How I longed to join the underground! Back in the early 80s, when I was a miserable teen in the rural arse-end of nowhere, I knew – oh, I knew – that there was another world out there waiting for me. A world of freedom, revolt, poetry, and shit-hot rhythm sections. A world I caught in snatches as I listened to John Peel on a plastic transistor radio under the bedclothes. And on the hazy night when I heard some now-forgotten band sing the never-forgotten refrain “we’re all members of a secret society, are you?”, I thought No, goddammit, I’m not. But one day I’m bloody well going to be. Just you wait.
Long story short, when I grew up I did indeed join a few secret societies, some worthwhile and some a bit shit. And I found out that the underground is never what you think it’s going to be. Because of course, any idea of “the underground” always involves a degree of fantasy.
It can be an enabling fantasy, as it was for me when I was a kid. It concretised my feeling that “existence is elsewhere” long before I had read a word of the first Surrealist Manifesto. And it sent me off in quest of that elsewhere before I really knew what I was looking for.
Or it can be a disabling fantasy, as it now seems to have become for people my age (and younger) who complain that there’s no such thing as the underground any more, because the internet.
No doubt you’ve heard some version of this complaint yourself. Its implicit premise is Frank Zappa’s dictum: “the mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground”.
From this premise the argument goes that these days everything comes to you, in just a few clicks. There’s no quest involved, no effort – and none of the self-transformation that a quest would entail. Everything is mainstream; self-transformation has been superseded by targeted content. This depressingly middle-aged argument often comes with a dollop of nostalgia for the good old subversive days of rave / chaos magick / punk / industrial / psychedelia / the Beats / whatever was exciting when the speaker was young.
But even if it were true (which it clearly isn’t) that everything now is available to everyone on the internet, this argument would still have things exactly backwards. The proliferation of cultural options online does not bring everything to you, for the simple reason that there’s too much of it online to sift through.
You still have to go looking for the underground – whatever you think that might be. Except that now you’re searching an enormous haystack, and not even for the proverbial needle but for a particular little piece of straw. So if some people get their first clues on YouTube or Spotify, is that necessarily any worse than me getting my first clues from BBC Radio 1?
The Individual And The Secret
The internet has not killed the underground. But it has obviously changed it. One reason for this is that the internet has changed the nature of secrecy.
Some years ago, when it began to dawn on folks that the coincidence of the so-called War on Terror with the rise of Web 2.0 was bringing more than a smidgeon of surveillance in its wake, an especially dim-witted saying did the rounds: “you’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve got nothing to hide”.
Gentle reader, you’ve got plenty to hide, and so have I, and so has everyone. In fact I’d go so far as to say that having something to hide is part of the condition of being human. Humans are complex subjects, riven by the contradictions and operations of their unconscious minds. Hiding things from others, and even from yourself, is what your human mind is all about.
Both magick and Surrealism take the unconscious as their chief repository, a huge flask of material and movement. These are secrets that wait not merely to be revealed, but to be transformed, and to be used in turn for the transformation of other beings and things, yourself included.
It’s what alchemists call the Great Work. Alchemy is inherently secret not just because its techniques have to be kept secret – as an “insider” (or even underground culture) – but because it deals in secrets.
In Surrealist and magickal worldviews, the hidden and the secret are therefore integral to the individual, and they are also the raw material of the transformation that both worldviews seek.
This means that secrecy is the heart of subversion. Not just in the obvious sense that if you want to be subversive you have to keep things hidden from the (real and metaphorical) cops. But also in the sense that the things within each individual that are secret are the things that are the most powerful.
Do What Thou Wilt is the whole of the Law. Every man and woman is a star. It all starts with you, baby.
The Individual And The Mass
Of course, the trouble with all of that sort of thing – self-transformation, True Will, secrecy, the whole bit – is that it’s not easy or comforting. Hell, sometimes it’s not even much fun. It can be hard to sustain the practices of either magick or Surrealism at the best of times. And these are not the best of times.
The far right’s current rise to power across Europe and the Americas is a thousand kinds of scary, and one of the scariest is the degree to which it’s happening with many people’s consent. Not just consent, even, but active support. I’m writing this in the UK during the run-up to a general election where the latest opinion polls give an increasingly right-wing party no less than 42% of the prospective vote.
