Todd E. Napolitano on Going Gonzo: Following the Trail of the
So what on Earth do Hunter Thompson and film maker Jayne Loader - maker of The Atomic Cafe but also the illusory World Wide Wench at one and the same time - have to do with "ecologies"? Well, everything and nothing; like the web itself, it's a matter of making, a matter of putting-together as one will. For the World Wide Web (not unlike the World Wide Wench) is nothing if not the promise of unexpected possibilities. In fact, "ecology," such a broad and varied term, is allowing in just this way: It is essentially ambiguous. For example, by "ecologies" does one mean environmental science, human dynamics, what? Is there, say, a literary aspect to ecology, one which would actually exceed and betray all invocations of the term?
First consider the popular connotations of the word. Ecology: "The branch of biology dealing with the relationship between organisms and their environment." This suggests the biological and the bodily sure enough, but such a definition then leads us to the old academic's problem of "environment," Nature or nurture? "Kill the body and the head will die," writes Thompson.
Perhaps, then, ecology is "the branch of sociology concerned with the spacing of people and institutions and their inter-dependence." And so one might be tempted to conclude that, in fact, ecology involves a scientific approach to human dynamics. But then this organic "branch" metaphor cannot go unchallenged, an epistemological gesture suggesting a problematic order of things and thus calling into question the extent to which we can have knowledge of knowledge, the extent to which we can know ourselves.
Clearly, one can trace these issues back to the very beginnings of the Western philosophical tradition. Consider, then, the etymology of the word. It comes from the Greek oiko meaning house or, more liberally, things feminine or domestic (as oppossed to the male-dominated arena of the polis). "Logy," related to logos (the term we will never escape in the wake of Derrida), I've always interpreted as rationale, as an order of things and therefore as the precondition of knowledge. On this account, "ecology" would suggest something more socio-political, an ongoing negotiation between public and private, between oneself and the prevalent social order, between oneself and one's self. There are, then, a multiplicity of approaches to this theme of ecologies.
Perhaps more importantly, we have a theme which at one and the same time implies harmony but also conflict and contradiction. Perfect. Because this essay is about transgression and political irreverence. For it seems to me that if the Web is to provide the sort of alterity I recognize in potential, one must continually use its resources to challenge popular conventions again and again.
Once more: What do Hunter Thompson, Jayne Loader, and ecology have in common? Everything and nothing, and this is precisely the point. Again, it's a matter of making.
When I began researching this piece, Hunter Thompson simply came to mind as somehow synonymous with "ecology," although I'm not quite sure why. Maybe because I was teaching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the time. Anyway, I took a trip to the Gonzo Links [ no longer active, eds. ], a myriad online adventures probing the limits and excesses of the mind and body (the philosophical question par excellence). There are also links to various political discussions. Indeed, for Thompson, the threshold between mind/body is the site of the body politique so to speak.
What strikes me about the Gonzo Links is its variations around a theme: namely, the immense possibilities of perception and environment and, to a greater extent, "reality" in general. Thompson himself puts it best: "But our trip was different... It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country - but only for those with true grit" (Fear and Loathing 18). One might call this being harmful with what is best in us. "At times" writes Nietzsche, "our strengths propel us so far forward that we can no longer endure our weaknesses and perish from them. We may even foresee this outcome without wishing to have it otherwise." For Thompson, as for Nietzsche, life is self-becoming, continually shedding something that wants to die. Accordingly, the Gonzo Links provide doors to a splendid world of paranoia, chthonic derangement, and astute sarcasm, an environment of overblown gestures, grotesqueries, and abominations - a world in which all things great first roam the Earth in the guise of the monstrous. The Gonzo Links offer a glimpse into the beast lurking behind all that is "civilized." We turn ourselves into beasts, says Thompson, so that we may escape the Man; yet somehow, we nevertheless arrive at the heart of mankind.
