On March 1954 the annual edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia was published by Moscow’s Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya. Under B was a glowing article on BERIA, LAVRENTIY, a great hero.

Later that year, Beria was denounced as a spy, tried, and executed. The Encyclopedia’s subscribers received a letter asking them to cut out and return the page on Beria. They were sent a replacement article (this one on the BERING STRAIT) which they were to insert into the volume so there’d be no missing page, no sudden jump of numbers, no sign at all that a change had been made. Beria had been annihilated: cut from history, and the cuts also cut.

In the Soviet Union it was easy to cease to exist at any time and for almost any reason. It didn’t matter who you were: a decorated war hero, an inner party member, a useless artist, Stalin’s own daughter. Nobody was safe, nobody was above suspicion. The Soviet Union did scary things to be people, far more unsettling than mangled bodies filling a ditch. Execution only takes away a future: the USSR tried to take away everything. By 1952, Soviet historical revisionism was becoming common knowledge. In Foreign Affairs Vol. 31, No. 1, journalist and ex-communist Bertram David “Bert” Wolfe laid out the case[1]Wolfe, Bertram D. “Operation Rewrite: The Agony of Soviet Historians.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 31, no. 1, Council on Foreign Relations, 1952, pp. 39–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/20030940. for this in embarrassing detail: they weren’t particularly subtle or worried about being caught. Important historical figures weren’t present in the USSR’s textbooks, facts were retooled and adjusted to fit narratives, and in some cases, entire races of people seemingly vanished.

Stalin warps history into a Procrustean bed of his own design […] Deletions from, and insertions into, the original texts of Lenin’s Collected Works as well as his own. The object in this method is to establish his infallibility during and after the October Revolution. […] expunging of the name of Trotsky from all available records. […] Omar Khayyam ceases to be a Persian poet of Nishipur and becomes “a natural product of the Tadzhik people” (a Soviet Republic). Shamil is no longer to be remembered as a hero of the Caucasus who led his people in resisting Tsarist oppression; he is now a “reactionary serving the interests of Britain and Turkey” more than a century ago. […] Companions of Lenin who opposed Stalin became unpersons — their names erased from the scrolls. Nationalities suspected of disloyalty in war, such as the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tartars, became unpeople, — their identities evaporated, and their peoples scattered through the steppes. Material things which offended him, such as museums devoted to native arts instead of to Great Russian benefices, became unobjects, — their contents marked for the trash can. […] When Stalin changes his line or attitude (toward anything under the sun, past or present) the historians must push the new concept backward to include all that went before. The present enemy must be viewed as having been the enemy always. Books, articles, statements, and so on to the contrary, must be purified or burnt. […] To quote the 1934 Stalin in Russia 1952 would be to take one’s life into one’s hands.

Wolfe describes this assault on reality as “Operation Palimpsest”, which is a thought-provoking idea. Palimpsests are old pieces of parchment where the writing has been scraped away so that another layer of text can be overwritten (literally) in its place. In the 21st century, with the aid of chemicals and spectral analysis, we can usually recover the original text. Palimpsests, in other words, are failed acts of removal. The writing is hidden…and yet it remains.

But this also of a piece with Stalin’s style of censorship.

As the Beria story illustrates, you can’t just hide something, you also have to hide the act of hiding. It’s no good for a magician to make a rabbit vanish if the audience can see the pulley and wires and trap-door. Political history is replete with examples (Watergate, Lewinski) of bungled coverups that probably did more harm than the original crime, and poorly-done censorship can draw attention to the very thing it tries to cover up.

Below is an infamous pair of photos, synonymous with Orwellian creepiness. They half-depict Nikolai Yezhov (Stalin’s NKVD head from 1936-1938) before and after a history adjustment.

Is it a good fake? I don’t think so.[2]Although I have the benefit of hindsight. The editing is reasonable, but the shot’s composition suggests the missing person. No photographer would pack his human subjects into the left margin of the frame to give us a better view of empty water. Clearly there’s supposed to be someone on Stalin’s right.

This picture would pass casual inspection, but if you knew that government photographs were prone to censorship, little errors like this would raise red flags (in many senses). Nikolai Yezhov is gone, yet he’s more present than he was before. It’s a method of censorship that reverse-censors, like hiding something with a spotlight.

Even if the censor had cropped the photo tighter, it’s possible in theory that Yezhov’s presence could be re-established by a sufficiently advanced machine learning algorithm. We’ve been teaching computers to read emotions from contextual clues since 2003[3]M. Pantic and L. J. M. Rothkrantz, “Toward an affect-sensitive multimodal human-computer interaction,” in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 91, no. 9, pp. 1370-1390, Sept. 2003, doi: … Continue reading. Perhaps the reverse can happen – an AI reconstructing context from an emotional state. Perhaps there’s something subtle about Stalin’s expression or posture that indicates there’s a man on his right. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but we’re definitely getting closer to a world where it’s possible.

