Disclaimer: Greg Desilet, who turns 71 the day I write this, is an elder. As such I wish to extend both my appreciation and respect for his greater experience, at least in terms of years on this earth. It is possible that in my still-impetuous “youth,” I may be tempted to steamroller over his insights.
What follows is my response to a (unpublished) 4,800-word review he wrote of 16 Maps of Hell and sent my way last week, and following a back-and-forth email discussion about it.
Designed & Engineered Control
First of all, thanks for being so amenable to criticism—I will try and follow your example!—and for being open-hearted even when, in my view, so wrong-headed! Apologies in advance if some of this comes off as overly competitive; it’s not meant to be but on the other hand, I don’t want to mince words because it takes so much longer, at both ends!
My impression is that you have taken away from my book that which supports your own beliefs and rejected everything that would cause you to question them. The result is that you have split, not only the book but yourself (or at least your review), down the middle.
The review practices a species of doublethink which I find consistent with the overly academic victim-perpetrators of “critical theory” and its ever-multiplying spin-offs, that veer further and further into disembodied pseudo-wisdom at the cost of common sense. In this regard, postmodernism and New-Ageism are like bastard twins, one legitimate, the other illegitimate, but essentially bearing the same genetic features (Marxism & Theosophy arose during the same period and from the same place, curiously enough).
Concrete example? There is a line near the start of your review: “the high priests of this secular religion have been thoroughly exposed as sorcerers conjuring a dark spell and casting it across the entire expanse of consumers of popular film and culture.” This sounds more like early copy I wrote for the book than your own perspective, and sure enough, this early affirmation of the book’s thesis is thoroughly contradicted later on. It makes me wonder what you mean when you use the word “sorcery”? Rabbits out of hats—or something firmly confined to the realms of academia (i.e., metaphor)? If so, it is very (or subtly?) different to what 16 Maps is mapping.
You write, “Frighteningly enough, it’s difficult to argue with his diagnosis of the trauma and pathology currently befalling us as a species;” after which you find multiple ways to do just that. One of them—“These agencies themselves are symptoms rather than causes”—is something I agree with and state in the book. Yet you seem to want to extend this to suggesting that the symptoms don’t exist:
“But to imagine the influence they exert spreads out into the world with effects largely conforming to designed and engineered control exceeds anything that can be demonstrated.”
Hands of a clock may not create time; but they certainly do measure it, and thereby indicate a force (besides the cogs of the machine) moving them forward. Ditto with the symptoms that are not first-causes, yet nonetheless have some sort of effects, in line with whatever creates them (symptoms and disease are really one thing, not two). This is what the book sets out to demonstrate, as you affirmed in your opening paragraphs; if it failed, then so did the book.
The rest of your review seems like an attempt by its author to push away the awareness briefly let in by the book, by asserting opinions (they aren’t really arguments) about how the world works. Yet your worldview is disturbingly similar to the one my last few books attempt to undermine and invalidate, albeit with a bit of po-mo pseudo-mysticism thrown in.
My advice to the “imposers” Horsley mentions at the outset of his book as part of the circle of malign agents of ruin is: good luck! They will meet with as much success as the person trying to herd cats—especially so in a culture having grown increasingly enamored, since the Second World War, of the slogan “Don’t tread on me.”
It is hard for me to imagine a bigger miss of the book’s thesis. Where do you think a slogan like this came from? Are you really advocating the (manufactured) culture of rebellion, resistance, and revolution as the antidote to “patriarchy”? This is like telling us to trust the good cop to save us from the bad one.
At base of your position, as far as I can tell, seems to be a deep faith in evil (the irony!), i.e. in culture and the many Hydra-like institutions it creates to further its agendas, that this rough Borgian beast will somehow course-correct and become the instrument of our salvation and not our slavation. That you hold onto this faith either indicates that my book has failed, epically, to do its job, or that you failed, equally epically, to grok it (the two diagnoses are really one). To stay liminal, I’ll include some mysterious third option, that of a faith beyond despair that “everything that is, is holy.” I actually agree with this mystical point of view, but I suspect yours is closer to the postmodern counterfeit, that everything that is, is holey, i.e., wholly subjective, and therefore divorced from—unaccountable to—objective reality. This is the “satanic” credo, as championed by my brother: we are what we pretend to be, and the clothes (culture) maketh the man.
