|Cybernetic culture research unit|
BEEN IN EFFECT? –
* How do "aquapocalyptic" narratives about a return to the sea connect with the Millennium Time-Bomb? Maria D’Resario reports on "hyperfictional" and "ethnomathematical" studies of strange goings-on on the Web, and asks: Are the Cyber-Time Cults just the latest craze, or a new Millenial Mythology? *
You’ll be familiar with media scare-stories about "Cybergoths". But, according to two young academics at Massachussetts’ Miskatonic University, it’s time to put aside the moral panics about synthetic drugs and cyberspace comas in order to take a more serious look at what the Cybergoths are actually doing.
The Cybergoths – and the other cultic bodies that are beginning to populate the Net – are not passing crazes, but "sophisticated contemporary belief systems", more akin to popular religion than youth culture. "The Cybergoths are a Cargo-Cult," claims Miskatonic’s Dr Linda Trent. "They integrate technology into their belief system, and transform the past into the future. Or vice versa."
Like the Melanesian syncretic cults who turned Western detritus into religious objects, the Cybergoths use the relics of the information age as the sacred objects of a new mythic system. But Trent, who calls herself an expert in "Fictional Systems", dislikes the term "mythology.""It begs too many questions, and suggests archaism. What the Cybergoth phenomenon shows, really powerfully, is the difficulty in pinpointing where belief systems come from.
In some ways, when you see the remarkable pattern-matching between the Cybergoth system and older belief systems, it’s tempting to see it is a case of revivalism, but that doesn’t seem ultimately persuasive. What needs to be accounted for is the convergences across Time: are they a coincidence? Which poses the further question: what is a coincidence? And that’s what the Cybergoths are all about." Trent says that the Cybergoths are "natives" of Cyberspace, and the emergence of their culture provides a unique opportunity for studying the process of the formation of a belief system as it happens.
Trent uses the term "hyperstition" for "cybernetic" belief systems such as these. "It’s not a simple matter of true or false with hyperstitious systems. Belief here doesn’t have a simply passive quality. The situation is closer to the modern phenomenon of hype than to religious belief as we’d ordinarily think about it. Hype actually makes things happen, and uses belief as a positive power. Just because it’s not ‘real’ now, doesn’t mean it won’t be real at some point in the future. And once it’s real, in a sense, it’s always been." One key area of Cybergoth activity is their response to the so-called "Millennium Bug" (the computer glitch caused by the coding convention that renders years as two, rather than four, digits) .
The Cybergoths - whose own communications substitute the letter ‘K’ for the cyber-prefix - believe that the attempt to correct the Millennium Bug is in fact a program for "Gregorian Restoration"; that "cyberspace already has a calendar", a calendar counting up from 00 = 1900 to 99 = 1999. To avert the reversion back to 2000=00 (=1900!), the K-Goths advocate not a "return" to the Gregorian calendar, but the "continuation" of an "existing K-calendar", a continuation which will be achieved by adding not 2 extra digits, but one.
Instead of celebrating the Year 2000, then, the Cybergoths will be "chilling out" to the year K-100. This, apparently, has brought them into conflict with another ultra-secret web movement called "Hyper-C" whose "chronopolitics" are, if anything, even more weird than those of the K-goths. Little is known about Hyper-C, but its sporadically-issued Internet communiques celebrate the very "return" that the K-calendar is designed to avoid. Hyper-C seem to believe that computers have a message for us: there is only one century, that counts from 0 to 99, forever. "Hyper-C are another Cargo-Cult," says Trent. "But the time system they operate with is very different to that of the Cybergoths. As far as I can glean, their basic drift is that computers should not be tampered with; that the Millennium Time-Bomb will explode western chronology. There are many elements in common with so-called ‘primitive’ time; for instance, the idea that there is only one year.
One phrase keeps recurring; from [the rap group] Public Enemy: ‘Apocalypse been in effect.’" The name Hyper-C puns on sea and C, connecting the radical biological theory of hypersea (which argues that "life on land" is an extension of the ocean) with key ‘C’ words such as Century, Cybernetics and Cycle. Its shady operations are webbed into a submerged world of what English theorist Kodwo Eshun has called "eso-terrrorism", an "info-war" conducted principally through the (hyper) medium of "sonic fiction".
The techno outfit Drexciya are only one example of a wave of contemporary eso-terrorists rumoured to be connected with Hyper-C. "In the sleevenotes to the ‘The Quest’, their ‘97 concept double CD," Eshun writes, "Drexciyans are revealed to be a marine species descended from ‘pregnant American-bound African slaves’ thrown overboard ‘by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Could it be possible for humans to breathe underwater? A foetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?
Recent experiments have shown mice able to breathe liquid oxygen, a premature human infant saved from certain death by breathing liquid oxygen through its underdeveloped lungs. These facts combined with reported sightings of Gillmen and Swamp Monsters in the coastal swamps of the Southeastern United States make the slave trade theory startlingly feasible.’" Drexicya are part of the "hypersitious" network described by Eshun in his recent * More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction*, a network that includes Sun Ra, Public Enemy, George Clinton and Underground Resistance. For Eshun, a crucial theme in the sonic "discontinuum" he describes is abduction. "The idea of alien abduction," he explains, "means that we’ve all been living in an alien-nation since the 18th century. The mutation of the African male and female slaves in the 18th century into what became negro, and into the entire series of humans that were designed in America."
Abduction, of course, has been a major preoccupation in the recent coverage of the Cybergoths, with outraged families complaining of their children being swallowed into a world of artificial drugs and schizophrenia. What abduction is really about, according to Trent, is "missing time." "What’s happening out there?" she asks. "In a sense, you have to have been abducted to find out." For Trent, the struggle between Hyper-C and the Cybergoths is part of an ongoing "time war" ("a war that’s only going to get worse, and which will affect all of us"). The Cybergoths have what Dr Trent calls an "extremely sophisticated" philosophy of time. "They use two interrelated diagrams or graphizations: the ‘Barker’ spiral and the ‘Stillwell’ Numogram (which includes the Pentazygon)."
