Good spells, burning buildings, Alan Moore, Leslie Feinberg.

Alan Moore

I ingested a lot of Alan Moore media when The Watchmen movie came out this month, and I really loved his take on magic (in the sense of spells and incantations, not card tricks) in a interview with Stewart Lee. The magic topic starts at about 5:30 of part three. (Part 1, and part 2 if you want them.)

I suppose the thing with magic is that a lot of it is about writing anyway. “To cast a spell.” That’s a fancy way of saying spelling. Grimoire, the big book of magical secrets. That’s a French way of saying ‘grammar.’ It’s all about language and writing. It’s all about incantation. It’s all about all these things. And so magic, really, it turns out to just be a continuation of the stuff I’ve been doing anyway. Using certain arrangements of words or images to affect people’s consciousness.

I decided to keep that for my multi-year quest about how to communicate. Magick and neo-paganism is a minefield of gender terrorism and cultural appropriation, a bring your own analysis situation. But still, folks who are into magical spells do have a lot of ideas and practice related to speaking intentionally.

After keeping it on my (giant) reading list for years, I finally read Stone Butch Blues recently, and I saved this quote about semi-applicable resources.

I felt as though I was rushing into a burning building to rescue the ideas I needed in my own life.

It’s been a pretty good spell so far— I say it a lot when I’m getting inspired by a book that has a lot of problems and maybe embarrasses or enrages me. It’s good for books written by druids.

Unyeasted bread, quests.

Unyeasted breads have a deep, hearty, honest spirit with a certain substantial integrity. Dense and thick-crusted, they require a good bread knife for cutting and a certain endurance for chewing…

No matter how much I mentioned the dense, “bricklike” nature of some of these breads, still I received many letters from people wondering why the bread came out of the oven like a piece of building material. O.K., they are not to everyone’s taste, but some people really like this sort of thing: “How real,” they say, “How flavorful.”

— Edward Espe Brown in The Tassajara Bread Book, 25th Anniversary Edition

I’ve been finding a lot of inspiration in a particular kind of far-out food book. Not dietary inspiration; something like philosophical inspiration. Emotional inspiration? Attitude inspiration. The connecting thread seems to be authors who used to practice more extreme diets. Former vegans, former macrobiotics, former hippies. Some of these books have consistent ways of respecting radicalisms and moderations at the same time, finding another level of inclusion where you get the thorough, grounded ethics of radical thought without the isolating righteousness. I find myself re-reading bits of non-content like the introduction to a recipe, just for the tone or the attitude.

Does that Bread Book passage do any of that for anybody else? I know I’m reading the way I need to read.

This is helping me rename a personal communication quest that I’ve been naming and renaming for, I don’t know, fifteen years? My teenaged fixation was how to be honest and also nice (both in the sense of liked and in the sense of kind). Later it was how to have a critical analysis without alienating people who don’t. How to be compassionate without self-censorship. How to make space for differences without them being cast as disagreements or negativity. How to maintain boundaries without being judgmental. Consideration without passivity. Empathy without enabling. Belonging without conformity. How to make connections across differences. All of these draft mission statements have been discarded or modified, but I’m getting somewhere. I want to joke that it wouldn’t be hard to be both more honest and more kind than teenaged me, but that isn’t true. It has been hard!

Flipping through a chapter called Vegetarian Ethics and Humane Meat that kept me up late last night, I have totally failed to find a quotable section. I started just collecting words. “Much depends,” “life and death and life,” appreciation, reflection, mistakes, “not so easy,” “Plan B,” courage, “emotionally spent,” responsibility, “more directly involved,” experiments, clumsy, “I’m very curious,” “our memories diverge… isn’t memory funny?” Vocabulary for a big, thoughtful mess.

