Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part XV: Ong’s Hat and Other Sales Pitches
by Travis Hedge Coke
“Despite its flaws, an essential work,” claims one of the original Ong’s Hat documents.
I could tell you the true story of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, about the origins of The Incunabula Papers, live action role-play, transmedia gaming, supertextual edutainment, corruption, corrosion, optimism and poetry. About lemurs, Lemurians, meditative eggs, making it in eggs, saving eggs, rhetorical promises, reticular premises, zeta reticulons and ritual promissories.
I’m not gonna.
Maybe a little.
When The Matrix opens with an impossible action sequence, a questionable disappearance, a multiplication of authority, and only then tells Keanu Reeves’ Neo to wake up and that the Matrix has him, they are following old techniques of engagement and luring into mystery religion, mystery organization and theory. Prior to Lily and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix, facilitating the Matrix, that hook and bait little-buddha invitation, that white rabbit formal was modernized and deployed into subcultures and head cultures the way crack was processed from coca in the story of Ong’s Hat.
The narrative of Ong’s Hat remains subtly affective, deceptively effective, because it hits an audience from multiple points, in multiple ways. While one aspect may seem too silly or too obviously fictional or another too prosaic or nondescript to put hooks into someone’s imagination or faith, other elements, or other ways of communicating story might get the hooks right in. There are fake documents, and faked fake documents, there are real documents and a real town, and there is a fictive town and fictions about the real town. Some of the people are real. Some of the people who are not real are real people.
People will take a still from a movie, a screenshot, expand it, clarify it, to try to read off a screen in a background, to parse a poster or the spines of books on a shelf in a scene, because they are peripheral to the immediate and if it is peripheral to the immediate it must be important and it may be revelation.
Some of the most elegantly deceptive fictions are the most on the nose. A book catalogue like, INCUNABULA A Catalog of Rare Books, Manuscripts & Curiosa Conspiracy Theory, Frontier Science & Alternative Worlds, can summarize stories which are too blatant to be believed, but because it is not the stories but a catalogue selling the stories, the catalogue gains a reliability the stories it peddles and presents might not, themselves, possess.
If a flyer for a retreat or an interview with a crackpot have big enough ellipses in their logic or details, if nervousness or caginess are implied and lies or mistruths are given in obvious, too too obvious ways, the audience who feels they are crafty, that they can see around the lies and see the presence of the omissions, work, themselves, to feel the discontinuities and fill the gaps.
All the principle written or recorded materials that presented the Ong’s Hat story reassure audiences that there are intelligent, receptive and deductive audiences, that they, the individual audience, must be that receptive and deductive audience, or how could they have gotten this far into the truth beyond the tales?
The Ong’s Hat game insists you must be exceptional. You must be special. You can and should accomplish something amazing. It insists on special, directed purpose to your existence, your scenario.
It is a con game. All cons are, by their nature, games, and most games have the potential for loss and the potential for gain. All cons must feel as if they are rewarding the conned, and thereby do reward the conned, if only shortly, with that feeling.
The Matrix is feeling. The Matrix is truisms, live and onscreen, big and fleshy and intellectual and real enough to reel us in on a line. We see the hook, we understand the lure is a lure, and maybe because of that we go along, confident in our own safety, in the safety of knowingness and feeling prized.
Being a confidence scam does not mean you are not special, that you cannot achieve something of note. Being a confidence scam means that your confidence is being abused. To what end?
A long con, like the Ong’s Hat story, the Incunabula narratives, encourage the conned to virtually hypnotize themselves, in the same ways that stage hypnosis shows give audiences permission to play out hypnosis gags, party tricks tantalizingly real and rationally safely not.
Everyone and their dad knew what the Matrix was before they saw The Matrix. “It’s the question the drives us,” Trinity tells Neo. “You know the question, just as I did.”
What intrigued about The Matrix was not the answer, it was the question. That franchise’s value in sociology, epistemology, ethics, and most recently as right wing rigidity and trans mutability, is in the question. The answer, the film’s answer, the franchise’s answer can only ever take us to the end credits. The question implies it can take you off the edge of the map.
The Matrix sequels made people the most mad when they made them question what they knew about the first movie before they even saw the first movie.
