Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse: Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories to 976 SQ. FT.

Continuing with Adalbert Arcane’s expanded Notes & Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (by Tom Kaczynski, Fantagraphics, 2022). This time we have Adalbert’s notes to two stories: 100 Decibels, 976 SQ. Ft. All posts in this series can be accessed here.

100 DECIBELS

It is currently unknown why the author has created this comic. It is also clear that he had not read Schopenhauer’s On Noise at this time.

The map from 976 SQ. FT.

976 SQ. FT.

976 SQ FT (976) is another story that the author claims is “autobiographical.” We have been able to corroborate some of the details. For example, the map (see above) included with the story is accurate; the area depicted exists in Brooklyn, just around the Manhattan Bridge overpass. Apocryphally it appears that the small neighborhood near DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Vinegar Hill briefly attempted to rebrand as RAMBO (Right After the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). The unfortunate rename was an early warning signal. The irrational real estate bubble was ready to burst and inaugurate a big recession of the American economy (Global Crisis of 2007-8). We can confirm that several massive condominium complexes were being built in and around the neighborhood at the time, so the psychotectural (psycho-architectural) effects of the structure are plausible.

Haunted by the Future

The story is ostensibly a gentrification horror narrative. It is a trope common enough and not particularly original. Typically, new construction of some kind disturbs the residents of a neighborhood. The mystery is usually solved when the source of the haunting is revealed as a disturbed grave, burial ground, or some other source of crime that stains this piece of land (see Poltergeist, Pet Sematary, etc.). 

So what are we afraid of? Horror tends to rely on past transgressions. It is usually guilt of past misdeeds that torments the protagonist. Or, in other variations, a past justice must be righted, and the repercussions emanate into the present, sometimes haunting the innocent (this is also the psychology of original sin).

Tom Kaczynski’s story subverts the trope by ostensibly placing the source of the haunting into the future. Why should only the past haunt us? Why can’t the future haunt us as well? Our future is colonized by reified collective apocalyptic nightmare entities: climate, pandemic, overpopulation, war, etc. ad nauseam. Their presence is precisely that of a specter. They always appear or recede from a fog of statistics, politics, and propaganda. Their contours change and fluctuate in indeterminate shapes like the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft. But is this really what we are afraid of?

Apocalypse / Utopia

The anticipation of a future event is real horror. What will happen next? Our imagination takes over creating a variety of scenarios from benign to terrifying. The future is scary. Take an everyday person of modest means, someone who just lives their life in the present moment. No war, no crime, just a regular job that becomes routine and boring. Where is the fear? The small everyday fears, tend to resolve quickly. A scary office meeting turns out better than expected. A worrisome confrontation with a friend or partner resolves without a major incident. This works on a narrative level as well. Think of all the “cheap scares” you have to endure before the final source of the haunting is revealed in a film or comic book.

Hermetic Utopia

Time and space and fear intertwine. Fear grows uncontrollably when you begin to expand the anticipated event in size (space) and distance (time). One must not forget that atmosphere contributes to fear. Lighting, fog, etc. all enhance the uncertainty of the outcome and inflate the fear. In other cases, massive amounts of data, enormous or tiny numbers, act as a kind of information fog—similar to the fog of war—and further enhance the fear response. The climate apocalypse is an example of one such inflated event. The formula works always: distant the future + significant the time gap + data fog = the apocalypse. [ 1 ]

The Pleasure of the Apocalypse

We often rely on artifice: films, television, novels, comic books. But this isn’t real. It is a game to jolt some old instinct awake; fear detourned to pleasure. One can argue that the proliferation of apocalyptic media is really a wish to try to break out of our present predicament. In that sense, most apocalyptic fiction and politics must be seen as a subgenre of utopian literature. It ultimately serves as a way to shift attention from our present predicament to some new, largely unspecified world beyond the veil of the apocalypse. It cannot be the real source of the horror.