Who said that keeping up with fashion is the ultimate way to create anxiety? Connecting people in a big mess seems like the opposite to that. Seeking ways for many fashions to co-exist together is comforting and useful. So I guess that’s the communication quest for now. It must seem like this is too abstract to possibly be useful in my real life, but I bet I will refer to this in the next 24 hours, trying to explain a decision or action to someone. “It’s like the unyeasted bread! I know how to do this!”

Considering destroying agriculture: more soothing than I expected.

I am feeling excited to research radical ecology and anti-industrial ideas lately. This is one result of considering my Scottishness: I decided to read extra-radical critiques of Eurocentric civilizations as a respite from the horrifying, delusional narratives in books about Scottish settler history.

Somehow I didn’t realize there were folks in radical ecology movements looking at very intersectional politics of oppression and how they relate to fundamental systems like agriculture, cities, and industrial production. Sometimes I find an analysis that also overlaps with what I know of media theory about currencies, clocks and the alphabet. I’m still in a skeptical phase where I am cross-referencing everything and looking for criticisms, but it is very relaxing to feel like there might be a way to fit a lot of interests together. One huge, complex idea to apply instead of a whole bunch of big, complex ideas.

This morning I was listening to ideas about agriculture.

Lierre Keith: A Hard Look at Agriculture, and Strategies for Collapse, a podcast at Resistance is Fertile. Why even veganism and local organic farming is not sustainable.

You have to understand what agriculture is. In very brute terms, you take a piece of land, you clear every living thing off it— and I mean down to the bacteria— and then you plant it to human use. It’s biotic cleansing. This lets the human population grow to gigantic proportions, because instead of sharing that land with millions of other creatures we’re only growing humans on it….

Besides the fact that you’ve permanently displaced any number of species— and when i say that, we’re really talking about extinction— the real problem is that you’re destroying your topsoil and topsoil is the basis of life [on land]…. We have to talk about overshoot.

And pretty soon, she starts connecting this to systems of oppression.

So you’ve got these power centers that arise wherever agriculture is started and they need a constant influx of new resources because they’ve overshot their landbase. Because you have a surplus, that means somebody else can steal it, so the first thing that happens in agricultural societies is you have a class of people whose sole purpose is to be soldiers. You’ve got the beginnings of militarism. The surplus has to be protected. But the surplus is also what lets there be an entire class of people who don’t have to get food, all they have to do is fight. So now you’ve got a class of soldiers.

The other thing that the power base needs is more resources because they’re constantly using them up. So the other job of those soldiers is to go out and get more and bring it back.

And the third thing that agriculture needs is slaves, because it’s back-breaking labour. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, three quarters of the people on this planet were either living in conditions of slavery or indentured servitude. The only reason that we’ve forgotten this is because we’re using machines now to do that work, but believe me when the fossil fuel runs out, we are going to remember just how much work is involved in this.

It’s this feedback loop, where agriculture creates the need for a military and the military is made possible by the surplus of agriculture. And the entire system together needs to keep taking land because it’s forever using up its own soil.

They go on to make connections between agriculture and patriarchy, disability rights, classism, imperialism, and some more.

I have a million ideas about things to do, but I want to post some more inputs before I write about them. I was quiet for so long that I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do just to make my premises clear.

Alternatives to handsome.

Sarah H commented about handsomeness and masculinity.

I find it really useful to consider ideas of handsomeness in relation to concepts of masculinity— I can see where my own notions of handsomeness are based in someone (of any gender) being visibly self-controlled, unemotional and hardened. I wonder how we can reclaim words like this— like how do we compliment our loved ones on looking cute, without using words that reinforce these concepts of masculinity? I have tended to use the word handsome, but now it doesn’t seem appropriate.

I am interested in this too. I hadn’t considered the word handsome before, but I use it a lot (also to describe a person of any gender). After some reflection, I think for me it is a replacement for saying something more personal and honest. I’m making a judgment about beauty and gender instead of attending to my feelings and needs. There is an idea I like in non-violent communication, that making judgments reinforces hierarchy and external authority. From Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:

Most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing. …

Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies. Where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals for their own benefit, it would be to the interest of kings, czars, nobles, etc. that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slave-like in mentality. The language of wrongness, “should” and “have to” is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves— to outside authorities— for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.

