Virtual Private Networks
by Shane Anderson
The following essay was read aloud by the author as part of The Sacred Conspiracy, which celebrated the publication of Headless, a murder-mystery by the elusive author K. D., and reflected on the relationship between offshore finance, human sacrifice, the mystery genre, and the free rein of capital.
Headless. An authorless text, a text that engages with “murder and mystery,” with the crime genre and philosophy, a text that extends beyond the page into travel blogs, conferences, and gallery spaces. It is a text that was ostensibly written by an ex-employee of the offshore-finance company Sovereign Group but that, we can assume, was actually written by the ghostwriter John Barlow at the invitation of the Swedish artist duo Goldin+Senneby. Or, if Alexander Provan’s final statement in the introduction is to be taken at its word, then the real author is he, Alexander Provan, an editor at Triple Canopy, publishers of this book. In the text itself, it is suggested that even another “fictional” character, Carla Bustamante, wrote at least parts of the novel. Without any clear beginnings it shouldn’t surprise us that Headless also has no ends. This book might not even be its final iteration. It could expand into another dimension and pursue further investigations. Headless, then, is a bowl of rice milk and muesli that has been tipped, that slowly spills over keyboards, receipts, and important documents, leaving the comfortable realm intended to aid digestion for the more unpredictable planes of short circuits and saturation, creating a stickiness that glues together what it blurs or temporarily reveals.
In the shape of a book, Headless is both a page-turner and a romp through the unknowable, exploring Bataillean philosophy, myths of sacrifice, and their unlikely conjunction with offshore finance. It is, indeed, both “murder and mystery,” both Dan Brown thriller and Thomas Pynchon postmodern paranoia without the bawdy humor. And by writing through genre to ask questions of metaphysics and ethics, some of the great westerns flicker through my grayscape, such as John Ford’s The Searchers and its complex investigation of community and savagery, its subversion of mainstream history. If we allow ourselves to enter the poetic practice of association, and I hope we will (in part because Headless systematically investigates unseen connections), we can even find an affinity between the film starring John Wayne and Goldin+Senneby’s project, which was first titled “Looking for Headless.” Both are concerned with unraveling truth, exploring the poetics of monstrosity, of ecstasy and liberation and fear. Whether this was an intentional fun-house mirroring or just an echo reproduced by an unseen well bottom is almost irrelevant, for it is these elements of connectivity, of reverberation, that Headless plumbs, driving further into the unknown. Which is to say, Headless is not a mountain nymph in love with its own voice, it is a narwhal calling beyond its long tooth into the dark. As such, we might even want to see this book as a palm reading. Not as an inscription of destiny, but as something that can be read on a number of surfaces and textures, according to dissecting lines or energetic levels, a book that is more speculative than the usual fare, which typically give us an account of events transpired.
And so I hover my hand over the hot plates of transparency and obscurity, of fact and fiction. These common modes of operation have been particularly blistering in the past decade of literature, but we could track them as far back as Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which both inserts the author (as a translator) into the text and maintains that Quixote was a real figure, that the fictional account is merely an archive of documents related to his person. In other words, by attempting to explicate the content of the novel, Cervantes adds friction, obscuring his role in the fiction-making and inserting himself into the telling. He deletes his own authorship, removes his own head. Cameo: the ghostwriter John Barlow. In the distance, Alfred Hitchcock passes at the head of the steps in I Confess. Or, again, with an example that is perhaps more relevant to a celebration of the book, we could look at Edgar Allen Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which made use of “eyewitness” reports of the South Pole, detailing its hot climates and its residents’ practice of sacrificial cannibalism; fantastical, yes, but at the time this information was unverifiable. This seems relevant—what is more unverifiable today than the machinations of offshore finance? Legislation still has no clear policy as to what to do with a corporation that has no CEO, no head, which claims instead to possess just a number of undisclosed beneficiaries, appendages, registered in tax havens.
