Everyone Should Have Their Own Factory Catalogue Number
Andrew Stevens interviews Ken Hollings.
(pic: Eugenie Dolberg/INS)
KH: Well, you could always be certain of getting into the Haçienda when it first opened; and being part of that every night felt as if you were contributing to some covert social experiment that was so secret no one ever really spoke about it. In some ways that felt strategically more important than many of the records they were putting out at the time – and still does, come to think of it. This was back before the big dance parties. You’d have people like Claude Bessey screening clips from old monster movies on the video screens over the dance floor – he once showed the female space android surgery sequence from Toho’s ‘Terror of Mechagodzilla’ – I think that’s possibly the first time I ever saw that footage – certainly the first time I ever saw it while dancing.
We joined Factory because of the Feverhouse film project which I’d scripted and for which Biting Tongues were in studio recording the soundtrack. The film had been in production for over a year, principal shooting had been done in an abandoned mental hospital over in Sheffield, but the production company had run out of money. Tony Wilson liked what we were doing and offered to fund the completion of the film; in return he got the soundtrack album and the chance to bring the film out on Factory Ikon, the label’s video wing. They had one of the best video labels at the time so Feverhouse was our first Factory release (fact 105).
I think everyone should have their own Factory catalogue number.
Feverhouse was premiered as part of a Factory residency at the Riverside Studios and then had a run at the ICA. It was considered at the time to be one of the most important independent film productions to come out of the North West in years, but it would probably have stayed in the can if it hadn’t been for Tony Wilson.
You should also spare a thought for New Hormones, another Manchester label and Factory’s geeky cousin – they were also doing some really interesting stuff at the same time, bringing out a magazine on tape cassette, experimenting with album packaging, organizing some amazing club nights of their own. They never seemed to have any money but it was always fun working with them.
3:AM: Why did you leave the band and why did it reform?
KH: I became part of Biting Tongues because I was interested in the idea that literature should go out and get a job: that it didn’t just belong in books or magazines or on library shelves. Working with Biting Tongues meant I could experiment with tapes, random cut-ups of found material, video clips, phonetic texts and all against the most ferociously rhythmic wall of sound imaginable. It was like being in the most amazing audiovisual laboratory, whether onstage in the studio or out filming on location. It was hard work for the audience at times but it was also really hard work for us as well – I learned a great deal from the experience.
At the same time, however, it also made me very aware of what it means to be a writer and how isolated that can make you on occasion – which not always a good thing when you’re working with others in a live environment. You should also remember that I was based in London, where I was working as an editor of books by John Cage, Georges Bataille, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hubert Selby and Jean Cocteau at the same time as working with the Tongues up in Manchester. In the end I had to leave simply in order to keep writing.
Biting Tongues reformed at the instigation of Graham Massey, who was one of the group’s original and longest serving members. We lost sight of each other after he formed 808 State, and we hadn’t been in touch in years when tracked me down through the pages of The Wire. There was a chance to perform with the original Biting Tongues line-up at the ICA, LTM records were reissuing some of the Tongues back catalogue re-mastered on CD and would I like to take part? I said OK – I’d heard from a few people who’d looked out some of our old records or who had seen Feverhouse and had said how there was nothing with that sort of content happening today. Even so I didn’t really know what to expect when I travelled up to Manchester for the rehearsals. The whole thing just clicked into place, however, and the ICA performance was a joy – a lot of people in audience had never heard stuff like this before and they were just amazed by it. We’ve only played two or three dates since then and only when invited – I wouldn’t want to do it too often.
In the meantime I’ve worked on a couple of live shows with Graham Massey, combining music and visuals with text: one was ‘Ego in Exotica Sum: In Memoriam Martin Denny 1911-2005’ which is a tribute to the father of exotic easy listening, a man who influenced us both greatly; and ‘Dr X: A Version of Events’, which is a kind of ‘live radio serial’ first performed at the Royal Institution. You can see clips from ‘Dr X’ on the Biting Tongues MySpace page, and some of the studio material from ‘Ego In Exotica Sum’ is available online through soundmuseum.fm. I’m still intrigued by the possibilities of live literature – whether in the form of public dialogues, spoken word events, live radio broadcasts, panels, staged events, lectures etc.
3:AM: Biting Tongues employed a ‘live in the studio’ approach to making records.
KH: Yeah – we’d record a whole side of an album in one session with no breaks between the tracks and do a mix afterwards – nothing was ever re-recorded – we’d even leave in any slips of the tongue or mispronounced words I might have struggled with in the session, any stray pieces of sound that the microphone picked up. Or we’d simply record straight onto two-channel tape, recording through the studio desk with the producer (Stewart James, who is now tour manager for the Chemical Brothers) mixing and adding effects while we were performing in the studio – we wouldn’t know what it sounded alike until the playback – and because it was two-channel you couldn’t correct it: you’d have to do the whole thing again, which we pretty much refused to do.