To work for anarchist/non-hierarchical relationships, I’ve been practicing not judging things as “masculine” or “feminine” and instead just saying what they are and how I feel about them. E.g., If I let go of describing a boy or man as effeminate, I can usually find more accurate, specific observations. Maybe he’s caring and kind, and likes to wear bright colours. And maybe I feel happy about that because I value kindness and diverse clothing options. I forget this all the time, but when I remember to get specific I like the way it makes me more aware of both the person and myself. I also like that it goes beyond resisting within binary gender and gets outside of gender altogether. Instead of questioning who can have feminine qualities, it is a way of questioning why we call some things feminine at all. I think that celebrating a man or boy for his feminine qualities still reinforces that passive, traumatized personalities are called feminine while aggressive, traumatized personalities are called masculine.

I’m thinking I could replace “handsome” the same way, with concrete observations and personal feelings. On top of letting go of judgments about gender (anyone can have a strong jaw or dark eyebrows), it would skip judgments about who looks more or less beautiful. Previously I’ve tried celebrating everyone as beautiful “in their own way” but I find it works the same way as celebrating genderblurred masculine and feminine qualities. It still reinforces the idea that I can judge who is beautiful or ugly and that it matters. I’d rather find ways to take responsibility for what I see and how I feel about it.

That has me wondering what I am trying to communicate when I tell someone they look handsome. I like to look at them? That is still very vague. I think they have social power because they fit a currently fashionable ideal look? I don’t want to play that game. When I look at their nose I feel hot and bothered? That is more what I’m aiming for. I think I’m using compliments as a substitute for conversations about desire and sensual appreciation. Wow. I would way rather have the desire/appreciation conversation.

I’m going to try eliminating handsome from my vocabulary for a few days, to find out what else I can talk about. I’m not sold on permanently eliminating words that describe judgmental categories because I also use them to talk about politics and the categories themselves, but a temporary ban seems like a good experiment in awareness.

More ideas?

Down with praise, emotional dentistry, granfallooning.

I continue to publish drafts that have been lingering in the archives. This one lingered because it was veering towards criticising my friends and I was too scared and distracted to get it to a place that was honest and compassionate instead of either judgmental or passive. Check out how non-intense it is. This is the type of stuff that has been terrifying me for years. It’s kind of funny.

. . .

9 Feb 2008

I just went to the dentist for the first time in about seven or eight years. This particular dentist is explicitly “an emotional guy” who gives a lot of compliments about teeth, and expresses a lot of care and encouragement about your dental health. Full on, “I know I just met you, but I really care about your teeth and gums, because I know that dental health can really impact a person.” Totally sincere, enthusiastic. OK. Awesome. It also ran right into this discomfort I have with receiving compliments and praise, which I thought about a lot on the walk home from my appointment.

So I’ve been wanting to write out my ideas about praise and compliments, but I’ve determined that first I need to deal with this other dentist-related thing, being that a lot of my friends go to the same dentist and I’m a bit afraid of sparking some “we’re all in the Dr. Bjornson club!” celebrations. (This is a real “everything good is actually bad!” kind of post. I dislike compliments, and furthermore I dislike belonging! No fun allowed!) I’ve been belatedly discovering Kurt Vonnegut’s books, and in the last one I read (Cat’s Cradle), he uses this invented word, granfalloon, to describe an allegiance based on a shallow or pointless shared trait, like being from Iowa or going to the same dentist. I am happy to have this word, even just to clarify for myself that I don’t want to avoid all kinds of belonging. Only granfallooning gets the diss, because it is meaningless and distracting, and is, I think, a kind of vanity.

. . .

So, then, over a year later, I’ve thought a lot about my problem with compliments. I think there are two parts; one where I’m crazy and one where some compliments are crazy. I have book quotes to go with both of these.

