Proud Mary and the Internal Network

by Mark Bloch

I wrote this text in 1989 or so. It made a lot of ripples in the pond. Let me know what you think of it.

We are living in a world where, as always, there is a huge Machine out there churning away. There are a few of us who don’t want to be part of it. Well, at least not fully.Not all the time. So we choose to be in this smaller machine which has come to be known as mail art or The Eternal Network.

So here we are in our little world, our Eternal Network. What is it like? It is a collection of individuals. But inside each of us we have a kind of inner network, a number of voices that speak to us in different ways. Who is the “us” that is being spoken to? I dunno. But hopefully we all are able to corral all these voices into a single vector and with that vector we enter into the external Eternal network. A dissident voice in our Internal Network that hasn’t been listened to can make the message confusing. Every voice in our Internal Network needs to be heard and dealt with before we can communicate effectively with the outer Eternal Network.

So what happens when we get there? Messages are flying everywhere. Each of us is writing and communicating not just to one person but with many others at roughly the same time, in any number of languages, also using representational codes like “art.” So the communication is not just one to one. And as we all know, one-to-one communication is difficult enough. So imagine having to participate in this myriad of cross-currents called The Eternal Network with all kinds of people at once, people who you may or may not know, people who may or may not know each other, people who may or may not be in touch with all the voices of their own inner network.

So that makes for a lot of variables when it comes to communication.

If communication is defined as the sending and receiving of a particular message, then absolute communication is impossible. What is transmitted is never received in its entirety. We all have slightly different ways of interpreting words and concepts; they mean different things, our values are different, our memories are different, nuances get lost in the transmission. There may be a part of the Internal Network that is quite present in the transmission but not consciously known by the person transmitting.

The key is refining the Internal Network so that the communication is as clear as possible when it leaves the “self” and enters the external network. (Jung called it The Self. For now, I will call it a “node.” A node is the collective energies of one person’s Internal Network, perceived by the outside world, and even to ourselves, as a single consciousness. This is not true however; in fact, we all consist of an inner network of many voices, as described above. Those who differ with this opinion may consider that the node is not the collective energies of the inner voices but that the node is instead the individual’s consciousness in its most basic state. I personally feel there is more to it than that, however. Jung did, too, and I direct you to Jungian psychology in an effort to understand your own Internal Network.)

When information leaves a self, a node as it were, it begins to bounce around the outer network. Perhaps a message is sent from the sender—Node Z—to another person in the network—Node A, but a copy was also sent to Node B, a partial copy was sent to Node C, etc. Nodes A, B, and C may exchange copies of Node Z’s message amongst themselves, with or without additions. All this activity in the Eternal Network creates webs of complexity that are almost too difficult for a single person to understand. But let’s focus on the lowest level of complexity—the “communication” between Nodes Z and A.

Node Z sends the message. Node A receives the message, it is not a complete transmission of the message but that’s what makes the external Eternal Network worthy of participation. It is the incomplete communication that makes the network interesting and challenging. If we all agreed and understood identically, there would be no need for the Eternal Network. We would be in complete agreement. That would be Utopian but perhaps a little boring. In fact part of the mail art Network has become complacent that way. A feeling that the medium is the message permeates the network (“The address is the art,” so to speak, as I once said.) (I now see that concepts like The Address Is The Art is what has accounted for a loss of meaning in our messages. I apologize for participating in the glorification of this destructive trend.) When the medium is the message, there no longer is a need to even read the actual content of the message, to think about it to respond to it. The fact that something was sent and received is enough. But I hold that this is not communication nor is it interesting. It is the imperfections in the communication process and the need to overcome them that eventually creates understanding between individuals. Complacency breeds complacency and eventually isolation.

When something was sent and received and that is enough, it results in what the Big Machine has resulted in—a lot of messages flying around in the form of various media, remaining unread, not fully absorbed, not fully responded to, simply acknowledged as yet another message as media. But there is no substance to media—it is a medium for the transmission of a message.

It is ironic that a guy called McLuhan gave us this M&M philosophy. The whole thing has been absorbed into the Big Machine and is now used an excuse for the lack of meaning and conviction in our society. McFish, McFries, MacPaint, McLuhan. All medium, transmitted very quickly, with no nutritional value.

When everyone is happy that messages are being sent and received and no one is reading and interpreting the messages in their own flawed but human way, a kind of ennui is the result. I feel that is currently the situation in the Eternal Network. We have grown comatose from all the messages. The meanings of these messages don’t permeate and challenge our Internal Network anymore, except occasionally and minimally. Perhaps because they are all media and no content, the intensity of the messages has decreased in power and scope so we end up with a lot of stuff in the mail box that isn’t even worth interpreting. The failure of the messages to be read has resulted in the failure of meaningful messages to be sent. On both sides meaningless messages are being transmitted, resulting in a loss of time and revenue on the part of the participants. We spend all the vital energy of our Internal Network on this process.

