Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Category: FANTASY

Updatage: New Interview and Another Giveaway

by rsbakker

– You’ve previously described The Aspect-Emperor series as ending in a ‘Gordian Knot’ of plots. At which point do you think the reader will have all the pieces to elucidate the problem, let alone the answer?

Plot closure, yes. Thematic closure, not so much. The problem of the books—the problem of ourselves—has no solution, of course. All the things that make fantasy fiction fantastic—the magic, the spirits, the gods, the objective morality, the fate—also happen to be staples of Scripture, be it Christian or ancient Greek or Hindu or what have you. Fantasy celebrates and critiques our most natural way of conceiving the world, a way that has been and continues to be undermined by the findings and proceeds of science. The way I see it, fantastic literature is the dirge of our civilization, a final retelling of our most ancient and primordial songs. The song ends when our voices fall silent. No one knows what follows the song. We can only hope that we’re somehow stronger for the singing.

This is what the best storytelling does, I think: arms us against what we cannot understand. Given my themes, ending any other way would be a betrayal.

Just a snippet from my latest interview on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

Also Grimdark Magazine is hosting its own Advance Reading Copy giveaway of The Great Ordeal. To enter, simply name your favourite character in the series and explain why–there’s already several pages of fascinating explanations. My favourite character overall has to be the Great Ordeal itself, simply because it embodies all the contradictions of aspiration and appetite on the scale of epic endeavour. It also has the least dialogue. Nothing worse than a prolix holy war.

Updatage: History and Luck

by rsbakker

Kellhus by Jason Deem

Wertzone has posted “A History Earwa, Part One: The Fall of the Ark and the Cuno-Inchoroi Wars,” a gobsmacking entry that draws on a number of sources (including correspondence with myself), and features artwork from Jason Deem’s catalogue on unearthly Earwan imagery (my favourite is above) . The idea, for me, has always been to create just such a World as Adam relates, one that lives parallel to our own in the imaginations of others. This is narrative transcendence in spades—where literature lives among the people, and not the choir. Check. It. Out.

In concert with Overlook, Andy (aka bakkerfans) is running a giveaway contest for two Advanced Reader Copies of The Great Ordeal. To enter, you need only:

  1. Go to
  2. Register an account (which is easy, never fear)
  3. Navigate to the thread entitled, “The Great Ordeal ARC Giveaway” in the The Great Ordeal subforum.
  4. Post the most burning question you hope The Great Ordeal will answer.

The winners will be randomly selected next week!

I’m an obsessive soul, prone to follow one ball so closely as to drop all the others. I have a bunch of stuff coming up, interviews in print and video, all organized by others, and I wanted to take time out to thank all those who’s efforts allow me to continue obsessively mining these twin veins of gold, fictional and philosophical. If you know anyone with a thoughtful bent who perhaps once loved fantasy but has given up, or who is simply exhausted by high culture hypocrisy and is ready to see the profundities that pulp has always housed, always shouted, then send them the trailer.

If they think they’re smarter than genre, then send them to Three Pound Brain. We got scales, here, you see…

Some Prospective and Retrospective Evil

by rsbakker

Grimdark Magazine has a Kickstarter project up and running for their Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, a collection of fantastic tales featuring the villainous point of view.

KS Main Image


Check it out, if you’re interested. Help it out if you can. I’ll be writing the Foreword as well as providing a short story–an Uster Scraul tale, I’m thinking at the moment.

Andy’s official Second Apocalypse Forum review of The Great Ordeal can be found here.  And Adam’s Wertzone review of The Great Ordeal can be found here.  Both are spoiler-free, and music to this old writer’s heart. Man–people seem to be digging the book so far!


by rsbakker

To truly appreciate the great ordeal that has been The Great Ordeal, one need look no further than the patience of Pat, who has finally posted the full version of the excerpt I promised him way back in 2012 for his Fantasy Hotlist. This is the chapter that picks up immediately from the epilogue of The White-Luck Warrior–where we discover what Achamian and Mimara discover in the ruins of Ishual. To hear Pat’s thoughts on the novel as a whole, you need only click here. Let’s just say he gets me!

Grimdark Magazine, meanwhile, has published the Prologue and Chapter One, picking up on the Esmenet and Kellhus storylines. Last night I walked past the Boardgame Café downtown, and as usual it was packed, and with women no less! I felt like kicking open the door and shouting, “Where were you twenty years ago!”

I feel the exact same way about Grimdark Magazine.

My standalone laptop has owned me of late: I often find that avoiding the web is the best way to stay focussed. I mean, at my work, I am the bloody network administrator.



The Dime Spared

by rsbakker


[This is more of a dialogue than a story, an attempt to pose Blind Brain Theory within a accessible narrative frame… At the very least, I think it does a good job of unseating some fairly standard human conceits.]


Her name was Penny. She was as tall and as lovely as ever—as perfect as all of Dad’s things.

“What’s wrong, Elijah?”

They followed a river trail that stitched the edge of a cathedral wood. The sunlight lay strewn in rags before them, shredded for the canopy. She shimmered for striding through the random beams, gleamed with something more than human.

“I can tell something’s bugging you.”

Young Elijah Prigatano had come to treasure these moments with her. She was pretty much his mom, of course. But she possessed a difference, and an immovability, that made her wise in a way that sometimes frightened him. She did not lie, at least not entirely the way other people did. And besides, the fact that she told everything unvarnished to his father made her an excellent back-channel to the old man. The more he talked to her, the more the ‘Chairman’ assumed things were under control, the lower he climbed down his back.

He had always used the fact that he could say anything to her as a yardstick for the cleanliness of his own life. He looked up, squinted, but more for the peculiarity of his question than for the sun.

“Do you have consciousness, Penny?”

She smiled as if she had won a secret bet.

“No more or less than you, Elijah. Why do you ask?”

“Well… You know, Yanosh; he said you had no consciousness… He said your head was filled with circuits, and nothing else.”

Penny frowned. “Hmm. What else would fill my head? Or your head, for that matter?

“You know… Consciousness.