No Space is the Place

Fiction, propaganda, etc. rely on distance (in time or space) to inflate the fear of the future or the other. However, our spatial & time horizons have shrunk. In 976, the horizon (of meaning) is very literally blocked by the massive condominium. Time and space are inextricable. As our spatial horizon shrinks [ 2 ], so does time. The past, present, and future become intertwined and compressed into a “flat circle.” Centuries squeeze, and time leaks between epochs. These leaks of time spill into our world. Concepts, ideas, dead individuals all become bound up into a Hauntological melange: time is out of joint; time is a flat circle; space is contracting and flattening; the future is here, but it’s not evenly distributed. We have a situation.

In the previous post on 10,000 Years, we examined the real fear permeating our minds: the permanent present. As such, 976 should be seen as the first story in the collection to explicitly point to the source of the haunting. It is neither the past nor the future, but the endless proliferation of the present. This is the true terror that haunts the apocalyptic minds in all Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse stories. For Lilli, the haunted protagonist of 976, the future residents of the condo who descend into her space (via entity gateways like MySpace) are really a proliferation of the present into the future… permanent present. What does the future hold? More of the same. Things cannot continue on the current path.

Distant Vistas

Space and time are necessary for critical distance. Without space, we can’t see the whole picture; we become trapped inside larger structures we can’t perceive. Without time we can’t perceive the change and the origins of our traps. In other words, we must wake up to the horror of living inside Mortonian hyperobjects. [ 3 ] 

We can also confirm that an old woman named Nadine lived in the area, and she owned a small dog.


Next time: White Noise, Phase Transition, and Noise, a History



NOTES:

[ 1 ] This is analogous to the “utopian gap” identified and theorized in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 2007). Utopia must always exist beyond a gap of space or time. The gap is always vague and non-specific.

[ 2 ] This could be a callback to Kaczynski’s Vague Cities (VC, published by Uncivilized Books, 2005) [link to zine archive and PDF?], in which the light of the stars is slowly blotted out by the expansion of cities. Vague Cities is an early story exhibiting Romatiscist tendencies. Kaczynski views civilization as an artificial artifact in conflict with nature. In reality, cities are not consuming the world. They are gravity wells that concentrate humanity in smaller and smaller spaces. The growth of cities paradoxically removes humans from hinterlands and opens new vistas for uncontrolled natural space. While VC is a Romanticist screed against civilization running roughshod over nature, 976 diagnoses the problem more precisely. 

[ 3 ] See Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)


Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse: Notes and Theories to 10,000 Years by Adalbert Arcane

Adalbert Arcane’s expanded Notes & Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (by Tom Kaczynski, Fantagraphics, 2022). This ongoing series of posts started here.


10,000 Years, p 1.

Slumbering Towards the Future

On the surface, 10,000 Years (10K YRS, originally published in MOME 8, 2007) resembles science fiction classics like HG Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, or Edward Bellamy’s utopian magnum opus, Looking Backward. It follows the familiar trope of a sleeping man, who awakens far in the future through some unexplained time fluke. Most variants of this trope, depict the future as something concrete: something we fear or desire. The future tends to be either positive or negative, utopia or dystopia.

The main protagonist is probably named after Edgar Cayce, the famous Sleeping Prophet. Cayce is best known for predicting that Atlantis would be found in the ’60s in the vicinity of the Bahama Islands. Atlantean lore is an ongoing concern for the Author. A genealogy of this ancient lost world was explored in Trans Atlantis. Edgar Cayce also figures prominently in the notorious and unreleased “lost” chapter to Trans Terra [ 1 ] cycle of stories.

From unreleased Trans Terra

The one thing our modern imagination cannot fathom is a future that remains fundamentally the same. And yet, this was the state of humanity for millennia. Imagine a caveman troglodyte living during the paleolithic 40-50 thousand years ago. Was there a future for such a creature? Did he imagine a world of tomorrow? Was he imagining new super-Neolithic technologies? Judging by the scant evidence left to archaeologists, not much progress or change happened for tens of thousands of years. It seems impossible, yet it DID happen at some point. How? When? (See Music For Neanderthals). The gap between them and us is vast and difficult to bridge.

