Drew Denny - Brain House / Norman Klein - Spaces Between



In 2009, a patient named David G. (surname withheld) was treated unsuccessfully at a leading hospital in Southern California. Clearly, nothing is "leading" about this hospital anymore. The staff was so depleted by cuts, so demoralized, their symptoms were easier to read than David's. David's case was filed as "perverse memory loss; philo-amnesia." Perverse was slang at the hospital for "much too rare." No one thought to dig beyond the obvious. For example, in fourteenth century Spain, there are medieval texts, based on the Jewish Talmud, where contradictions quite similar to David's were treated (usually with prayer). These Sephardic case studies were converted to Catholic Spanish as early as 1460; and translated into English as recently as 1989, in Antwerp.

Anyway, we won't drown you in details. Simply put, David lost his memory stream. He could not reboot memories in sequence. Instead, he spouted aphorisms, even while events were going on.

As a result, he looked inscrutable, with a detached smile. But actually no lights were on. Like a man possessed in a crime movie, he kept dropping clues. Did he know more than he said? His aphorisms were even grammatical. Inside a normal brain, these clues were mnemonic—tag lines. Inside David, they circled like unclaimed luggage. They sparked nothing but highly cinematic close-ups.

The staff was too exhausted to track this one down. They left David with a manila pad and three crayons (no sharp pencils were permitted). On a diet of jello, microwaved burritos, and buttered toast, David fended for himself. After six weeks, his stomach lining sorely needed help. He was given two doses of antibiotics and new crayons.

On the memo pad, David left twenty five sentences in crayon (rather ornately illustrated by another patient). Each aphorism was numbered afterward by a nurse, who proudly filed them, whereupon they were almost immediately lost.

[The aphorisms are hidden in the Brain House above. Look for links to find them. –Ed.]


Backstory: We begin with a sentence that contained four numbers, each in a different primary color: 14, 145, 144, and 171. After searching through David’s library under his bed, we decided that these numbers must belong to his 1933 edition of the Plot Genie, by Wycliffe A. Hill. This was, by far, the most widely used plot generator of its time. It transformed story formulas into “a guessing contest.” Each part of the story arrived purely by chance, through a number. These instant plots, filled with odd turns, were useful for radio mystery writers, who had to crank out five new shows a week. Here are David’s results, and where they lead: 14: The Murder victim is “a bon vivant.” 137: The murder takes place ‘on a ferry boat.” 144: The Method of the Murder involves “a misuse of hypnotism.” 171: The Outstanding Clue proves to be “the imprint of a face on a window pane.”

It turns out that these plot points did actually appear-- as the opening to a 1938 “Mister Wong Mystery,” about a Chinese detective educated at 0xford; later played in Monogram Films by Boris Karloff. The title of the episode was “The Cantankerous Old Fool,” not referring to the victim, but rather to the sea captain watching through the window on deck.

The voice of the sea captain, gruff to suggest a beefy man, was played by David’s grandfather, who also had an uncanny gift for doing lady’s voices. It later turns out that the sea captain was actually a woman, still played by David’s grandfather; and, in fact, a bon vivant in her own right, escaping from the law. And so it goes, one role reversal after another, most of them David’s grandfather. The connection to David’s mental disorder is obvious.


Then we are asked to skip five steps. Now, this radio formula has changed into a brain scan of our political stupidities, as of 2009. David calls these aphorisms “comedy on a tragic scale.” We have reason to believe that he was trying to gather evidence for a plot genie about “our collective low-grade nervous breakdown.”


“Scientists know that the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is a mere 0.38 per cent while the Martian atmosphere is 95 per cent carbon dioxide.” To one blogger, this proves that global warming will never amount to much; and that the incandescent light bulb is fine.


Over the past twenty years, we should have been studying Detroit and East Germany, instead of boulevard high consumerism, and glossy software applications.


We need to find new points of origin for our crisis. Clearly, in 1950, when the crisis of the world war and Depression were clearly over— and the boom fully in place— practically no one remembered 1925. All economic crashes are transformations more than cycles. We will not remember 1995 by 2020, certainly not as a point of comparison.