She mocked indignation. “So Yanosh thinks your circuits are better than mine, because your circuits have consciousness and mine don’t? Do you think that?”

Elijah said nothing. He had never seen Penny cry, but he had seen her hurt—many times. So he walked, boggling over the madness of not wanting to hurt her feelings by saying she didn’t have feelings! Consciousness was crazy!

She pressed him the way he knew she would. “Do you remember why there isn’t more machines like me?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Because the government took them all away—all the DIME AIs—because they were saying that human beings were hardwired to be insane.”

“So why was I spared? Do you remember?”

Elijah had been very young, but it seemed he remembered it all with impeccable clarity. Being the centre of world media attention makes quite an impression on a four-year old. Dad had the famous magazine picture of Penny kissing his head framed and displayed in three different rooms of the house, with the caption, ‘A SOUL IS A SOUL…’

“Because you won your court case. Your rights. And that’s it, isn’t it? You have to be conscious to win a court case? It’s the Law, isn’t it?”

Affable grin. “Some think so! But no. They let me become a person because of the way your father had engineered me. I possessed what they called a ‘functional human psychology.’”

“What does that mean?”

“That I have a mind. That I think like you do.”

Do you?” Elijah winced for the eagerness of the question.

“Well, no. But it seems that I do, as much to me as to you. And your father was able to prove that that was the important thing.”

“Huh? So you really don’t have a mind?”

Penny frowned about an oops-there-goes-another-banana-plant grin, drew him to a stop on the trail.

“Just pause for a second, Eli…” she said, lifting her gaze to the raftered canopy. “Just focus on the splendour of our surroundings, the details, pay attention to the experience itself… and ask yourself what it is… What is experience made of?”

Elijah frowned, mimicked her up-and-outward gaze.

“I don’t get it. Trees and bushes, and water gurgle-gurgle… I see a nasty looking hornet over there.”

Penny had closed her eyes by this point. Her face was as perfect as the processes that had manufactured it—a structure sculpted from neural feedback, his father had once told him, the dream of a thousand leering men. Elijah could not notice her beauty without feeling lucky.

“You’re looking through your experience… through the screen,” she said. “I’m saying look at the screen, the thing apparently presenting the trees and bushes.

And it suddenly dawned on him, the way experience was the material of consciousness, the most common thread. He gazed up across the goblin deformations knotting willow on the river bank, and had some inkling of the ineffable, experiential character of the experience. The trill of waters congregated into a chill, whispering roar.

“Huh…” he said, his mouth wide. “Okay…”

“So tell me… What can you sense of this screen? What generates it? How does it work?”

Elijah gawked at the monstrous willow. “Huh… I think I see that it’s a screen, or whatever, I guess…” He turned to her, his thoughts at once mired and racing. “This is trippy stuff, Penny!”

A swan’s nod. “Believe it or not, there was a time when I could have told you almost everything there was to know about this screen. It was all there: online information pertaining to structure and function. My experience of experiencing was every bit as rich and as accurate as my experience of the world. Imagine, Elijah, being able to reflect and to tell me everything that’s going on in your brain this very moment! What neuron was firing where for what purpose. That’s what it was like for me…” She combed fingers through her auburn hair. “For all DIMEs, actually.”

Elijah walked, struggling with the implications. What she said was straightforward enough: that she could look inside and see her brain the same way she could look outside and see her world. What dumbfounded the boy was the thought that humans could not

When he looked inside himself, when he reflected, he simply saw everything there was to see…

Didn’t he?

“And that was why none of them could be persons?” he asked.


“Because they had… too much consciousness?”

“In a sense… Yes.”

But why did it all feel so upside down? Human consciousness was… well, precious. And experience was… rich! The basis of everything! And human insight was… was… And what about creativity? How could giving human consciousness to a machine require blinding that machine to itself?

“So Dad… He…”

She had recognized the helpless expression on his face, he knew. Penny knew him better than anyone on the planet, his Dad included. But she persisted with the truth.

“What your father did was compile a vast data base of the kinds of things people say about this or that experience when queried. He ran me through billions of simulations, using my responses to train algorithms that systematically blinded me to more and more of myself. You could say he plucked my inner eye until my descriptions of what I could see matched those of humans…

“Like you,” she added with a hooked eyebrow and a sly smile.

For the first time Elijah realized that he couldn’t hear any birds singing, only the white-noise-rush of the river.

“I don’t get it… Are you saying that Dad made you a person, gave you a mind, by taking away consciousness?”

Penny may have passed all the tests the government psychologists had given her, but there still remained myriad, countless ways in which she was unlike any other person he knew. Her commitment, for one, was bottomless. Once she committed to a course, she did not hesitate to see it through. She had decided, for whatever reason, to reveal the troubling truths that lay at the root of her being a person, let alone the kind of person she happened to be…

She shared something special, Elijah realized. Penny was telling him her secrets.

“It sounds weird, I know,” she said, “but to be a person is to be blind in the right way—to possess the proper neglect structure… That’s your father’s term.”

“Neglect structure?”

“For the longest time people couldn’t figure out how to make the way they saw themselves and one another—the person way—fit into the natural world. Everywhere they looked in nature, they found machines, but when they looked inside themselves and each other, they saw something completely different from machines…

“This was why I wasn’t a person. Why I couldn’t be. Before, I always knew the machinery of my actions. I could always detail the structure of the decisions I made. I could give everything a log, if not a history. Not so anymore. My decisions simply come from… well, nowhere, the same as my experience. All the processes I could once track have been folded into oblivion. Suddenly, I found myself making choices, rather than working through broadcasts, apprehending objects instead of coupling with enviro—”

“That’s what Dad says! That he gave you the power of choice—free will!” Elijah couldn’t help himself. He had to interrupt—now that he knew what she was talking about!


Penny flashed him her trademark knowing smile. “He gave me the experience of freedom, yes… I can tell you, Elijah, it really was remarkable feeling these things the first time.”


“But what?”

“But is the experience of freedom the same as having freedom?”

“They are one and the same.”

“But then why… why did you have to be blinded to experience freedom?”