I think this is also suggested by your use of the word “cynical” in our email exchange to describe my own perspective. I don’t experience it that way, not primarily at any rate. The key difference, maybe, is that I never fully believed in the emperor’s new clothes (culture) to begin with, and that what you call cynical is for me a process of liberation. I don’t feel overly bitter or disappointed by the realization that all my heroes and objects of worship are compromised or by the realization I will never enter their manufactured pantheon. I am willing to toss baby out with the bathwater, when all the signs suggest it died long ago.
The irony for me is that you have written what you think of as a positive review of the book while rejecting its thesis and its raison d’être, even to the point of coming to the defense of a Leonard Cohen or a Kirk Douglas (calling on the language of courts, i.e., institutions, to do so), and (by implication, somewhat paradoxically) the whole #MeToo cancel culture. Does Greg’s left hand know what his right is up to, I wonder?
You would prefer me to “make [my] case by focusing entirely on the products of this culture without diving into the stories, whether confirmed or unconfirmed, of the makers of the products.” In other words, go back to being a film critic and leave off trying to be a psychosocial historian! You say that “The products themselves are incriminating enough, as Horsley is well aware (by their products ye shall know them!).” But we have already seen (you and I, in previous discussions) that critical acumen + personal taste is insufficient as a tool to discern the healthiness or unhealthiness of cultural product, whether it’s art or exploitation, or (as 16 Maps argues) both in one. You want to reject (and invert) my whole approach, which is that to know the fruit, tasting it is not enough: we have to study the whole tree.
Sick and Dazed
“These products function as the delivery system for a range of effects, working in concert, to strip consumers of faculties necessary for healthy community.”
That’s an accurate summation of one of my central arguments; but when you add: “The more genuine substance of Horsley’s book emerges through his diagnosis of the disease-carrying contents of current entertainment products rather than through the salacious tabloid exposures of Hollywood operators and celebrities and their shocking crimes”—your desire to separate the two is a desire to divorce my arguments from objective reality. (Very postmodernist of you, no doubt.)
Another concrete example:
“A small minority of particularly vulnerable individuals within a community or society may succumb to such effects with devastating consequences, as in the case of the shooter in the Aurora, Colorado, theater tragedy and other mass shootings.”
Here you are conveniently ignoring—out of a cognitive bias against conspiracy—the evidence of government deception and manipulation around this incident, i.e., that it was (in the lingo) almost indubitably a psyop. You are playing solitaire with half a deck and filling in the blanks with winning cards. As long as my argument remains abstract, general, and impersonal, you are in agreement with it; but when it comes to the down and dirty details, where the devil is, you start to gag on the gristle. You lack the stomach for the meatier parts of this book—understandably, since others have said it left them feeling sick and dazed.
Here’s a response I received (solicited) from another reader, a longtime follower of my work with his own laboratorium:
Actually easy reading until chapter 11+12 when the full weight of the thing crashes upon the reader. tea breaks were taken. the woods we walked in. had to wait a day or two before I picked it up again.
[I asked for clarification]
With an exception of the Epstein case study, up until chapter 10 most if not all of the book is about “past” events and, ahem “stars”—your Hitchcock, Nicholson, Polanski, Manson, etc. I feel like I have been completely desensitized to these events and people from 37 years of media rotting in my guts. But something happens, maybe it’s at the start of book two…
Detour: book one felt like a “review” which allowed the joys of reading to be foremost in my experience of the book. body related. am I comfortable ? is there too much honey in my tea ? how are my posture and breath ? .. all that
right, back to book two: I felt like I stepped out of the forgetting chamber (a body perhaps akin to an ether body or something, but in no way spiritual or good, this was a fake-energy body of mine that I sometimes could feel resisting the reading of book two. Meaning I couldn’t find a spot to read or get comfortable, the tea was never right, etc.) That chamber/body allowed me to “forget” all these things about film/society/myself (and the events of book one) that I know are poison to the/my spirit. But the events in book two become “current” and I started to have this visceral sense that “the empire never ended and people (myself included) will fight to keep it alive both in themselves and outside of themselves,” and I couldn’t help but FEEL that anti-humanness of this empire and that it was the motivator of some of my actions (thankfully not many) in the world. There is a sense of the species on the tracks, running towards a speeding train and I can’t stop it and not only that, part of me wants to run with them.
