Note: I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been bogged down and unable to pursue extracurricular projects to their conclusion. I do have a very exciting project on high-tension lines, marginal spaces and suburban hauntology in the works – stay tuned. As for this, it’s an old academic paper, which I am posting because I’m citing it elsewhere and would like to make it available. I’m afraid it is less lively than most of the things I post here, and it would be better if I had time to rewrite it with a few years’ extra knowledge, but hopefully it isn’t totally devoid of interest.



Rudyard Kipling’s Kim comes at the end of a century in which opium had a privileged position within the British consciousness. Its role was complex and often contradictory, and the detailed story of how it transformed from a ubiquitous analgesic comparable to modern-day aspirin to a tightly controlled and restricted drug is beyond the scope of this paper[1]. However, there are certain general continuities in this discourse. One is the close alignment of opium and Empire, and the preponderance of Orientalist tropes in writing on opium. While this took the form of a fantastic exoticism earlier in the century, as in Thomas De Quincey’s seminal Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which one critic writes “invented the concept of recreational drug use” (Boon 37), the tone becomes much more urgent later in the century, as imperial anxieties become more acute. In numerous works of late Victorian fiction, among the more famous being Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891), opium acts as an agent through which the Orient contaminates and disrupts the stability of English society, subjectively transforming or inverting the English figures it encounters. Kipling engages tangentially with this history, utilizing opium to inscribe the Oriental within his central character and build his text out of this opiated origin.

Quantitatively the role of opium in the text is marginal; it is explicitly mentioned only ten times, usually in passing. Its most prominent appearance is in the important opening paragraphs, which establish Kim as a character and set his quest narrative into motion; these will be focused on here. The novel begins:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zamzammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher -the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

There was some justification for Kim – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim’s mother’s sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel’s family and had married Kimball O’Hara, a young colour- sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O’Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for the child, tried to catch him, but O’Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India. (49-50).

Kim is introduced in a position of play dominance, striding a now unused gun outside the Lahore Museum, a symbol of imperial power/knowledge and a site incidentally curated by Kipling’s father from 1875 to 1894 (340 note 4). His position of mock authority is explained by the fact the he “was English,” a remark which we soon find to be a red herring, since he is not “English” but Irish, peripheral rather than central to the imperial center. Within the Indian setting this fact is blurred, as the distinction between colonizer and colonial subject becomes a gradient rather than a sharp dichotomy. Kim’s relative closeness, ancestrally, to the physical and ideological center of Empire as signified by his “white blood” (94, etc), allows him to gradually come to occupy the position of “Sahib.”

The phrase “white blood” is interesting, because as this introduction makes clear, his whiteness is not visibly signified: he “was burned black as any native.” Nor does his speech bely his heredity; he chooses to speak “the vernacular” rather than English, which is interestingly called “his mother tongue” despite its foreignness and Kim’s alienation from it. Despite all of these contradictions, the narrative attempts to achieve some kind of stability with the confident assurances offered by 19th century racialism: “Kim was white…”

Even if our fleeting omniscient narrator assures us Kim “was white,” whatever that may mean, he was raised by an opium-smoking woman who claims to be Kim’s aunt. For those who believed her, Kim was a hybrid figure in racial terms; we who are told his mother was “a nursemaid in a Colonel’s family” are given something more ambiguous until an apparently accurate clarification is put in the mouth of Bennett in a later chapter. But culturally, Kim is steeped in the depths of Indian “bazar” culture.

Before proceeding with Kim, a word is required about the Indian setting. India was where opium for the vast trade with China was produced (opium for use in the United Kingdom was grown in Turkey). This trade was a source of a tremendous amount of wealth, but at the same time, it was an uncomfortable fact that the Empire had amassed such riches at the expense of submitting millions of Chinese to a degree of opiate dependence that was uncommon or at least invisible in Britain (see Zheng, and Berridge, ch. 7). A debate over the morality in the trade which began around the time of the Opium Wars had blown up into a vigorous political movement by the 1870s, spearheaded by the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. The issue was in and out of Parliament up until the time Kipling wrote, and the wide circulation of the Society’s Friend of China among middle and upper-class audiences had a significant effect on thought about the relationship of opium, Empire, and the Orient (Milligan 21). Berridge writes that the “myth of the opium den” was “the most obvious public legacy of the anti-opium movement” (195).