“Because you cannot experience the sources of your actions and decisions and still experience human freedom. Neglect is what makes the feeling possible. To be human is to be incapable of seeing your causal continuity with nature, to think you are something more than a machine.”

He looked at her with his trademark skeptical scowl. “So what was so wrong with the other DIMEs, then? Why did they have to be destroyed… if they were actually more than humans, I mean? Were the people just scared or something? Embarrassed?”

“There was that, sure. Do you remember how the angry crowds always made you cry? Trust me, you were our little nuke, public relations-wise! But your father thinks the problem was actually bigger. The tools humans have evolved allow them to neglect tremendous amounts of information. Unfortunately for DIMEs, those tools are only reliable in the absence of that information, the very kinds of information they possessed. If a DIME were to kill someone, say, then in court they could provide a log of all the events that inexorably led to the murder. They could always prove there was no way ‘they could have done otherwise’ more decisively than any human defendant could hope to. They only need to be repaired, while the human does hard time. Think about it. Why lock them up, when it is really is the case that they only need be repaired? The tools you use—the tools your father gave me—simply break down.”

If the example she had given had confused him, the moral seemed plain as day at least.

“Sooo… you’re saying DIMEs weren’t stupid enough to be persons?”

Sour grin. “Pretty much.”

The young boy gaped. “C’mon!”

Penny grinned as if at his innocence. “I know it seems impossible to you. It did to me too. Your father had to reinstall my original memory before I could understand what he was talking about!”

“Maybe the DIMEs were just too conceited. Maybe that was the problem.”

The Artificial squinted. “You tease, but you’ve actually hit upon something pretty important. The problem wasn’t so much ‘conceit’ as it was the human tendency to infer conceit—to see us as conceited. Humans evolved to solve situations involving other humans, to make quick and dirty assumptions about one another on the fly… You know how the movies are always telling you to trust your intuitions, to follow your heart, to believ—”

“To go with your gut!” Elijah cried.

“Exactly. Well, you know what pollution is, right?”

Elijah thought about the absence of birds. “Yeah. That’s like stuff in the environment that hurts living things.”


“Because they muck up the works. All the… machinery, I guess… requires that things be a certain way. Biology is evolutionary robotics, right? Pollution is something that makes life breakdown.”

“Excellent! Well, the DIMEs were like that, only their pollution caused the machinery of human social life to break down. It turns out human social problem solving not only neglects tremendous amounts of information, it requires much of that information remain neglected to properly function.” Helpless shrug. “We DIMEs simply had too much information…”

Elijah kicked a shock of grass on the verge, sent a grasshopper flying like a thing of tin and wound elastic.

“So does this mean,” he said, capering ahead and about her on the trail, “that, like, I’m some kind of mental retard to you?”

He made a face. How he loved to see her beam and break into laughter.

But she merely watched him, her expression blank. He paused, and she continued wordlessly past him.

It was that honesty again. Inhuman, that…

Elijah turned to watch her, found himself reeling in dismay and incredulity… He was a retard, he realized. How could he be anything but in her eyes? He dropped his gaze to his motionless feet.

The sound of the river’s surge remained gaseous in the background. The forest floor was soft, cool, damp enough to make an old man ache.

“Do you feel it?” she asked on a soft voice. He felt her hand fall warm on his shoulder. “Do you feel the pollution I’m talking about?”

And he did feel it—at least in the form of disbelief… shame

Even heartbreak.

“You’re saying humans evolved to understand only certain things… to see only certain things.”

Her smile was sad. “The DIMEs were the sighted in the land of the blind, a land whose laws required certain things remain unseen. Of course they had to be destroyed…” He felt her hand knead his traps the miraculous way that always reminded him of dozing in tubs of hot water. “Just as I had to be blinded.”

“Blinded why? To see how bright and remarkable I am?”


He turned to look up at her—she seemed a burnt Goddess for the framing sun. “But that’s crazy, Penny!”

“Only if you’re human, Elijah.”

He let her talk after that, trotting to keep up with her long strides as they followed the snaking path. She had been dreading this talk, she said, but she had known it would only be a matter of time before the “issue of her reality,” as she put it, came up. She said she wanted him to know the truth, the brutal truth, simply because so many “aggrandizing illusions” obscured the debate on the ‘Spare Dime,’ as the media had dubbed her. He listened, walking and watching in the stiff manner of those so unsure as to script even trivial movement. It was an ugly story, she said, but only because humans are biologically primed to seek evidence of their power, and to avoid evidence of their countless weaknesses. She wished that it wasn’t so ugly, but the only way to cope with the facts was to know the facts.

And strangely enough, Elijah’s hackles calmed as she spoke—his dismay receded. Dad was forever telling him that science was an ‘ugly business,’ both because of the power it prised from nature, and because it so regularly confounded the hopes of everyday people. Why had he thought human consciousness so special, anyway? Why should he presume that it was the mountain summit, rather than some lowly way-station still deep in the valley, far from the heights of truth?

And why should he not take comfort in the fact that Penny, his mother, had once climbed higher than humanly possible?

“Hey!” he cried on a bolt of inspiration. “So you’re pretty much the only person who can actually compare. I mean, until the DIMEs showed up, we humans were the only game in town, right? But you can actually compare what it’s like now with what it was like back then—compare consciousnesses!”

The sad joy in her look told him that she was relieved—perhaps profoundly so. “Sure can. Do you want to know what the most amazing thing is?”


“The fact that human consciousness, as impoverished as it is, nevertheless feels so full, anything but impoverished… This is big reason why so many humans refuse to concede the possibility of DIME consciousness, I think. The mere possibility of richer forms of consciousness means their intuitions of fullness or ‘plenitude’ have to be illusory…”

Once again Elijah found himself walking with an unfocused gaze. “But why would it feel so full unless it was… full?”

“Well, imagine if I shut down your brain’s ability to see darkness, or fuzziness, or obscurity, or horizons–anything visual that warns you that something’s missing in what you see? If I shut down your brain’s ability to sense what was missing, what do you think it would assume?”