Now that‘s a review (a pure visceral response)!
“Horsley fails to mention, in the course of presenting a host of celebrity crimes and ensuing punishments, the significance of the downfall of these perpetrators. This list includes names such as: Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Michael Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Gary Goddard, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, etc.”
Horsley doesn’t fail to mention it, he just doesn’t believe in it. The book refers to the significance of this theater of blame, and speculates how it suggests industry infighting. But to argue that it implies an actual clean-up or accounting of the superculture depends on a faulty reading of events, and of history itself. Of the above list, for example, only half (Weinstein, Epstein, Spacey, Goddard) underwent any kind of a downfall, while the others are still making films and/or—if dead—firmly established in the canon. But even if they had been dethroned/redacted, there are no lasting consequences for the industry itself. And even if there were, there is no sign of a positive shift within the culture at large.
Unless, that is, you are of the mindset that #MeToo or #BLM are not every bit as cynically manipulated social engineering psyop as any Hollywood product. (A can of worms the book does not dig into.) The above quote from your review is why I described (in our email exchange) your postmodernist, deconstructive viewpoint as Pollyannaish, making it a first cousin, once-removed of New Age positivist affirmation. It lacks tarmac to test or prove it is even rubber, existing in a self-congratulating, ideologically constructed vacuum.
Concrete example: the mystical ditty you shared in our email exchange, “there is no end—ever.” We both know that Greg’s life will end, Jasun’s life will end, and that humanity itself will end, sooner or later. The when, where, how, and why of it may yet be indeterminate, but surely this only underscores the urgency for a real accounting, one which (I feel) your reading of 16 Maps of Hell manages to dodge by not acknowledging the extent of effective colonization and control—and conscious design—at work in the world and in our lives (what I call sorcery).
Instead, the Pollyanna in you wants to insist that “gains can be made in radically altering that culture by continuing to apply the pressure of critique, dissent, and boycott to the core of its entrenched unethical and destructive practices.”
Can they? I would say that individuals can become more aware, over time, in their own lives; that they/we can start to assume responsibility for our choices, certainly. But that trying to extend this awakening from the nightmare of culture into a refurnishing of the nightmare is a way to continue to consent to its hold over us and demonstrates just how little we have awoken. Desilet’s solution is part of Horsley’s desolation.
You conclude: “the power Horsley ascribes to the ‘blood poets’ of cinema may be significantly oversized.”
I think I am understating it, precisely to get past the defenses of readers such as yourself, and to avoid sensationalizing the subject. And once again, your statement is directly opposed to ones made at the start of the review, as well as to the thesis of the book.
Are we lost in the eternal sunshine of Desilet’s mind?
In the realm of entertainment, subversive power dominates established power when subversive art content and its medium present a new, unusual, and unanticipated quality experienced as sweepingly life-enhancing difference. This experience of quality through the introduction of a life-enhancing difference bends the trajectory of culture in ways exceeding anything established culture can control or stem. This is why art, in every form, has always led culture and why technology and the medium, despite the capacity to transform the environment, remain ultimately subordinate to art and its content.
TL;DR: Subversive art overcomes everything and human culture is led by the artists. It’s hard for me to imagine a claim more at odds with the book’s thesis than this one. The irony of it appearing in a positive review of the book positively makes my head spin. It also makes me wonder, if this is your view, what you have been railing against in your own books and why you write cultural criticism at all. If subversive (good) art has always led culture, what’s the problem? Why not tend your garden and sit back and enjoy the show? After all, we already have the world we have always wanted, a world shaped and led by sweepingly life-enhancing subversive artists. . .
In case there was any doubt, the flip side of Pollyanna’s promise: “Co-opting art to serve political or military or corporate ends will always fail.”
Except that, so far, it hasn’t. Unless we are already in the best of all possible worlds, or soon to be?
Desilet: “corruption eventually announces its corruption.”