10,000 Years, p. 8, panels 7-9

The Eternal Present

We see the eternal present as the provenance of non-human animals. Can we look at our ancient ancestors as less human? Modern humans have a glitch (or a gift, depending on your POV). We have an internal mirroring process (aka self-consciousness) that enables us to become stuck “out of time.” This glitch/gift is what makes us human.

At some point, we began to transform the environment around us. That transformation required more significant and fantastic planning (i.e., awareness of the future; more on this in future notes). Future awareness scales with human numbers. When humans began to congregate in large settlements, the gap between the future and the present decreased. 

Paradoxically the past conditions the future. Depending on the success or failure of a community, the future imagination becomes influenced by past events. It becomes constrained by previous events. The community can develop a sense of helplessness and anticipate a future apocalypse. Or, a series of successes can instill visions of a brighter future and perpetual progress (of some sort).

End of History

We, the moderns, are split. We imagine either utopian possibilities or dire catastrophes. The one thing many of us cannot conceive is an unchanging present extending infinitely into the future. And yet, this is the predicament we find ourselves in. Since the mid-1970s, progress (technological, etc.) has stalled in many ways. The future imagined by our ancestors from the first half of the 20th century has stalled. No flying cars, no moon bases, etc. The technologies which have progressed since then: computers, digital communication, virtual reality, etc., are primarily cybernetic in the realm of personal augmentation. In fact, most of these technologies can be seen as elaborations on the mirror. 

10,000 Years, Page 3, panels 9-11 (patent pending)

10K YRS story is remarkable for being written and published years before Peter Thiel’s Zero To One business screed. In this book, Thiel (did Thiel read this comic?) posits that the economic development of atoms (machines, devices, physical items, energy) has not kept up with the growth of bits (programmatic computer products like VR, big data, etc.) The power and speed of computers have increased, but we have not made much progress in the physical realm. Much of the world relies on the infrastructure invented, built, and developed in the 20th century. 10K YRS anticipated this analysis and stretched this idea into the far future. 10K YRS is a concise and prophetic elaboration of Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. We are forever suspended in this world like a dead fetus floating in embalming fluid unless something or someone can get us out.

10,000 Years, p. 9, panel 1

Mars Attacks

The protagonist learns that he is a Martian or potentially Martian in the final sequence. It represents the author’s intuitive understanding that the current static social and political consensus can only be shaken loose by something external to capitalism, communism, civilization, humanity, and the planet. 

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

Mars in our present is a distant anchor of possibility. A tether stretches between Earth & Mars; Zarathustra’s rope upon which man/superman must learn to walk. The only other option: the slow entropic death of the last man flattened by the oppressive gravity of mother earth.

10,000 Years, p. 9, panel 4

The external event alluded to is the colonization of Mars. (see Utopia Dividend) This event, in theory, would accelerate [ 2 ] technological development in the material sphere, exploit vast new energy sources, and generate a vast quantity of new economic opportunities in the off-world colonies (see Blade Runner).

Haunted or Haunting?

The vision of Marxist zombies on Mars is a nod to the specter that has haunted history: Marx and Marxism and the idea of progress itself. At one point, a Marxist revolution begins unfolding on Mars. The Marxists are depicted as zombies, an explicit call-out to George Romero’s later zombie films, which identify the proletariat with zombies. In his earlier films, zombies were bourgeois consumers wreaking havoc in shopping malls. Now zombies are the proletariat, forever hated, reduced to a zombie-like state; empathy withdrawn.

zombie karl marx

The Zombie is a figure that acquires new abilities and meanings during different epochs. 

The author (Tom Kaczynski) melds those two interpretations via zombie Marx’s detourned speech: “A specter is haunting Mars – the specter of consumerism. […] Consumers of the solar system, save your receipts.” It is a haunting passage that both reaffirms that the revolutionary class is dead and permanently subsumed by the consumertariat. 

