Terror and Terraformation: Alan Moore

I have spoken with Alan Moore, celebrating his 60th birthday this week, quite a bit over the last decade or so. Earlier this year, his crew at Lex Records reached out for another mindmeld, and it was an opportune time. The creator of iconic, philosophical comics V For Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell and (many) more that were made into middling blockbusters had decided to crowdfund his first film, a dream noir called Jimmy’s End, on good old Kickstarter. How’s that for an optimistic technocultural headline?

Yet it happened as the sprawling panopticon Moore foresaw in those comics (and other books with no pictures) stole global headlines with more depressing tales of watchmen and whistleblowers. All while uprisings and disruptions raged against the machine at home and abroad. There was much to talk about. Some of our extended conversation has ended up at Salon, while the rest of it is reprinted below.

I think crowdsourcing makes sense for you. If you have a boss at all, it’s your fans.

Alan Moore: This is the whole point of it. From the start, we insisted that if this project is to materialize at all, it will be according to the restriction we laid down, which is that we must own it. We’re quite happy for other people to make a profit insomuch as it is fair, but we want to own this project.

Crowdfunding seems promising compared to other technocultural developments.

Alan Moore: Generally, we are first exposed to any new technology in the glowing terms that its creators and adherents are describing it. This was the same with television, which was supposed to be a massively benign, transformative tool that would educate those parts of society which had previously been in need of it. It was supposed to democratize knowledge, but that isn’t the way it worked out. There’s a wonderful book by Jerry Mander called Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television. He knows it’s obviously never going to happen, but he nevertheless makes a very cogent argument. We have these technologies which we disseminate throughout culture — with no idea of the short-term effects, much less the long-term effects — and this is what has happened with the internet. Just as television before it, the internet is changing the way we think about ourselves, changing our relationships, changing the ways in which we see the world. I saw a piece a couple years ago in New Scientist called “Democracy 2.0” suggesting our leaders, in planning policy, have to factor in that nothing they do could be kept secret forever. Even a couple of months, in our information-saturated age, is a dubious prospect.

Despite current events, my favorite surveillance state allegory is still Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

Alan Moore: It’s worth mentioning that McGoohan, I believe, spent a brief period here in Northampton in St. Andrews, the mental hospital right next to the school that I was expelled from. It has beautifully trimmed lawns and almost a holiday atmosphere, but I’ve got no idea whether he was in the hospital before or after he created The Prisoner. I don’t know if it was a reminiscence or a premonition! [Laughs]

But yeah, there’s something quaint about these attempts to control us today, in a period where we are boiling with information and complexity, both of which have reached levels that could be called fractal, if that wasn’t a polite way of saying chaotic. And I really don’t think that the old tyrannies work anymore. That’s a very liberating thing, although it is just a marker of how complex and alien our situation is rapidly becoming. We are reaching a boiling point, and what happens after that is unpredictable.

Watching spies, hackers and citizens today strike back against a decades-old surveillance state that isn’t news to them is a statement against participation rather than shock.

Alan Moore: The reason we put these people in power over us is to restrict ourselves. We are frightened by our possibilities. We don’t feel comfortable about being responsible for ourselves and for the societies in which we live. We would much rather delegate that to appointed figures who will inevitably abuse their positions, but we know that going in. So yeah, if as you say there is that realization dawning throughout culture at the moment, then that can only be a good thing. The closer we get to reality, the better off we generally are.

Yeah, now America and Europe are finally waking up and realizing they have to deal with a panopticon they empowered. They’re scared, and they should be.

Alan Moore: I think our mounting levels of complexity are behind all of this, behind the waves of both religious and political fundamentalism that we’ve been going through the past decade or so. I think that when the old religious certainties are affronted by the revelations of science, then some are bound to respond by digging in their heels and refusing to deal with the fact that the world is changing. Their ideas are not standing up to advances in human knowledge.

At the same time, the incredible communication networks we have created around the world, especially the internet, have erased national boundaries. The fact that we are having this conversation in our separate countries would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The old geographic boundaries, which were really only there as topographical or political conveniences, are melting away. They don’t really mean anything anymore. Faced with that evaporation of the map, we are going to experience forms of political fundamentalism like nationalism. People trying to express their national identity, generally in the most crude way possible. A hatred of immigrants, or whatever. The sense that we have individual nations is being supplanted by something new and different. Our electronic geography of the world has become more significant.

Same with our cosmological map. Those of us who abandon nationalism are focused on bigger pictures like global warming. We’re living on a lucky rock spinning through space.

Alan Moore: Absolutely. These gradual changes in consciousness have been occurring since there were species on the planet — although I’d warn against thinking that change is always necessarily progress. There have been misreadings of Darwin almost suggesting that Earth is a divine planet, that evolution is some process of perfection that has placed humans at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, and that we’re just going to carry on getting more and more fantastic. No, there is no reason to suppose any of that from a cold, hard look at Darwinism.

We also tend to look at our cultural changes as inevitably being a form of progress, but that is not necessarily true. I would mention our leisure industry and its labor-saving devices. If you look at a neolithic family, yes, there were having to find somewhere to live and eat on a daily basis, which must have been quite demanding. However, they had something like a couple hundred percent more leisure time than we do. Because we have to work so hard in order to afford our labor-saving devices. [Laughs] We’ve become trapped in a perpetual consumerism that has really only existed since the end of WWII or something like that.