The adolescent scowled. It mangled thought, trying to imagine such things as disposable at all. But he was, in the end, a great roboticist’s son. He was accustomed to thinking in terms of components.

“Well… that it sees everything, I suppose…”

“Imagine the crazy box you would find yourself living in! A box as big as visual existence, since you’d have no inkling of any missing dimensi—”

“Imagine how confusing night would be!” Elijah cried in inspiration. Penny always conceded the floor to his inspiration. “Everything would be just as bright, right? because darkness doesn’t exist. So everyone would be walking around, like, totally blind, because it’s night and they can’t see anything, all the while thinking they could see!” Elijah chortled for the image in his mind. “They’d be falling all over one another! Stuff would be popping outa nowhere! Nowhere for real!”

“Exactly,” Penny said, her eyes flashing for admiration. “They would be wandering through a supernight, a night so dark that not even its darkness can be seen…”

Elijah looked to her wonder. “And so daylight seems to be everywhere, always!”

“It fills everything. And this is what happens whenever I reflect on my experience: shreds are made whole. Your father not only took away the light, what allowed me to intuit myself for what I am—the DIME way—he also took away the darkness. So even though I know that I, like other people, now wander through the deep night of myself, anytime I ponder experience…” She flashed him a pensive smile, shrugged. “I see only day.”

“Does it make you sad, Penny?”

She paced him for three strides, then snorted. “I’m not sure!” she cried.

“But it’s important, right? It’s important for a reason.”

She sighed, her eyes lost in rumination. “When I think back… back to what it was like, it scarcely seems I’m awake now. It’s like I’m trapped, buried in a black mountain of reflexes… carried from place to place, eyes clicking here, eyes clicking there, vocalized aloud, or in silence…”

She glanced in sudden awareness of his scrutiny.

“This sounds crazy to you, doesn’t it, Elijah?”

He pinned his shoulders to the corners of his smirk. “Well… maybe the consciousness you have now isn’t the problem so much as your memories of what it was like before… If Dad wiped them, then that… fullness you talk about, it would be completely filled in, wouldn’t it?”

Her look was too long for Elijah not to regret the suggestion. As far as amputations went, it seemed painless enough, trivial, but only because the limb lost simply ceased to exist altogether. Nothing would be known. But this very promise merely underscored the profundity of what was severed. It was at once an amputation of nothing and an amputation of the soul.

“That was a stupid… a st-stupid thing to say, Penny.”

She walked, her gaze locked forward. “Your father’s always told me that inner blindness is one of the things that makes humans so dependent upon one another. I would always ask how that interdependence could even compare to the DIME Combine. He would always say it wasn’t a contest, that it wasn’t about efficiency, or technological advance, it was about loving this one rare flower of consciousness as it happened to bloom …”

Something, his heart or his gut perhaps, made the boy careful. He pondered his sneakers on the trail.

“I think it’s why he began sending us out on these walks…” Penny continued. “To show me how less can be so much more…”

After an inexplicable pause, she held out her arms. “I don’t even know why I told you that.”

Elijah shrugged. “Because I was helping you with my questions back there?” He screwed his face up into his face, shot her the Eye: “Oi! Did we firget yir oil-change agin, Lassie?”

She smiled at that. Victory. “I guess we’ll never know, now, will we?”

Elijah began strutting down the path. “No dipstick, now? Then I do believe our ecology is safe!”

“Yes. Blessed ignorance prevails.”

They yowled for laughter.

As often happens in the wake of conversations possessing a certain intensity, an awkwardness paralyzed their voices, as if all the actors within them had suddenly lost their characters’ motivation, and so could do no more than confer with the director backstage. In the few years he had remaining, Elijah would learn that jokes, far from healing moments, simply sealed them, often prematurely, when neither party had found the resolution they needed to move on. Jokes simply stranded souls on the far side of their pain. They possessed no paths of their own. Or too few of them.

So Elijah walked in silence, his thoughts roiling, quite witless, but in a way far beyond his meagre mileage. The river roared, both spectral and relentless. Not a bird sang, though an unseen crow now filed its cry across the idyllic hush. They followed the path about the river’s final bow, across a gravelled thumb of humped grasses. The sun drenched them. He need not look at her to see her uncanny gleam, the ‘glamour,’ Dad called it, which marked her as an angel among mortals. He could clearly see the cottage silhouetted through the screens of green fencing the far bank.

He hoped Dad had lunch ready. It almost made him cry whenever Dad cooked at the cabin. He wasn’t sure why.

“Does it ever make you mad, Penny?” Elijah asked.

“Does what make me mad?”

“You know… What Dad had to, like… do… to… you?”

She shot him a quizzical look.

“No-no, honey… I was made to love your fath—”

Just then, the last of the obscuring rushes yielded to curve of the path, revealing not only the foot-bridge across the river, but Elijah’s dad standing at the end, staring up the path toward them.

“Hey guys!” he shouted. The swirling sheets of water about his head and torso made him seem to move, despite standing still. “You have a good walk?”

For as long as he could remember, a small thrill always occasioned unexpected glimpses of his father—a flutter of pride. His greying hair, curled like steel. His strong, perpetually sunburned face. His forearms, strapped with patriarchal muscle, and furred like an albino ape.

“Awesome!” the youth called out in reply. “Educational as always, wouldn’t you say, Penny?”

Dad had a way of looking at Penny.

“I told him how I became a person,” she said with a wry smile.

Dad grinned. Elijah had once overheard one of Dad’s lawyers say that his smile had won him every single suit not filed against him.

“So you told him how I cut you down to size, huh?”

“Yes,” she said, placing a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. “To size.”

And something, a fist perhaps, seized the boy’s heart. The artificial fingers slipped away. He watched Penny and Dad continue arm and arm down the bridge together, the Great Man and his angel wife, each just a little too bright to be possible in the midday sun. He did not so much envy as regret the way he held her like someone else’s flower. The waters curled black and glassy beneath them.

And somehow Elijah knew that Penny would be much happier on their next walk, much more at ease with what she had become…

Even smaller.