The revolutionary potential of Marxism has been drained of all energy by the grey vampires [ 3 ]. Zombie Marx embodies the current form of late-capitalist-socialist activism: specifically, the “I’ve got the receipts” [ 4 ] brand of cancel culture that haunts social(ist) media. [ 5 ] The communism—the engine of the events of the 20thcentury—that haunted Marx’s 19th century is now a rotting husk of flesh shambling, decomposing, and liquefying into toxic sludge. Can anything grow in its wake?

Of the twin towers of the 20th century: capitalism & communism, one has already fallen. How long can the other stand?


Notes:

[ 1 ] The collected edition of Trans Terra has yet to be released.

[ 2 ] This is distinct from accelerationism.

[ 3 ] See Mark Fisher’s Exiting the Vampire Castle.

[ 4 ] Sometimes also manifested as complaints to managers or bosses in order to cause economic damage to the “canceled” person.

[ 5 ] It should be mentioned that the term “cancel culture” is controversial. It’s ontological status is generally questioned by the agents that perform the “cancelling.”

Social Media is a Web2 technology, and as such, it is seen by many as something new and unprecedented and by others as a simple, linear intensification of Web1 (the original internet). Initially, Social Media was hailed for its potential as a tool against authoritarian regimes. Who remembers that the Arab Spring was hailed as a beautifu Twitter Revolution? Today, Twitter Revolution bring connotations of “dark internet,” or “misinformation.” It is now viewed with more suspicion. Why is that? A case has been made (and more on this in future posts) that Social Media (as instantiated in the Web2 context) has achieved its true form. In form, it most resembles the Stasi citizen spying program developed by the East German Communist regime. It weaponized daily social interactions and created incentives for citizens to “keep tab”s on each other.



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Frank Santoro on Beta Testing The Ongoing Apocalypse

This is a blast from the past. I was organizing some old links and this jumped out immediately! It’s an old ComicComics (who also misses ComicsComics?) post written by Frank Santoro. My comics at the time were appearing in the MOME anthology published by Fantagraphics. Frank’s take on my comics was an important and eye-opening moment for me. As I’m posting Adalbert Arcane’s notes to the new edition, it was fun to revisit this take. The post predates (by a few years) the first collected edition of Beta Testing the Apocalypse.

Frank has a fun no-nonsense writing style. A few snippets:

“This isn’t a review or anything that attempts to cast a truly critical eye on the comics work of Tom Kaczynski. It’s more of an appreciation. For me, Tom’s work is an oasis in the desert. And the desert is contemporary alternative comics. I find 80% of today’s alt-comics poorly constructed — a veritable colony of lean-to shacks that could be blown over in a strong wind. In contrast, Tom K builds comics that could be likened to a brick house. These are solid comics. Is it any surprise that many of his stories have to do with architecture or that he went to architecture school?”

[…]

I feel firmly rooted in Tom’s stories. I understand where the characters are, where I am as a reader. Never a bottle-necked area of the page or spread. It’s all very clear and airy, like walking through some Beaux-Arts 19th century library building. There are clear sight lines and strong centers on every page.

On 100,000 Miles:

The “Highway Story” (100,000 miles) is interesting because it balances a certain sense of movement along with a realistic, believable sense of scale. Cars packed on a highway in slow motion, car crashes, cars lined up in a parking lot. Close-ups of the protagonist in his car and long shots of endless highway ribbons. It’s a short story, maybe only 8 or 9 pages—yet within the first couple pages a world is defined by the landscape itself.

On 976 sq ft:

The “Condo Story” (976 sq ft) in contrast is less about balancing movement & scale as it is about scale itself. It opens with a couple on a rooftop looking down on to the street where a woman is walking a dog. So immediately here is the set-up: Seeing the world, or more specifically a neighborhood as a scale model. There is also a wonderful transition where the condo in real life fades into an architectural scale model of the same building.

Million Year Boom, p. 2 panels 5-6

On Million Year Boom:

The “Corporation Story” (Million Year Boom). I can clearly see in my mind how perspectives & sightlines carry the reader across panels and the spreads of this story. There are very strong “horizontals” in this story (almost in counterpoint to the strong “verticals” present in the “condo story”). The corporate headquarters is low & wide, and the page compositions are tailored to convey the sense of open yet contained space. There’s a great scene when the protagonist dives into a long rectangular pool that spans two panels.

