Saturday, January 22, 2011


Our front porch faces a small, but heavily travelled street in downtown Burlington, Vermont. For the last eight years we have been tracking US military, and civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan using scoreboard-type signs with slots for the changing numbers.

Someone stole our first large, canvas, handpainted version of the sign -- twice. We figured it was a war of attrition we couldn’t win, so we switched over to the style above, on cardboard, then on foamboard, with computerized numbers, so all could be easily and cheaply replaced. Since then, no one has vandalized the “National Bad News Service” advertised on front porch flag.

Initially, the public information was shocking to the neighborhood. During good weather, when we were out front, many people would stop to shake their heads about and discuss with us the implications of those ever-rising numbers.

Over the years, two local newspapers have done several stories on our porch -- with photographs -- and we were surprisingly well-known to strangers as the owners of “the house with the numbers of the dead on it”.

But the shock value of the numbers had begun to fade, and even the information value was lessening: 4,436 US soldiers dead in Iraq did not seem much different (except to the families!) from 4,428, and the number of “excess” Iraqi civilian deaths was an unchanging, guesswork extrapolation from the 2007 Lancet study. Not exactly boring, but no longer the object of community discussion.

We added a paragraph from Gravity’s Rainbow below the explanation of the numbers:

Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to nonprofessionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death is a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

This brought new readers occasionally stopping by, but now even that is getting old.

It’s time for some new use for our well-placed interface with the neighborhood, something interesting enough to be studied by passing pedestrians, but with an aspect large enough to be seen by cars going by.

We’ve taken the numbers down for now, and have put up a new, placeholder, flag of the nation of Tizofthee. The explanatory sign reads:

The national flag of the country Tizofthee, once sweet land of Liberty.

The front porch looks sadly empty. What best to do with the stage space? Suggestions welcome. Email me at


Friday, January 14, 2011

We began two weeks ago with Hallelujah in the mall, and last week contrasted that with theatrical infiltrations less in service to consumer capitalism.

When I began publishing these in various theater journals, I was met with a storm of protesting letters concerning my unethical “manipulation” of the poor bystanders. I wrote a piece in response describing what I thought to be a continuum of manipulations, from those which decreased understanding and degrees of freedom to those which increased them.

It might be good to look at such a continuum in the light of what is going on today. Let's start with the bad news:

A recent article by George Monbiot ( reports a training session organized by the right wing libertarian group, American Majority on "How to Manipulate the Medium":

“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say 'one star, one star, one star'. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.”

On a wider scale, we have the current Israeli government support for a special undercover team of workers paid to surf the internet and spread positive news about Israel.
The deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's hasbara ("public diplomacy", aka propaganda) department has admitted the team will be working undercover:

“Our people will not say: ‘Hello, I am from the hasbara department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and I want to tell you the following.’ Nor will they necessarily identify themselves as Israelis,' he said. 'They will speak as net-surfers and as citizens, and will write responses that will look personal but will be based on a prepared list of messages that the foreign ministry developed.”

The new team is expected to increase the ministry’s close coordination with a private advocacy group, (Give Israel Your United Support). About 50,000 activists are reported to have downloaded a programme called Megaphone that sends an alert to their computers when an article critical of Israel is published. They are then supposed to bombard the site with comments supporting Israel.

A justification for much of this was shamefully enunciated by our own government's Cass Sunstein – Obama's Harvard Law School bud, and recently appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Writing in a scholarly journal, (J. Political Philosophy, 7 (2009), 202-227), Sunstein proposes the following:

"[W]e suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity."

From cognitive infiltration of websites, groups and meetings, it is a short enough step to the entrapments by agents provocateur we read about so commonly today. The missteps of suckered individuals have enormous life consequences -- for them, and for all of us -- in the age of Patriot Act paranoia and power.

If these kind of infiltrations populate one end of the continuum, what is the other end – the “good” end?

The most obvious current example lies in the operation of Wikileaks and the brave individuals that feed it sequestered material. A person working in a dishonest, destructive organization has every right to transform him or herself into an infiltrator, making available to Wikileaks or other publicity groups secret material the organization would otherwise have hidden.

As Julian Assange wrote on the Wikileaks homepage, “The goal is justice; the method is transparency.” It is paradoxical that it takes invisible infiltration to create public transparency, but there it is, and the effectiveness of this tactic can no longer be in question. Nor can the public good resulting.