It is this mythology which will come to bear on the figure of Kim, through his father. Kim’s father is a poor, washed-up Irish soldier who has fallen into alcoholism. The figure of a no-good Irish drunk is a common enough one, and in a novel abounding with racialized aphorisms and characterizations its appearance is not surprising. It is interesting however that his drinking is narrated as a segue into his opium use. The discourses of alcohol and opium frequently overlapped in the 19th century, particularly with regard to the working classes and the poor, of whom the Irish would have comprised a disproportionate percentage. Public health officials routinely expressed alarm that working class alcohol culture could be combined with or be superseded by opium abuse (Berridge 105). De Quincey himself remarked on this: “But…some years ago, on passing through Manchester, I was informed by several cotton-manufacturers, that their work-people were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating…The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of wages, which, at that time, would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits” (De Quincey 6).

The extent of working class opium use which could be clearly identified as “recreational,” or “stimulant” in the parlance of the times, was certainly quite low, in part because of the difficulty of impossibility of making the distinction between medical and non-medical use. The repetition of the anxiety in both the medical literature and in literary texts like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) nonetheless reveals that the specter of this descent into abuse was always present, at least in the bourgeois mind.

It is the the fate that befell Kimball O’Hara, Sr., after he “came across” this woman, Kim’s surrogate mother to be. The language displaces any choice he might have had, construing the genesis of his opium habit as a seduction: “he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her.” He dies with her in a haze of opium smoke.

The method of ingestion is remarkable, since opium smoking was a distinctly Chinese practice. Historian John Richards writes: “Indians usually ate opium by swallowing small pills or drank it in opium infused water. They had never adopted the practice of smoking it in pipes” (Richards 375). The effect is to draw into the text a history of late Victorian English writing on opium smoking. Smoking, localized by “the myth of the opium den,” was a prime target for moralistic and sensationalist writers because it was clearly non-medical and decisively foreign in origin. The image of the opium smoker lacked the complex system of connotations attached to laudanum use and could be employed as an unproblematic symbol of vice, corruption, and Oriental danger. As such, the dens – conceived as “foreign particles lodged in the body of British society” (Parssinen 67) – were the subject of a plenitude of journalistic treatments, which are “so conventionalized…that it is difficult to tell whether the authors actually made the visit, or simply plagiarized from one another’s accounts” (Parssinen 52). The formula remained more or less the same because these articles continued to do the same cultural work. Five titles from five different decades suggest the continuity: “East London Opium Smokers” (1868); “A Night in an Opium Den” (1874); “London Opium Dens: Notes of a visit to the Chinamen’s East End Haunts” (1885); “Chinese London and its Opium Dens” (1895); “Opium Dens in London” (1904).

Modern accounts suggest that if such “dens” existed at all, and were not just social spaces where Chinese happened to casually smoke opium, they did not extend beyond the small East End neighborhood of Limehouse and were so limited in number as to be hardly worth comment (Berridge 195ff); however, the presence of this seductive danger within the range of a hansom cab proved too alluring, and became the standard site of literary opium use after the 1860s. The “literary” as opposed to journalistic tradition began with Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and persisted into fin de siècle treatments roughly contemporaneous with Kim, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” both published in 1891. The echoes of this tradition are present in Kipling’s strange, factually inaccurate choice to make the woman smoke her opium.

The mythology of the den was also a sexual one. No sexual interaction between these two characters is narrated, but the fact that she remains Kim’s “mother” and the erotic potential suggested by drug-fueled cohabitation suggest the possibility; this would be a disruption of racial and imperial boundaries of a most transgressive sort, particularly since the “native” woman appears to be the dominant agent. The presumed racial mixing and closed quarters of the “opium dens” that were so central to the Victorian imagination of opiate use always suggested the possibility of miscegenation to a paranoid and sensationalist press, for whom there was “an almost uniform association between the Orient and sex” (Said 188).

Beyond this potential sexual relationship we have the a teacher-student relationship of initiation. This common enough trope suggests the cult-like, esoteric trappings given to opium culture, and in this case puts the Indian woman in a position of dominance by giving her the power to impart arcane knowledge (cf. “the true secret of mixing” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Incidentally this is the knowledge that leads to O’Hara’s death as narrated in the very same sentence, as if it were the necessary corollary to his contamination.

He leaves behind him three texts which derive from Anglo-Imperial institutions, which are to be Kim’s legacy from him:

His estate at death consisted of three papers – one he called his ‘ne varietur’ because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his ‘clearance-certificate’. The third was Kim’s birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic – such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher – the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim’s horn would be exalted between pillars – monstrous pillars – of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim – little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O’Hara – poor O’Hara that was gang- foreman on the Ferozepore line. Then he would weep bitterly in the broken rush chair on the veranda. So it came about after his death that the woman sewed parchment, paper, and birth- certificate into a leather amulet-case which she strung round Kim’s neck.
‘And some day,’ she said, confusedly remembering O’Hara’s prophecies, ‘there will come for you a great Red Bull on a green field, and the Colonel riding on his tall horse, yes, and’ dropping into English – ‘nine hundred devils.’