3:AM: What did you do between the end of the group and your novel Destroy All Monsters?
KH: Destroy All Monsters represents the culmination of a very long period of gestation and intense offstage activity, as it were.
Having decided to concentrate on writing, I found myself confronted with the problem of how to advance what I was doing beyond the use of compositional processes in the preparation of texts – such as cut-ups or other chance methods – towards some new coherence or clarity of expression. It seemed to me that once you saw the printed page as a grid of words and punctuation, or approached the delivery of live textual material as a series of events taking place over a specific period of time, it’s very hard – if not impossible – to go back to regarding the process of writing in any conventional sense again. I wanted to write texts that were less complex than their content: in other words where the conceptual thinking surrounding its execution is relatively intricate, but the actual execution itself remains as simple as possible.
The few essays I’d written by then, on such subjects as Bataille’s fiction, the nature of prison writings and the Marquis de Sade as an Enlightenment thinker, also suggested to me that there were severe limitations to the kind of critical apparatus and vocabulary being used for these subjects. There had to be something clearer and more suggestive of the thought it contained than currently seemed available to me. Both these problems, I felt certain at the time, were only going to be solved by me going off to a corner and doing a lot of work on my own – so that’s what I did.
In order to keep going, I ended up on the art house circuit for a while: did a lot of photographic nude modelling, producing an amount of hardcore performance documentation in the process which was rarely seen at the time and impossible to see now. Got drunk and swapped stories with Kathy Acker a few times. Took part in exhibitions at the V&A and the Barbican. Lectured at Cambridge University. Had lunch with Derek Jarman whenever we met in Soho. Hung out with the fabulous Lydia Lunch whenever she was in town. Wrote a large number of essays, features and reviews for a wide range of magazines and journals such as The Wire, Sight and Sound, Frieze and Bizarre (back in the day when it was still being published by John Brown and the sister magazine to Fortean Times). Edited books by Merce Cunningham, Tadeusz Kantor, amongst others, and worked very closely with Hubert Selby on preparing The Willow Tree, his first full-length novel to appear in nearly 20 years, for publication. He very sweetly acknowledged the work we’d done at the start of the novel – which is something I will always treasure.
I wrote the libretto for a three-act opera about the death of William Blake, which was staged by the Dutch opera company Icebreaker in a mental hospital outside Amsterdam – we had capacity audiences bussed in from the city centre for its entire three-week run – but the best part was that the patients were allowed to attend the company rehearsals, so they ended up having a fabulous Marat/Sade quality to them. I took part in events with Pierre Henri, Cabaret Voltaire and Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, who ended up making me one of the editorial correspondents for CTHEORY, their website/journal. By then I had developed an approach to writing that satisfied me; and the Krokers included some early pieces of mine in some of the collections they edited. ‘Electronically Yours: Eternally Elvis’ appeared in The Last Sex; and ‘Tokyo Must Be Destroyed’ was included in Digital Delirium, for example.
It was around this time that I met the love of my life, to whom I’m still very happily married: an event that may not appear to have had any immediate impact on my work but has had a deep and protracted influence instead.
I also took a touring show round Holland with the electronic music composer Huib Emmer – it was called ‘We Are All Depraved’, which depicted the end of the millennium as refract ted through the events of 1965, particularly the filming of Monster Zero, starring doomed US actor Nick Adams in Japan, and Orgy of the Dead, shot on Los Angeles soundstage to a script by Ed Wood and fronted by Jerome Criswell, who had by then become a personal hero of mine. To stay busy and earn a living I worked as a consultant on a few TV documentaries on subjects that interested me at the time, wrote a soft-core monster movie script with the great David McGillivray and gave a series of lectures on conspiracy theories at the old Lux Cinema in Hoxton. Got a great agent and then lost him again when he retired from the business (and who in fairness can blame him?), but in all that time I never stopped writing. Destroy All Monsters was the result.
3:AM: Within Biting Tongues you utilised the live in the studio approach, did Destroy All Monsters have any airings before publication?