The documents of the Ong’s Hat mystery are blunt in their presentation, pedestrian, often inane. We see the naked invitations to free sex and power and laugh as the documents laugh with us. But, we remain intrigued. We admire the combination of lemurs and Lemurians in the first level mythos, but beyond the pun, the reverberations resonate. The edge of a sound wave moving along a pond’s surface is also a level. It is a level bisecting the level where water and air meet.
Water and air do not only meet. They exchange. They distinguish. Buoyancy. Gravity. The force out. The attraction in.
The attraction in these things is their ability to facilitate more questions. More suspicion or conviction, but important, the verve of doubt. The verve of tragedy, of fallibility. Fallibility is as enticing as it is to be a messiah. Even Jesus has doubts. If we dream of being a heroic sacrifice, we also hope that sacrifice will be unacceptable to others.
The first levels of invitation are catalogues, flyers, interviews with experts nobody has ever heard of who are too afraid to keep talking. Almost every interview about Ong’s Hat, about the Incunabula documents, about cults, communes, think tanks, or parties out in the woods with magic eggs or womblike devices center around interviews that stop abruptly. Interviews that prime you as you read them with hypnotic triggers to feel watched, to feel wanted, to feel suspected and important. The interviews will stop being interviewer and interviewee and become a dialogue with you.
I have spoken and messaged with some of the principle players in the Ong’s Hat game and they are not players of the alternate reality game. The architects and engineers play too. There cannot be non-player characters unless they are creations. Not that kind of creations.
The best thing, the savvy thing which the engineers of Ong’s Hat did, when interest waned, was to say that it had become too dangerous and it was over.
It’s over. Goodnight. Go home. Goodbye. Goodnight.
The authors of The Matrix cannot take away the Matrix because someone responds to Covid-19 with the idea that humans are, in fact, a virus, and maybe we should be wiped out. Just because some real people decide to be ethical cosplayers of Agent Smith, The Matrix Revolutions does not cease to stream.
You can feel buoyancy when you slap water.
Do you know why they slap babies when they are born?
The Ong’s Hat mysteries utilized invitational phrases and layered them so that if one did not strike your fancy another could. University men. Fun women. Aliens. Ghosts. Spiritual leaders. History. Science. Magic. Fun. Medicine.
Quantum physics. Chaos theory. Catholicism. Sufism. Socialism. Libertarianism. Dualism. Monism. Whichever makes you feel hip, feel safe.
Internet-based viral marketing essentially starts with this game. Every teaser. Every mystery ad. The puzzles for prizes and the prizes which are only more trailers, more teasers, begins with the Ong’s Hat mysteries.
The producers of the horror-comedy, WNUF, ostensibly a real 1980s news special recorded at home by someone, onto a VHS tape, was dubbed onto VHS tapes which were labeled and left to be found. Cloverfield was advertised by leaning on conspiracy theories, internet rumor mills, cryptozoology, allowing lightly budgeted games to expand within the players. Over the decades these have become increasingly subtle and complex, but the central conceit remains the same: tell them plainly what the story is and then leave gaps that make them wonder.
The Cloverfield advertisements had nothing to indicate it was a Voltron remake, but that rumor took life of its own. That idea took itself down avenues they could not have predicted, complexifying that game.
Did The Matrix concretize fascistic crypto soldier capitalism? Did The Matrix allow these philosophies to aggregate around its cosmogony? Was that cosmogony coopted? Perverted?
And, The Matrix had a story to it. There is a canon narrative.
The Invisibles, from which The Matrix definitely drew, and Ghost in the Shell, those too, have canon narratives.
The Ong’s Hat game has only intimations and potential. Maybe this is implied. Maybe this is encrypted. Maybe this is alluded to. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe not. Open-ended, contradictory, overlapped and interwoven and less tangible than what is only below the edge of water. Just outside the sound wave.
Ong’s Hat teases with terms like, “wave function,” “tesseracts,” layers doubt into statement, such as the phrasing, “a saying attributed to God by Mohammed (but not in the Koran,” and counters its own issuance with the possibility of mental illness, discordian prank, science fiction fantasy or deliberate misinformation.
Star Trek episodes may try to impart lessons. Ghost in the Shell may invite questions. The Matrix, that first movie and the franchise on another scale, is an inauguration. The entire first film and the entire original (four or five or seven-part) trilogy are a training program. The Invisibles is an initiation. They have a narrative world you can follow. They can all go past that, though most do not, but the Ong’s Hat game gets more personal than that, because it is not an initiation into something, it intimates something. Because everything up front and obvious is up front and obvious, the average person looks to the periphery, to what is not clear. Some people look at shadows on the cave wall and give those shadows names.