‘Ah,’ said Kim, ‘I shall remember. A Red Bull and a Colonel on a horse will come, but first, my father said, will come the two men making ready the ground for these matters. That is how my father said they always did; and it is always so when men work magic.’ (50).

These documents would have had the effect of assigning Kim to his father’s Masonic lodge and, by extension, implicating him within the greater military-imperial establishment of the Raj. But the documents’ signification is blurred, filtered through O’Hara’s “glorious opium hours” into a kind of wild fantasy. This fantasy, though containing a kernel of truth, is embellished with grandiose language and turned into a “prophecy” rather than a set of instructions. It contains some of the classic hallmarks of literary treatments of opium use, for instance: the tendency towards mythological language (“magic,” “whose God was a Red Bull on a green field,” “devils”; cf. De Quincey’s encounter with Vishnu, Siva, Isis, and Osiris, [82], etc.), an exaggeration of physical description (“monstrous pillars”; cf. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, The Mystery of Edwin Drood‘s oneiric opening paragraphs, etc), and a hazy, dreamlike tone (phrases like “magic,” “some day,” and the sudden, associative appearance of the variously narrated elements). This way of framing the “Red Bull” narrative is, in the logic of the story, distinctly “Oriental”; Creighton says, revealingly: “The transformation of a regimental badge like your Red Bull into a sort of fetish that the boy follows is very interesting” (161). It is moreover doubly filtered through opium, first by O’Hara, then by the woman who distorts his telling, literalizing his metaphors and decontextualizing his claims.

The documents have become a fetishized “amulet” and Kim’s fate as a “Sahib” has been derailed by opium-fueled misreadings and misunderstandings. Kim’s understanding of himself, deeply vexing for the European characters, must be demythologized by the appropriate colonial authorities in order for Kim to discard his “Asiatic” character. In this sense, the entire narrative is a struggle by the forces of Empire to efface Kim’s hybridity, which had been at least partially constituted by opium.

Works Cited


Berridge, Virginia. Opium and the People (Rev. ed.). New York: Free Association Books, 1999.

Boon, Marcus. The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard           University Press, 2002.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: Penguin, 1998.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. New York: Penguin,            2003.

Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Penguin, 2000.

Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and Orient in Nineteenth Century British Culture.           Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

Richards, John F. “Opium and the British Indian empire: The Royal Commission of 1895.” Modern           Asian Studies. Volume 36, part 2, May 2002. p. 375-420.

Said, Edward. Orientalism (25th Anniversary edition). New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Zheng, Yangwen. The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press,        2005.

[1]             Two of the best treatments are Berridge, Opium and the People (1981, revised 1999), and Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society 1820-1930 (1983).

These pieces, except for one, were created on Christmas Eve, several years ago – perhaps 2007, though I cannot be sure. I worked for the entire night constructing them, though my process was not additive but subtractive, or rather divisive: they became less under my control the more I tinkered, as I introduced new variables, spliced segments at random, and subjected them to modulations I did not understand. I have tried to add to this collection, but nothing I do fits with the basic algebra of these particular songs.

I hadn’t slept the night before, and I knew I would have to be awake the next morning to celebrate the holiday with my family. I supposed that insomnia is common to astronauts, for whom day and night are terrestrial abstractions. I felt at one with Apollo 8 that night, in that manic intensity that froths in the tail end of an insomniac binge…

I had first heard the Apollo 8 broadcasts a few days or weeks before that, and was struck by the tone of awed sincerity that overwhelmingly negated my cynical, straight-faced response to what I would like to have seen as saccharine piety. I was born at a time when “the space age” was already a nostalgic slogan, a boilerplate alarum for a dead futurity: the obvious fodder for MTV’s earliest advertisements. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw6xesXLIAA). How could what seemed like the greatest accomplishment in human history become, in twelve short years, comical prefatory footage for a Buggles video? And how perverse am I, now, to count that broadcast as coequal to the moon landing, being born after both?

I thought there was something sublime there, something that gave an urgency the electronic pieces I was creating otherwise lacked. I was inspired by Eno’s Apollo, of course, and the discerning listener will wonder if many of the harmonies come from an earlier piece of his. The theme of space travel, however hackneyed, lent an anchor by which to tether music which would otherwise float up and pop like sad balloons. They remain suspect of an ersatz vitality. But they are still the only tracks I’ve produced that have any vitality at all.

I encourage any listeners to use the best headphones they have access to. The originals do not scale down very well, in any case, and I’m afraid much of their granularity is lost entirely on ordinary speakers; laptop speakers produce nothing but irritating static.

Give it to me hot!