Similarly, as New York grew increasingly more Jewish and Italian in its cultural life, with each decade, New York looked less like Poland or Sicily. In much the same way, as Los Angeles becomes increasingly more “Latino,” it will look less like Mexico.


The “digital revolution” in daily life has become so intuitive, people under thirty treat their cell phones and laptops like wearable technology. Thus, our era is definitely not a continuation of electronics after 1960, nor of analogs like cinema or radio after1905 or so. We are returning to a mood that is much older, more tactile—to intuitive media before electricity took over; to photo cards, stereo cards, looms, page turning, even the cybernetics of horseback riding.


The American national system of government has been broken, particularly in stages since 1963. When a reasonably competent man was elected president in 2008, many around the world assumed that our national madness had ended. But in fact, we are mentally as much in the Bush era—as of 2008-- as we were; just as crazy, and perhaps even more fiercely schizophrenic. We simply hired someone to shoulder our madness.


The blur between fact and fiction in our civilization has grown into a reality large enough to be called a third version of making story. In other words, the positivist impulse, as bizarre as it was, is essentially gone. That provides the five hundredth clue that what we used to call the Enlightenment-- in politics, in journalism, even in the social sciences-- is no longer self-evident. No proof satisfies the evidence, if it ever did.


Exceptionalism in the US is also long gone. Most Americans assume that the next century will not belong to them. We are perhaps the only country left in the world where this can be called shocking.


As media historians have long observed, public life is mostly experienced at home, not on the street. In fact, we carry “home” with us at all times. Increasingly, we socialize in relative isolation, even when we are sitting in public.


Multi-tasking implies that we enjoy parallel worlds, and assume that they rarely intersect. The dialectical principle has no place anymore really. What results is an endlessly incomplete, unresolved history of the present.


At the same time, we live in an utterly Marxist moment in a post-Marxist world. Practically every trauma promised by the dialectical prophets has come to pass; and very recently. But we lack the updated tools to accurately describe the moment, its global interface.


So we imagine a gothic (dialectical) revival that would slow down our vision.


We obsess about the loss of the tactile. We seek out a neo-Victorian sense of erogenous space. Presumably, that was more intimate; anything to slow down our detached, mechanical, over-privatized eroticism.


Clearly, new modes of storytelling are needed to capture all these inversions, these character reversals. But global distribution of culture is astonishingly conservative about experimental culture.


We imagine that games are a vital alternative. Perhaps they are, because they reenact how global corporate power operates, as a scripted space. However, games also reflect the formulaic obsessions of globalism.


Games also have antique quality (with glamorous 3D, but the world before 1900 was always 3D). Games rely on labyrinth systems— one of the ancient pre-analog models of storytelling.


Thus, two of the newest modes of storytelling today are clearly pre-analog: labyrinths and mapping.


Mapping is not about locational aesthetics at its core. It is about mapping the unfindable, about what is hidden within the map.


All experiences are narrative, even a still life. There is no non-linear alternative to narrative, no plot genie that is not pre-programmed, a scripted space. We know this for certain, because if a program truly achieves the non-linear, it crashes.


The most dramatic change in how stories are told probably involves the reader, who is now comfortable acting as part of the production team before the story is told. In that sense, the story is the making of first, before the first act.


We are comfortable with a highly schizophrenic multiplier in our stories: two authors, a narrator, all different, often arguing with each other. Now the problem is how to transform melodrama, the heart of nineteenth century storytelling-- our genetic code essentially-- into a multi-versal schizoid horizontal form. That would be the job of a new plot genie


We are an epistolary culture; about writing letters, about confession. The eighteenth century was equally reliant on letter writing; that became the soul of the novel.


We are also very much an old regime political culture, but without much prospect of a revolutionary, dialectical moment. Political vandalism is not political discourse. At the same time, the generations under thirty are assuming that essentially all forms of civilization are changing. And in many parts of the world, the average age is well under thirty.