The part about living in a crazy world is like this. From Nonviolent Communication.

Conventional compliments often take the form of judgements, however positive, and are sometimes offered to manipulate the behavior of others.

And the part about my own craziness goes like this. From Women Who Run With The Wolves, in a chapter about procrastination and creative blocks.

Troublesome contaminants in the river [of soul/creativity] are obvious when a woman turns away sincere compliments about her creative life. There may be only a little pollution, as in the offhanded “Oh, how nice you are to give such a compliment,” or there may be massive trouble on the river: “Oh, this old thing” or “You must be out of your mind.” … These are all signs of an injured animus. Good things flow into the woman but are immediately poisoned.

Not that my teeth are my creative life, but being a person who was both terrible at accepting compliments and struggling with intense procrastination at the same time, I figure it translates.

Horror movies, self-mutilation, vampire-incest?, publishing old drafts.

Letting more old drafts shine their light into the internet. More quotations from The Monster Show .

I think the reason I saved this first quotation was that I hadn’t thought about movies being made by the most surgically altered and self-mutilated people around. I liked thinking about horror movies reflecting the horror of Hollywood culture, not only of wider American culture.

p.167, On Arlene Francis, star of Murders in the Rue Morgue:

Her real shudders came after the film was completed when other producers, eager to discuss her future in films, began wielding scalpels shaper than those of Dr. Mirakle. They would offer her riches, it appeared, but only if she would consent to give up a portion of her nose. Rhinoplasty was all the rage in a Hollywood that now placed a premium on robotic, standardized glamor in the Busby Berkeley mold. Dorothy Tree, for example, was a highly regarded Broadway actress of the late 1920s, but her strong profile relegated her to bit parts in films, shuffling around in a shroud, for instance, as one of Bela Lugosi’s vampire wives. Finally, after leaving her original nose behind her in the vaults of Dracula, she began to get speaking parts and billing. Producers and casting directors were eager to prescribe and preside over surgical rearrangements of the female body, an obsession beginning to be weirdly echoed, or perhaps weirdly magnified, in horror movies and popular literature. Indeed, the persistent, essential connection between plastic surgery, self-mutilation, and horror had only begun.

And this next one just made me curious about what this proposed link is.

p.191, on incest and vampires…

[In Mark of the Vampire, 1935, Tod] Browning and his screenwriter Guy Endor likely took some inspiration from Ernest Jones’ pioneering psychoanalytic study On The Nightmare (1931), which explicitly linked vampire fantasies to incest guilt.

Freaks, zombies, horror movies… old drafts.

More old drafts that have been sitting in the archives, more quotations from The Monster Show .


[Tod] Browning spent a lot of time at the ballpark and racetrack in the early thirties, and veteran Hollywood writer Budd Schulberg (author of The Disenchanted and What Makes Sammy Run? ??) had a memory of another Browning pastime. “The marathon dance was in vogue then and we went a few times to the Santa Monica Pier to watch the young unemployed zombies drag themselves around the floor in a slow motion dance macabre,” Schulberg wrote in his 1981 memoir ??Moving Pictures. “Even more appalling than the victims on the dance floor were the regulars, affluent sadists in the same front-row seats every night, cheering on their favorites who kept fainting and occasionally throwing up from exhaustion. One of the most dedicated of the regulars was Tod Browning, who never missed a night and who got that same manic gleam in his eyes as when he was directing Freaks.”


The rediscovery and rehabilitation of Freaks became almost a cause celebre in the film journals beginning in the early sixties. Once considered crass and tasteless, the film was now “compassionate” and “sensitive.” In a way, the appreciation of Freaks became a politically correct means to indulge a morbid curiosity about thalidomide deformities, while still being able to feel self-righteous and progressive.

Re-entry, being Scottish, the other end of cultural appropriation, not yet being able to write short sentences but maybe one day.