I was listening to Gomma’s Anti NY compilation the other day, and was blown away by the contribution of the wonderfully named Sexual Harrassment (sic). “If I Gave You a Party” is an exuberant romp, rather out of place on a side otherwise composed of moody downtown malaise from the likes of Gray and Ike Yard (who have both been ably rescued from obscurity in the last few years). I felt almost incensed that this jam wasn’t the centerpiece, but with uncanny timing, a Sexual Harrassment revival is now underway thanks to a release last week by the folks at Citinite records.

The group, from Cleveland, made only a handful of tracks, in the early 1980s. These fell in the cracks between electro and funk, and were grounded by a brash punk minimalism; as headman Lynn Tolliver remarks of the making of 1982 hit “I Need a Freak”: “But you know, great musicians generally do more than is necessary, so I said to the keyboard player, just give me a thrusting bottom key note, over and over.”

“If I Gave You a Party” is one of those songs that makes you wish you were a DJ so that you could hear tracks like this at actual parties. A lost world of sexed-out minimal synths colliding with Implog-style no-wave noise excursions, it’s a sweatier and sillier cousin of the “cold wave” sounds being produced by some repressed but remarkably dressed Belgians around the same time. (Hopefully someone starts calling this “heat wave” and starts throwing themed parties on the Lower East Side.)

The remix/covers EP, Give It To Me Hot, is timely, given the global resurgence of interest in electro and synth-funk recently, and it’s only appropriate that DāM-FunK, LA’s Baron of Boogie, heads things off with a trademarked astral-analog reworking of “You Are My Sexual Connection.” But the rest of the EP follows much less naturally from the original material, which is actually quite welcome. Soweto-based Sweat.X’s version of “I Need a Freak” is frankly terrifying, turning the original’s neon campiness on its head, creating an uneasy landscape of latent violence. Jimmy Edgar and G. Rizo’s reclamation of the throwaway Richard Simmons-baiting “Exercise Your Ass Off” might be the album’s most impressive effort. Finally, Robert O’Dell’s “If I Gave You a Party” refuses, understandably, to coast easily on the epic hook of the original. But his hodgepodge, schizoid cover, while at times compelling, is ultimately too busy and overworked. Like Sweat.X, he emphasizes the darkness of the original’s flagrant deviance, but ruins a perfectly good party in the process.

Radio City

I’m the antenna catching vibration
You’re the transmitter, give information
I’m the transmitter, I give information
You’re the antenna catching vibration

– Kraftwerk, “Antenna”

Kim's other obsession

As a follow-up to my previous post, I thought I’d share this (out of print) record, called Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom, put out by Sublime Frequencies in 2005. Anyone familiar with that label knows that their releases tend to mystify rather than demystify – perhaps appropriately, for our purposes. This isn’t an ethnomusicological document, but a cabinet of curiosities. And how curious!

Here’s the label’s blurb:

“Schmaltzy synthpop, Revolutionary rock, Cheeky child rap, and a healthy dose of hagiography for Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, this is the now NOW sound of North Korea! A hermit kingdom with a rich folk history and an even richer tradition in over-the-top praise for the ruling House of Kim, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a diplomatic thorn and a culture never Neverland. Boasting a heady mix of Stalin opera, Tokyo karaoke and brooding impressionism, the sound of present-day Pyongyang distills into warped agit-pop and lost-in-time commie funk. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in North Korean music, this is your vehicle for exploration. Christiaan Virant has visited this mysterious land and has assembled this amazing audio collage. Captured within are rare live recordings from various performances and mass games demonstrations, sounds lifted from People’s Army television dramas, samples from hard-to-find CD releases obtained in the capital, and of course, news reports from the “real” Radio Pyongyang, which continues to broadcast to this day, albeit under the new, strikingly anodyne moniker “Voice of Korea”.

The “lost-in-time,” improvisatory and schizophrenic nature of North Korea shines brilliantly in this dizzying palimpsest. Totally synthetic approximations of future-pop collide with bits of triumphalist, martial Opera to create a magnificent soundtrack for the Sci-Fi State. I love that phrase, “agit pop,” as well; music is so much more effective as a weapon of affective manipulation than text (you can’t close your ears). I imagine this music being broadcast over Pyongyang like a kind of ideological radiation, soaking into the pores of the capital’s youth…

download HERE


Science fiction is, and has always been, obsessed with fictive States: techno-dystopias, post-apocalyptic juntas, chemically policed narco-utopias. Real-life totalitarian regimes, however, are usually approached with dread and ellipsis, and have been aligned with the most grimly realist of genres (e.g., concentration camp fiction). But what if our perspective of totalitarian regimes themselves were refocused through the kaleidoscopic lens of hyper-speculative science fiction? What if, for instance, we went could transition from speaking about “North Korean science fiction,” an anomalous subject in its own right, to “North Korea as science fiction”?