Meanwhile the Big Wheel keeps on turning.

Proud Mary is the name of the Machine, Why?— because it is a man disguised as a woman. It is a woman who is not what she appears to be. A woman is often nurturing and forgiving. A man is often aggressive and vengeful. A woman is not proud, a woman can cry, a woman can drop the pretense. She can sacrifice herself for the sake of creation. Yin. The feminine. So the idea of a Proud Mary is an oxymoron. What we get is a machine disguised as a man disguised as a woman. A man-machine in drag.

Devoid of humanity, it is a consumin’ machine. Proud, Big, Turnin’. Eating everything in its path. Rollin’ on the river. It could be called by other names. Proud Mary is Guy Debord’s “Spectacle.” Orwell’s “Big Brother.” Call it what you want. I call it Mary—reminiscent of a certain virgin fucked by a certain god. What could be a more perfect metaphor? Purity and impurity simultaneously. An innocent virgin proudly raped, in effect, by the Man upstairs who does it all for her own good and the good of Mankind.

So we in the Network think we are not part of Proud Mary; we are in our own little network. But like the Proud Mary, we have become mesmerized by the turning of the wheel. The medium is the message for us, too. We have become Proud Mary’s little sister.

Certain members of our network see Mail art as a kind of farm team for the Proud Mary. When the form of our message—the medium, that is—is sufficiently polished and has developed to a point of machine-like slickness, we can jump ship and ride on the Proud Mary. But I don’t see it that way. I’d like to see our network grow away from the wake of Mary’s proud Wheel.

The Network, like the businessmen who keep the Proud Mary afloat, are generally of one of two groups. There are backslappers, those who believe in the medium as the message and feel that any transmission at all deserves a hearty congratulations and a slap on the back. Then there are the backstabbers, those who smile on the outside but due to some disgruntled member of their inner network possess a message of hatred and manifest it through a calculated and sometimes subconscious act of malice against another individual. They project their inner fears and phobias on other members of the network, perhaps they write a history of the Network and leave out a certain node accidentally. Or steal another node’s idea and call it their own. Or write a letter to other nodes trashing the message of another behind their back. Most of us have let it happen in one form or another. But maliciousness is an obstacle to communication. So is an obsession with Mary. Messages need to be directed to the node(s) in question. Like a disgruntled part of the Internal Network, an obsession with Mary muddies the message.

But for some, the messages only take on real meaning when they jump ship to the Proud Mary.

“It seems to me that easy access to the means of artistic (re)production (photocopiers & cassette tapes) altered the material relations between some cultural workers & the commodities they produce. This results in (or co-occurs with) a changed set of social relations.

Since access to the means of production is no longer necessarily controlled/mediated by a hierarchical class of “owners” (including editors/galleries/critics, via their “ownership” of cultural validation), a network of cultural workers has evolved, producing & exchanging their work amongst themselves, and creating a sub-culture: that of mail art and “Networking.” In reaction to the hierarchical control system in the mass-mediated dominant “art” culture, some confused ideas appear in the mail art sub-culture. One is that all participants have equal access to the “network”. We are all affirmed as creative beings, and offered a completely open venue of expression, to be judged only on the merits of our work. A similar idea is that all product of the “network” are in some way of equal value—the perennial “no rejections/documentation to all” mail art show. Ideally, this would put the responsibility for critical response on each individual viewer; but in reality, the role of cultural consumer hasn’t kept pace with changed roles of cultural producer. Folks still seem to wait for validation of their work by some outside arbiter—Factsheet Five, for instance. Hence the endless bitch when your favorite ’zine pans your latest cassette. The situation is self-imposed, though-by complaining about unfavorable reviews, the artist gives the power of validation to that reviewer. I believe that folks must learn to make their own critical judgements, and that intelligent reviews by other folks can help with that, if folks can read them as only one person’s opinion instead of gospel.” (From Yawn; unidentified contributor from Cleveland, Ohio)

Where the writer’s example of Factsheet Five lies in relation to Mary is open to discussion. Regardless, some see Mary as the only legitimate rubber stamp of approval in the world. It is ironic that such perceptions are often what result in some of the clearest messages in our network. For it is in seeking approval and acceptance from Mary that forces otherwise backslapping media-mongers to crystallize their fuzzy thoughts into a coherent message. Only then does the medium cease to be of interest as a thing in itself, because, in fact, even though it mimics the Proud Mary, the smaller Network ship has the task of convincing the larger one that that its existence is valid. Unfortunately, it is to the credit of Mary’s Big seductive Wheel that (often unconsciously) many members of the little ship won’t feel right until their messages are vindicated by the Proud Mary machine.