KH: The starting point for Destroy All Monsters was the text ‘Electronically Yours, Eternally Elvis’, published by the Krokers in their anthology The Last Sex. The text was originally commissioned to be part of the ‘Night of Electricity’ to be held in a club venue in Rotterdam – I forget which one now although I do recall that the editor of Metamatics magazine was held up by the metal detectors at the door. It was the closing event for that year’s Confrontations Festival, the theme of which happened to be ‘The Man-Machine’ – they said I could write anything I liked about androids, artificial life (which seems to be getting a lot less public attention these days as opposed to AI, which seems to be where all the interesting discoveries are being made at the moment) but that it would have to be presented as a reading rather than a publication. I wasn’t sure what kind of audience I was going to get for this text, particularly in a club environment, so I presented the concepts in terms of easily recognized names, faces and events: so the text is full of references to Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, the Kennedy assassination, Desert Storm etc. The Arthur and Marilouise Kroker loved what I was doing and asked if they could publish it – although they also told me a lot people in the States wouldn’t be amused about the comparisons I was making between Elvis and Michael Jackson in terms of how they represented different versions of the same sovereign body – and how they function best as intelligent machines at the same time. That’s not how they were being perceived by their fans. As a consequence I was probably one of the few people on the planet who wasn’t at all surprised by Michael’s marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. It made perfect sense to me – as did the fact that Michael’s Neverland Ranch was raided (for the first time) on the day ‘Electronically Yours…’ was first published in the US.
Beyond that, however, I tended to work alone on Destroy All Monsters – the text is built up from quite a complex skein or images and motifs that needed to be seen in close proximity to each other – this precluded any notion, so far as I was concerned, of presenting it piecemeal either in print or as a reading. There were other texts from that period that relate strongly to the content and themes of Destroy All Monsters: ‘Tokyo Must Be Destroyed: Dreams of Tall Buildings and Monsters: Images of Cities and Monuments’ has particularly strong links with the novel, while remaining a stand-alone piece that has been published in at least three different versions, to my knowledge. Similarly, ‘Electronically Yours, Eternally Elvis’ now stands alone and apart from Destroy All Monsters, even though it’s also a the starting point for a much longer and more ambitious narrative process.
3:AM: As your first novel, was it so different to move from short stories to that?
KH: Not really – primarily because I was coming to fiction through forms other than the short story, which is one I have only recently found I have an interest in. I came, in fact, to the novel as a simultaneous exploration of poetry and history – the only pure forms of literature the ancient Greeks would acknowledge. To go back to these is to rediscover a tradition of weird and wonderful hybrids such as Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Nietzsche’s ‘The Gay Science’ and Bataille’s ‘The Impossible’. Each in their own way represents a degree of engagement with the text that goes beyond issues of form – and I only offer this list of outstanding examples in order to illustrate my point as concisely as possible before moving on.
Destroy All Monsters was a response to the cultural, social and political fallout from Operation Desert Storm: an event which, as I see it, marked the beginning of the 21st Century. To be precise, the new millennium began on the evening of January 16 1991 the moment CNN started running its live coverage of the bombing from a room in the Baghdad Hilton. At the same time, the war was being run and packaged as a media event, its meaning and implications quickly become cancelled out in the public imagination: people become so caught up in the change taking place that they don’t even notice what is happening – events are doomed constantly to ‘pale into significance’, to borrow a line from the book. I felt we were in danger of failing to grasp what had happened, that the technology and politics of what is now – rather unhappily – referred to as ‘Iraq I’ in what the Pentagon used to call ‘South West Asia’ were being treated as commonplaces with which we had grown all too familiar.
Set 500 days into a stalled version of Desert Storm, Destroy All Monsters describes how the US exerts pressure on Japan to unleash its Terror Monsters, which have been leading a quiet existence on Earthquake Island, located somewhere in the Pacific. The results, however, are pretty devastating and form only one strand of the overall story, which is related over a sequence of 200 individual narrative files. As the Independent on Sunday remarked in its review, the really scary thing about Destroy All Monsters is that it all starts to make sense after a while.
A lot of people who read it said they became very involved with the characters and wanted to know what was going to happen next – and that I find is a far more daunting prospect. What do I do as a follow-up to Destroy All Monsters? I’m still working on that one.
3:AM: Destroy All Monsters was hailed for its prescience. Mere coincidence of coming out alongside 9/11 or were you surprised by it?
KH: I married Rachel, the love of my life, in Central London on October 13, just a month after 9/11. I still remember the police helicopters flying overhead while a massive demonstration against the invasion of Afghanistan was taking place in Trafalgar Square at the same time. The next day we left for New York, where we had always intended to spend our honeymoon. Heathrow was almost empty, you could practically have had any seat you wanted on the flight – and we’d dine out in empty restaurants every night. The anthrax spore attacks had just started, and shrines outside all the midtown fire stations. I tried to capture a little of what it was like for Rachel and I to arrive in Manhattan at that time at the end of ‘Everything Is Going Extremely Well’, a short story I wrote in response to a commission from Succour magazine last year.