Except that, Desilet still believes the corpse of culture is alive and well; so clearly, it doesn’t.
“This optimistic view may sound naïve” [It sounds deluded to me, call me a cynic] but history demonstrates again and again how decadence and corruption repeatedly succumb to the quality of life-enhancing difference.”
I am confused. I thought part of the postmodernist view was that history demonstrates again and again how the patriarchy abuses power endlessly to exploit and undermine the weak? But maybe that’s post-postmodernism; let’s not get distracted.
“Even where it may be asked: how can that which is genuinely life-enhancing be reliably identified? the answer remains as simple as asking how may fresh air, clean water, or healthy food be identified? One knows soon enough.”
Then why are so few people taking fresh air, drinking clean water, or eating healthy food these days?
“as Nietzsche once said. . .” (Is Nietzsche Greg’s idea of a life-enhancing artist?)
“will the media of technology inevitably overwhelm the content of art by eventually succeeding in creating toxic environments altering human nature beyond recognition or transforming the global landscape beyond what can support human life?”
Eventually? The use of future tense indicates you may be living in the past, Greg. What if humanity is already done and dusted and all that remains is the sweep-up? That would make this sort of naïve optimism potentially fatal, for you and your loved ones.
“Nature may still take wrong turns in tinkering with life, as is evident in crippling mutations that leave an organism vulnerable and sometimes incapacitated in the drama of survival. But Nature overcomes these wrong turns as the life-force continues with natural course corrections thwarting predictions of doom. The human task is to give life its best chance and that begins by keeping this planet not merely habitable but optimally habitable.”
I think I spy a hint of the social engineer/utopianist in Desilet here, one who perhaps believes (for example) that Donald Trump is a bad president who needs to be removed from power even if it can only be done through fraud and deceit (just say), because, let’s face it, there are too many crippling mutations among the American people right now and the majority don’t know what’s good for them anymore. Am I wrong?
Surely the human task is to not to save the planet but to become fully aware of what it means to be human? In my life, this involves becoming fully aware of everything that has cut us off from our humanness (ancestry)—also known as “mapping Hell.” Mapping hell and creating heaven on earth are not complementary. They may even be mutually exclusive, at least if we try and put the cart before the mule.
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” (Corinthians 4:4)
My guess Greg—and it’s just a guess, human beings are complex and many-faceted, and I have my own blind spots—is that you have failed to spy the hidden perpetrator which 16 Maps aims to identify, namely: ideology. Central to ideology is the belief in culture and in human industry and effort (the power of the mind) as a positive force for reshaping the world in man’s image. Isn’t postmodernism just that: everything is to be deconstructed except—since something must remain in order for the whole endeavor not to come unraveled—identity? (For more about how ideology and things like critical race theory work to coopt the life force, see “The Social Revenge Fantasist: Scapegoating Patriarchy, Generational Trauma, & the Identity Police State.”)
There is surely a middle way, between art as a Trojan Horse for malevolent, soul-possessing, latah-making hungry ghosts, and art as the only thing that will save us? I am aware that I have my own unresolved issues around this (that’s the central subject of 16 Maps of Hell). I am aware that I suffer from divided cognition (as encapsulated in the Montaigne quote that opens the book) and that it may strike a dissonant note through the text, and in the reader’s psyche. It’s possible Desilet is picking up on this, and trying to point it out; if so, it’s unfortunate that he may be falling back on his own set of beliefs to do so, which is like fighting fire with gasoline.
To clarify: I am not trying to argue with 16 Maps that art, or even propaganda, have led us into the current mess we are in. Only to state that it is inarguable that neither the best efforts nor the best intentions—of greater artists than Desilet or Horsley will ever be—have prevented us from arriving where we are currently situated, in Hell, on the brink of self-destruction.
“The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (John 5:19)
I don’t present this as evidence of the limitations of art, but of how even the highest forms of art are revealed, or somehow reconfigured—into culture—as compatible with the machinations of darker forces. The human-ancestral unconscious may be the deepest mappable layer of this drive to destruction, but I suspect there’s a deeper one still, a fundamentally anti-life force that only religion—not yet science, psychology, or philosophy—has identified. If so, it doesn’t really matter how high the culture or how fine the art, because none of it digs deep enough to uncover, much less address or resolve, the core problem.