“Art which criticizes the establishment is reintegrated into it, defusing useful comprehension of its horror.” (Also from Yawn; contribution from ASAC-CA)

So it is often only when the messages about mail art or The Eternal Network jump from the private world of the Internal Network to the larger world of the Proud Mary, that the actual message transcends the medium. This is when mail artists and others reach within themselves, to create a message with actual content. As a way of reaching out to the “higher force” that is Mary. A way of apologizing for our transgressions against the larger machine. We put it all in very clear terms, create a true message for interpretation by the Machine. But once that happens and Proud Mary decides whether or not she wants to eat the message (and she always does), it goes out of the control of the mail artist and even the Eternal Network which is the subject of the message. And of course Proud Mary’s function is to eat everything that passes before it. No message or medium is too distasteful for the iron stomach of the Beast Mary.

If the messages were not sent to Mary, then Mary would not know of the network’s existence. She can only eat what she sees and smells and hears about. But again, it is the seductive movement of her wheel that hypnotizes just about everything into her path. Thus, the only chance of not being consumed by the Big Machine is to not let her know of our existence. To ignore the seduction. To cool down the more egotistical members of our Internal Networks who long for recognition by the larger machine. To be happy with our own little Eternal Network and not to be so eager to merge with the Proud Mary machine. To stay outside of her influence, as, for example, have certain rare tribes in the frontiers of the African continent who have not yet heard the churnings of the Mary Machine. Who listen to the beat of their own (Mary might say “unsophisticated”) drumming.

But we are not those tribes. We have grown up in the belly of the Beast. We are born of Proud Mary and unto Proud Mary we shall return. But perhaps we get sick and tired of “workin’ for the Man every night and day.” Proud Mary has it within her power to make us think that she is the relief we are seeking. That she is what we need to escape to. That’s what created Mary in the first place. A distrust of our own Internal Network. But now it is Mary that makes us want to escape. She makes us doubt the power of our own inner network to comfort us, to heal us. So we turn to her seductive wheel for nurturing. But she does not and can not nurture us. She only consumes us as we attempt to consume her and she, herself, is very difficult to escape from. Because when we think we jump ship we imagine we are free but in fact Proud Mary is also the river and also the banks of the river and also the land that stretches out on either side of that river. That’s why in our little boat that we think is so free, we are really only mimicking Mary.

How do we actually get out of the way of Proud Mary? Is it possible to jump ship and escape her influence for a part of each day and change Mary’s course without her realizing it? Is it possible to jump Mary’s ship and just enjoy being away from her? Perhaps that’s why we’re such a bunch of backslappers, we are just pleased as hell to have the illusion that for once Mary is not chewing our ass like a cow chews his cud. So we congratulate each other and smile. And I can see why we should or could. Even an illusion of a moment of quiet with our Internal Network can be very rewarding.

But how would we get away from the Big Wheel once and for all?

For one thing it would require that we no longer write mindlessly about our Eternal Network for her Big Wheel. Not unless we want her to hear about us.

Yes, a more calculated strategy is in order. We need to be more selective about how we leak information to the Mary Machine. We can have our secrets that will keep us from being eaten. And it is important that we don’t get eaten.It is important that someone in our society stay outside of the path of Mary so that we can notice when she’s floating off course. Mary needs a rudder that she does not know about and I propose that the Eternal Network, directed by focused and responsible nodes, be that rudder. We need to learn to steer the Proud Mary without her knowledge. Because we answer to the higher authority of the Internal Network.

Where should we steer her? First of all the message must be returned to the role of message and the medium must be returned to the role of messenger. In the old days they used to kill the messenger if they didn’t like the message. Then too, they mistook the medium for the message. But those days are over.

We must all refine our inner networks so that our messages are clear. Then we must insist that our messages are received and responded to appropriately. Some of you will object to this. It will take the element of play out of the Eternal Network. Too many rules. Well it is “play” that Mary wants. Mary want us all to play, but to play her way, blindly, without care for the consequences. No parent in their right mind lets their kids play in the middle of a busy street.

There is a time and a place for everything. I think the time for work in the network is now. Those of us who believe in our right to play in our own way must put down our toys for a while and instead work at sending meaningful messages that will be understood and have impact. Perhaps the turning of Proud Mary’s Big Wheel is more benign than we think. It seems so calculated, so thought out, so complete in its path of destruction. Perhaps there is no danger. Perhaps we are Proud Mary and a quiet conversation with our Internal Network can turn the destruction around. But we must determine that ourselves. Proud Mary will have us believe unconditionally that it’s all just a cruise on a riverboat. She will create the waves, we are only passengers. She tells us she has our best interests at heart and that all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

[Mark Bloch is the author of The Last Word: Art Strike, Word Strike, Plagiarism and Originality, and is the editor of Panmag and the face behind Panpost in New York.]