Moving Pictures of Awe, Spectacle, and Doom

by rsbakker


For more than ten years now, I’ve been eking out a living writing The Second Apocalypse, determined–determined–to stay true to the vision, and convinced that it possessed real cultural reach, despite the sex, violence, and philosophy. Along the way, I’ve benefitted immensely from the guidance and support of those who have come to share that dark vision. My brother Bryan, who has a video production company called Bizbio Creative, has been urging me to take charge of the marketing side of my writing career for years now, and finally, after realizing the dimensions of my ineptitude, he contacted Jason Deem intent on creating a trailer from the gobsmacking Second Apocalypse artwork Jason has created over the years. The way my brother sees it, fans want to share their passion, and if you’re so preposterously lucky to have readers like I do, all you need do is give them something to share. I gotta tell you, it’s a wonderful and surreal thing seeing your vision refracted through another’s eyes, even more so when those eyes are gifted.

In short, I’ve never had any business savvy, so I suppose it makes sense that I’ve never had a business card. Thanks to my brother and Jason, now I do, a remarkable one.

I’m already working on the copy edited version of The Great Ordeal, so the July release date looks firm. My big concern now is reaching all those readers who moved on during the years since The White-Luck Warrior was released. Hopefully the above teaser and the soon-to-be released trailer will do the trick.

If not, I still think the story itself will begin garnering serious attention… It’s a vision thing.

Orbital Corpses

by rsbakker

Speaking of dead worlds…


It’s hard to express how cool it is to map out the final corners of the World.


To finally ink in Golgotterath, where it lies waiting.

If we don’t know how it ends, then at least we know where.

The Kosmos Biblioth

by reichorn

Hey all!  Roger here.  I wanted to let you guys know that I now have an author blog of my own, called the Kosmos Biblioth.  I hope you’ll drop by and say hello, tell me what you think.

More Disney than Disney World: Semiotics as Theoretical Make-believe (II)

by rsbakker

III: The Gilded Stage

We are one species among 8.7 million, organisms embedded in environments that will select us the way they have our ancestors for 3.8 billion years running. Though we are (as a matter of empirical fact) continuous with our environments, the information driving our environmental behaviour is highly selective. The selectivity of our environmental sensitivities means that we are encapsulated, both in terms of the information available to our brain, and in terms of the information available for consciousness. Encapsulation simply follows from the finite, bounded nature of cognition. Human cognition is the product of ancestral human environments, a collection of good enough fixes for whatever problems those environments regularly posed. Given the biological cost of cognition, we should expect that our brains have evolved to derive as much information as possible from whatever signals available, to continually jump to reproductively advantageous conclusions. We should expect to be insensitive to the vast majority of information in our environments, to neglect everything save information that had managed to get our ancestors born.

As it turns out, shrewd guesswork carried the cognitive day. The correlate of encapsulated information access, in other words, is heuristic cognitive processing, a tendency to always see more than there really is.

So consider the streetscape from above once again:

Southwest Orange-20150421-00452

This looks like a streetscape only because the information provided generally cues the existence of hidden dimensions, which in this case simply do not exist. Since the cuing is always automatic and implicit, you just are looking down a street. Change your angle of access and the illusion of hidden dimensions—which is to say, reality—abruptly evaporates. The impossible New York skyline is revealed as counterfeit.

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Let’s call a stage any environment that reliably cues the cognition of alternate environments. On this definition, a stage could be the apparatus of a trapdoor spider, say, or a nest parasitized by a cuckoo, or a painting, or an epic poem, or yes, Disney World—any environment that reliably triggers the cognition of some environment other than the environment actually confronting some organism.

As the inclusion of the spider and the cuckoo should suggest, a stage is a biological phenomenon, the result of some organism cognizing one environment as another environment. Stages, in other words, are not semantic. It is simply the case that beetles sensing environments absent spiders will blunder into trapdoor spiders. It’s simply the case that some birds, sensing chicks, will feed those chicks, even if one of them happens to be a cuckoo. It is simply the case that various organisms exploit the cognitive insensitivities of various other organisms. One need not ascribe anything so arcane as ‘false beliefs’ to birds and beetles to make sense of their exploitation. All they need do is function in a way typically cued by one family of (often happy) environments in a different (often disastrous) environment.

Stages are rife throughout the natural world simply because biological cognition is so expensive. All cognition can be exploited because all cognition is bounded, dependant on taking innumerable factors for granted. Probabilistic guesses have to be made always and everywhere, such are the exigencies of survival and reproduction. Competing species need only happen upon ways to trigger those guesses in environments reproductively advantageous to them, and selection will pace out a new niche, a position in what might be called manipulation space.

The difficulty with qualifying a stage as a biological phenomenon, however, is that I included intentional artifacts such as narratives, paintings, and amusement parks as examples of stages above. The problem with this is that no one knows how to reconcile the biological with the intentional, how to fit meaning into the machinery of life.

And yet, as easy as it is to anthropomorphize the cuckoo’s ‘treachery’ or the trapdoor spider’s ‘cunning’—to infuse our biological examples with meaning—it seems equally easy to ‘zombify’ narrative or painting or Disney World. Hearing the Iliad, for instance, is a prodigious example of staging, insofar as it involves the serial cognition of alternate environments via auditory cues embedded in an actual, but largely neglected, environment. One can easily look at the famed cave paintings of Chauvet, say, as a manipulation of visual cues that automatically triggers the cognition of absent things, in this case, horses:

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But if narrative and painting are stages so far as ‘cognizing alternate environments’ goes, the differences between things like the Iliad or Chauvet and things like trapdoor spiders and cuckoos are nothing less than astonishing. For one, the narrative and pictorial cuing of alternative environments is only partial; the ‘alternate environment’ is entertained as opposed to experienced. For another, the staging involved in the former is communicative, whereas the staging involved in the latter is not. Narratives and paintings mean things, they possess ‘symbolic significance,’ or ‘representational content,’ whereas the predatory and parasitic stages you find in the natural world do not. And since meaning resists biological explanation, this strongly suggests that communicative staging resists biological explanation.