In this light (or dark), it is odd to me that Greg quotes Marshall McLuhan, as quoted in 16 Maps, approvingly:
“Electric information environments, being utterly ethereal, foster the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance . . . a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ.”
The core issue, in my estimation, is neither the culture nor the culture makers, but that which drives both and makes a superculture. Desilet seems to wish to believe that this mysterious anti-life force is neither seeing nor intelligent, hence of no significant threat to human destiny. If we replace human destiny with spirit, I might be open to agreement, with the latter part at least. (And even with the first part, if we say that this anti-life force is blind and unintelligent to spiritual reality.)
But, at the level at which Desilet is positing intelligence and agency—as something average humans possess—I would say he is being falsely optimistic, and that he is quite drastically outmatched in his dismissal of a real (pre-postmodern) Adversary. This may be why he downplays in his review—and in his worldview—the evidence, whether represented by military psyop, programmed serial killers, Hollywood sorcerers, or Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein, of malevolence operating at the highest, deepest institutional (and ideological) levels of human society and culture, and that it is central to determining the shape, substance, and direction of it, and of humanity entire.
And finally, a profound irony
Greg Desilet admires my work (specifically Seen & Not Seen, Prisoner of Infinity, and now 16 Maps of Hell; he skipped over Dark Oasis and Vice of Kings due to his work load). He wants to support it and encourage others to read it. He even gave me a blurb, about how I write “books that everyone should read.”
So when he argues that there is a positive sort of creativity, and aspect to culture, that not only can but does transform the bad (roughly), presumably this is the perspective from which he is reviewing, and praising, my own work. Presumably, this is also the context he is hoping to place it in, and obviously I would like to believe this. Except that, to do so, I would have to reject my own thesis! Paradox, conundrum, Catch 22, cognitive dissonance galore.
Here’s a possibility: maybe when I am being so hard on (rigorous with) the arts, I am also being unnecessarily, compulsively, hard on myself? I still watch movies and TV shows, after all. Lately, a day does not go by in which I don’t anticipate doing so and then wrestle masochistically with the creeping awareness of my unredeemed, possibly irredeemable, hypocrisy, like a tongue drawn irresistibly to an infected tooth.
Maybe what Greg is really saying is, “Give yourself some credit, man! You are the proof that not everything that comes out of culture is bad!” Maybe he is trying to give me the father’s blessing I never got? Trouble is, a blessing doesn’t work if it’s predicated on a misreading of my offering.
In the current context, for simplicity’s sake, the thesis is this: any artist or artwork widely known enough to have reached you—by anything but the most serendipitous and local of means (any food produce that’s available in the supermarket)—is compromised. If you can’t trace the breadcrumbs that led you to it (me) back to their source, chances are you have been hoodwinked and hijacked into believing something untrue, and the “art” you are imbibing is in service of superculture.
This doesn’t mean we have to condemn it or reject it; only that we can, and must, start to withdraw our consent to make it central in our definitions of reality. We must recognize that such cultural products are not free of pesticides and military-designed additives, chemicals that, if they don’t neutralize any nutritional qualities they may have, certainly diminish them drastically. These things may not be part of the problem, per se, but—divorced from the human community of direct and spontaneous creative interaction—they are definitely not part of the solution.
Like a bar code on an apple, these cultural arty-facts carry the mark of the parapolitical (and metaphysical) machinery that carried them to us. They are delivery devices not just for the Holy Spirit (which is in everything) but for Antichrist, perhaps most of all in how they reinforce the notion of a world out there that is somehow supporting us, that can save us, and that promises to lift us up to a place of sovereignty and specialness within it. (Sounds like the three temptations of Jesus.)
If I had a child (as I believe Greg does), I would be deeply concerned about how the weight of my unlived life as a Hollywood filmmaker (or a commercially successful writer) would bear down upon them and potentially cripple them. Perhaps exactly as the weight of my father’s desire to be a great writer and thinker still haunts and drives me into these strange ghost-dialogues with theoretical minds?
Whatever the Bible says, words will not save us; but nor will images.