This was the proposal made by Seo Young-Chu in a fascinating talk, introducing the film Pulgasari at NYU in late February. In her book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (Harvard, 2010), she attempts to reimagine science fiction as “high intensity realism” rather than an escapist unrealism, “a mimetic discourse whose objects are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging.” Sci-fi is not antithetical to mimesis but works through “a combination of lyric and narrative forces” to “generate mimetic accounts of cognitively estranging referents” (3, 73). The “cognitively estranging referent” is the native subject of science fiction, in her analysis. Such a referent is one that eludes “simple,” naturalistic representation: the wondrous, the repressed, the uncanny, the ineffably other (5ff).

In this way, sci-fi does something like the Freudian dreamwork: it rearranges our neuroses in ways that are distorted enough for them to become palatable. The work of science fiction is often the work of trauma, operating by necessarily insufficient approximations. But in the view of Seo Young-Chu, these are not exactly fantastical, since “trauma is always already science-fictionalized;” she quotes trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman as saying that the experience of trauma “gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness” (156). If political trauma is the cognitively estranging referent, it makes sense that its representation would resemble science fiction.

The talk began with a second person “tour,” revealed after the fact to be an almost verbatim pastiche cobbled from various accounts of North Korea, from travel guides to history books. “Uncanny alterations of consciousness” seem to be the norm here: Pyongyang is a “surreal theme park,” a “stage set,” symmetrical and sparklingly clean, sometimes as garish and pointlessly monumental as Las Vegas but also a “ghost city” that is so quiet at night that you can hear the purring of coal-powered automobiles for miles down the mostly desolate highways. The denizens, each of whom has an individual “reliability rating,” seem like mass-produced robots, outfitted with the same mass-produced costumes. The exact same image of a smiling Kim Il-Sung hangs everywhere above them. You can see his body, housed in a glass sarcophagus, though only at the appointed time, and not without passing security checks, disinfection, and powerful air blowers.

This might all be true, but there’s a way in which the prose ineluctably drifts into the territory of science-fiction. And indeed, North Korea has been richly mined by sci-fi proper, from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas to the Bond film Die Another Day to the Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries digital lit piece “Miss DMZ” –  all discussed by Seo Young-Chu, who ably demonstrated that science fictional representation of North Korea has become the default mode.

She speculated upon a variety of reasons why this might be the case: it may be an overcompensation for the virtual “poverty” of representations of the “hermit kingdom,” a response to the uncanniness of North Korea’s anachronistic, otherworldly existence in a universe where the Cold War never ended, or it could be a mutated species of Orientalism (or even “self-Orientalism,” a curious but provocative phrase she seemed to regret as soon as she uttered it).

What she didn’t explicitly suggest was that, perhaps, the science fictionality of North Korea begins with the Kim regime and with the “Juche idea” itself (that “opaque core of North Korean national solipsism,” Bruce Cumings calls it). The way this works akin to, but in the end very distinct from, the way all countries utilize and repackage exogenous representations to sell themselves as fictions to tourists and other onlookers. Quaint villagers in Southeast Asia are paid to dress as old-fashioned peasants for Westerners; Western Europe sells a storybook fabrication of itself through heritage tourism; the United States has entire cultural industries that serve the purpose. What is distinct about the autofictions of the “hermit kingdom” and other “closed states,” to use an expedient term, is that they are directed primarily inward. An allegory: Pyongyang’s tallest building, a luxury hotel, is not designed to dazzle foreign tourists like the grand establishments of Dubai, because foreign tourists are not encouraged to visit Pyongyang. In fact, it’s not even habitable, and never was. It exists only as a scar on the skyline, a masterpiece of unconsciously deconstructivist architecture, a monument to monumentality. It is a fictional edifice.

All nationalisms are essentially fictions. But what happens to the fiction of the nation state in a totalitarian regime, promoted and maintained through a cult of personality, with a highly centralized system of communication and information exchange? In a place like North Korea, the “imagined community” as it exists in official representations of the State derives principally from the myopic, bizarre millenarian fantasies of a dictator. If there is a dialectic process of circulation at all it tends to be confined to the channels of the bureaucracy, forming a closed loop, like the networks of communication in Franz Kafka’s The Castle.

So when we see such States as sci-fi or as speculative fictions, we are only following their lead. Moreover, the relevant realms of fictional representation are not confined to statecraft: dictators seem to have an uncanny fondness for pulp, fantasy, and sci-fi. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was famously fond of the movie King Kong, released the year he was appointed Chancellor. And Kim-Jong Il, as it turns out, is both North Korea’s supreme leader and its supreme cineaste. With a science-fictional theory of millenarian/”revolutionary” dictatorships, it is more than a happy coincidence or a curiosity that he is the author of a portentous volume entitled On the Art of the Cinema.