On Influences:

I really enjoy his writing and drawing. He definitely owes a debt to the works of J.G. Ballard and Daniel Clowes. This is not a bad thing. Ballard was a surgeon with his words and the same could be said for Clowes with his drawing. Kaczynski has incorporated both masters’ approaches into his own work in a way that I find inspirational. He went through his influences and came out on the other side with something new, something his own. Like some hauntingly familiar “house style,” the approach fits the subject matter like a glove.


I can’t overemphasize how personally important this post was back when I was working on these stories for MOME. It’s rare when you find a reader that looks at your works this closely and just groks the vibe. Frank zeroes in on several sequences and moments that I agonized over. To have a reader unpack the structure of the comics with such precision was (and still is) personally very gratifying and gave me the oxygen to keep working on this material. I don’t know if I ever said thank you? Thank you, Frank!



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Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories: 100,000 MILES

Introduction

We begin a new series of guest posts from Adalbert Arcane, the writer of Notes & Theories section of the new edition of Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (BTTOA). The story covered is the first in the BTTOA cycle. This is the story that launched this project in the first place.

Who is Adalbert Arcane? Adalbert Arcane is a noted psychogeographer and the co-founder (with Tom Kaczynski) of Omniversity. He has an honorary fellow at OPA (Office for Psycho-Architecture).

Notes & Theories: 100,000 MILES

100,000 Miles by Tom Kaczynski page 1
100,000 Miles, page 1

AOL / TW

The author (Tom Kaczynski) claims personal events inspired this story. The details are sketchy, but some information can be pieced together from various infrequent interviews. The author did live in the Washington, DC area at the time of the creation of this story. He claims his commute to his job (when he was employed on a secret prototyping division of AOL/TimeWarner (AOL/TW) headquartered near the Dulles airport) was approximately 45 minutes each way. This is plausible as traffic in the DC/Virginia tech corridor is notorious.

The imagery of the comic resembles the freeway edgelands of the Herndon/Reston/Sterling suburban sprawl one would have to traverse to reach the AOL/TW HQ.

100,000 Miles, page 6, panel 1 by Tom Kaczynski
100,000 Miles, page 6, panel 1

Ballard

J.G. Ballard’s car novels influenced 100,000 Miles [1]. The author makes this explicit on the page (see p. 14, panel 1). This author wears his influences on the sleeve.

Ballard’s Crash! and Concrete Island explore the psycho-sexual relationship between vehicles and drivers. Cars’ sleek chassis and leather barely conceal their latent deep pathology and violence. Drivers enter into a primitive hypnotic state as they begin to physically merge and identify with their vehicles. Violent collisions are moments of truth. The moment of the crash results in an erotic merger of steel, leather, and flesh [2]

In 100,000 Miles, the car is ubiquitous, commonplace, and tame. The Ballardian charge has already dissipated [3].

The protagonist drives aimlessly, trying to avoid work. The drive is a tedious and uneventful background that serves as a blank canvas for rumination and reverie. Is it a deliberate counterpoint to Debord’s Derivé, where a flaneur traverses the city in rapid succession of ambiances? The car is a sensory deprivation chamber—a theme that the author returns to repeatedly (see Hotel Silencio, Million Year Boom, and Music for Neanderthals)—floating through a generic suburban wasteland. Occasionally the Real bursts through accidents and traffic jams. Like in Goddard’s Weekend, the traffic jam and the accident reveal the occulted meaning beneath the freeway concrete.

Break With the Past

This story distinctly breaks with the author’s other work (to be collected as Trans Terra, which attempts a sharp social critique in comics form) both formally and narratively. The Beta Testing The Apocalypse (BTTA) project seeds already appear here: obsession with numbered titles, easter eggs that connect each story, sly references to the source material, absurd fictional scenarios, etc.

