and return them to their primordial formlessness? In this vision, the whole work of man is the work of heroic creator and storm gods, to tame and reduce chaos and produce and reproduce the order of a world fit to live in.

But this cosmology is in the minority today. More than anything it is the Christian moral world we have inherited: it is this moral vision that dominates our understanding of social order and of power and authority. For us, anything that disrupts the everyday order, the established practices and hierarchies and the existing apportionment of the fruits of existence and life is quickly and easily condemned as evil. Hence, the treatment of those chaos-beings of the utangard, the ‘trolls’, who return from Norse mythology to take the place of Satan in our world. Hence The Sun’s campaign against ‘the menace of trolls’, academia’s attack on the ‘sadism’ and ‘psychopathy’ of this ‘villain of chaos and mayhem’, the public’s furious call for retribution and the overly-punitive response of a justice system that wants to lock them away from the world. Thus the troll has become one of the most important contemporary hate-figures of disruption and disorder: seen as an evil, immoral force to be hunted down and stopped, once and for all. Once, eliminated, we, the pure, can live in the idyllic bliss of a new temporality free from such evils and rewarded for our faith in the divine order.

But what if this isn’t true?. What if, to the contrary, as so many have believed before, the forces of chaos are natural and inevitable, running through us like the blood of Kingu? What if chaos is not evil, but productive and progenitive? What if chaos really does found the world? What then might we lose once we finally succeed in ridding ourselves of its energies? That is the question this book will answer.

12th September 2011 – Trolls and Tabloids

Been a while since I’ve posted. I haven’t given up on this project. I’m going to be doing more chapters. In the meantime here’s the first draft of the introduction to the book.

12th September 2011

This was the day that the British tabloid newspaper The Sun launched their new ‘Target a Troll’ campaign, under a headline story of the online abuse received by the parents of the missing child Madeleine McCann. It was also a response to the jailing two days earlier of the ‘RIP troll’ Sean Duffy, 25, who’d been found guilty of malicious communications after posting online messages and videos mocking the deaths of teenagers. One victim had been the family of Natasha MacBryde, 15, who’d died after being hit by a train In February 2011. Duffy posted the comment, ‘I fell asleep on the tracks lolz’ on the Facebook tribute page set up by her brother and posted a video on Youtube entitled ‘Tasha the Tank Engine’ with her face superimposed on the image of Thomas.

The paper’s plea was emotive: ‘The Sun today urges our readers to combat the menace of trolls. Our Target a Troll campaign is being launched amid revelations that grieving families of a host of high-profile crime victims and celebrities have been plagued by weirdos making “fun” of tragedy’. Their most powerful evidence came from ordinary people. Linda Bowman, whose 18 year-old daughter was murdered in 2005, explained how, ‘A troll pasted Sally Anne’s photo on the body of a naked porn picture of a woman and posted it on tribute websites with vile messages. Another posted, “She deserved to die dressed like that and I’d have given her one”’. ‘I have cried buckets over what these people have done’, she added. The article ends with the condemnation of these ‘twisted individuals’. Psychotherapist Philip Hodson explains how ‘the internet is the revenge playground of the impotent – a fantasy world for deluded, anonymous vandals’, slamming these abusers as probably autistic, unfeeling ‘outsiders’ who need to compensate for their own powerlessness by inflicting pain on others.

The press warmed to this new campaign. Over the following months more papers joined in the scare whilst aggrieved celebrities came forward to tell their stories. In March 2012 TV presenter Richard Bacon broadcast a documentary about his two-year battle with his troll, and in April 2012 Noel Edmonds published a video about tracking down the troll who’d created the Facebook page ‘Somebody Please Kill Noel Edmonds’. Other abuse was more serious. In May 2012 the Conservative MP Louise Mensch watched the ‘troll’ who had abused her on Twitter and who had threatened her children’s lives finally brought to trial.