In fact, Kim’s obsession with the art form went to such lengths that he kidnapped his favorite director, the South Korean Shin Sang-ok, and forced him to make a “socialist Godzilla movie” that would enhance the reputation of North Korean cinema. The result was Pulgasari, which can be viably read as an anti-capitalist film, but which seems more poignant as a coded critique of the Kim regime itself.

The monster in this film is almost too good a metaphor for the authoritarian post-Leninist Revolutionary project: it leads a “backward” population at mercurial speed to overthrow the ancien régime, and continues growing by furiously consuming iron at the ultimate expense of the people. This seems to me an allegory of the famines caused by the fetishization of industry and steel manufacture that gripped post-Stalinist modernizers like a Marinettian fever dream. Once he consumes all of the iron, Pulgasari is at once “savior” and “enemy”: their liberator, their god, but also a nihilistic, Molochian machine fueled by the obsessive weaponization of raw materials. In short, he is the Kim regime personified. But the great leader, who is not a cognitively estranging referent to himself, was pleased with the film he had sired at gunpoint: “When the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and wild geese for the movie crew to feast on.” Most North Koreans are severely malnourished.


“…because fact and fiction sometimes blur in Libyan politics, I might be accused of exaggeration… The domestic policies of the Libyan regime have often bordered on fiction.” – Mansour O. EL-Kikhia, Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction

“I will now tell you the story of my experiences when I made that journey, that escape to hell. I will describe the road that leads there, describe hell itself for you, and tell you how I came back by the same way. It was truly an adventure, and one of the strangest true stories ever, and I swear to you that it is not fiction.” – Muammar Gaddafi, “Escape to Hell”

So much for North Korea, but half a world away, another megalomaniac is busy constructing hyperreality out of midnight-movie pastiche. When Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was faced with the first serious challenge to his thirty-year reign, he was simply unable to absorb events into the fictive narrative within which he understood his place in history. Because such events could not happen in the hyperreal Libya of Gaddafi’s imagination, actual state policy was to proceed as if they were not happening. Soon after the unrest began, Gaddafi took to state television, “charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.” A classic exploitation plot: replace Osama bin Laden with “the Russians” and you have a half a dozen science fiction films from the 1950s.

The official ideology of Libya is jamahiriya, which translates to “state of the masses.” The system outlined in The Green Book, the founding text of Gaddafi’s Libya, describes a politics not unlike syndicalism or council communism (from what I can gather; it’s not the most cogent thing ever written and I am not motivated to reread it). In theory, Gaddafi has no power. This is why he told Christiane Amanpour that he cannot “step down,” because in the Gaddafian ideology he is not a ruler, but the liberator and savior of a free Libya. These are not “lies,” they are fictions. The realist approach to studying North Korea and Libya has only produced bafflement and confusion. Perhaps hyperreal regimes, which conjoin fact and fantasy, require theories of resistance based on a kind of hyperrealpolitik.

Gaddafi’s is what Libyan scholar Mansour O. EL-Kikhia calls an “idiosyncratic ideology,” a syncretic bricolage attempting to overcome a heavy anxiety of political influence with the use of improvised, localized mythologies. Gaddafi fused “Nasserism and classical Marxism, along with Islamic socialism” into the “Third International Theory,” as outlined in his Green Book. Such ideologies are “experimental” in nature, which is to say, they are speculative fictions: works in progress. In Libya’s case, it is “cemented together by the colonel’s complex personality.” The idiosyncratic dictator is an authoritarian and an author, and the nation is his text. Gaddafi’s words are not (or not only) ridiculous, because like the plot of a science fiction novel they are only meant to cohere to their own fantastic premises. Emendations and retractions can be made as required.

One of these men has written a short story about space travel.

But Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t just play a sci-fi writer on television. He’s the author of Escape to Hell and Other Stories (1998), a curious volume which veers uncomfortably between hyperbolic political allegory and madcap fiction. The description on the jacket of the English printing is a vindication of Seo Young-Chu’s argument about science fictional representation: “Muammar Quaddafi’s short stories and essays in this book are more revealing about his vision of the world than all of his addresses and the articles and reports that have been written about him during the last 25 years.”

I think this is quite true, but alas, it has received almost no serious attention. Why does the work linger in such obscurity? Why do the few reviews that exist of it seem almost embarrassed of themselves? Why does the New York Public Library require it to be read under “supervised use”? “Dictator lit,” as a review in The Guardian styles it, is indeed an uncomfortable genre, and just the proposition of Gaddafi’s “fiction” is dually repulsive: revolting, like Mein Kampf, but also frivolous, like Stalin’s insipid poetry. In fact, it’s too preposterous to truly affront, and too bizarre to be boring. But while it is one of those books that one likes to amuse guests with, it is not merely an oddity.