But let’s rewind. Fact and fiction. Transparency and obscurity. These have been variously performed in recent decades to a number of ends. Either to add an explicative element, as in Julia Cohen’s I Was Not Born, which makes use of transcriptions of therapy sessions; or to demonstrate the poststructuralist adage of the death of the author (and, consequently, of literature) à la conceptual poetics; or, and what is more common, to merge fact and fiction, to complicate both. While some texts insert fact into fiction (like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s and Ben Lerner’s recent novels) and thereby offer a testimonial that is complicated by the framing, others bring the fictional into the real (like John Holten’s Readymades, his invention of a Serbian neo-avant-garde collective that were subsequently invited as real artists to the Whitney Biennial). All of these projects acknowledge the boundaries between the two realms but desire to extend them, to annex foreign territory until the next treaty.
What does this have to do with K. D.’s Headless? Much. The book strategically inserts fact into fiction. The ghostwriter Barlow acts as one of the main characters. But it also pushes the fiction out into the world. Various actresses have pretended to be K. D. at readings. Headless, a work that the initiators describe as “documentary fiction,” engages in a bilateral navigation, bending fiction into fact, fact into fiction, and obscuring the clear while clarifying the darkness. The borders are all smudged, drawn up after Churchill spilled his whiskey over the map of the Middle East. Does the Sovereign Group even exist? Does John Barlow? Headless is concerned with the unknowable, with making known what cannot be known, uncovering stuck manholes and inserting mysterious pink pipes into the urban landscape. Within the book, this takes on many manifestations. We are faced with mysteries that we can’t unravel regarding the sacrifice rites of Bataille’s secret society Acéphale, the shady, impenetrable machinations of the offshore-finance group Headless Ltd., as well as the possible connections between them. And we can say: These connections are real, they are there—if only in the iteration, in the supposing.
Structurally the novel is a mystery as well. What is it? What is its real purpose? And why does it seem to suck all involved parties in like a vortex? What, I ask, is on the other side of the wormhole? The novel possesses a number of secrets that remain secrets, promises of Christmas presents that remain unopened, undelivered, even after the three magi have left. And unlike many of the recent projects blending fact and fiction, Headless has more to do with charting the dark matter that remains purely hypothetical, and yet necessary, there. This, then, seems to be engaging with current movements in philosophy and physics—but for now this station’s frequency must remain only barely audible through the white noise as we drive further into the night and the fog beyond our failing headlights.
The artists who initiated this project say that they are concerned with poetics of withdrawal and displacement. This, of course, mirrors their object of investigation, but I believe that this wasn’t the only reason. Could it be that they are suggesting putting the sunshade hoods over our heads when working on laptops? Sweaters? To encode our emails, use VPNs and the deep web? Are they suggesting death to credit cards? To leave our cell phones at home? Disappearing as a strategy, remaining a mystery, even out in the open? One could say, without a clear strategy to defeat the mutable dragons of the world, we must recoil. This is the most recent proposal in the fifth chapter of To Our Friends by the Invisible Committee, which is an apt name in the context of this evening. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Boot up, log in, space out. Sound familiar? Can you taste the camphor of failure?
It seems to me that the question is more of displacement than of withdrawal. Magic tricks, sleights of hand, deception. Which, for the record, is also the theme of the second part of Quixote. But if we are to take them at their word, and I’m guessing after reading the novel that we should since there might otherwise be a paltry price on my head, then we should take this as a smoke bomb, the deception that allows one to disappear. That this happens right in front of our eyes is like the Triangle offense, developed by Fred “Tex” Winter and put into practice by Phil Jackson for eleven championships. Nicholas Dawidoff in the New York Times described it as a “system” that “symbolizes the larger quandary of how inscrutable basketball’s formal strategies are for those who watch. Night after night across the big-time basketball landscape, offenses are run before vast audiences but are veiled to most fans. In this way, I found the idea of Triangle particularly intriguing. An offensive system that had won all those championships in full public view yet remained off-limits to others.” The open mystery, the head off the court.
The monk makes a commentary, complaining about his copyist job in the margins, and erases unimportant words or the work of Archimedes. It is freezing. The parchment is hairy. And like John Ashbery’s “Fragment,” we are in a world of intentional misinformation. First published in 1969 and dedicated to his lover James Schuyler, who was also a collaborator on the novel A Nest of Ninnies (i.e., another novel without a single head), it was, one year later, published in the collection The Double Dream of Spring and newly dedicated to his deceased father. It’s not that the father had just died; this had taken place six years before. Rather, it seems he wanted to reassess reality or cover something up. Misinformation can at times be more productive than facts. In this case, it has generated papers, jobs. By making certain facts vanish, erasing biographical traces, we can proliferate realities with these fictions. These seem no less real. Or, alternatively, we can step up to the plate of all the various realities and swing until our knuckles bleed.