The law was showing an increasing interest in online activities. In March 2012 Swansea University student Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days for posting offensive racist comments on Twitter following footballer Fabrice Muamba’s on-field heart-attack earlier that month. In July a 17 year-old was arrested for sending offensive Twitter messages to the diver Tom Daley who reposted them. In September Azhar Ahmed, 19, was convicted of sending ‘grossly offensive’ communications after posting on Facebook, ‘All soldiers should die and go to hell’ two days after the death of six UK soldiers from an IED in Afghanistan, whilst in October Matthew Woods, 19, was convicted of the same offence after posting jokes on the Facebook ‘Sickipedia’ page about the murdered schoolgirl April Jones. Jailing Woods for 12 weeks, the Chairman of the magistrates bench declared the jokes were so ‘abhorrent’ that he deserved the longest sentence the court could hand down. The same month Anthony Gristock, 24, was given a three and a half year prison sentence for inciting violent disorder after creating the Facebook page ‘bring the riots to Cardiff’ during the 2011 UK riots.

These ‘trolls’ were increasingly seen as a systemic problem. A Daily Mail story on 15th November 2012 announced ‘Police grapple with internet troll epidemic as convictions for posting online abuse soar by 150% in just four years’. By 19th September 2103 they were warning of ‘The trolling crime wave: Scotland Yard swamped with 1,500 cases of online abuse a year’ and on 29th May 2014 they announced, ‘2,000 children probed by police as online trolls: Hundreds of under-18s have criminal records for abusing, bullying and harassing on the internet’.

Public figures were often targeted, with women especially coming in for violent, misogynistic abuse. In January 2013 the historian and broadcaster Mary Beard suffered highly-personal abuse after appearing on BBC TV’s Question Time, with one ‘troll’, Oliver Eric Rawlings, photo-shopping her face onto a vagina and sending her the image with the message ‘retweet this you filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting’. Shortly after, in July 2013, female campaigners for a Jane Austen bank-note received death and rape threats whilst female journalists who defended them received bomb-threats in response.

In the press and popular discourse ‘the troll’ became a potent hate-figure, with anything awful happening online now due to ‘trolls’. Thus in October 2014 it was ‘Twitter trolls’ who illegally published the name of the footballer Ched Evans’ rape-victim, and ‘Twitter trolls’ again who threatened to rape Richard Madeley’s daughter over comments her mum had made about Ched Evans’ case. Similarly it was a ‘professional troll’ who the papers accused of abusing Claudia Winkelman in November 2014 following her daughter’s accident. The term ‘troll’ has stuck and is now the go-to word for reporting online abuse. In August 2015, for example, the press reported the ‘troll’ Jamie Milligan was jailed for 160 days for a drunken outburst online in which he mocked the death of a toddler, made offensive comments about Madeleine McCann and threatened to rape someone who objected. On this subject, the press, politicians, judges and public were in accord: such behaviour would no longer be tolerated. On 19th October 2014 the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the Mail on Sunday that plans to quadruple the maximum sentence for ‘internet trolls’ showed his determination to ‘take a stand against a baying cyber mob’. The subsequent Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, taking effect on 13th April, amended the Malicious Communications Act 1988 to increase the sentence to two years.

At first sight, this public outrage and increasingly tough stance by the authorities seems justifiable, helping reduce abuse and make the internet a safer and more pleasant place for the public. Looked at more closely, however, there are significant causes for concern at the press, police and government reactions.

Firstly, one could question the timing of The Sun’s campaign, coinciding as it did with the Leveson inquiry into ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’. This inquiry was precipitated by the immoral and illegal behaviour of sections of the tabloid press in ‘the hacking scandal’, where it was discovered journalists had illegally accessed mobile-phone voicemails as well as employed investigators who used ‘dirty tricks’ and bribed public officials to get stories. News International’s attempted cover-up was finally exposed by the revelation in The Guardian on 4th July 2011 that the News of the World had hacked into the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, among other sensitive victims. Public revulsion rapidly grew, leading to the announcement of the closure of the paper on 7th July. Criminal trials followed, as did the Leveson inquiry which from November 2011 to November 2012 took evidence and statements from hundreds of witnesses about the practices of the press. The most impressive evidence came from victims such as the McCanns, who described a string of ‘disgusting’ stories about them and the publication of an illicitly-procured personal diary, and ex-schoolmaster Christopher Jefferies who described his systematic vilification by a press that had assumed he was guilty of the December 2010 murder of his tenant, Joanna Yeates.