Of course, it is odd. Suicidal astronauts? “Jewish satellites” taken down by the power of mass prayer? Pathetic entreaties to respect “the earth’s bounty” by a the leader of an oil kingdom? Hand-wringing ruminations on the gender of death? The discovery of “Amelica” by an Arab prince? The line between sarcasm and solipsism is difficult to discern. Certain broad tendencies, however, are impossible to ignore.

Escape to Hell opens with a harangue against urban life, the Fritz Langian bleakness of which is paralleled only by the anxious, mephitic metropolises of dystopian, futurist science fiction. The “Hell” of the title both is and is not the city; even if the latter is vile, “how beautiful is hell compared to your city!” City inhabitants are like rats and mice, scurrying emotionlessly, like the robot inhabitants of sci-fi Pyongyang: “City people do not address one another as fellow social beings or even human entities, but as ‘You, who live in apartment number x on floor number x…telephone number x, license plate on car number is x’ and so on.” The city is “a filthy tomb,” with “no moon or sun,” perpetually dark like the sci-fi cities of Blade Runner or A.I..

Gaddafi’s hyperbolic, delusional contempt for urban life and his identification with a non-existant “people” located somewhere in an amorphous Arcadian hinterland makes his aerial bombings of his own cities consistent with his fictional prognoses, in which agitated urban throngs are literally mentally disturbed, unearthly creatures. The city dweller is not a “true human being” (48), but some kind of uncanny specter. To Gaddafi, a place like Benghazi must seem like a pestilent sore, a tumor requiring irradiation – especially after the supposed recent invasion of the “Qaeda” body snatchers.

There is, of course, a long and diverse tradition of reactionary pseudo-populism which identifies the city with bodily infection, as in the pithy remark of Thomas Jefferson (who, in the interest of civic health, moved his nation’s capital from Manhattan to a pestilent, malarial swamp): “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Gaddafi says much the same thing, but in the mode of frenzied science fiction rather than political aphorism: “[The city] stretches out in every direction, limitlessly. It becomes a parasite to everything around it, spreading its poisonous tentacles, killing fresh air by turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, which is then turned into carbon monoxide.” Here we have what Seo Young-Chu describes as a staple of science-fictional writing: the literalization of metaphor. The city is not merely a metaphorical “sore” on the “body politic,” but a veritable engine of miasma and molecular disintegration.

This recourse to technobabble is not an aberration. Consider the following passage from The Green Book, which is not trying to resemble science fiction, but nevertheless does:

If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then one community would like white and dislike black and the other would like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body. This adaptation, will be transmitted by inheritance. The inheritors automatically reject the colour rejected by the legator as a result of inheriting the sentiment of their legator.

A common formula for him: a practically nonsensical political claim is asserted as a self-evident axiom, and then reinforced with a nonsensical appeal to the authority of scientific knowledge. In this case, the “knowledge” is a bizarre admixture of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the things you hear from drunken street prophets, but no matter. The esoteric specificity of sci-fi writing is part of what gives it its “high intensity” aura. The worlds summoned up can seem realer than our own; the futures projected can propel themselves backward to us in affective waves of uncanny retrocausality. This is how prophecy works, as well, and Gaddafi is duly dubbed “a revolutionary and a prophet” in the translator’s introduction.

Unfortunately, prophets have a marked obsession with the end times. Understanding how they will navigate their apocalypses will require a hyperrealpolitik amenable to fantastic speculation.


I’m sure other people have noticed this by now – the video has been out for, what, 20 minutes? – but I figured my Enter the Void post could use this update.

Also, Rihanna’s outfit may have been inspired by Paz de la Huerta’s rarely-clothed performance. As Prefix writes: “Her line, ‘Want you to see everything,’ gets taken to another level here.”

Barack Obama, who channels him in so many ways, has credited him with helping “to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics, that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day.” A recent poll has Americans voting him the greatest President of all time. We’re not talking about Lincoln, but Ronald Reagan, whose achievements include disempowering the American worker, facilitating the establishment of a financial kleptocracy, helping cause the 1987 and 2007 financial crises, and keeping right-wing dictatorships propped up by funding death squads, paramilitary armies, and terrorist gangs (the “Contra” half of Iran-Contra, which has never been given the attention it deserves). His obscene swelling of the deficit and his mammoth spending increases should make him the enemy of current “small government” conservatives, but perhaps dementia is contagious. His contemporary neoliberal zealot Margaret Thatcher is widely loathed in Great Britain, but the voices murmuring in opposition to the cult of Reagan are quite muted. Why is this?