For me, media responses to 9/11 conveyed the unmistakable sense of shock that accompanies the inevitable. The truly unexpected – the genuine and incontrovertible bolt from the blue – tends to bring only resignation with it. The panic, shock and indignation surrounding 9/11 all seemed to be a consequence of developments that had hitherto gone unnoticed or, more likely, had been allowed to build up unacknowledged. It actually made reading and discussing Destroy All Monsters in that context extremely difficult for a lot of people, so those who made the connection between the events surrounding 9/11 and the publication of Destroy All Monsters have my very real respect. The official publication date for the book was September 13 and we’d organized a launch event at the Horse Hospital, where Savage Pencil was exhibiting his original artwork for the book, including the panoramic cover painting which was featured on the promotional postcards. As part of the launch I had planned to screen a 4-hour silent montage of clips from Japanese monster movies, showing cities being smashed to pieces and monsters fighting among burning buildings, but we pulled it in the end and presented a white screen instead. That was a really hard decision to make at the time, particularly as so many people in the media had resorted to discussing the attack on the Twin Towers in terms of disaster movies, all of which, you can be absolutely sure, would have been instantly pulled from the schedules at such a time. We were so close to what was happening that the US distributors were still waiting for their copies of Destroy All Monsters to fill orders in the United States because the container ship carrying them was stuck outside the port which was under military blockade. In the end I didn’t show the footage for one very simple reason: my father, who died some years previously, spent over thirty years of his life as a fireman, and I don’t think he would have understood my decision to show it. Sometimes the hardest problems demand the simplest solutions.
As to notions of coincidence – I’m not sure that I have ever come across a convincing comment on the subject from another writer. We’re too compromised when it comes to the question of coincidence; it’s a little like asking a professional gambler if there’s such a thing as chance. As one of the characters in Destroy All Monsters observes, patterns aren’t created: they’re merely discovered. A similar thing happened with ‘Betamax’, the short story I contributed to Cathi Unsworth’s London Noir when the anthology was published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. The story concerns a programmed assassin from the future coming up out of Canary Wharf underground station to kill a renegade financier, only to discover that he’s part of a far bigger sequence of events aimed at the financial community based there. The book came out in the UK in August 2006. I’d just flown back from New York and was scheduled to take part, along with the crime writer Martyn Waites, in a BBC TV feature on the London Noir collection – Cathi had already been filmed reading extracts from the various stories in the collection near the locations where they were set. The footage was due to be aired, with a live interview with Martyn and me in the studio, on the evening of August 9, when the transatlantic terror plot was exposed in the media. Of course they pulled the feature. There had already been one news story about a terrorist attack on 1 Canada Square after the story had been published by Akashic in the US, so I was getting used to this kind of connection by now. A news item, a few weeks later, about a trial introduction of airport security scanners at Canary Warf underground station just seemed to complete the picture. Apparently the BBC did air the footage of Cathi reading from ‘Betamax’ at Canary Wharf but I never saw it.
3:AM: In terms of the title of Destroy All Monsters, weren’t you worried the film, the comics and the band would give the game away, or do you consider it to be distant yet related?
KH: What game? I remember doing a very intense, very serious TV interview in Berlin bookshop about Destroy All Monsters, in which I was asked if the title was a veiled reference to Nietzsche. The interviewer looked very bemused when I explained that it was, on the contrary, a very overt reference to Godzilla. Monsters are, after all, very useful. No matter what their shape or size or attitude, they serve as a warning and should be welcomed as such. In fact, ‘monster’ is derived from the ancient Greek word for ‘warning’. Having no place either in nature or in polite society, monsters have no choice but to exist as reminders of the things we’d much rather forget.
Destroy All Monsters was the English title for the ninth Godzilla movie, which was released by Toho in 1968 as Kaiju soshingeki. It featured Rodan in Moscow, Gorosaurus in Paris, Mothra bearing down on Beijing, Godzilla attacking New York, Manda in London, and King Ghidora flying in from deep space to attack the Earth, but who could possibly complain about that, except for the few sticklers who have noticed that no actual monsters are destroyed throughout the film’s entire running time? ‘The Battle-Cry That Could Save The World!’ ran the poster copy for the original US release, marking it out – in my eyes at least – as less of a movie than a statement of aesthetic intent. I knew that the title had been used by a group of artists and filmmakers working out of Ann Arbor and Detroit back in the late sixties early seventies, and that the title had also been used for a YBA show at Goldsmiths in the late nineties. I thought it was very important that what I was writing should come out under a title shadowed by this kind of cultural history: it would help save time and a lot of extraneous explanation. It’s kind of funny when I come across the occasional isolated reader who thought Destroy All Monsters was meant to be an actual piece of science fantasy about giant monsters, combat robots and aliens and who couldn’t quite figure out what’s going on. However, the vast majority got the references and completely understood what I was doing.