The anti-troll campaign was, therefore, a diversionary moral panic produced by the News of the World’s sister-paper to push public outrage away from the press onto an obviously indefensible target, the troll, and to suggest that press regulation was far less important than the urgent need to impose order upon the lawlessness and offensiveness of the internet. The irony of this attack on trolls is that in its exposure of private information, its hacking into personal devices and data, its illegal activities, and its vicious attacks on the personal character and lives of anyone they wanted to target, sections of the press had functioned as the most powerful and significant ‘trolls’ in British culture for the last four decades. Tactics commonly attributed to trolls like personal abuse or ‘doxing’ (maliciously publishing personal information) had been honed to perfection by the tabloids long before anyone had even heard of the World Wide Web.

As the Leveson witnesses demonstrated, the repercussions for individuals have been significant. Even afterwards, the casualties of journalism mounted. On 5th October 2014, Brenda Leyland, 63, was found dead in a Leicester hotel, a few days after she’d been exposed by Sky News as one of a number of ‘trolls’ posting abusive comments online about Kate and Gerry McCann. Unable to cope with being door-stepped and questioned on TV by a camera-crew, she’d committed suicide. The media’s anti-troll campaign had used the very tactics they condemned, but now with fatal results.

Perhaps The Sun’s campaign owed something too to competition between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media and the hostility of an established informational class to the public’s new ability to publish their own opinions and disinterest in professional writing. The internet, and especially its ‘Web 2.0’ incarnation, constitutes an epochal, structural revolution in societal communication. Whilst historically the ability of individuals to communicate with each other has been limited, new technologies now allowed anyone to talk to anyone or share and post whatever they liked. An industry that believed that we should listen to their information and opinions – and pay them for the privilege too – was clearly angry at finding itself in a very different world. A public who’d always been told what to think and on whose behalf the newspapers claimed to speak, were instead speaking for themselves. Thus the internet wasn’t just competition for the newspaper industry, it was, in a fundamental sense, its enemy.

We can understand the anti-troll campaign, therefore, as an extreme reaction to the changes caused by new digital technologies. Within a few decades we experienced an overturning of the existing, broadcast-era informational and communicational structures and the explosion of personal media capacities, putting significant pressure on a legal framework that hadn’t been designed for the world it now faced. Even the most recent legislation, the Communications Act 2003, was rendered obsolete within a year by the rise of MySpace and Facebook. Faced with new communicative possibilities for which etiquette lagged behind, and the public exposure of previously private or limited opinions and thoughts, it was easy for the press to foment and exploit a moral backlash.

This backlash has important implications for democracy as the legal punishments have exposed the lack of freedom of speech possessed in contemporary western society. For all the noble ideals of Liberal Democratic philosophy and the historic fight for ‘the liberty of the press’, we are subject to legislation that is now very effective at stifling our individual right to speak. This might be reasonable when that speech contains threats of violence, but many people are being tried for what simply constitutes different opinions and values. What counts as ‘offensive’ is purely subjective and the legal-enforcement of the highly-dubious community standard of ‘grossly offensive’ communications is destructive of the fundamental principles of democracy. When Azhar Ahmed clumsily expressed his hated of soldiers he was making a political statement that you have the right to disagree with and challenge. Convicting him of a crime of ‘offence’, however, was fundamentally wrong. As Mick Hume argues in his 2015 defence of freedom of speech, Trigger Warning, we should counter speech we don’t like with more speech, not less. And rarely, if at all, with prison.

