John Dee, as Imagined by Derek Jarman

Among the more fearsome of the precursors to what follows is John Dee, the great Renaissance spymaster, court magician and inventor of the British Empire. Filmmaker Derek Jarman is just one of several artists to have made much of Dee in recent decades. In fact, Dee appears repeatedly throughout Jarman’s oeuvre. We first meet Dee, for instance, in Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, where he operates as a kind of early-modern Doc Brown. At Her Majesty’s behest, the Dee of that film works up a spell that sends Queen Elizabeth I 400 years into the future–i.e., to London in the age of punk. And what begins in Jubilee continues in the films that follow, with Dee cropping up again the very next year by way of Shakespeare’s famous magician character Prospero. The latter wields a wand modeled upon Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in Jarman’s adaptation of The Tempest (1979). Nor is this the last of Dee’s appearances in Jarman’s catalog. He also turns up as muse, for example, in a film named after Dee and Kelley’s famous scrying experiments, The Angelic Conversation (1987). Nor was Jarman alone in thinking highly of Dee. The latter captured the imaginations of several of Jarman’s contemporaries. To mention just two examples: Dee appears as a character in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen; and comics artist Alan Moore wrote a libretto about him. For Jarman’s own reflections on his interest in Dee and in related topics like alchemy, see his memoir Dancing Ledge.

Saturday February 23, 2019

Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” leads me into the mirror-world. I drop down into a seat and scry. One of the oldest known forms of divination. Our social media empires have attempted to capture the worlds on the other sides of our scrying mirrors. This is what shows like Black Mirror have tried to teach us. Students and I have returned to head culture’s first encounters with electronic black mirrors in the budding early days of videogames and personal computers as reflected in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a report Stewart Brand wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972. The piece begins with the conviction that the world is windblown and that change, technological modernity — in a word, “computers” — all of these have been foisted on “the people,” regardless of whether or not “the people” are prepared for it. Within less than half a century following the piece’s publication, most of us would be clutching these objects like gods. Brand’s advice was, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This is the meaning of his Whole Earth Catalog. The medium in that case was indeed the message. The Catalog is significant primarily in terms of its form. A functional blueprint for Revolution is one that provides “Access to Tools.” But why was Brand so nonchalant, I wonder, as all of this began to unfold? Why was he so nonchalant about the effects on neighborhoods IRL as heads began to spend their night-time moments “out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens” (39)?