While the theatrical infiltrations I described last week may be trivial compared to these larger examples, both good and bad, they do raise the question of whether all arts – Art itself – does not function as an infiltration.

One innocently goes to a bookstore to buy a book. But the contents of that book, if it be a good one, will infiltrate and infect one's heartmind. The infiltrating virus will lie within, creating biopsychical response, spiritual molecules unlabeled, unacknowledged, perhaps unknown, but potentially agents provocateur for new thinking and action.

It is with this infiltrating image in mind that my wife, Donna, and I have recently begun a new publication project called Fomite. A fomite is a medium capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another.

“The activity of art is based on the capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of others.” Tolstoy, What is Art?

Art, writing, music are the kinds of infiltrations which -- if ethically and mindfully done -- have the capacity to increase, not decrease, degrees of freedom.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


R. Crumb
Last week, I wrote about what I consider politically unearned infiltrations supporting rampant consumerism. I will not sing Hallelujah in the mall.

Infiltrations, however, do have real potential for thought-provoking events.

When I was in theater grad school in the 60s, everybody was all hot for Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, in which the audience was made to shit in its pants, and paradoxically for Brecht's teaching plays which asked the audience to think cooly and carefully about society's givens. We young directors were concerned with breaking down barriers between audience and actors -- new kinds of staging, new kinds of scripts.

But for me, the prior problem was one of "audience" itself -- that there should be people who buy (usually high-priced) tickets, sit comfortably in chairs, applaud, then go out for a meal or a drink to socialize, and perhaps, perhaps, "discuss the play".

Too compartmentalized, too boxed in, too unengaged with reality.

So I gathered a group interested in practicing Infiltrations -- theater pieces which would not be perceived as such, but which would just be reported at home as "something interesting that happened to me today."

Here are two such Infiltrations to give you an idea of what we were up to, one in an emporium, and one in a smaller store. Next week I will discuss the ethics involved.



Cost Plus is a mammoth import store on the San Francisco waterfront which caters to tourists and Bay Area bobos by supplying them with hand-wrought goods from around the world – from inexpensive mass-produced trinkets to costly one-of-a-kind curiosities. It is self-help, with no sales personnel on the floor. We began to wonder about the flow of goods that went through the store, and after getting some information from one of the buyers we came up with the following piece.

Five of us, looking as straight as possible, dispersed throughout the store as customer aides. We approach people who were inspecting possible purchases. A typical dialog went like this:

US: may I help you?

CUSTOMER, generally unsuspicious: No, thank you.

US, waiting a bit, watching over customer's shoulder: Isn't it amazing how we can bring you such an intricately carved box for only $4.99?

CUSTOMER: Why, yes it is.

US: Do you know how we can do it?


US: Well, the man who carves this box –he's very good at it, he can do two a day–gets 25¢ a day for his work.


US: Yes. You see, there's a lot of famine and disease in India, and he has to work for whatever he can get.


US: He has no choice.


US: And since we control the world economy, more or less, we can decide on the right price.


Yes, and you have to realize that what you pay includes the markup for the buyer, the warehouse, the shipper, the import duty, and our own small overhead–so it's really an incredible bargain.

Thoughtful, nonhostile silence. This was usually a turning point: either the customer began reacting to what we were saying or else we carried it further.

I think it's right–don't you–that we in this country should be able to benefit from people's work around the world? After all, we give them a market. They'd starve without it. And we can have these really nice things. I mean Americans work really hard, right? We have to put up with so much–like the war and everything–we deserve these kind of beautiful things. People who work hard should be rewarded. Don't you think so? And the natives? They're hard workers too, but I mean 25¢ a day is a lot for them, right? Did you know that although we're only 6% of the world's population, we consume 60% of its natural resources? That just shows–were sort of 10 times ahead of everybody else because were willing to work hard and bring home the bacon.

Etc., etc. Eventually these customers drifted away with an embarrassed “Thank you.” But none of them bought the items they had been looking at.

After an agreed upon two hours, we all met outside the store to trade stories. We were never caught, and the customers, too, would have their stories to tell.