But, the question burns, what happens when we are faced with the unknown?
Sparkling colors are soap bubbles quivering under her hand.Coolness brings out odors that remind her of green.Gray is like a shawl around the shoulders.Lilac makes her think of faces she has loved and kissed.Yellow is like the sun. It means life and is rich in promise.Pink is like a baby’s cheek or a soft southern breeze.There are two kinds of brown. One is warm and friendlyLike leaf mold and the other is like trunksOf aged trees with worm holes or withered hands.
These words are a paraphrase of Helen Keller’s response to her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when she asked Keller to describe the colors. Colors she could have never seen once she became a fully conscious being. But they were still present in the science of words. This suggests to me we can in fact know the unknown, if only through metaphor.
I am interested in this position also because it touches on my own practice. A fellow poet recently accused me of obscuring reality. This poet suggested none of my own stories were in my poems. I like to tell stories; it’s true. But in a way, they seem irrelevant to the investigation of feelings and the world. I’m interested instead in what happens if your life feels like Helen Keller’s. If you try to live, as Bataille suggests, “at the edge of limits where all comprehension breaks down.” This is what he calls freedom. Without a head, you are free. Being stricken with blindness makes you dive deeper. Isn’t it all the more dazzling, then, when you still touch on the real?
Triple Canopy celebrates the publication of Headless, a murder-mystery by the elusive author K. D., with a reading and a rumination on offshore finance and human sacrifice.
Headless is a delirious romp through the world of offshore finance, conducted by a British ghostwriter who seems to have uncovered a sacrifice-obsessed, Bataille-inspired secret society of global economic elites who will do anything to maintain their power. The ghostwriter, John Barlow, is hired by the Swedish conceptualist artist duo Goldin+Senneby to investigate Headless, an offshore firm registered in the Bahamas. Barlow happily agrees to write up his investigation as a mystery novel, to be published under the name K. D. But soon Barlow is implicated in the decapitation of a police officer in Nassau, and his novel becomes a matter of life and death. The more he struggles to grasp the plot, the further he slips into the dark world of covert capitalism.
Artist Hito Steyerl, poet Shane Anderson, philosopher Matteo Pasquinelli, and artist Caitlin Berrigan will read from Headless and discuss the mystery genre, the difficulties of ghostwriting (and of employing ghostwriters), the free rein of capital, narratives of financial crises and credit economies, Georges Bataille’s formulation of sovereignty, the concept of xenospace, and the pleasures of fiction that insistently impinges on reality.
- Shane Anderson is the author of Soft Passer (Mindmade Books) and Études des Gottnarrenmaschinen (Broken Dimanche Press). Among other places, his poems and translations can be found in 6x6, Asymptote, Edit, Plinth, Natalie Czech's Il Pleut series and Matthew Barney's River of Fundament (Skira Rizzoli). He lives in Berlin.
- Matteo Pasquinelli is a philosopher. He wrote the book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008) and edited the anthologies The Algorithms of Capital (2014) and Alleys of Your Mind: Augmented Intelligence and its Traumas (forthcoming for Meson Press). In 2012 he wrote, with Wietske Maas, "The Manifesto of Urban Cannibalism." He frequently teaches and lectures about the intersection of political philosophy and media theory at universities and art institutions.
- Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker and writer. She teaches New Media Art at University of Arts Berlin and has participated in the Venice Biennale, Documenta 12, the Shanghai Biennial, and Rotterdam Film Festival. An exhibition surveying her work was recently held at Artists Space in New York.
- Caitlin Berrigan is an artist who works across performance, sculpture, text, new media and public interventions to articulate the intimate and uncanny dimensions of power and politics. Her work includes Spectrum of Inevitable Violence, a large-scale class-warfare food fight, and Lessons in Capitalism, which observes the language of finance and money through the eyes of children. Forthcoming work includes the artist book and exhibition Unfinished State, which deals with speculative fictions and real estate in Berlin and Beirut and will be published by Archive Books. She is a 2015–17 Schloss Solitude Fellow and teaches new media practice at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.