Weird Studies

A filmmaker and a professor talk art and philosophy at the limits of the thinkable

Notes on Hyperstition

Hyperstitions are ideas that become paradigmatic or “real.” Egregores are the most dramatic kind: a group of people get together and create a spiritual entity, which then becomes real and autonomous (it becomes a subject). The passage from the Asclepius concerning the creation of gods is the perfect example. The priests of Egypt made statues that became real gods to them (gods of the earth). In Hermeticism, humans can do this by virtue of nous, the mind they share with the godhead.

Less dramatically, hyperstitions are memes. These are ideas that stick, for whatever reason. They start off as kind of nuts—but with time they come to seem self-evident. Nick Land provides two good examples in an interview: the “holy city” of Jerusalem, the concept of “cyberspace” – both start out as fictions and then become paradigmatic.

Hyperstitions are not necessarily intended as such. For instance, H. P. Lovecraft didn’t intend the Great Old Ones to be treated as real entities. Nonetheless, certain adepts have treated them as such and obtained results suggesting that the Great Old Ones are real. Another example: Alan Moore needs a god for his new career as a magician. He picks one out almost randomly, Glycon, because he likes his ridiculous physiology and his fantastic hair. But then the god become his god, as real as anything else.

The question, then, is how something that is made up participates in what is not made up. Or how something that came into being at point C comes to define what was going on at points A and B. It’s an interesting question, and it's the central question of "Of the Refrain," a chapter from A Thousand Plateaus. What Deleuze and Guattari call a refrain is the smallest unit of aesthetic expression. It is the seed-crystal of all artistic creation. In fact, it’s the seed-crystal of all creation, because D&G conceive of the whole universe as pure expression (“expression has a primary relation to matter,” p. 334). The refrain is first and foremost an instrument for turning chaos into order. Its theological equivalent might be the logos, the Word of God that shapes Creation.

How do you make a refrain? You combine a certain set of elements from the abiding chaos and use them to form a “fragile centre.” In doing so, you make yourself a stable subject. At the same time the refrain draws a circle around this centre—a home or territory. But the refrain, by virtue of the chaos that composes it (as it does all things), connects with the macrocosmic expression of that chaos, namely the Cosmos or "chaosmos," which D&G describe as the great refrain at the end of the chapter. Because of this, the circle which the refrain draws around a fragile centre is never fully closed. It is always open onto the Cosmos. At the end of the chapter, D&G talk about how even popular folk refrains contain in potentia cosmic forces which actualize themselves the moment these refrains are deterritorialized. Example: the lullaby that sounds warm, motherly and comforting until you hear it in the dead of night, at which point all of the darker and more obscure forces that its normal context conceals disclose themselves.

The point is that an effective refrain (i.e., an effective aesthetic construct) is one that reaches all the way down to the core of your self (the “fragile centre”) and all the way up to the level of the absolute (the Cosmos). The refrain is a machine for making sense of a universe that would otherwise be a mad chaos. It draws out a set of forces, combining them into a unit or set which stabilizes reality and allows certain aspects of it to come into focus. Out of the surrounding chaos, a world (a “territory” composed of “milieus”) is thus called forth.

New refrains can emerge within established milieus. These new refrains exceed their original milieus and create a new ones. For instance, a bird uses a grass stem (a territorial sign evoking the process of building a nest) as an aesthetic vector to attract a female, thus creating a new milieu which has nothing to do with nest-building but with mating.

This happens multiple times, on multiple levels. The refrain is the very gesture of creation. It is the fundamental process through which expression brings forth matter and meaning. “Of the Refrain” treats the whole cosmos as a grand artistic creation, the best analogies for which are not visual but musical (because of music’s nonrepresentational nature and the usefulness of such concepts as rhythm, melody, counterpoint, etc.).

So the connection with hyperstitions is clear. Every great fiction (hyperstition is first and foremost a fiction) is a refrain, that is, a process by which cosmic forces are “rendered visible,” to use Klee’s phrase. A great work of fiction is an instrument for gathering specific forces within a milieu or territory and connecting them to the Cosmos that undergirds all things. Every fiction, in other words, is magical. In its cosmic function, every fiction brings forth a world. That’s why you can use Twin Peaks to talk about the atom bomb and it works. Indeed, in Phil's essay it works better than if you drew on historical or psychological sources [here I am refering to an unpublished essay Phil wrote].

