Lewd Logic, "Catachresis on Infinite Earths"
June 1999. A guy dies in Missourri. Nobody knows when-- his body turns up in a cornfield, decomposing, five days after he was last seen. It isn’t labelled a homicide. It isn’t labelled anything. There’s no great rush to figure this thing out-- Ricky McCormick, 41, suffered from severe heart and lung issues, lived off disability with his mother, had served 11-months for statutory rape, was not missed for almost 72 hours. The fact of his death is taken for granted. A guy dies in Missouri, 41 years of sense-data and killed time swallowed up by the cornfields, signifying very little, if anything.
And yet, something of interest. From his pockets, authorities recover two sheets of dense, crabbed writing, one on a piece of paper that says, plainly, “NOTES” on the printed letter-head. 31 lines comprised of what the FBI describes as “a maddening variety of letters, numbers, dashes and parentheses” in a hurried hand that suggests a serial kidnapper or a poet. Twelve years after McCormick’s death, now labelled murder, the existence of these notes was announced to the world, the FBI throwing up its hands and appealing to the public-- and with them, the febrile knot of forums and news groups making up the internet’s healthy (or if not healthy, thriving) conspiracy subculture. What the FBI, as the figurehead of the whole episteme of law, order, sense, could not decipher, maybe it’s online inverse could.
We’re pattern-seeking animals. Metaphor preconditions our ability to conceive of ourselves in terms of an “our,” or even a “selves.” Language is the medium through which we sort the gross matter of the world into some kind of order— the names and meanings of things, causes and effects, similarity and difference. Heidegger wrote that language was the house we lived in. But it’s also a house we can’t escape from, and it doesn't always function in a straightforward manner. And it grows-- words creep from their moorings to things outside of themselves, and objects in the world find themselves smuggled into ad hoc covens of sense and correspondence. The glib term is pareidolia, the “malfunctioning image,” or lapse in proper recognition of the thing as it really is. For example: the way an electric socket can look like a gasping cartoon face, or a potato chip might turn up bearing the image of Gerald Ford or the Virgin Mary, or dust on a camera lens become evidence of paranormal activity.
Yet it's also this faculty for misrecognition that allows the brain to discover similarities between one thing and another, to characterize their association. And this makes possible metaphor, which makes language something worth caring about instead of just a noisy semaphore shouting to nothing about how it’s time to eat or fuck or kill.
This metaphor-making impulse is unstoppable. And yet, it can be detourned. The linguistic category of catechresis is, essentially, metaphor gone awry-- the equivalence that fails to cohere into sense, the image slipped into the wrong place. It can be deployed as a willful disruption of normative language, a strategic device that exploits our brains’ willingness to hunt for links between any two clusters of signification dropped close enough together, a method of nonsense(s) blurring, like a magic eye portrait, to approximate a mental portrait of sense. Where the coolness of fact and logic-- that featureless bank of faces-- falls away, this generative catachresis rushes in to fill the vacuum. Where catachresis lives, then, is on the linguistic (and epistemological) borderlands. It is frontier logic.
My model in this line of thought is Charles Fort, the writer who bequeathed the 20th century its instinct to turn to the sky as an endless source of horror. Between 1919 and 1932 Fort haunted the stacks of libraries and archives, combing newspapers, scientific journals, and digests for anything that stank of the unexplainable. Rains of frogs, unexplained noises in the night, stigmata, spontaneous combustion, cattle mutilation. From this body of extraneous data-- think of them as clues unattached to a crime or a solution-- Fort bult his legacy: four books, starting with 1919’s The Book of the Damned, densely packed with oddities and nearly a century of followers-- Forteans-- shambling after him with EVP machines and bigfoot zines.
If there's an essential Fortean orthodoxy, it's a devotion to, if not a grand unified theory of the unexplained, then to the principle of unexplainability itself. His world is one in which things are as they seem instead of seeming as they are. His books tend to read like a particularly unwelcoming but brilliant niche reddit, a man hollering at himself about chemtrails between exhaustive lists of anomalous rains and accounts of beings descending from the sky.