In this context it is useful to look again at the entire concept of ‘trolling’ we are being presented with by the press. The term is used today purely as a synonym for offensiveness: hence a troll is anyone who posts anything offensive or cruel. This is a new conception, departing significantly from the original meaning of the term. The term ‘trolling’ originates in the mid 15th century, probably in the French term ‘troller’, meaning ‘to wander here and there (in search of game)’ and Old German ‘trollen’, meaning to ‘stroll’. Following these roots, ‘trolling’ became a fishing term, describing trailing baited lines through water to see what you could catch – in 1682, for example, Robert Nobbes, published the book The Compleat Troller, Or the Art of Trolling, explaining these methods. The term was later used by US airforce pilots in the Vietnam War, with pilots ‘trolling for MiGs’, to draw out enemy aircraft fire, often as a decoy for other activity.

Together these ideas – the idea of a sport, of baiting and drawing out, and even of playing with the target – became an important part of the early online use of the term. By 1992 an influx of users onto Usenet irritated older users and ‘trolling for newbies’ became a recognizable sport, with attempts to provoke a new user into a response that would lead to their mockery. Though trolling would become more complex, the underlying concept remained centred on the idea of posting material for sport: for the pleasure of provocation and response.

The press’s use of the term ‘troll’ as a synonym for causing offence, therefore, is wrong – firstly because those who want to cause offence or hurt believe in what they are doing, whereas the provocateur does not; secondly because it reduces the complexity of trolling to one overly-simplistic activity; thirdly because it simultaneously expands the definition of trolling to encompass a huge range of behaviours. The consequences of this expansion are serious. The indiscriminate application of the term to a diverse range of behaviour, from jokes, personal opinions and political commentary to serious problems such as death-threats and bomb-threats has lead to the pathologization and criminalization of many modes of expression that arguably should not be subject to legal punishment. Treating everything under the simplistic category of ‘troll’ has produced an overly punitive legal system that has directly harmed individual rights of expression and our democratic system.

It has also produced the ridiculous situation wherein online behaviour is punished more than actual physical harm. To take just two random examples, on 6th March 2015 the Liverpool Echo reported how a man ‘wept with relief’ after avoiding jail for knocking a woman unconscious in a violent attack outside a casino, having punched her to the floor and kicked her in the head before also attacking her friend. The same day The Independent reported how a dad had brutally attacked a ‘hero’ bus-driver from behind who’d exited his cab to help a boy in the road. He was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months. Compare this with the sentences given to social media offences and the two-year sentence for trolls introduced in the 2015 Criminal Justice and Courts Act. We live with the legally-absurd situation that if you don’t like what I’m writing here and abuse me on Twitter you could be imprisoned for two years, but if you beat me unconscious in the street it’s unlikely you’d go to prison.

Even the original definition of trolling can, however, be questioned today. If a ‘troll’ is someone who posts material purely for the reaction it will receive then this idea is obsolete in a Web 2.0 world where every person continually posts in order to elicit a reaction, to provoke others and for their own pleasure. The average social media feed is full of inflammatory and opinionated statuses, comments and links, often deliberately aimed at other individuals, groups, or positions, such that today it is difficult to identify who doesn’t qualify as a troll. More importantly, we can argue that this traditional definition of a troll has always been flawed. Like most of the existing literature on ‘trolling’ it focuses upon the individual and treats trolling as primarily a psychological and a pathological phenomenon.

To date, commentary on trolling has been dominated by psychologistic approaches which typically seek to identify particular types of troll or troll-personalities. There have been numerous attempts at the classification of troll ‘types’, from Cappy Hammer’s six types of Usenet troll, to Jonathan Bishop’s 2012 claims of twelve troller types, to Clare Hardaker’s July 2013 article in The Guardian on ‘Internet Trolls: a guide to the different flavours’, but none of these have any scientific basis, functioning only as an evolving catalogue of behaviours. The idea of a troll personality-type or set of negative traits is popular in the literature. Bishop, for example, writing in 2013 on the International Journal of Cyber-Criminality, identifies an ‘anti-social personality disorder’ as lying at the heart of trolling, whilst Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus, writing in 2014 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, claim trolling is linked to ‘the Dark Tetrad of personality’, being correlated with ‘sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism’. Trolling, they conclude, ‘appears to be an internet manifestation of everyday sadism’. Although they pay lip-service to wider cultural references, there is no significant analysis of these to explain trolling. Instead their social-scientific methodology presents an illusion of academic objectivity to support what is a purely moral conclusion – one condemning the troll as a ‘villain of chaos and mayhem’.