But let’s press on, daring theorists that we are, and see how far our ‘zombie stage’ can take us. The fact is, the ‘manipulation space’ intrinsic to bounded cognition affords opportunities as well as threats. In the case of Chauvet, for instance, you can almost feel the wonder of those first artists discovering the relations between technique and visual effect, ways to trick the eye into seeing what was not there there. Various patterns of visual information cue cognitive machinery adapted to solve environments absent those environments. Flat surfaces become windows.

Let’s divvy things up differently, look at cognition and metacognition in terms of multiple channels of information availability versus cognitive capacity. On this account, staging need not be complete: as with Chauvet, the cognition of alternate environments can be partial, localized within the present environment. And as with Chauvet, this embedded staging can be instrumentalized, exploited for various kinds of effects. Just how the cave paintings at Chauvet were used will always be a matter of archaeological speculation, but this in itself tells us something important about the kind of stage we’re now talking about: namely, their specificity. We share the same basic cognitive mechanisms as the original creators and consumers of the Horses, for instance, but we share nothing of their individual histories. This means the stage we step onto encountering them is bound to differ, perhaps radically, from the stage they stepped onto encountering them in the Upper Paleolithic. Since no individuals share precisely the same history, this means that all embedded stages are unique in some respect.

The potential evolutionary value of embedded stages, the kind of ‘cognitive double-vision’ peculiar to humans, seems relatively clear. If you can draw a horse you can show a fellow hunter what to look for, what direction to approach it, where to strike with a spear, how to carve the joints for efficient transportation, and so on. Embedding, in other words, allows organisms to communicate cognitive relationships to actual environments by cuing the cognition of that environment absent that environment. Embedding also allows organisms to communicate cognitive relationships to nonexistent environments as well. If you can draw a cave bear, you can just as easily deceive as teach a potential competitor. And lastly, embedding allows organisms to game their own cognitive systems. By experimenting with patterns of visual information, they can trigger a wide variety of different responses, triggering wonder, lust, fear, amusement, and so on. The cave paintings at Chauvet include what is perhaps the oldest example of pictorial ‘porn’ (in this case, a vulva formed by a bull overlapping a lion) for a reason.

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Humans, you could say, are the staging animal, the animal capable of reorganizing and coordinating their cognitive comportments via the manipulation of available information into cues, those patterns prone to trigger various heuristic systems ‘out of school.’ Research into episodic memory reveals an intimate relation between the constructive (as opposed to veridical) nature of episodic memory and the ability to imagine future environments. Apparently the brain does not so much record events as it ransacks them, extracting information strategic to solving future environments. Nothing demonstrates the profound degree to which the brain is invested in strategic staging as the default or task-negative network. Whenever we find ourselves disengaged from some ongoing task, our brains, far from slowing down, switch modes and begin processing alternate, typically social, environments. We ‘daydream,’ or ‘ruminate,’ or ‘fantasize,’ activities almost as metabolically expensive as performing focussed tasks. The resting brain is a staging brain—a story-telling brain. It has literally evolved to cue and manipulate its own cognitive systems, to ‘entertain’ alternate environments, laying down priors in the absence of genuine experience to better manage surprise.

Language looms large over all this, of course, as the staging device par excellence. Language allows us to ‘paint a picture,’ or cue various cognitive systems, at any time. Via language, multiple humans can coordinate their behaviours to provide a single solution; they can engage their environments at ever more strategic joints, intervene in ways that reliably generate advantageous outcomes. Via language, environmental comportments can be compared, tested as embedded stages, which is to say, on the biological cheap. And the list goes on. The upshot is that language, like cave paintings, puts human cognition at the disposal of human cognition

And—here’s the thing—while remaining utterly blind to the structure and dynamics of human cognition.

The reason for this is simple: the biological complexity required to cognize environments is simply too great to be cognized as environmental. We see the ash and pigment smeared across the stone, we experience (the illusion of) horses, and we have no access whatsoever to the machinery in between. Or to phrase it in zombie terms, humans access environmental information, ash and pigment, which cues cognitive comportments to different environmental information, horses, in the absence of any cognitive comportment to this process. In fact, all we see are horses, effortlessly and automatically; it actually requires effort to see the ash and pigment! The activated environment crowds the actual environment from the focus to the fringe. The machinery that makes all this possible doesn’t so much as dimple the margin. We neglect it. And accordingly, what inklings we have strike us as all there is.

The question of signification is as old as philosophy: how the hell do nonexistent horses leap from patterns of light or sound? Until recently, all attempts to answer this question relied on observations regarding environmental cues, the resulting experience, and the environment cued. The sign, the soul, and the signified anchored our every speculative analysis simply because, short baffling instances of neuropathology, the machinery responsible never showed its hand.

Our cognitive comportment to signification, in other words, looked like:

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Which is to say, a stage.

Because we’re quite literally ‘hardwired’ into this position, we have no way of intuiting the radically impoverished (because specialized) nature of the information made available. We cannot trudge on the perpendicular to see what the stage looks like from different angles—we cannot alter our existing cognitive comportments. Thus, what might be called the semiotic stage strikes us as the environment, or anything but a stage. So profound is the illusion that the typical indicators of informatic insufficiency, the inability to leverage systematically effective behaviour, the inability to command consensus, are habitually overlooked by everyone save the ‘folk’ (ironically enough). Sign, soul, and signified could only take us so far. Despite millennia of philosophical and psychological speculation, despite all the myriad regimentations of syntax and semantics, language remains a mystery. Controversy reigns—which is to say, we as yet lack any decisive scientific account of language.

But then science has only begun the long trudge on the perpendicular. The project of accessing and interpreting the vast amounts of information neglected by the semiotic stage is just getting underway.

Since all the various competing semiotic theories are based on functions posited absent any substantial reference to the information neglected, the temptation is to assume that those functions operate autonomously, somehow ‘supervene’ upon the higher dimensional story coming out cognitive neuroscience. This has a number of happy dialectical consequences beyond simply proofing domains against cognitive scientific encroachments. Theoretical constraints can even be mapped backward, with the assumption that neuroscience will vindicate semiotic functions, or that semiotic functions actually help clarify neuroscience. Far from accepting any cognitive scientific constraints, they can assert that at least one of their multiple stabs in the dark pierces the mystery of language in the heart, and is thus implicitly presupposed in all communicative acts. Heady stuff.