What he finally comes around to advocating for, after thousands of pages and decades of work, is a kind of perverse-- his own term is the frankly disconcerting “lewd”-- monism, a setting of all facts on an equivalent base level of truth value. Ghost stories become as true, in this suspended space, as equations or weather reports, cake recipes, knock-knock jokes, scientific axioms. Every fact left out of the discourse as he found it is let back in and given perverse pride of place, announcing a mass commingling and hybridization of knowledges. If all epistemology-- if our ability to sort out one bundle of sensation from another, to sort out true from false-- is reset to a terrifying, liberating degree zero, then one fact is as good as another. All explanations are equally plausible. Principles of thought conditioned by centuries of habit-- Newton’s laws of motion are a perennial hobby-horse for Fort-- are suddenly thrust into competition with new causal models predicated less on repeated, repeatable observations and more on how compelling their poetics are. No matter how much he insists that his pet facts are damned, it’s difficult to escape the impression that Fort sees them as citizens of a peculiar sort of heaven.
I spent a large part of my adolescence trying, like the saint lying on a bed of nails, to embody corporeally a version of that heaven, swapping UFO sightings with internet randos, poring over the canon of ghost photos, evaluating each orb or smudge according to arcane and long-forgotten criteria. There’s a giddiness to buying in-- a simultaneous rejection of conventional models of sense and the eager adoption of a new orthodoxy. No, of course the government isn’t telling the truth about Roswell. Yes, duh, why wouldn’t the men in black reproduce asexually and incessantly? Again, Fort’s logic of a universalist damnation floods back: throw out everything that is the case, and then, after that, don’t throw out anything ever again. Make everything fit.
I’m not a cryptographer. I can’t make anything out of Ricky McCormick’s notes. I’m not even competent, I don’t think, to evaluate whether there’s anything there to make out. What matters, in a quotidian way, is that legions of people on the internet think there is. What matters in a less quotidian way, of course, is that the FBI agrees with them. What but this Fortean impulse compels us to find in McCormick’s notes evidence of a code? Of the most popular theories about his cipher's significance-- details of a drug deal, or, poignantly, notes about his or his mother’s medication regimen-- none gesture at anything like the particular grandeur with which the conspiracy-minded often paint their objects of interest. Most of the people who continue to fixate on McCormick’s notes are content to leave the man himself as he was found-- incidental, unexceptional, the victim of circumstances neither particularly singular nor especially sinister. Indeed, despite initial reports that McCormick was an avid amateur code-maker, the consensus seems to have settled in line statements from his family that he was only marginally literate, couldn’t spell, but was known to scribble.
There are a few scenes in 2007’s Zodiac where Jake Gyllenhaal explains how he solved the titular killer’s codes. He makes it sound easy. Indeed, the movie, insofar as it’s about the puzzle-solving instinct, insists that it is a game for amateurs. You think of the patterns you know-- common doubled consonants, words you predict will show up in a given cipher-- then descend into the patterns you don’t. The fantasy is of re-emerging with language given new sense, facts re-arranged into narratives. This makes sense coming from the mouth of Gyllenhaal’s perpetual boy-detective, an innocent man-child in a movie about defeated and dimly lit people. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be simple-- even the FBI, in their public McCormick page, break it down in a side-bar to four easy steps:
• Determining the languaged [sic] used;
• Determining the system used;
• Reconstructing the key; and
• Reconstructing the plaintext.
The official FBI page for the McCormick code is titled “Help Solve an Open Murder Case.” In the days following their invitation for public help, they were inundated with responses, a minor logistical crisis that necessitated the creation of a separate, dedicated site for amateurs to submit their theories. These contributions, unfortunately, are not posted publicly. Before you can submit, there’s one last thing to do, a standard captcha code to prove that you’re not an automated bot. For me, the captcha was a blurry picture of the side of a house, the number 6541 running diagonally downwards. I don’t think it meant anything.