Obviously, the reasons behind this are complicated, and not even I am such a megalomaniac as to attempt to sum them all up in a blog post. But one of the things that happens during the rise of “strong man” style right-wing leaders is that their supporters willingly give up a part of their own individuality. When things get especially tough or scary, grown-ups start feeling like anxious children, and they want a mummy or (more usually) a daddy who will keep them safe.
A child’s relationship with parental figures generally involves both idealisation and identification. In this case, the parent/leader represents everything the child/voter aspires to be, and this provokes both adulation and obedience. What’s more, when the child/voter encounters others who have chosen the same daddy-object, they all bond together – and often against those they perceive as “outsiders”. We all know where that’s headed.
In this way, the political supporters of “strong men” become what Freud (in Group Psychology And The Analysis Of The Ego) calls a “mass”. And ironically, they are prompted to do so by the very unconscious that constitutes their individuality. The individuality they have traded for a false sense of security. Their hidden, secret individuality, which they have indeed transformed and been transformed by – but in entirely destructive ways.
Now, the word “mass” is frowned on by social scientists these days. It’s regarded as outdated, especially since the rise of the “networked society”, segmentation, Web 2.0 etc. It’s also regarded as a patronising way to talk about ordinary people. Which is fair enough as far as sociological terminology goes.
But have you seen (for example) British prime minister Boris Johnson lately? All that smirking, all that Latin, the whole Old Etonian shtick? And so many voters seem to be lapping it up! To patronise means “to treat like a child”. On some level at the moment, voters want to be patronised. They want to be part of a mass. It’s a safe and cosy feeling.
After all, who can blame them? Who doesn’t want to feel safe and cosy when the chips are down? The fact that the leaders/daddies they support are tantamount to a narcissistic death cult intent on destroying the planet is by the by. As Freud notes, and as election strategists know only too well, this is about unconscious impulses, not rational choices.
The Individual And The Collective
For those who keep insisting on their own individuality, and therefore on the secrets that are the wellspring of that individuality, things are getting decidedly un-cosy.
For those who keep insisting not only on preserving those secrets but also on treating them as material for the Great Work, for personal and shared transformation, things are getting even less cosy than that.
We individuals are going to need some extra courage and extra resources in the years ahead to keep ourselves (and our selves) and the Great Work going.
The best way I can think of to create those resources is for us to forge connections with each other.
The trick is to do it in such a way that we become not a mass, but a collective.
Surrealism has always been explicit about this. Surrealism is a “collective adventure”, or as André Masson famously put it, “the collective experience of individualism”. This why the true lifeblood of the movement has always run through Surrealist groups, rather than through individuals or even networks of individuals. It’s in the collective experience of face-to-face group meetings that the Great Work gets done most powerfully.
Face-to-face, person-to-person. Not on the internet. It’s not just a few clicks away. You might learn of a Surrealist group’s existence by searching the net, but once you’ve done that, you have to get up and get out and go to it.
In other words, a Surrealist group is always underground. Whether you found it on Google, YouTube or WordPress is entirely beside the point.
Magick isn’t an inherently collective adventure in quite the same way, although that varies according to the branch of magick in question. But you don’t have to practise group or ceremonial magick to be part of a secret society, and a secret society doesn’t have to be formal or organised to have an effect. It might be nothing more elaborate than a loose association of people working in the same tradition, or meeting at irregular conferences or gatherings, or comparing results from similar rituals or experiments. Just so long as you reach out, make connections, put your own secrets into communication with the secrets of others. That’s the key.
But remember: no leader, no guru, no mummy or daddy, and no surrender of your individuality. And no giving in to your unconscious impulses either. That way lie cultishness and enslavement. Your unconscious is to be investigated and transformed, not just obeyed. An infantile rampaging Id is neither magickal nor Surrealist.
Every man and woman is a star. When the world is dark, we need constellations.
If you happen to recognise the (perhaps misremembered) line “we’re all members of a secret society, are you?”, I’d love to know where it came from. I’ve tried DuckDuckGo, but I couldn’t find it. Truly, not everything can be found on the internet.
Lewis Carroll’s hand-drawn illustrations from his manuscript version of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, all in the public domain and sourced from Project Gutenberg.
Take a peek behind the veil.