There are reasons that, eventually, The Invisibles is revealed as a game. The Matrix frames The Matrix as a game. The narratives of Ghost in the Shell 2.0 are probably all games.
The holy sacrament as power-up. Picking up a mushroom. Taking the shiny key. Buying a vial and seeing for yourself what is inside.
Initiations are not special. Every Smurfs story is an initiation. Every Spider-Man comic. Every episode of every sitcom ever made.
The announcement of a new Matrix movie releasing a the end of 2021 spurred two or four jokes about how in these days we should and would choose the Matrix over “reality,” replicated and reiterated forty ostensibly different ways. The joke, and that it does not nearly have the variations or depth it appears to presume, are a fair stand in for the dynastic engine of The Matrix universe.
The Matrix made people the most mad whenever it stopped being what they understood it to be before they ever played.
2021 has been a poor year for many people. So was 1999. And, the other years in which a movie in this series was released. Life includes discomfort and life includes fantasy assuring us there is an escape from discomfort and whether or not that is good or would have unforeseen consequences.
The question, itself, can be enough to scare some people, sometimes to the degree that they will begin insulting the premise, insulting any part of the aesthetic or execution as, itself, artificial.
When people make broad, desperate attacks on abstract or surreal art, that anxiety shows. Their fear shows.
There are ways for artists to gird against, “they are a fake,” most of which, in terms of anglophone or eurocentered communities, such as the United States, are being a white cishet man. It will not save you, but the sturdiest sustained blowback the Matrix franchise has faced has been transphobia ever since the Wachowski siblings came out. Before that, trailer parks played a role. You see, they had lived in a trailer for a time before finding major film success. And, you know how trailer people are.
Transphobia, like most bigotry, is not a fear of the thing, it is a fear of the freedom of the thing. Freedom is not a single pie, with limited pieces, and we can only have so many, once eaten, gone, give up, be well, at rest, the game is over.
It is easy to separate The Matrix audience into two sets: Those who remember that the orgasm scene is a rape scene, and those who do not. That divide ignores anyone who never saw that sequel. It ignores anyone who only played the online game. Or, the audience who have engaged with none of the official, canon materials and are audience only by way of memes and stock responses, ideas and codified terms.
We start to use audience and fan and fandom and demographic as if they are synonymous, always synonymous, and it becomes hard to fathom entertainment or story or idea without fandom, without a requirement of participation, with no canonicity to fall on, no sword of acting or spear of writing or broken railing of art to fall on.
What is the Ong’s Hat audience? If it is everyone who plays, is it everyone?
What if we cannot kill acceptable numbers? What if anyone we hurt, we have to admit we considered an acceptable number?
To talk about it, you have to keep talking about everything else. Anything else. Oh, look, it’s the gray aliens and maybe they are masks and maybe it is only someone listening or watching from the corner of your wall, from the edge of the lake, from the sound outside you only hear after reading this. The next thing you notice will tell.
Not all of the audience are fans, even if they care a great deal or they have developed theories. Fan cannot mean one who pays attention or one who is aware. Audience cannot mean demographic, audience cannot be targets, not really. Audiences cannot be the most or the first immersed.
The Ong’s Hat game has no parameters, just enough complexity to grow.
Limitations are a thing put upon us, but they are too often a thing we allow, that we permit. Our frustration can be when we are unsure if there is a difference.
Since the Ong’s Hat game has been officially over, players and engineers have gone on to less complex games, to less harmful ventures, and to more harmful. As the antisemitism in conspiracy circles is denuded, so followed some familiar aliases and names of the Ong’s Hat game. When they said the plug was pulled, ugliness had occurred, ugliness was seething and growing. Ugliness still is. And, the game is still in play.
Ong’s Hat plays on our attraction and our revulsion to the concept of martyrs. Our elevation of fictive narratives, of fictive characterizations, mischaracterizations to a glorified and trashed condition. The central good man protagonist of Dark City, a movie which precedes The Matrix so much that The Matrix reused its sets, is pursued by cruel, cold gods in dead bodies for the entire film, gods who change control our location, our lives, our memories and concerns, and when he gains their power for himself, our good man, believing himself doing right, takes control over the land, the space, over society, over individuals. He enslaves the universe and the people he believes he loves.