Previous to WWII, our economies had us all on the breadlines, suffering economic depressions, probably nowhere worse than Germany. We were all in pretty bad conditions, but found that our economies miraculously improved during WWII. And I think many of us were worried that, after the inevitable end of WWII, we would be plunged straight back to the soup queues. It was then that economists began to devise a new economy, where you get people to buy more goods to enable manufacturers to employ more people and pay them more money to enable them to buy more goods — and so and on.

The only problem was how to get this wheel started. How do you get more people to want more goods than they already had, and which they arguably didn’t need? The answer was the almost-forgotten innovation of television, by producing entertaining and amusing sitcoms. Something like I Love Lucy, where you’ve got Lucy and Desi, and their apartment, which was probably better furnished and more modern than that of their viewers. Who are watching and wishing, “I wish I had a table lamp like that, I wish I had furniture like that, I wish I had clothes like that.” And the television would keep them watching for 15 minutes to the first commercial break, where suddenly there would be people lining up to sell them all the marvelous things they’d been made to desire.

Yes, this worked. Up to a point. Because there are limits to any system. I think that the consumer society is system that reached its actual limit some time ago, but we haven’t thought of anything to put in its place. [Laughs] We carry on with what we know until we think of something new.

In the early days of warfare, it was a big problem. Men would fire their guns in the air. They would try their best to avoid shooting the troops on the other side probably because — I’m reasoning, correctly — that the troops on the other side were also doing their best to avoid shooting them. The military had to find a way around the problem, and part of the solution was found by the Prussian educator Wilhelm Wundt. I believe he was approached by the Prussians, after their abject failure in the Battle of Jena against Napoleon, to help work out what went wrong. Because they were the Prussians: They had the cool helmets and mustaches. How could their their defeat possibly happen? And Wundt suggested the problem was that their men were thinking for themselves.

He suggested as a solution an end to voluntary education, and instead a system of compulsory education was brought in. Wundt suggested the old schoolhouse system — where pupils were all schooled together, and it turned out the older ones would actually help the younger ones to learn and progress — instead be abolished so pupils could be segregated according to age. What they were being taught should be divided up into neatly parceled subjects, with any connections being excluded. The teaching of history was not to be in any linear fashion, to prevent people from making necessary connections between their parcels of information. They’ve got to have enough parcels to be able to function as soldiers or workers. But if you don’t give them ways of connecting up their bits of information, then thinking for themselves becomes much more difficult.

In much later times, consider the American organization DARPA, which I believe was formed after the Russians put Sputnik into orbit and sparked off a wave of American paranoia. It was resolved that there should be a special department that was basically the mad science wing of the military. Their job was to come up with crazy science-fiction ideas ahead of the Russians. [Laughs] I think it was only a few years ago that they announced they were trying to develop EATR, a battlefield robot able to run on organic fuel. Which immediately sparked concern: Does this mean it’s going to be eating, what, dead soldiers? Or insufficiently fleet-footed soldiers? [Laughs] Or what? DARPA assured everyone that no, it’s only wood and things like that, but that is very easy for them to say.

Another thing DARPA developed was based upon the reasoning that asking someone to kill is a dreadful thing for a human being to do. Humans are probably, at the deepest levels of their nervous systems, going to reject that. But if you ask them to kill a virtual enemy…well, that’s no problem. Nobody cares what happens to all those zombies in the shoot-em-up games, because they’re not real. If you get humans to kill a thousand or ten thousand virtual enemies, and then put them in a real combat situation, it is quite likely that they will become desensitized to the idea of killing, especially with countless virtual walkthroughs.

Speaking of strange, I saw you’re playing a visually striking character called Mr. Metterton. Tell me about your breakout role.

Alan Moore: It happened by accident. Mitch originally suggested that we recreate the photo shoot from Meilnda’s Dodgem Logic article on burlesque. He would reassemble the same people and putative characters in the same Northampton location — the St. James Working Men’s Club — just to show what he could with a piece of film. At that point, I made the fatal suggestion that I could perhaps write a brief screenplay for a 10-minute story, and he said that couldn’t hurt. So I wrote in parts for all of the people in the original photo shoot, which included Melinda, our burlesque ladies, a clown and originally Pat Fish, the Jazz Butcher, in a seedy role I suppose played against type. Mitch also said he’d like to involve his friend actress Siobhan Hewlett and our mutual friend Robert Goodman, who had played the part of the camera-shy Steve Moore for us in Unearthing. So I came up with Jimmy’s End purely as a short piece that would involve those characters. But Mitch thought it would only be proper if I appeared in it, if only to give it a certain cachet. I decided to limit it by just turning up at the end. We didn’t change a word of that screenplay. It’s exactly what you saw in Jimmy’s End.

At that point, we were asked by people interested in investing in the project if we could expand the 10-minute film into a feature film that could then be spun off as a television series. I suggested it wasn’t possible because the original story had been complete in and of itself. It delivered its punch line in 10 minutes, and I couldn’t see anywhere for it to go beyond that. But then I decided that was just intellectual vanity, that if I was any kind of writer I should be able to work out a way, without changing the original story, to open up parts of it into a different narrative. This led us to consider Jimmy’s End as an app, which led to me coming up with short films that connected to Jimmy’s End and fleshed it out. This included Upon Reflection, which fills in the gaps between Jimmy’s End and Act of Faith, although Act of Faith hadn’t really been conceived at the point. Another called A Progessional Relationshop details the long conversation between Mr. Metterton and Mr. Matchbright, which takes place in the dressing room just after the last scene of Jimmy’s End. Then there is His Heavy Heart, which is the short film we’re trying to fund through Kickstarter at the moment. It details what happens to the central character James Mitchum after the conclusion of Jimmy’s End. After all the lights have gone up in a blinding dazzle, what happens when they come down again?