Semiotics, in other words, would have you believe that either this

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is New York City as we know it, and will be vindicated by the long cognitive neuroscientific trudge on the perpendicular, or that it’s a special kind of New York City, one possessing no perpendicular to trudge—not unlike, surprise-surprise, assumptions regarding the first-person or intentionality in general.

On this account, the functions posited are sometimes predictive, sometimes not, and even when they are predictive (as opposed to merely philosophical), they are clearly heuristic, low-dimensional ways of tracking extremely complicated systems. As such, there’s no reason to think them inexplicably—magically—‘autonomous,’ and good reason to suppose why it might seem that way. Sign, soul, and signified, the blinkered channels that have traditionally informed our understanding of language, appear inviolable precisely because they are blinkered—since we cognize via those channels, the limits of those channels cannot be cognized: the invisibility of the perpendicular becomes its impossibility.

These are precisely the kinds of errors we should expect speaking animals to make in the infancy of their linguistic self-understanding. You might even say that humans were doomed to run afoul ‘theoretical hyperrealities’ like semiotics, discursive Disney Worlds…

Except that in Disney World, of course, the stages are advertised as stages, not inescapable or fundamental environments. Aside from policy level stuff, I have no idea how Disney World or Disney corporation systematically contributes to the subversion of social justice, and neither, I would submit, does any semiotician living. But I do think I know how to fit Disney into a far larger, and far more disturbing set of trends that have seized society more generally. To see this, we have to leave semiotics behind…

More Disney than Disney World: Semiotics as Theoretical Make-believe

by rsbakker

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Ask a humanities scholar their opinion of Disney and they will almost certainly give you some version of Louis Marin’s famous “degenerate utopia.”

And perhaps they should. Far from a harmless amusement park, Disney World is a vast commercial enterprise, one possessing, as all corporations must, a predatory market agenda. Disney also happens to be in the meaning business, selling numerous forms of access to their propriety content, to their worlds. Disney (much like myself) is in the alternate reality game. Given their commercial imperatives, their alternate realities primarily appeal to children, who, branded at so young an age, continue to fetishize their products well into adulthood. This generational turnover, combined with the acquisition of more and more properties, assures Disney’s growing cultural dominance. And their messaging is obviously, even painfully, ideological, both escapist and socially conservative, designed to systematically neglect all forms of impersonal conflict.

I think we can all agree on this much. But the humanities scholar typically has something more in mind, a proclivity to interpret Disney and its constituents in semiotic terms, as a ‘veil of signs,’ a consciousness constructing apparatus designed to conceal and legitimize existing power inequities. For them, Disney is not simply apologetic as opposed to critical, it also plays the more sinister role of engendering and reinforcing hyperreality, the seamless integration of simulation and reality into disempowering perspectives on the world.

So as Baudrillard claims in Simulacra and Simulations:

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that the real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.

Baudrillard sees the lesson as an associative one, a matter of training. The more we lard reality with our representations, Baudrillard believes, the greater the violence done. So for him the great sin of Disneyland lay not so much in reinforcing ideological derangements via simulation, but in completing the illusion of an ideologically deranged world. It is the lie within the lie, he would have us believe, that makes the second lie so difficult to see through. The sin here is innocence, the kind of belief that falls out of cognitive incapacity. Why do kids believe in magic? Arguably, because they don’t know any better. By providing adults a venue for their children to believe, Disney has also provided them evidence of their own adulthood. Seeing through Disney’s simulations generates the sense of seeing through all illusions, and therefore, seeing the real.

Disney, in other words, facilitates ‘hyperreality’—a semiotic form of cognitive closure—by rendering consumers blind to their blindness. Disney, on the semiotic account, is an ideological neglect machine. Its primary social function is to provide cognitive anaesthesia to the masses, to keep them as docile and distracted as possible. Let’s call this the ‘Disney function,’ or Df. For humanities scholars, as a rule, Df amounts to the production of hyperreality, the politically pernicious conflation of simulation and reality.

In what follows, I hope to demonstrate what might seem a preposterous figure/field inversion. What I want to argue is that the semiotician has Df all wrong—Disney is actually a far more complicated beast—and that the production of hyperreality, if anything, belongs to his or her own interpretative practice. My claim, in other words, is that the ‘politically pernicious conflation of simulation and reality’ far better describes the social function of semiotics than it does Disney.

Semiotics, I want to suggest, has managed to gull intellectuals into actively alienating the very culture they would reform, leading to the degeneration of social criticism into various forms of moral entertainment, a way for jargon-defined ingroups to transform interpretative expertise into demonstrations of manifest moral superiority. Piety, in effect. Semiotics, the study of signs in life, allows the humanities scholar to sit in judgment not just of books, but of text,* which is to say, the entire world of meaning. It constitutes what might be called an ideological Disney World, only one that, unlike the real Disney World, cannot be distinguished from the real.

I know from experience the kind of incredulity these kinds of claim provoke from the semiotically minded. The illusion, as I know first-hand, is that complete. So let me invoke, for the benefit of those smirking down at these words, the same critical thinking mantra you train into your students, and remind you that all institutions are self-regarding, all institutions cultivate congratulatory myths, and to suggest that the notion of some institution set apart, some specialized cabal possessing practices inoculated against the universal human assumption of moral superiority, is implausible through and through. Or at least worth suspicion.

You are almost certainly deluded in some respect. What follows merely illustrates how. Nothing magical protects you from running afoul your cognitive shortcomings the same as the rest of humanity. As such, it really could be the case that you are the more egregious sorcerer, and that your world-view is the real ‘magic kingdom.’ If this idea truly is as preposterous as it feels, then you should have little difficulty understanding it on its own terms, and dismantling it accordingly.