The Gonzo Links homepage itself embodies something of this village-fair motleyness. It is sub-divided into six categories: Panic Culture; Conspiracies; Spooks; UFO's; Catalogs; and Paranormal. For those who like on-line publications, there are links to over 300 e-zines, the popular Postmodern Culture being one of them. Among many others, there are links to the fiction of J.G. Ballard, an Art Crimes Index, Crash Culture, and the Surfascist Review, an exciting site where the virtual Baudrillard is always a welcome guest.
Overall, the Gonzo Links comprise a mad departure into the madness of reality, a parodic exploration into the sovereignty of reason; that is, man and his environment, and that insane presupposition "and." As Pascal says in his Pensées, "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." And yet, the Gonzo Links, like Thompson's work in general, is pleasurable, albeit pleasurable in a way unacceptable to most academics. It is bodily and deranged. It is a pleasure which, as Nietzsche puts it, "tries to maintain itself by again and again changing something new into itself." The pleasure of untruth as a fundamental joy in life: This is the life principle in Thompson's world of exiles. Everything profound loves the mask.
The idea that something may be true yet at the same time most harmful and dangerous - so harmful and dangerous that it may destroy the stability in one's self - is an idea which led me to the Public Shelter site. The brainchild of film maker Jayne Loader, Public Shelter provides links to a delightfully appalling world of wanton sluts, gender ambiguity, and nuclear-age propoganda studies, including her excellent Atomic Cafe and WWWench sites. Always, though, Loader maintains an intellectual rigor both in her own writing as well as in her selection of hotlinx to other writing.
As you might know, Loader's provocative, disturbing film The Atomic Cafe (1982), which she made with Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, is an unnarrated docudrama about our "love affair with the atom" as Loader puts it. But it is also "a movie about propoganda, culled from material produced by the U.S. government." In fact, Loader and company researched over 10,000 government films, making their movie a rich archive of historical material on the verge of disappearing from sight. Of course, access to this sort of material has since been severly restricted, in part because of Atomic Cafe. As Loader reminds us, we must now rely on the Freedom of Information Act when doing such on-site research.
Atomic Cafe site is just a small part of Loader's award-winning Public Shelter site which includes a plethora of hotlinx to news, cybercafes, women's issues homepages, multi-media art galleries and role-playing venues, as well as an increasing number of reviews of her work. What's more, there are numerous links to environmental sites concerned with the environment in biological terms. Indeed, Loader is concerned with the environment, albeit in socio-political terms, specifically, the "ecology" of one's relationship to oneself as mediated by sexuality. This is Loader's WWWench site, an alternative universe with its own peculiar laws, customs, and politics.
What is so interesting about Loader is the way she abandons narrow political ideologies and fascile conceptions of power in favor of offering a replete selection of ideas, pleasures, and pains without passing judgement - this she leaves to her audience. Loader is concerned with the environmental effects of radiation, but she is just as fascinated with political issues ranging from prostitution rights, to Liberal conceptions of woman-as-homemaker, to progressive porn (not an oxymoron for Loader), to the Coalition for Positive Sexuality. There are discussions about 50's archival films right alongside links to female-centered "sex sites that don't suck," including Annie Sprinkle's homepage [ no longer active, eds. ], national gay, lesbian, and bisexual resources, and on-line publications like The Journal of Sex and Sensibility. At the same time, however, Loader aspires to be the consumate cyber-slut, ever on the search for "where the boys are" or that titillating piece of erotica, even if it means paying tribute of sorts to the Dark Brothers, the anal-sex kings of net porn.
As artists, neither Loader nor Thompson are concerned with political polemics. That is to say, although both are quite interested in politics, they are not politicians. As artists, they do not pass judgement, rather, they endeavor to create ongoing ambiguities and problematizations, not resolutions and invectives. As Loader writes, "If you believe in the intelligence of your audience, you don't need to tell them what to think and how to process the material they're seeing." Clearly, both Thompson and Loader challenge the predominant conventions of mass-media and academic scholarship precisely in the way they present possibilities and choices above all else, a rendezvous of questions and question-marks. And possibilities imply transgression; indeed, possibility begets transgression, for things are always another way. It is a "gross physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country."