I’m not sure which comics you mean in your question, but I’m very happy to acknowledge the influence of some of the longer, more ambitious manga series like Katusohiro Otomo’s 2,000-page Akira and Masamune Shirow’s multipart Appleseed, both of which make exceptional use of multiple plotlines, very fast cutting between scenes and highly mobile storytelling techniques. I studied both Akira and Appleseed closely during the writing of Destroy All Monsters – just as I’m now looking at the work of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy, who originally brought cinematic editing and tighter narrative pacing to comic strips in Japan, effectively creating the modern manga as it’s known today. Tezuka-sensei’s work is timeless, classic. There’s still so much to learn from it.
3:AM: Your next, Welcome To Mars, is a history and adopts a very spare and blunt presentational style. Was this a book you’d long thought about writing? How does it fit in with your earlier fiction?
KH: Welcome to Mars once again represents a long period of thought and reflection on my part. I became intrigued by the notion of how history is always rewritten, by which I mean that it can only ever exist as a text which is constantly being revised and reworked. Rewriting Operation Desert Storm in Destroy All Monsters, projecting it into the future and coming up, as a consequence, with the conceptual and cultural background for the attacks of 9/11 made me want to look at the question of how we respond to the rewriting of history, how we frame it and contextualize it became overriding issues to me. At the same time, and on a far more practical level, I thought that the period between 1947 and 1959 has very instrumental in shaping how we have responded to the millennial shift from the 20th to the 21st century, but that there was no useful chronology for this highly influential period. For example, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide of 1997 was in part instigated by the wish to link up with the ‘Space Brothers’, to use a generic term from the 1950s to describe the more spiritually enhanced inhabitants of the universe. There’s a reason why there were pictures of aliens on the mantelpiece in the bedroom where Marshall Applewhite’s body was found, and it can be discovered in the period I have been studying in Welcome to Mars. At the same time the notion of the ‘American Century’ and what is meant by it have both drawn a lot of discussion and analysis recently and will continue to do so for some time, I believe.
I tried to keep the execution of this project as simple as possible in the hope that people can have the maximum exposure to the material and make their own connections and develop their own conclusions. It’s a matter of following the information and seeing where it might lead. That’s why the book is structured in strictly chronological terms, with each consecutive year being assigned its own chapter, and why I also use the present tense throughout, rarely if ever flagging up the future impact of certain incidents or individual actions. To give a fairly obvious and straightforward example, Lee Harvey Oswald is mentioned in the book only as an ex-Marine who defected to the USSR in 1959 and not as the man arrested for President Kennedy’s assassination. In fact, Kennedy himself is referred to only as a US senator throughout. We’re on the edge of events that have yet to happen in Welcome to Mars, anticipating scenes from a history that is not yet rendered as text.
It consequently took me quite a while to arrive at a conceptual framework that would sustain the project. Early attempts had to be abandoned because I found it difficult to establish the start of a workable chronology until I noticed how many defining moments occurred in 1947: the basic structural components of military-industrial reality, which is to say the reality we are inhabiting today, all fell into place in that year. This, after all, is the year in which Kenneth Arnold sees flying saucers over the US, the Roswell crash takes place, Sandoz markets LSD commercially for the first time, the NSA and the CIA get their charters, and the Atomic Energy Commission takes over the running of all the major nuclear projects in the US – and that’s just to give a few examples of what happened in that Year of Miracles. It’s an amazing starting point for a history.
3:AM: How did it come to be put out by Strange Attractor? Again, the fact that the material had earlier been used on Resonance suggests your commitment to airing material first before committing to print?
KH: As soon as Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor heard that I was intending to do a book based on the original Welcome to Mars series I had done for Resonance FM, he offered to publish it, which was very flattering. It was probably the shortest conversation in the history of publishing. I had already contributed to all three volumes of the Strange Attractor Journal and had taken part in some Strange Attractor events so I had built a very good relationship with Mark over the years. I couldn’t have had anyone better able or more qualified to edit the final text of Welcome to Mars. He puts a lot of time into Strange Attractor publications: they all look very distinctive and always have a great feel to them.
My commitment has always been to the idea of information as art form. Research, whether the end result is a novel like Destroy All Monsters or a history like Welcome to Mars, should always be approached as a practice in and of itself. The demands of form and the use of an appropriate medium are all secondary to this. I’m therefore not sure whether it’s possible to compare Welcome to Mars the twelve-part radio series with Welcome to Mars the book in terms of a commitment to some final form. Working live in the Resonance FM studio with the sound designer and producer Simon James was an immensely liberating experience which allowed me to work with the material in a very direct and spontaneous manner. In fact, I am grateful to Simon for suggesting that I work live and unscripted, using on a few quotes and notes in front of me – all twelve programmes are still being downloaded as podcasts, meaning that the series had now taken on a very successful online existence of its own. Similarly, however, Welcome to Mars the book is not simply a transcription of the radio broadcasts – it’s a complete reworking of the themes using more closely researched material and more considered analysis in much finer detail. Both versions share a number of basic structural similarities but differ widely in terms of the grain and focus of the material.