Technology is the specter at the feast. What will it allow us to do? How soon? Palimpsests appear clean to the naked eye, but to a technological eye the writing’s still there. This artificial gaze (unlike the human one) grows sharper as the years pass: picking out more and more signal from the noise. Historical crimes once considered unsolvable might soon be cracked by increasingly sophisticated uses of forensics and genomics, and so will historical omissions.

Unfortunately, the same fruits of technology will be repurposed to become tools of tyrants and monsters. An advanced deep learning algorithm might be able to recover Yezhov, but a far simpler one would be able to scramble or distort the image to make this impossible, in the same way that a simple freeware program like DBAN can, within seconds, wipe out data in such a way that the entire NSA, given infinite money and years, couldn’t get it back. Entropy’s a bitch. The USSR tried to delete their citizens, but failed because they didn’t have a delete key. The will was there, the technology wasn’t. Seventy years later, a real technological delete key is either coming soon or already here. When it’s finally used, we’ll be the last to know.

Stalin used more crude methods to reframe reality. Ironically, his attempts were rather democratic: he tried to unperson his enemies by public consensus.

Consider the absurdity of the Beria omission. The NKVD wasn’t raiding homes and confiscating copies of the Encyclopedia. They (via Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya) were issuing instructions for citizens to voluntarily censor their own books. They were explaining what needed to be done with full confidence that their instructions would be followed. People were at perfect liberty to leave the page on Beria in the book, but they didn’t think that would happen. After all, Beria didn’t exist in the new history. Why would you possibly want an entry for a nonexistent person in your encyclopedia? A lot of decisions make more sense when you let go of assumptions that the truth is important.

That’s maybe the cruelest, most humanity-defying thing about the USSR in this period: the way they made the people party to their own destruction. It’s not that difficult to crowdsource oppression: East Germany’s Stasi, over the course of its existence, had over 600,000 informants [4]Helmut Müller-EnbergsDie inoffiziellen Mitarbeiter.(Table 9, page 36) In: BStU: Anatomie der Staatssicherheit – Geschichte, Struktur, Methoden, Berlin 2008, a substantial proportion of the population. It’s a frightening thought that if we ever disappear, it won’t just be the work of Big Brother but also Big Sister and Big Daddy and Big Mommy and Big Neighborhood TV Repairman. Everyone will collaborate on your unpersoning without shame, perhaps without awareness. They’ll do it out of rightness. A new reality has been imposed where you don’t exist, and thus you don’t. It takes a village to raise a child (as the aphorism goes), and it takes a village to bury a child, too.

References

References
1 Wolfe, Bertram D. “Operation Rewrite: The Agony of Soviet Historians.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 31, no. 1, Council on Foreign Relations, 1952, pp. 39–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/20030940.
2 Although I have the benefit of hindsight.
3 M. Pantic and L. J. M. Rothkrantz, “Toward an affect-sensitive multimodal human-computer interaction,” in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 91, no. 9, pp. 1370-1390, Sept. 2003, doi: 10.1109/JPROC.2003.817122.
4 Helmut Müller-EnbergsDie inoffiziellen Mitarbeiter.(Table 9, page 36) In: BStU: Anatomie der Staatssicherheit – Geschichte, Struktur, Methoden, Berlin 2008
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Most stories have a kind of endoskeleton: a theme that lies inside them like bones. Sometimes it’s the same set of bones as another story: autopsy Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and you’ll find the skeleton of Campbell’s Heroic Journey. Autopsy a random romance novel from the 70s or 80s instead, the skeleton will probably be the Three R’s (Rebellion, Ruin, Redemption). Some stories are thin, their thematic content close to the skin, while others are fat: you have to dig deep through the narrative’s flesh and organs before you find it.

But then you have stories that have exoskeletons: their bones are on the outside. The theme clearly came first. There’s no need to autopsy such a body to discover its skeleton: it exists in plain view, and often it’s the only thing you can see.

Conan the Barbarian is an exoskeletal movie, virtually all theme and zero story. Every character is an archetype, every plot point is as predictable and portentous as the movement of the stars, and the symbolism is blunt and obvious – a Freudian psychoanalysist would suffer coronary thrombosis comparing swords to phalluses in this movie. It’s a stirring and powerful experience. Every scowl, drawn blade, and bombastic orchestral sting exists in service of myth. Conan the Barbarian is held up by mighty iron pillars of theme.