I’ve been sitting here for three weeks attempting to write my grand re-debut in blogging, where I would declare my intention to overshare again like I haven’t since about 2002, note that a lot of anxiety that I was blaming on work deadlines actually seems to stem from not writing enough about things I care about, and delve into the limitations I’ve been accidentally sticking to regarding not scaring my family or offending my friends or embarrassing my partner, but how about I skip that for now since it has become a bit of an albatross, and just post something already?


So I’ve been thinking about European ethnicities, whiteness, colonialism, and cultural appropriation, and what I need to do to make sense of being, apparently, of 100% Scottish ancestry.

This Scottishness is new-ish information because my dad was adopted. Until my dad (or my mum?) saw his adoption paperwork a couple of years ago I thought of myself as half Scottish, half mystery, and really, mostly as a generic white settler person. Lately it has occurred to me that if I can get more rooted in being a specifically Scottish-descended settler person, I might be able to use that to subvert whiteness a bit. I’m thinking that since whiteness works as a generic, supposedly neutral, supposedly non-racial racial quality, then knowing my ethnicity better might help me to be more aware of whiteness instead of taking it for granted, and also might help start conversations about race and privilege in everyday life. This is very early stages here. I get the impression a lot of people have thought about this, and I have a lot of reading and thinking to do. I don’t know what “understanding my Scottishness” would look like yet. I’m hesitant to suddenly care about kilts and druids partly because maybe they aren’t relevant to me, and partly because I associate, e.g., Celtic knotwork jewellery with New Agers and metal bands. More on that in a minute.

This is part of a bigger, backwards personal growth quest. Years ago I started reading about death and dying, and got interested in denial. There’s a lot of writing about denial in radical politics and anti-oppression work. Privilege and denial, collusion and denial, performance and pretending. Darkdaughta writes (or did write, when she was public) especially clear analyses of how personal denial perpetuates political oppression.

Trying to be thoroughly anti-oppressive, then, merges right up with trying to be an honest person, and both missions lead to sorting through my family dynamics, my parents’ families, and back and back. It’s useful to apply some historical context and political analysis to all of that. So again, I have a lot more reading and thinking and talking to do.

For starters, I’ve been hunting for general history about Scotland and colonialism. It is very easy to find writing about the oppression of Scotland by England, but, predictably, harder to find anti-colonial perspectives on Scottish settlers.

This caption was the first promising thing I found: Professor Geoff Palmer of Heriot-Watt University believes Scotland is still in denial over its role in British slavery. A signal! Involving the codeword, denial! I found some leads and put some books on hold at the library about Scotland and colonialism.

Towards the end of that article though, they are talking about other aspects of the Scottish diaspora, and the subject turns to cultural appropriation.

David Hesse, an “urban intellectual from Zurich”, who gave up a journalism career to study in Edinburgh, says: “You could call my field the imagined diaspora. I investigate highland games in Germany and Scottish clubs in eastern Europe. I look at people dressing up as Scots. Those people have no “real” Scottish ancestry but feel aesthetic connections. I think international fascinations with Scotland and Scottish-looking things are a phenomenon.”

Hesse sees imaginary Scottishness as an identity that is becoming increasingly popular in northern Europe. “It is a folk identity, but it is quite macho. It involves military music and martial games. It is also a generally white phenomenon.”

I laughed when I read that. Cultural appropriation has never inconvenienced me before, but I think this is what’s going on with my cautiousness towards anything celtic. It’s been taken over by metal bands and the scented candle crowd. I’m used to thinking about cultural appropriation from the other end, choosing not to wear dreadlocks or sari silks, not to get tattoos of asian calligraphy, not to use imaginary ancient aboriginal terms for my menstrual period. I think Operation: WTF Scottish Roots is working already. Things that made intellectual sense make a little more experiential sense.

So, hi again internet. It’s been years since I wrote regularly and I think I must still write like a twenty two year old, but I’m ok with just spitting things out until I get the hang of it.