3:AM: In his intro, Erik Davis engages with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, specifically the representation of the late Walter Rathenau, who tells us of a process that “You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?” Specifically, this relates to Pynchon’s evocation of post-war Germany as “the Zone”, as an unmapped world. You yourself present the book as an attempt to map this period of history but in that process what conclusions did you come to regarding synthesis (the actions of scientists and the media) and control (ideology)?
KH: To quote Dr Benway – rather loosely – from The Naked Lunch, a text completed at the end of the 1950s: ‘I offer no conclusions. I merely make observations.’ I was enormously heartened by the manner in which Erik Davis connects what I am doing in Welcome to Mars with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It seems to me that the relationship between synthesis and control becomes clearer the more we see them located in a particular fold in history, one that relates specifically to the development of behavioural approaches to human cognition. It also seems impossible to contemplate the ‘real nature’ of either without making some assumptions about game theory and economic behaviour. At present I am still more concerned with the issue of progress as a communication tool and how concepts of ‘the future’ are used to shape perceptions. To put it another way: it’s interesting to note how the Cold War is becoming the subject of so many exhibitions and studies at the moment. To draw conclusions, however, is to risk the assumption that we ‘understand’ what has been happening to us; and I don’t want my readers to grow that comfortable with the subject – at least not yet anyway.
3:AM: You say that the post-war social engineers experimented with projects such as “Usonia” (a portmanteau of US and utopia) in social housing. Yet much of the post-war US dreams of science and technology were steeped in demands for immediate practicality, efficiency and convenience (eg. labour-saving devices), while utopia was reserved for the God-less Communists the assembled system was predicated on opposing.
KH: I don’t really see any contradiction here. Such issues were being treated in terms of economic behaviour on both sides of the Cold War divide. As Vice-President Richard Nixon remarked to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, ‘Isn’t it better to talk about the relative merits of washing machines than the relative strengths of rockets?’ That was in 1959 during the course of their well-publicized ‘kitchen debate’ that took place in Moscow at a US trade fair – both of them were standing in a replica of the modern American kitchen at the time. Interestingly, both of them agreed that the technology of the period was apt to break down an awful lot and you couldn’t place any absolute trust in it. Once you pushed the button on a lot of the ‘labour-saving devices’ of the period, up to and including the nuclear strike capability of an entire nation, you had very little actual control over them. While finishing the revisions to Welcome to Mars, I was also writing a feature on the history of the RAND Corporation which I presented for BBC Radio 3 at the end of 2007. Paul Baran, the man who came up with the basic architecture of what would become the Internet in the early 1960s while working at RAND, told me that AT&T, who had a monopoly on the telephone system in the US, weren’t interested in the idea of a distributed network handling digital information. RAND were very careful, however, to make sure that the Soviets had access to Baran’s ideas because they wanted to make sure that the Russian command and control of its missiles was as secure as possible. Neither side could risk any mistakes occurring in the system. As Hebert Marcuse remarked at around about the same time as of all this is happening, the Enemy ‘is not in the emergency situation but in the normal state of affairs’. That’s classic games theory, by the way. Both sides had their own version of the other’s war gamers: they were both constantly second guessing each other’s command and control decisions. Khrushchev’s biggest disappointment during his reciprocal visit to the US in 1959 was that he had been forbidden to visit Disneyland because they couldn’t guarantee his security once he was inside the Magic Kingdom. Talk about the demands of utopia and those of the individual for instant delivery of gratification…
3:AM: The line in The Day The Earth Stood Still, as near to the bone critique of the US in 1951 as the Hollywood system could allow, “I don’t care about the rest of the world.” is a projection of the film-maker’s despair at his countrymen’s casual indifference to mass slaughter and as you say “self-centredness”. However, as you also suggest, the decade was beginning to introduce a wider access to individual reward and immediate thrill through Huxley’s pronouncements on LSD and Kinsey’s research into sexual awareness.