In ancient Hyboria, a tribe of Cimmerians is massacred by cultists of a dark snake god, and a blacksmith’s son is taken captive and sold into slavery. He grows to adulthood chained to a mill, revolving in endless circles. In an absurd touch, this turns him into a muscular titan. Real slaves look haggard, emaciated, and old before their time: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body was clearly wrought by gym workouts and steroids. But that doesn’t matter, because we see the thematic through-line. “Conan has performed great labors and become mighty, so he might escape and seek vengeance against Thulsa Doom.” That’s the important part. The theme holds veto power over logic and realism.

Conan the Barbarian is not faithful to any one Robert E Howard’s story (the Conan of this movie has more in common with Kull the Conqueror), but it’s faithful to Howard’s storytelling. It’s the sort of thing Howard would have written.

Howard, more so than the others of the “Weird Three” (Lovecraft and Smith) was indebted toward the lower side of pulp. He wrote action well, and his stories tend to rely on energy, heft, and speed for their impact – they’re as fast and streamlined as the mechanical rabbits greyhounds chase. Lovecraft and Smith would carefully construct a setting: Howard threw up plywood constructs and then smashed them beneath stampeding Hyborian horses. Here’s what I mean:

Chunder Shan, entering his chamber, closed the door and went to his table. There he took the letter he had been writing and tore it to bits. Scarcely had he finished when he heard something drop softly onto the parapet adjacent to the window. He looked up to see a figure loom briefly against the stars, and then a man dropped lightly into the room. The light glinted on a long sheen of steel in his hand.

‘Shhhh!’ he warned. ‘Don’t make a noise, or I’ll send the devil a henchman!’

The governor checked his motion toward the sword on the table. He was within reach of the yard-long Zhaibar knife that glittered in the intruder’s fist, and he knew the desperate quickness of a hillman.

The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.

‘You come like a thief in the night,’ commented the governor, recovering some of his composure, although he remembered that there was no guard within call. Still, the hillman could not know that.

‘I climbed a bastion,’ snarled the intruder. ‘A guard thrust his head over the battlement in time for me to rap it with my knife-hilt.’

‘You are Conan?’

‘Who else? You sent word into the hills that you wished for me to come and parley with you. Well, by Crom, I’ve come! Keep away from that table or I’ll gut you.’

The setting is ancient, but the prose is incongruously modern. The dialog reads like banter from a hardboiled detective novel, and it’s littered with anachronisms (“the devil”, “parley”) that don’t sit well in a tale of a vanished age.

For better or worse, this is something the movie adapts. Take away Conan’s mythic grandeur, and what’s left? “A rich man hires a tough to rescue his wayward daughter.” That’s a detective story. In fact, it’s the plot of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Everything beneath the exoskeleton is pure pulp.

Likewise, the movie captures Howard’s eclecticism of setting. Low-budget grindhouse films had a reputation for shooting with whatever props and costumes were available (leading to ridiculous movies about roller-blading samurai, etc) and Howard’s stories have a similar feel. In The People of the Black Circle (quoted above) we see a weird amalgamation of real-world cultures, and Conan likewise throws together Mongols, Vikings, Indians, and everything in between. As Zack Stenz once pointed out, the movie owes quite a lot to 70s California beach culture. The story, written another way, could be phrased as “a Venice Beach bodybuilder and his hapa buddy do drugs, get laid, and fight a cult that exploits hippies.” Gerry Lopez (Subotai) was a surfer friend of director John Milius. Most of the remaining cast are athletes.

Some roles are oddly cast, but the most important one – that of Conan – is dead on. No role has ever suited Arnold more, except perhaps the Terminator. His overwhelming physicality sells him as a mightly-thewed barbarian, and his uncertain, rumbling, learning-to-talk diction adds extra verisimilitude. When you listen to Arnold speak, you don’t doubt that you’re hearing the beginnings of human language.

There are depths to Conan, but the surface is pretty predictable.  Its characters are so archetypal that they can’t do anything interesting or surprising. All of their motives are clearly spelled out, and the viewer is never in any doubt about what will happen – what must happen. Some movies are like taxis, slyly taking you on the scenic route through town if you’re not watching the meter. Conan is more like a train, pulling into the station, then leaving at a certain time on a fixed path. And since Conan is hardly the first film to adapt such mythic material, the train’s travelling down a route you’ve seen many times before.

But most people consider regularity in their chosen form of transportation to be a virtue, not a vice, and maybe they think the same about stories. For the rest of us, Conan the Barbarian’s the perfect movie to watch if you’re twelve, or want to remember what it was like to be twelve.