Lawrence Ferlinghetti started the City Lights Bookstore on $500 in the early fifties; it has since become one of the most complete paperback shops in the Bay Area. The store has been busted several times for selling radical or obscene material, and has an open door policy toward its customers: the police are never called. Once, City Lights was ripped off for $8,000 worth of books and went that much in the hole. This seemed to me like a typical example of Movement bullshit -- brothers undoing each other in the name of "liberation" or conflicting ideologies -- so we decided to explore our own and the customers’ attitudes toward ripping off City Lights.

During rehearsal, the group rejected playing "roles" in favor of exploring each member's own position. We lined up pretty heavily for the legitimacy of ripping-off. I was one of the few spokesmen against. But the balance worked out in performance, since most of the customers at least started off by defending the store. The piece took an hour to an hour and a half to develop (we did it three times) and was done with the cooperation of the management and, as it turned out, at their expense. It's hard to record the complexities and meanderings of the performances, but the salient points are as follows:

Beat 1

One of us, previously agreed, steals a book, and hides it in his pants. Very quietly, a young woman (one of us) goes up to him and says she doesn't think he ought to do that here. His very quiet response is "Mind your own business, lady." Totally private so far.

Beat 2

The woman retreats but keeps her eye on the guy. Some minutes later, he attempts to stash another book, and the exchange begins again, just as quietly. This time the guy is a little more pissed off, and the exchange ends with a little louder than necessary "Fuck off!" For the first time, real customers are aware of tension somewhere in the store.

Beat 3

I wander over and ask the woman what's happening. She reluctantly and quietly informs me that some guy is trying to rip off books. I approach him very quietly and ask him why doesn't he do that at Doubleday's or Brentano's. He begins to get uneasy and tries to terminate our encounter as quickly as possible, until another one of us, overhearing, supports the thief by asking me,

"Hey, what are you, a cop or something? Let the guy do his thing."

Beat 4

By now it's apparent to the thief that things aren't working out as planned. But on the other hand, he has support, so he doesn't split. For the first time I chastise the thief publicly.

"Hey man, look, why don't you go down to Doubleday's and rip off the book if you need it? Why rip off your brothers?"

"Brothers, my ass! This place is the fucking pig establishment."

This is the first theme to be taken up -- it generally called up a lot of customer support for the store. Other topics for discussion we planted among the ten to twenty customers are:

1. Who are brothers; who is the enemy?

2. Are there alternatives to a retail bookstore?

3. Are "liberals" like Ferlinghetti and City Lights just greasing the capitalist machine?

Our group, more vocal now than at first, pushes the balance way over to the thief's side. This helps justify his sticking around. He's not an outlaw but is acting within the mores of the local population -- and this brings an emotional response from the customers. Each time, someone offers to buy him the book or take up a collection. We follow their trips wherever they go.

Beat 5

I get more and more pissed off with what I consider poor analysis. I station myself on the steps so I can be heard by everyone, wait for a lull, and say to the thief,

"All right, that's all."

"What do you mean?"

"You're not taking those books."

"Oh yeah? Why not?"

“'Cause I'm going upstairs with you and tell Shig [the guy at the desk] you've got them."

A new uproar! Even the customers don't like it. (There are a few who come over to quietly tell me they agree with me and think I should do it, but no one defends my action publicly.) I am accused of being a pig, of laying my trip on other people, of exceeding my rights.

"What is this, the second grade, you're gonna tell the teacher?"

I argue briefly that when this man rips off City Lights, he's ripping me off (I need the store), and that I intend to defend myself. From that time on, I am generally silent, stubbornly waiting for the thief's exit.

Beat 6

One of us calls for a "rip-in," and tries to get customers to liberate books together. So far, only our own group has done this publicly, although it's hard to tell what walks out when we do.

Beat 7

Confrontation at the desk. The first time we did it the day clerk got completely flustered. He had been told what was happening and was asked to act in any way he wanted. He couldn't get it together, and three people walked out with books. That evening we confronted Shig who, with some kind of invisible karate approach, retrieved two books. A third was grabbed by a customer at the door. The next night we had a big argument at the desk. Shig surprised us by saying, "Take the books," and several people did so -- to a lot of customers' anger. Shig just felt that that was his prerogative. That really set off some of the people who had been defending the store for the last hour downstairs.

We still haven't resolved for ourselves the implications of our positions and actions. We know the piece is credible and sets a lot of people thinking and talking (and stealing?). But when someone in our group presented me with the complete Beethoven string quartets as a present, I had to send Shig a check before I could enjoy it.