KH: The first half of the twentieth century was, in the crudest terms, fought over, and with the aid of, the masses: an observation that applies across the political spectrum. With the rapid development of weapons technology at the end of WWII, not to mention faster delivery systems and more sophisticated communications media, the masses were being defended to the point of their own destruction. The National Highway Programme, which Barack Obama has been talking so much about recently, was entirely to do with the notion of dispersing the population defensively, taking them out of the major cities, along with their jobs and resources, and into Suburbia. It was essentially a wartime strategy. At the same time it isolated many individuals from the social centres to which they had traditionally been accustomed. They are consequently obliged to start looking at themselves and their environment in a completely new light. Suddenly the colour of the walls in their new lounge is important. It was now a question of establishing the right mood: the most conducive state of mind. Not surprisingly you find a lot of therapists, psychiatrists and social anthropologists getting interested in studying these new suburban inhabitants. Even less surprisingly, you find that the suburbs are also becoming a great place to test new drugs as well – particularly the first generation of tranquilisers. It therefore doesn’t surprise me to note that 1947 was not only the year in which Levittown, the first prebuilt suburban development programme in the US, opened its doors to the public but also the year in which Sandoz markets LSD as Delysid and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction is established at Bloomington Indiana.
What is perhaps most insidious about the period, however, is the extent to which personal happiness and individual pleasure are redefined in socioeconomic terms. Both had increasingly become matters of production and consumption by mid-decade. Ironically, it was still about big numbers: production was outstripping consumption. They needed more people buying more stuff. No wonder Elvis Presley, one of most spectacularly prodigious consumers to emerge from the 1950s, wound up dead on the toilet floor at age 42.
3:AM: Welcome to Mars documents the marriage between the Cold War paranoia and its accoutrements (the military-industrial complex, propaganda and rampant censorship/suppression) and the emergence of the Teenager, with its accoutrements (television, sci-fi comics and films). Did you make any decisions as to what proportion of each to include?
KH: None whatsoever: I merely followed the information and traced the connections that started to emerge from it. The uncanny resonance between the aching passions of Teenage America and what was going on in the laboratories, control rooms and test ranges is evidence of a complex set of shared assumptions at work rather than the confluence of specific causes and influences. Whether in comic books or classified reports, B-movies or boardroom meetings, a specific notion of human development was being articulated during the period covered in Welcome to Mars. Quite often this appears to have been expressed very obliquely, but only because it influenced and informed just about every aspect of culture I am examining. It is in the nature of synthesis and control – to use terms from earlier in our conversation – to disappear into the background precisely because they actually are the background. At the centre of the book is a preoccupation with human consciousness: how it operates and how it can be operated upon, what models can be used to comprehend it and which ones can be used to manipulate it. These are still issues that affect us today; we’re just a little more aware of it now.
3:AM: As you detail, the flying saucer represents a symbolic external threat to the US, promoted via active conspiracies, popular culture etc. while its own cultural hegemony was built up on an updated manifest destiny (the ‘exploration’ of space). Fast forward to the 1980s and there’s a 50s B-movie actor in the White House and his peace efforts with the USSR hinged on promoting that external threat to the globe (his claims to Gorbachev that the two rivals would unite if aliens showed up.) Did science fantasy as a political construct really end in 1959 or was that just when flying saucer conspiracies and depictions largely dried up?
KH: The chronology of Welcome to Mars was structured precisely in order to raise this kind of speculation. The Flying Saucer, like the effects of LSD and the dangers of atomic radiation are all phenomena whose real power exists outside the human sensory spectrum: each in its own way defies detection and categorization in any conventional sense. They are, in the words of former RAND president Donald Rumsfeld, ‘known unknowns’. One way of studying them is to examine how large organizations, such as RAND and the Pentagon, respond to their existence; another is to examine them obliquely through popular culture, to see how the public imagination responds to it. Reactions to the Flying Saucer were conditioned to an appreciable extent by the spread of the new electronic media and the interdisciplinary approach to mass communication that accompanied them during the period covered in my book. It’s not an accident that 1957, the year which sees Sputnik launched into Earth orbit is also the year when Marshall McLuhan first publicly states that the medium is the message. Both incidents represent a threat to the established status quo which had previously been embodied by the Flying Saucer. Fantasy is only theory that has subsequently been rendered unworkable. That it was Ronald Reagan, who spent some of his time in the 1950s shilling for General Electric on TV, who goes to the United Nations and talks about the Earth uniting to face an alien threat doesn’t surprise me in the least. He was only echoing comments already made by General Douglas MacArthur and Dr Wilhelm Reich around about the time of Sputnik’s launch.
3:AM: Furthermore, as you detail, much of the claims made about UFOs and their coming to earth were thought to be schemes cooked up to distract the public from the very real threat of radioactive material and its increased usage in the Cold War. To what extent was this a proxy narrative eg. aliens and UFOs versus Communists and atomic weapons?