The apotheosis of Ronald Reagan by both parties is a prime indicator of the sickly degeneration and spectacularization of American politics. The genius of Reagan was his sense of theatricality; his history as an actor is not a coincidence but is essential to his political legacy. To sell people policies completely opposed to their own interests requires the rhetorical tact of a professional, and in the (post)modern age ideology must be buttressed by iconography. J.G. Ballard explains:

In his commercials Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan’s manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other. Above all, it struck me that Reagan was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth.

This passive credulity, amazingly, extended to the response by Republican delegates to Ballard’s classic text, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” distributed with the title redacted at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Just as they could later listen to “Born in the USA” as a banal patriotic anthem, many recipients of the pamphlet took Ballard’s disturbing piece at face value. “I’m told,” Ballard said, “that it was accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned from some maverick think tank.”

Contra (no pun intended) the frequently-voiced lament that our country is excessively suffused with irony, it would seem that for a lot us, irony is in perilously short supply. On another level, however, the delegates were not merely fools, because Ballard’s piece is generically somewhat distinct from satire, due to what Mark Fisher aka k-punk has called its “flatness.” His tone is “not that of (satirical) exaggeration, but is a kind of (simulated) extrapolation;” it is diagnostic rather than parodic.

“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” was written in 1968 and is often cited as a leading example of Ballard’s profound insight into the contemporary cultural unconscious. It envisions a pandemic of mass delirium that would help elect the recently elected Governor of California to the office of the President: “powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.” In the story, the presence of Reagan’s image – not the content of his speeches, which could be changed to convey diametrically opposed messages with no effect – unleashed primal, violent, and perverse sexual urges tied to sadistic aggressive impulses. Reagan both excited these desires and embodied them.

If he is and always was not primarily a political but a libidinal figure, the general amnesia and fuzzy sentimentalism surrounding his legacy is understandable. And maybe more than sheer ignorance explains his current popularity. Reagan is, perhaps, a sublime figure in the technical sense, a totem of a negative sort of pleasure that transmogrifies pain and nausea into awed reverence. Nixon’s brand of reaction had an air of malice, but Reagan applied it with the reassuring, “this will only hurt for a second” tone of a paternalistic physician (pediatrician?). We still want to fuck Ronald Reagan: his centennial has been a necrophiliac orgy. It’s a spectacle we should encounter with dread.

Noam Chomsky, whose prolix prose is of course impossible to condense, offered the following memento on Democracy Now, responding to Obama’s remarks:

NOAM CHOMSKY: This deification of Reagan is extremely interesting and a very—it’s scandalous, but it tells a lot about the country. I mean, when Reagan left office, he was the most unpopular living president, apart from Nixon, even below Carter. If you look at his years in office, he was not particularly popular. He was more or less average. He severely harmed the American economy. When he came into office, the United States was the world’s leading creditor. By the time he left, it was the world’s leading debtor. He was fiscally totally irresponsible—wild spending, no fiscal responsibility. Government actually grew during the Reagan years.

He was also a passionate opponent of the free market. I mean, the way he’s being presented is astonishing. He was the most protectionist president in post-war American history. He essentially virtually doubled protective barriers to try to preserve incompetent U.S. management, which was being driven out by superior Japanese production.

During his years, we had the first major fiscal crises. During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the New Deal regulations were still in effect, and that prevented financial crises. The financialization of the economy began to take off in the ’70s, but with the deregulation, of course you start getting crises. Reagan left office with the biggest financial crisis since the Depression: the home savings and loan.

I won’t even talk about his international behavior. I mean, it was just abominable. I mean, if we gained our optimism by killing hundreds of thousands of people in Central America and destroying any hope for democracy and freedom and supporting South Africa while it killed about a million-and-a-half people in neighboring countries, and on and on, if that’s the way we get back our optimism, we’re in bad trouble.

Well, what happened after Reagan left office is that there was the beginnings of an effort to carry out a kind of—this Reagan legacy, you know, to try to create from this really quite miserable creature some kind of deity. And amazingly, it succeeded. I mean, Kim Il-sung would have been impressed. The events that took place when Reagan died, you know, the Reagan legacy, this Obama business, you don’t get that in free societies. It would be ridiculed. What you get it is in totalitarian states. And I’m waiting to see what comes next. This morning, North Korea announced that on the birthday of the current god, a halo appeared over his birthplace. That will probably happen tomorrow over Reagan’s birthplace. But when we go in—I mean, this is connected with what we were talking about before. If you want to control a population, keep them passive, keep beating them over the head and let them look somewhere else, one way to do it is to give them a god to worship.