"The Barker spiral maps a simple set of numeric relations, but these relations have enormously complex implications," insists Dr Polly Wolfe, a colleague of Trent’s on Miskatonic’s Time-Lapse sub-committee. On one side of the spiral, Wolfe explains, all the numbers add up to 10 ( 1+9, 2+8, 3+7, 4+6, 5+5); on the other, "occulted" side, 10 is subtracted, and all the numbers are "twinned" to make up 9 (0 +9, 1+8, 2+7, 3+6, 4+5). Important here is the operation of "digital reduction", in which any number can be reduced to a figure between 1 and 9, by adding up its component numerals: for instance, 16 = 1+6 = 7, 17 = 1+7 = 8, etc. One of the many odd effects Wolfe describes is the interchangable role of 9 and 0. "In digital reduction, 9 always functions as 0. Try it out. Take, let’s say, 92: it = 9 + 2 = 11 = 1 + 1 = 2. The same applies for any number including 9. In a sense, you can just ignore the 9 – but only because 9, like 0, is everywhere." "The Numogram could, in some ways, be seen as an elaboration of the Spiral," Wolfe goes on.
The numogram describes relations that emerge by combining the operations of digital reduction with those of "triangular numbering". In triangular numbering, you add up the sum of all the numbers in the numner-line up to and including the number you are dealing with; for example, 3 becomes 6: 3 = 1+2+3= 6. 9=1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9= 45 (which, interestingly, digitally reduces to [4+5 =] 9). Wolfe styles herself an "Aftermathematician" or "Mechanomist." "I’m a dabbler," she said . "I like to see how numbers behave; I’m not interested in reducing them to instantiations of some pre-existing logical system." By contrast, Wolfe insists, insitutionalized mathematics can be defined by its "hostility to numbers." Dr Wolfe takes seriously the so-called "numerological" traditions orthodox mathematics has defined itself against, noting the correspondences between the radical proto-"aftermathematical" theories she is interested in – Cantor’s transfinite numbers, Godel’s diagonal numbering – and older, "vernacular numeric systems". "If you look at the work ethnomathematicians like [Ohio State University’s] Ron Eglash are doing, you see examples of exactly the kinds of strange looped coincidences and odd doublings Linda is interested in.
In one piece, Eglash describes the parallels between Senagelese sand divination systems and the Cantor set. No-one is seriously suggesting that there is a line of influence or evolution here; there are parallel routes to the same discovery. Numbers and what they do are no more something we invent than they’re already sitting in some Platonic heaven." Hence mechanomics. "Mech because numeric dabbling is not representational, but practical. Following what numbers do is an act of production, but only because all production is really a matter of discovery not ex nihilo creation. Making things up is always a matter of subtracting from zero."
Of key importance here is the role of "infinitesimals", which, according to Wolfe, are a major theme in "Gothic numerics". The term Gothic is "not idle. Differential calculus was once dismissed as a ‘Gothic hypothesis’, since it posits quantities irreducible to standard unitary quantification. In a way, zero – so controversial when introduced into Europe – is itself a Gothic quantity. And what the cybergoths call ‘Uttunul’ is crucially connected with Cantorian continuum." "Uttunul" is one of the five "entities" that populate the Cybergoth system. ("It’s wrong, strictly speaking, to describe the system as belonging to the Cybergoths," Trent interjects. "They use it, but its origins are very mysterious." ) The five entities each correspond to a "Barker-twinning" or "Syzygy", the pairings which make up 9 (1/8, 2/7, 3/6, 5/4, 9/0) and which together constitute the "Pentazygon" ("Five-twin"). The first three of these beings make up "the cycle of time", whilst the other two are – in some sense – "outside" sequential time. The cycle the system describes, Trent points out, is "multi-levelled"; it is also, for instance, also a story about the journey from land to sea and back again. Katak.(5/4) is "associated with the desert, with heat haze and shimmer. In many ways, its key features – claw marks, teeth – seem to recall werewolf legends. Its time is a time of cataclysm; its appearance always presages disaster. Sometimes imaged as an hydrophobic or rabid dog, Katak can partly be characterised by a horror of what will supercede it in the cycle, Mur Mur (1/8), the Dreaming demon of submersion.
Mur Mur, meanwhile, carries echoes of the legends of Sea Beasts and ancient serpents; its time is the Deep Time of the ocean bed. Like Katak, it too, is horrified by what will follow it in the cycle; in this case, Oddubb (2/7), the amphibious entity, associated with the crossing out of water and the acquisition of lungs. What Mur Mur fears is the division that Oddubb brings, the splitting of the undivided waters. Oddubb is defined by ambiguous and elusive movement. As its name suggests, it is a ‘double-agency’, a duplicitous creature. It has a horror of dryness, of the state of being fully landlocked that comes with Katak. Which brings us full circle." The two entities that are "outside time" - Djynxx (3/6) - "a changeling figure, defined by a jinking (eratic or zig-zagging) movement, a sudden cutting in or out" – and Uttunul (9/0), the "flatline" entity, connoting "continuum, zero-intensity, void – eternity not as infinitely extended time, but as No-Time" – are in many ways the most fascinating and disturbing of the set, associated as they are, for Trent, with old mythologies of "child abduction" and Hell. But is all this merely an attempt to populate a disenchanted world with old gods? Or is cyberspace – and the world – really crawling with these creatures? "Perhaps it’s all make-believe," Trent smiles enigmatically. "But don’t underestimate the power of belief to make things happen…"