KH: By their very nature, all narratives are proxy. They are merely constructs of the facts; and the facts – although interesting – are largely irrelevant, to use an old precept from the Washington Beltway. During the 1950s, Flying Saucers, LSD and atomic radiation had between them the potential not so much to upset the applecart as to call the entire rickety contraption into question. By the time you get kids sitting down to a hearty bowl of radioactive oatmeal at the breakfast table, Herman Khan, the author of On Thermonuclear War, dropping acid in a Los Angeles psychiatrist’s office so he can plan bombing strategies against Communist China more effectively, and Wernher von Braun hooking up with Walt Disney to promote space exploration to the American public on primetime TV you’re in a very different universe from the one you first thought you were in.
3:AM: Similarly, the decade was when the possibilities of LSD were first fully explored, both by the military and by the likes of Aldous Huxley. Again, I’m seeing a dual narrative here of state power (legitimate usage of LSD) and counterculture (unacceptable usage.) Similarly, you note that in 1958 Burroughs experimented with structure to assemble The Naked Lunch while the CIA-funded Encounter was engaged to dismiss On The Road. Yet Burroughs’ Junkie was considered acceptable as a mass market text masquerading as a warning to society on the dangers of drugs (again, a bizarre dual function to my mind.)
KH: I’m not an expert on opiates but it seems to me that heroin had pretty much run out the clock by the time The Naked Lunch made it into print. Burroughs himself acknowledges in its pages that junk doesn’t really attract any of the cultural paraphernalia that has traditionally surrounded hashish or mescaline – in fact, the nearest junk gets to it are the sensationalist confessions and exposés that Burroughs parodies in The Naked Lunch – and he should know. In order to parody your times you have to understand them well – but to understand the age in which you live is often to be at odds with it, which is not always a comfortable position to be in. It’s not as if Ace Paperbacks were selling Junkie as a great work of literature by an established author – Burroughs’s name wasn’t even on the cover. William Burroughs was at variance with his age, even as he was very much a part of it. Seen from a historical perspective, LSD was just a little too ahead of the curve for him: a little too neat and clean and clinical in its application. He parodies the medical establishment’s interest in LSD in the ‘Complete All-American De-Anxietized Man’ routine in The Naked Lunch, where a ‘hip young psychiatrist high on LSD-25’ tries to dissuade ‘the Lobotomy Kid’ from setting fire to his creation after it runs amok. By the early 1960s, when people like Leary and Alpert were promoting LSD as a means to spiritual insight, Burroughs had dismissed the emergent cult as peddling ‘love love love in slop buckets’. The Naked Lunch, however, gets close to the spirit of technical inquiry that dominated the period covered in Welcome to Mars: there is a lot of Dr Maitland Baldwin, an army doctor whose sensory-deprivation experiments shocked even his handlers at the CIA, in the depictions of Dr Benway and the Lobotomy Kid.
The technological advances of World War II clearly helped to establish a scientific elite in the West; and as discoveries in electronics, computing, neurology and aerospace took human experience beyond the human sensory range, these elites became hardened and more isolated from what was traditionally defined by that range. No wonder they saw themselves as operating somehow above and beyond the demands of the human. Their prejudices were no different from the social elite – including president of Time-Life Inc Henry Luce and his wife, congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce – who saw LSD as their personal plaything that shouldn’t be shared with the broad mass of society. In the end what becomes the most pressing object of study is not so much the technology itself as the assumptions, fears and uncertainties brought to bear upon its exploitation.
3:AM: Can I ask about the next book, particularly its premise and the notion we’ve discussed (elsewhere) of the conventional narrative pointing to a big bang of digital culture? The popular notion that there was a series of big events that ushered in digital culture, rather than the actuality of there being a series of interconnected ‘small detonations’…
KH: In many ways my current object of study follows on quite naturally from Welcome to Mars. Based upon a course of lectures I have delivered to postgraduate communication design students at Central St Martins, The Bright Labyrinth is an attempt to map out the new digital terrain which we currently inhabit. The shift from analogue to digital, like the electrification of our cities in the early years of the previous century, is affecting absolutely every part of our existence, however vast in scale or intimate in application. It’s no longer enough – if it ever was – to speak of a digital culture but of a digital regime – with its own politics, jurisprudence, security, economics and ideology. However, to understand the full implications of this change we need to approach it obliquely through an assemblage of connections that will take us far beyond a mere history of computing, of zeros and ones, but look it in terms of simulation, transportation, networks, architecture, replication etc. How, for example, can we understand concepts like real time and interactivity unless we read them as social exchanges that are framed in behavioural terms? How are we to understand data flows unless we start to look at the relationship between walls and windows in a new way? To research these questions fully is to go far beyond the established perspectives on the digital. It seems to me that Welcome to Mars has already offered up a few directions for further study – and I’m already busy following them up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 21st, 2008.