Here’s a dull but concrete example how refrains work. The first punk song was “Blank Generation” by the band Television. The chorus “I belong to the blank generation” set to that particular melody and that particular rhythm—this is a refrain. What the song establishes is a territory, whereas the older proto-punk songs ("Helter Skelter," "My Generation," "Louie Louie" covered by Kingsmen, etc.) are still at the milieu level—they exist within the territory of pop music. With "Blank Generation," punk is born as a territory with its various intrinsic milieus. It’s more than music: it’s a setting, a landscape, it’s a mode of dress, a set of beliefs, a vision of life—a whole world of punk. Think of the poster for the film Sid & Nancy, on which the eponymous lovers are seen embracing in a garbage-strewn alleyway. Would this image have communicated the punk essence of the film if the two punks had been standing in a strawberry field or in front of an altar? No, because the garbage-strewn alleyway is part of what these characters signify, a punk universe. That universe was called forth cosmically in the very first punk song, "Blank Generation." Everything that happened afterwards was a kind of deployment or unfurling of the particular selection of forces that the original refrain made into an “aggregate of matters of expression.”

David Lynch has often said that each of his films begins with a single idea, often an imagistic one. These powerful images are refrains. They contain the whole world of the works that they give birth to. Indeed, the way Lynch talks about the creative process validates what D&G are saying in “Of the Refrain.” He says that you get an initial idea, and then you pull at it and realize that it goes all the way down, it connects to other ideas, or contains them. It’s all there from the start. This is what D&G mean when they say that the refrain is “cosmic.” With Twin Peaks, (I think) it was the body of Laura Palmer floating down the river. With Blue Velvet, the idea was the ear in the grass. Near the end of the chapter, D&G write that the ear is a refrain because it is likened to a labyrinth.

Hyperstition is the process by which aesthetic constructs, by virtue of their immanent connection with the actual, pre-existing forces of the Cosmos, form worlds that are never totally closed but always open to this Cosmos, and are therefore endowed with divinatory power. It doesn’t matter that Lovecraft didn’t "believe" in his gods; as true aesthetic creations, they were an expression of real cosmic forces. They constitute a "territory," that is, a semiotic space within which one can live and act. Glycon may be a god that nobody actively believed in; nevertheless, when Alan Moore decides to “believe” in him, he “becomes” real—the cosmic forces that he contains as a refrain become manifest to the magician. If every work of art is a refrain (or composed of many refrains), then we can say, with D&G, that every work of art “is a prism, a crystal of space-time. It acts upon that which surrounds it. . ., extracting from it various vibrations, or decompositions, projections, or transformations.”

In those Nick Land pieces we studied, we read that hyperstition has four functions:

1) It constitutes “an element of culture that makes itself real”
2) As a “fictional quality,” it works as a “time-travelling device” (i.e., it reinvents the past through what, in roleplaying games, we call “retconning,” the practice of changing what has happened in a story to preserve continuity with what is happening in it now)
3) It intensifies coincidences by virtue of inducing a kind of metanoia (or paranoia) where everything becomes interpretable in light of the hyperstitious belief
4) It calls to the “Old Ones.”

What Land means by the “Old Ones” are those irrational forces that undergird and promise to overwhelm the rational, the human. You can see how D&G detect the same functions in the refrain, but qualify them in a brighter and less materialist light. The refrain:

1) establishes a fragile centre (i.e., “constitutes an element”)
2) draws a circle around itself, hence forming a past and a future (qualifies a region of space-time)
3) extracts meaning from its surroundings:“vibrations, or decompositions, projections, or transformations” (“intensifies coincidences”)
4) connects to the Cosmos (i.e., the “Old Ones” in Land’s nihilistic view. D&G refer instead to the Natal, an obscure idea suggesting something like an underlying objective “soul” or anima mundi).