The following chapter is from Agony: A Proposal, which is a work in progress. Agony is a game played by three teams, referred to as “Families”: The Gods, Talk Radio, and The Animals. Agony is played once every three months. The chapter below concerns “The Covered Wagons,” which is a term that refers to three months of television preceding the day of the game itself. The members of the three Families, during The Covered Wagons, are referred to as “Pioneers,” and they are televised every day. Pioneers dwell within “The Frontier,” which is the stadium in which their Agony will be played out. The Frontier becomes “The Casino” on the day of Agony (also referred to as The Day Of Gambling), once the Families have moved out on to the field of play.
Pioneer Family Television
The spectator never sees The Covered Wagons moving—never sees The Covered Wagons from afar. The spectator sees, through a peephole, into The Covered Wagons. What does he see? He sees the Pioneer Families apart from, but bound into, Agony. His seeing begins seven days after The Fix and continues on until noon on The 65 Breaths.
Pioneer Families have long been a great source of entertainment.
Most of a spectator’s days are nothing less and nothing more than a shifting glimpse of the Agony-bound life that The Covered Wagons give shelter to. The bulk of a spectator’s life is spent looking into preparation for a spectacle that never keeps him long. Whether or not we recognize this fact—and if we have recognized it, how we proceed to shoulder the burden of the myriad dilemmas it gives easy birth to—tells who we are, or at least who we have pretended for the longest time to be.
While Families may be distinguished during Agony by the color of their torsos, before Agony they are distinguished by the manner in which they are accessible in the peephole.
Talk Radio are the most familiar of the three Families; within The Covered Wagons, they are broadcast fully and plainly, which is to say, with clarity of image and audio. They wear the formal attire that they are provided with, except during the first eight days of The Covered Wagons, when they are naked. Their only unclothed appearance is in the first fifteen seconds of their being on air (during The Hand-Jobs, which are discussed below). When an Agony begins, their faces, voices, and worldviews are familiar to most spectators, or at least considerably more familiar than the faces, voices, and worldviews of The Animals, and certainly more familiar than the faces of The Gods.
The Gods, while they may at times seem almost as familiar as Talk Radio, are decidedly more elusive; within The Covered Wagons they are only ever heard—they are never seen. There is one exception: during the first fifteen seconds of their being on air, during The Hand-Jobs, each God is visible and audible. Once The Hand-Jobs have finished, The Gods become invisible. As The Covered Wagons roll on, the voices of The Gods, uncomplicated by their Animal-like (i.e. naked) bodies, seem to spectators to lack the complication through which the proper dissonance of reality might be implied. This lack of complication—this false clarity, we might say—saturates spectators’ perceptions of The Gods. Thus, for The Gods, when The Day Of Gambling comes, it is among other things an opportunity to demonstrate that they are indeed real, despite impressions to the contrary caused by their lack of appearance in the peephole.
The Animals are both seen and heard within The Covered Wagons, and they are always naked. How they look and sound, however, is subject to the rising and falling of an irreducible, universal, technical distortion. Whenever an Animal is in view, the picture may do one or several of the following things: grow fuzzy, even to the point of complete ambiguity; become warped, manifesting one or more swaying vertical snakes; roll vertically, cutting the scene in half and placing the bottom half at the top and the top half at the bottom. The sound, whenever an Animal is in view, is usually muffled or altogether lacking, such that it is quite unusual for a spectator to be able to understand an Animal’s speech. In those rare moments wherein a spectator is able to understand the speech of an Animal, visibility is always at its most distorted. This ensures that a spectator can never know for certain what a given Animal (a specific Animal he has looked at and distinguished visually from other Animals) is thinking—at least not until Agony begins. The only exception is during The Hand-Jobs; during this time, each Animal is seen and heard clearly.
Within The Covered Wagons, The Animals are always naked. Their nakedness, conveyed by a picture that rarely finds clarity (and that never finds clarity simultaneous with the clarity of speech), produces in the average spectator a kind of frustrating eroticism. This frustration is akin to that of a man who feels elated because he has just had a powerful realization, but who has forgotten what that realization was, and even what it concerned; adrift between the elation that still lingers and the frustration stemming from such a tenacious forgetfulness, the Animal-watcher looks obsessively into what he cannot see and tries, with every I can’t see it, to build an understanding of how it got that way.