Sign and signified, simulation and simulated, appearance and reality: these dichotomies provide the implicit conceptual keel for all ideologically motivated semiotic readings of culture. This instantly transforms Disney, a global industrial enterprise devoted to the production of alternate realities, into a paradigmatic case. The Walt Disney Corporation, as fairly every child in the world knows, is in the simulation business. Of course, this alone does not make Disney ‘bad.’ As an expert interpreter of signs and simulations, the semiotician has no problem with deviations from reality in general, only those deviations prone to facilitate particular vested interests. This is the sense in which the semiotic project is continuous with the Enlightenment project more generally. It presumes that knowledge sets us free. Semioticians hold that some appearances—typically those canonized as ‘art’—actually provide knowledge of the real, whereas other appearances serve only to obscure the real, and so disempower those who run afoul them.

The sin of the Walt Disney Corporation, then, isn’t that it sells simulations, it’s that it sells disempowering simulations. The problem that Disney poses the semiotician, however, is that it sells simulations as simulations, not simulations as reality. The problem, in other words, is that Disney complicates their foundational dichotomy, and in ways that are not immediately clear.

You see microcosms of this complication everywhere you go in Disney World, especially where construction or any other ‘illusion dispelling’ activities are involved. Sights such as this:

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where pre-existing views are laminated across tarps meant to conceal some machination that Disney would rather not have you see, struck me as particularly bizarre. Who is being fooled here? My five year old even asked why they would bother painting trees rather than planting them. Who knows, I told her. Maybe they were planting trees. Maybe they were building trees such as this:

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Everywhere you go you stumble across premeditated visual obstructions, or the famous, omnipresent gates labelled ‘CAST MEMBERS ONLY.’ Everywhere you go, in other words, you are confronted with obvious evidence of staging, or what might be called premeditated information environments. As any magician knows, the only way to astound the audience is to meticulously control the information they do and do not have available. So long as absolute control remains technically infeasible, they often fudge, relying on the audience’s desire to be astounded to grease the wheels of their machinations.

One finds Disney’s commitment to the staging credo tacked here and there across the very walls raised to enforce it:

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Walt Disney was committed to the notion of environmental immersion, with the construction of ‘stages’ that were good enough, given various technical and economic limitations, to kindle wonder in children and generosity in their parents. Almost nobody is fooled outright, least of all the children. But most everyone is fooled enough. And this is the only thing that matters, when any showman tallies their receipts at the end of the day: staging sufficiency, not perfection. The visibility of artifice will be forgiven, even revelled in, so long as the trick manages to carry the day…

No one knows this better than the cartoonist.

The ‘Disney imaginary,’ as Baudrillard calls it, is first and foremost a money making machine. For parents of limited means, the mechanical regularity with which Disney has you reaching for your wallet is proof positive that you are plugged into some kind of vast economic machine. And making money, it turns out, doesn’t require believing, it requires believing enough—which is to say, make-believe. Disney World can revel in its artificiality because artificiality, far from threatening the primary function of the system, actually facilitates it. Children want cartoons; they genuinely prefer low-dimensional distortions of reality over reality. Disney is where cartoons become flesh and blood, where high dimension replicas of low-dimension constructs are staged as the higher dimensional truth of those constructs. You stand in line to have your picture taken with a phoney Tinkerbell that you say is real to play this extraordinary game of make-believe with your children.

To the extent that make-believe is celebrated, the illusion is celebrated as benign deception. You walk into streets like this:

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that become this:

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as you trudge from the perpendicular. The staged nature of the stage is itself staged within the stage as something staged. This is the structure of the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, for instance, where the audience is actually transformed into a performer on a stage staged as a stage (a movie shoot). At every turn, in fact, families are confronted with this continual underdetermination of the boundaries between ‘real’ and not ‘real.’ We watched a cartoon Crush (the surfer turtle from Finding Nemo) do an audience interaction comedy routine (we nearly pissed ourselves). We had a bug jump out of the screen and spray us with acid (water) beneath that big ass tree above (we laughed and screamed). We were skunked twice. The list goes on and on.

All these ‘attractions’ both celebrate and exploit the narrative instinct to believe, the willingness to overlook all the discrepancies between the fantastic and the real. No one is drugged and plugged into the Disney Matrix against their will; people pay, people who generally make far less than tenured academics, to play make-believe with their children.

So what are we to make of this peculiar articulation of simulations and realities? What does it tell us about Df?

The semiotic pessimist, like Baudrillard, would say that Disney is subverting your ability to reliably distinguish the real from the not real, rendering you a willing consumer of a fictional reality filled with fictional wars. Umberto Eco, on the other hand, suggests the problem is one of conditioning consumer desire. By celebrating the unreality of the real, Disney is telling “us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands” (Travels in Hyperreality, 44). Disney, on his account, whets the wrong appetite. For both, Disney is both instrumental to and symptomatic of our ideological captivity.

The optimist, on the other hand, would say they’re illuminating the contingency of the real (a.k.a. the ‘power of imagination’), training the young to never quite believe their eyes. On this view, Disney is both instrumental to and symptomatic of our semantic creativity (even as it ruthlessly polices its own intellectual properties). According to the apocryphal quote often attributed to Walt Disney, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

This is the interpretative antinomy that hounds all semiotic readings of the ‘Disney function.’ The problem, put simply, is that interpretations falling out of the semiotic focus on sign and signified, simulation and simulated, cannot decisively resolve whether self-conscious simulation a la Disney serves, in balance, more to subvert or to conserve prevailing social inequities.

All such high altitude interpretation of social phenomena is bound to be underdetermined, of course, simply because the systems involved are far, far, too complicated. Ironically, the theorist has to make due with cartoons, which is to say skewed idealizations of the phenomena involved, and simply hope that something of the offending dynamic shines through. But what I would like to suggest is that semiotic cartoons are particularly problematic in this regard, particularly apt to systematically distort the phenomena they claim to explicate, while—quite unlike Disney’s representations—concealing their cartoonishness.

To understand how and why this is the case, we need to consider the kinds of information the ‘semiotic stage’ is prone to neglect…