How I Met Your Mother and Gilmore Girls are hagiographies. We remember people in them better than they are, and they are remembered to us better than they were. Princess Prosecutor, The Andy Griffith Show, The Littlest Hobo. They become martyred. The Untamed. Juana la Virgen. Count Duckula. Special, selected, good, and destined to ultimately be brought down and in that a greater success of teaching us a lesson.
If you told me there exists a Boy Meets World episode in which Cory meets an angel tasked especially to him, and that the angel teaches him his special value, I would believe you. Of course such an episode exists. I will refuse to check and sustain this truth on faith.
The Ong’s Hat elevation is the elevation of the important figure who suffers in all forms, and that the suffering is both cosmically unnecessary, socially unjust, and what gives the story friction to grip us.
The similarly-themed movies which arrived concurrent with The Matrix dove directly for martyrdom, straightaway, and like the next handful of Matrix narratives, were called out for being “overly Catholic,” as if Catholicism has a trademark on these sacrificial scenarios, and not simply a good set of terminology. The Thirteenth Floor, which revisited the mid-century americana aesthetics of Dark City to present its present as now and its Matrix-like artifice as a charming (white cishet male American) past. It is doomed to failure and so, too, its protagonists. eXistenZ remains discomfited the entire runtime, often awkward, stiff, clinical, then virulently emotional and biologic. eXistenZ encourages us to suffer and be elevated outside the tool-like trapped plastics of the movie and its game.
Ong’s Hat makes us tool-like and doomed and superheroes and martyrs. It makes brutes, bullies, abusers, users martyrs and if they can be, what luck we good few!
The Tremors franchise lives out its run on the idea we, the audience, can be hyper-competent if we were called to it. “Answer the call,” the subtitle of the third Ghostbusters movie, is a summation of the attraction in all four of those movies and a holy invocation.
What Ong’s Hat does is not unique, but it makes us feel unique and connected, individual and part of an inseparable group. Uniformity and uniqueness are qualifiers, not qualities. We belong in a book of saints. We belong in the hallowed league of mentions in a rare book catalogue. We are on someone’s scary shit list. We are watched and perceived and belittled and hoped for and wanted.
It is almost better to let the names of Alexandra Bruce, Joseph Matheny, Emory Cranston pass on, as we have the names of Ethan Melzer, who purportedly leaked military intelligence to a “satanic Nazi cult.” It is almost best that we erase the names of Trance Formation of America author, who tells of reptiloid overlords using holograms to orchestrate prostitution rings and assassin schools, or the Beats and former Beats who created the modern American myth of the assassin schools of Hassan-i Sabbah, at once a probably real person and a sequence of overlapping folk- and fakelores. The old man of the mountain, a magic man, a maker of devotees and killers and seers and piercing the veil of untruth with violence.
Ong’s Hat narratives use orientalism, pop science, truisms, ad campaign language and grade school rhetoric. Their nature as messages on message boards and mimeographed sheets are a realness, a truism in purple ink, in badly reproduced pictures, stunted enough to be implicitly earnest.
Everything that happens in Foucault’s Pendulum happened. The ink. The paper. The light. The letters.
Everything in The Matrix is real. Real light. Real sound. Real records of sounds, visuals, motions. Real animation. Real animatronics.
The Ong’s Hat game may, at some point, have gone sour, but it was born out of something already unhealthy. There is racism and sexism, paranoia and condescension built into the play and building blocks of the game. It preys on our individual bigotries as much as it does our better parts, in the same fashion that the real of The Matrix, the world which is ostensibly not the Matrix, is built of our hopes and aspirations and our bigotries, conflating affected destitution, abstinence, earthiness, and a return to womb motif as valorization. The world of the real in The Matrix and its universe is a world that takes great effort to sustain and perpetuate, and to sustain and perpetuate, in this case, are not the same. There is a renaissance faire, a convention cosplay and festival night active perpetuation in play to Ong’s Hat and the real.
Irrevocably, there is a piece of woodland in the northeastern United States of America where they say a man called Ong once threw his hat into the air and the the hat did not fall. The stutter in myth is what makes it myth. The repetitions, retellings, gaps and intimate and unvoiced understoods. Ong’s Hat, like this chapter of this book are talking directly to you. Who else would have found such a humble thing? Who else would have made it this far?
Ong’s Hat and Other Sales Pitches
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