Spectators can be said to deal with Animal-watching in one of three ways. First, there are the Animal-Lovers. These are the folks who watch The Animals often, and with keen interest. For Animal-Lovers, the difficulty of apprehending an Animal’s nakedness is not considered to obscure said nakedness—to the contrary, an Animal-Lover will explain to you that this difficulty amplifies the nakedness of The Animals, and amplifies it in such a way as to make plain that nakedness is but a moment, an instance, and cannot be a State. An Animal-Lover understands this moment of nakedness as that which might overthrow his natural inclination toward pretending he is in possession of a future. The second approach a watcher of Animals might take is practiced by The Friends Of The Animals; their practice is to watch The Animals but avoid watching them too long or too often. A Friend Of The Animals feels that, while The Animals’ nakedness might indeed be an amplification of said Animals, such amplification, more often than not, is destructive to the view of a viewer. Their approach, then, is to Animal-watch with caution, withdrawing quickly when they have absorbed the initial promise of nakedness. They believe that this promise is sufficient for their purposes, and that what is promised—the overthrow of the inclination toward pretending he is in possession of a future—can never be achieved in any case. Finally, there is a third approach to the situation. Both the Animal-Lovers and The Friends Of The Animals refer to this approach with the same phrase: Disastrous Complacency. This is the approach of one who either refuses to Animal-watch, or who Animal-watches without much interest. The core assertions of one affected with Disastrous Complacency are that an Animal’s nakedness is simply and meaninglessly obscured; that the difficulty of Animal-watching does not imply an amplification of nakedness but, to the contrary, a dulling of it; that the difficulty of Animal-watching implies, when it implies anything, the viewer’s inclination to stupefy himself with fantasies of uselessness that nakedness never actually has to do with.
A movable camera is mounted in the wall of every dining room and every bedroom in The Frontier—a total of twenty-one cameras. The cameras are operated by remote control by persons situated far from The Frontier. The cameras are six feet off the ground in the bedrooms and eight feet off the ground in the dining rooms and those who operate them can slide them back and forth along the entire length of the wall; the cameras are completely concealed and protected by tinted Plexiglas. Pioneers never learn which wall holds the camera through which they are being seen by millions of viewers; thus, should they choose to pose, or to conceal themselves from view, they must make an uneducated guess. Pioneers who pose or try to conceal themselves from view are more than likely achieving something other than what they intend, especially when the camera is in fact directly opposite of their guess. Pioneers who guess right are thought to have a special power of some sort. This special power is expected to be of no use in The Casino.
Twenty camera-operators, known as The Poets, are appointed to operate the peephole cameras. The Poets also operate the cameras that televise Agony itself. The Poets always operate their cameras by remote-control; they never, that is, leave Muscle-Memory, which is a suite of luxury apartments located on the top three floors of a high-rise in a city not more than 1,000 miles from The Frontier. The Poets live and work in Muscle-Memory, even as they have a nice view of what surrounds it. While Muscle-Memory stands quite apart from The Frontier, it nevertheless possesses the only apparatus through which The Frontier might be constructively imagined. While the primary task of The Poets is the television of Agony, their secondary task—seeking and refining the peephole’s glimpse into The Covered Wagons—is by no means unimportant or without significant challenges. Though there are twenty-one cameras and only twenty Poets, it is possible for the relevant cameras to be manned at all the necessary times because the dining rooms are never broadcast at the same time as the bedrooms.
The Poets themselves, in all cases, see clearly what they are filming, even though their clear vision is not necessarily conveyed to spectators. The Gods, for instance, within The Covered Wagons are never seen by spectators. Though the Poet himself sees The Gods clearly, his lens conveys nothing to the spectator; all the spectator gets is whatever sounds The Gods make, and this they get with complete fidelity. Similarly, though The Poet peering into The Covered Wagons sees The Animals clearly, his lens conveys to spectators an erratic, broken, and flickering image most of the time, and when this image mends and comes clear, the sound is lost—erratic muffling fragment. The Poet is able, of course, to convey exactly what he sees and hears of Talk Radio within The Covered Wagons.
For six days after The Fix, television broadcasts nothing, and no newspapers are distributed. The week that follows a Day Of Gambling is a cleansing silence, a burning off of the old sense of how Agony might be thought of. This week is referred to as The Mirror Stage, and its cleansing silence is also thought of as the sound of the birth of the Pioneer Families bound into the next Agony.