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If a radio began playing “We Built This City” I would stop performing CPR on my dying child to turn it off. It truly is the worst song in the world.

However, I have to defend it on something. A lot of people are confused by the line “Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio.”

“Who is Marconi? And what is the mamba?” asks Marks. […] “The mamba is the deadliest snake in the world, so he must have meant the mambo, but it sounds so much like ‘mamba’ that every lyric web site writes it that way. It makes sense neither way.”[1]“We built this city on detestable lyrics”. The Sydney Morning Herald. April 27, 2004. Via Internet Archive.

It’s definitely mamba. Snakes are associated with deception and trickery, and Marconi (the inventor of radio) is used here as a metonym for the music industry. The song is saying “the biz is full of snakes, and just listen to the radio if you want proof!”

I’ll allow that it’s an odd lyric. Why a mamba, specifically? I guess Bernie Taupin wanted alliteration with “Marconi”, so he found an encyclopedia of venomous snakes and went to the M section. But the Venn diagram of people who know who Guglielmo Marconi is, know what a mamba is, and are sufficiently suicidal to listen to “We Built This City” is probably quite small, and the word “play” next to “radio” throws your mind down the wrong path – you’re imagining a record playing, not Taupin’s intended sense of “playing a role”.

Believe it or not, it’s actually one of the less incomprehensible lines in the song!

It’s just another Sunday
In a tired old street
Police have got the choke hold (oh)
Then we just lost the beat
Who counts the money underneath the bar?
Who writes the wrecking ball into our guitars?
Don’t tell us you need us ’cause we’re just simple fools
Looking for America, coming through your schools

In honor of “We Built This City”, I wrote a piece of music that turned out pretty bad.

It was supposed to be lo-fi hip hop, but I ended up turning it into a glistening cheeseball of a track with percussion that doesn’t fit.

Why did I try to write lo-fi hip-hop, a style I have no interest in? Well, because of a third bad piece of music.

In 1990, thrash metal band Sacred Reich released The American Way on Metal Blade Records.  It’s a typically degenerate late 80s thrash metal effort without any punch or heaviness and vocals +6dBA louder than they should be. It’s not my thing. But the final track is called “31 Flavors”, and it’s an unabashed funk rock song with lyrics encouraging “metal dudes” to broaden their horizons.

I love the Chilis – Freaky, Uplift, Mother’s Milk
Faith No More – Mike Patton’s voice is smooth as silk
Metallica’s music makes me want to rage
Sting’s lyrics have something to say
Jimi Hendrix plays guitar like a no-one else
Black Sabbath – Ozzy’s voice is sick as hell
Prince, Fishbone, NWA
These are the things that I like to play
Mr. Bungle is so very cool
So don’t be an ignorant fool
There’s so much music for you to choose
So don’t just be a metal dude it’s cool fool

Sacred Reich listeners (I doubt that the band has fans) probably thought the whole thing was a joke. But you know, lately I’ve come around to the “31 Flavors” side of things. It’s possible to go too deep into a scene, to the point where you miss out on things. And metal fans are doing a lot of missing out.

Here’s the moment I came to Jesus. Most people know what thrash metal is – old Metallica and the like. But to those in the know there’s lots of categories within thrash, such as tech thrash (Watchtower), blackened thrash (Skeletonwitch), and death thrash (Demolition Hammer). Subgenres become increasingly absurd, with dedicated fans splitting bands with increasingly finer combs.

The very bottom of metal’s phylogenetic pyramid? Pizza thrash.

It’s a style of modern thrash that imitates (and exaggerates) the aesthetics of the classic 80s Bay Area scene. Bright, comic-book cover art. Lyrics about partying. It often has a goofy, kid-friendly aesthetic, and abundant references to 80s/90s pop culture.

Pizza thrash is usually used as an insult. It means you’re a band of 20 year old posers trying to force your way into a scene that died long ago and wouldn’t want you anyway. Lately, we’re even getting ironic pizza thrash bands.

I think it was on my third message board argument about pizza thrash that I had a realization.

I should not know what this is.

There is a type of saying called an Umeshism, formulated as “if you never have $problem, you’re spending too much effort avoiding $problem”. For example, “if you have never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time waiting at airports.” The idea is to make you value your time more.

The mere fact that I know what pizza thrash is means that I listen to too much metal, and should get my head out of it. There is zero reason why such a minor, stupid classification should occupy real estate in my mind. It’s useless knowledge par excellence. The world’s bigger than you think. Time to get a grasp on a larger piece of it. Thanks, Sacred Reich.

References

References
1 “We built this city on detestable lyrics”. The Sydney Morning Herald. April 27, 2004. Via Internet Archive.
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