This condemnation is the most common response to trolling. Seen as a product of anonymity and what John Suler famously calls the ‘online disinhibition effect’, trolling is castigated as a ‘toxic’, anti-social, personal deficiency with purely negative consequences. As Julian Dibble argued in his pioneering December 1993 article ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ and his January 2008 Wired article on ‘griefers’, the success of any online community depends on their ability to overcome such ‘sociopaths’ and collectively regulate member behaviours. Trolling, therefore, is fundamentally anti-order: it must be overcome for any form of society to flourish.

Against these psychologistic discourses around the troll other analyses have emerged from within the social sciences, offering more sympathetic interpretations of disruptive online behaviours. Recent academic work includes Whitney Philips’ 2011 article on RIP trolling, Gabriella Coleman’s 2012 defence of trolling and hacking subculture, issue 22 of the online journal Fibreculture in 2013 which was devoted to trolling and ‘the negative space of the internet’ and McCosker’s 2014 article in Convergence which defended the ‘provocation’ of trolling. The main contribution of these texts lies in helping reorient the debate away from the dominant focus on the individual, the psychological, the pathological, the anti-social, the criminal and the immoral. They help us begin to develop a more nuanced, and a deeper, understanding of trolling as a cultural phenomenon.

Because the psychologistic interpretation of trolling as an individual pathology tells us nothing about trolling, it tells us only about the system that opposes it – a system that has to define it as an individual problem and mental health issue because it cannot countenance the alternative: the existence and appeal of a systemic critique of its order. It is the aim of this book to explore this critique. I situate trolling historically, as part of a rich cultural seam that is interwoven with civilization, working both through it and against it. I argue that trolling must be understood as a contemporary manifestation of an older and fundamental spirit: a spirit of disruption, disorder, challenge, irreverence, play and humour. This is a spirit that works for the transformation of everyday life: for the exposure and overthrow of its constructed order and the structures and systems of power that it supports. Its aim is to pull down every authority that erects itself upon such order, thumbing its nose at power, disobeying its edicts, ridiculing its airs and graces and dismissing its position and rule.

This book, therefore, offers a cultural history of the troll, though not a complete, nor a linear one. Instead, it focuses upon specific moments in this story – on certain manifestations of its spirit and of the underlying ideas, principles and phenomena that drive it. If the spirit the troll incarnates is one that bursts through momentarily, like an explosion in the real, then its story is the story of just these moments. Contrary to the anti-trolling campaign, this spirit cannot be expelled, eliminated, purged, or locked away in prisons as it is natural, inevitable and ineradicable. It was here before order and haunts every established system. It farts at authority, gives zero fucks at your outrage and laughs at the full retard of your responses. However unjustifiable the task may seem, the aim of this book is to defend trolling – to offer a sustained defence of this historical spirit of subversion and its forms. It hopes to move us beyond the simplistic terms of the current debate – beyond the system-generated, pseudo-scientific psychological pathologization; beyond the paper-shifting, fabricated moral-panics of the press, and beyond the stirred-up, hypocritical morality of a public more outraged by online ‘offence’ than by the civilian and child victims of its aerial and drone campaigns and the harvest of death reaped in the aftermath of its wars of democratic liberation.

The book, therefore, hopes to deepen our knowledge of trolling and its cultural history, to make us laugh with and appreciate its spirit and perhaps even to side with it against the real, against order and against the systems of morality that support them. Far from representing a horror that must be extirpated and punished, this book argues that this spirit is vital for our humanity, for our progress, for our renewal, and for our survival. It is the system which wants to stop, to remain forever in power as the real that really threatens us. Far from castigating the agents of disorder, we should celebrate them. We should adopt the attitude of the former Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck, who, writing in 1958 notes the aging of himself and his compatriots before concluding, ‘And yet and yet, it’s a nice feeling to have annoyed the world. Speaking from experience, I might say that it’s the only feeling for which one can stake one’s life nowadays’. This is a book about annoying the world and a call for each of us to join in.