100,000 Miles, page 7, panel 3 by Tom Kaczynski
100,000 Miles, page 7, panel 3

Traffic Jam / Hyperobject

At what point is the traffic jam real, a real object, an entity that has existential status? The author complicates the ontological status of the traffic jam. Sometimes we drive, and traffic seems to flow without delays, but another traffic jam is already forming somewhere ahead of us. Is each traffic jam a distinct entity? Or is the entirety of the automobile fleet simply in various states of the same continuous global traffic jam in various states of territorialization and deterritorialization?

These ideas parallel Timothy Morton’s work on hyperobjects and the contemporaneous work of the Object-Oriented Philosophical clique. OOP proposes novel metaphysics, reevaluates the ontological status of objects, and posits a positive flat ontology (more on this in notes on Million Year Boom).

The now-famous denouement of the infinite traffic jam sets the stage for the ongoing questioning of the ontological status of everyday reality throughout the book. This sequence is likely the genesis of the whole BTTA project.

[1] Originally appeared in Backwards City Review, 2006. First appearance in color: MOME 7, 2007.

[2] Though not explicitly based on Ballard, the Tetsuo, the Iron Man film best visualizes the flesh-machine hybrid.

[3] Ballard himself (as a writer at least) moved on to other libidinal-liminal zones, shopping malls, resorts, etc. 



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Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse Update

The dates keep moving on the release of Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse. The release shifted from February to March 15th, 2022.

beta testing the ongoing apocalypse
beta testing the ongoing apocalypse cover by tom kaczynski

A few folks asked what will be different about the new edition. Besides being a hardcover, the new edition has a number of differences from the first edition:

  • A brand new cover (see above).
  • Three more stories. One previously unpublished.
  • An introduction by Christopher Brown.
  • Several pages of notes and theories by Adalbert Arcane.
  • Expanded Index.

You can order signed copies directly from me on this site:

or via Uncivilized Books here:

Order the book directly from Fantagraphics here:

Also available from Amazon, etc.

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Tom Kaczynski in Conversation with Noah Van Sciver

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Noah Van Sciver. We hit lots of topics, Uncivilized Books, publishing, comics, reminiscences, etc. I also get to hype some upcoming projects including Cartoon Dialectics, I Nina by Daniel Chmielewski & Olga Tokarczuk, and a new edition of Beta Testing the Apocalypse!

Artist, illustrator, and publisher of Uncivilized Books, Tom Kaczynski, and I have a conversation about drawing and publishing comics during these weird times. Tom’s newly reinvigorated series Cartoon Dialectics has been sweeping the small comics scene like a wildfire.

Also discussed: science fiction as the literary fiction of today, Polish comics, the Critical Cartoon series, Bruno Schulz, and much more!

Most importantly the video features my first haircut since the onset of COVID… a small 2020 victory. Enjoy!

DERNIERS TESTS AVANT L’APOCALYPSE at SPX

I’ll be manning the Uncivilized Books table (table i8) at SPX all weekend! I’ll be there with Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch, Zak Sally & Peter Wartman. Stop by to say hi!

Meanwhile, look what I got in the mail!

The French version of Beta Testing the Apocalypse is a reality! The book is in stores in France now!

The French book is a bit larger than the Fantagraphics version.

It wouldn’t be French without French flaps! I had to extend the cover drawing by more than 50%! More on that in a future post!

The table of contents.

French title card.

Sample pages in French. Thanks to Dalton Webb for creating a great font from my hand writing!

The French edition has an afterword written by novelist & journalist Christophe Tison. I’ll have a translation of it in a future post.

The back cover! I’ll have copies in both languages at SPX. See you there!

Beta Testing Cover Process Part 6

So, I’m continuing the cover process for the Beta Testing the Apocalypse cover. Previous parts: 123, 4, 5. In the last post, I was showing the evolution of the color. This time I’m focusing on the type design.

This was the first iteration. I wanted to typographically mirror the ‘beta testing’ concept by having some kind of wireframe version of the type present… it was a little too much.

I still wanted they type to be somehow active… but not quite as hyperactive as here.

This is pretty close to what I settled on. The drawing had so much going on in it, that I decided the type needed to be more subtle and clean… so the two elements won’t compete with each other.