To produce mass-communication during The Mirror Stage is punishable by life in prison. It is altogether legal, however, to share one’s personal knowledge (whatever that knowledge might be) by word of mouth with the persons one meets in the course of one’s normal life. So long as one does not intentionally seek to create an audience that is overly large—an audience inhabited by numerous strangers—one is quite free to discuss whatever one knows, including knowledge of the abduction of those bound into the next Agony.
It is considered to be in very bad taste—pathetic, really—to use drugs recreationally in a public setting (especially alcohol) during The Mirror Stage. The Mirror Stage is meant to be a quiet, dispassionate time, the resuming of the life that is farthest from Agony. The Mirror Stage is not a time of celebration, and not a time of mourning; it is a time of quiet strength, humble concentration—a readying of the spirit for another affair with the distant but inevitable unheard-of. At the same time, The Mirror Stage’s proximity to the Agony that is gone allows brand new moods to be contracted, studied, and treated.
The first flaring of the peephole—the first peepshow—is known as Captation. It is broadcast at 8 p.m. on the seventh day after The Fix, and its airing ends The Mirror Stage. It runs for thirty minutes.
During Captation, The Lunatic, alone in The Womb, is televised, and he reveals The Miracle from which Agony will begin to seem possible. That is, he will reveal the names, ages, genders, birthplaces, and current hometowns of the Pioneers who have just entered into The Covered Wagons. When he has finished imparting this information, he might choose to speak about his impression of The Miracle, and might even discuss his impression of specific Pioneers, and/or Pioneer Families. He may choose to speak of something else entirely; all that is expected is that he will not speak of the Agony that has just subsided.
The attempt to distinguish between the kinds of Miracles that are possible begins with Captation, with spectators’ first awareness of the Families that The Fix has given birth to.
Directly after Captation, at 8:30 p.m. on the seventh day after The Fix, The Hand-Jobs begin. There are fifteen Hand-Jobs, and each Hand-Job lasts one minute. The Hand-Jobs end, then, at 8:45 p.m. Each Hand-Job is essentially a televising of one Pioneer, naked, in his new bedroom at The Frontier. The Hand-Jobs proceed always in the same order: First God, Second God, Third God, Pee Paw, Sister, The Chuff, Personality One, Personality Two, Personality Three, Pee Paw Lester, Mee Maw, First Animal, Second Animal, Alpo Hesky, and The Queer.
While each Hand-Job is one minute long, the spectator is not provided with a view of The Pioneer for that entire minute. At the beginning of a Hand-Job, that is, The Lunatic instructs The Pioneer, via an intercom in his bedroom: Please stand up at the center of the room with your arms at your side. When a Pioneer hears this command, he knows that his minute will begin in five seconds. He does not know, however, when the Poet who is filming him will choose to begin to make him visible and audible to spectators. Out of a Hand-Job’s sixty seconds, only fifteen seconds are broadcast to spectators. During a Hand-Job, a Pioneer may do whatever he likes, so long as he remains in a standing-up position with his arms at his side (i.e., not covering his nakedness) and stays in more or less the center of his room. Pioneers are free to dance and to jump and to do whatever else is possible within the bounds of the aforementioned rules. The Pioneer intending to convey something to a loved one, or to spectators generally, is faced with a challenge. He may strategically repeat himself, but unless what he means to convey is very brief, such repetition cannot ensure that his meaning will come across.
Hand-Jobs are surprisingly varied. One Hand-Job may be quiet and coherent, and may have a sense of proper closure, while the very next Hand-Job may be chaotic, a fragmented but seemingly endless heaving. Context is everything when it comes to Hand-Jobs; not the physical context of The Pioneer in question (all Pioneers are alone in their rooms) but context in relation to other Hand-Jobs. Poets control the periods of silence preceding and/or following Hand-Jobs, and the placement of this silence can create for the spectator quite varying impressions.
Often, when a Hand-Job is initiated nearer to the beginning of the Lunatic’s command, it is full of anxiety, nervous energy, and an attempt to convey too much too suddenly. Conversely, when his appearance begins later in the sixty-second period, The Pioneer is more likely to seem more settled in to his Hand-Job. This is not always the case, of course; an atypical Pioneer might have quite the opposite experience, entering into his Hand-Job with confidence and then slipping gradually into uncertainty as the fact of his situation dawns on him. Such an atypical Pioneer might then arrive at the panic most Pioneers begin with. This again shows us how significant The Poet’s decision is, for it is only ever The Poet who decides when a Hand-Job has actually begun.
Pioneers must obey the rules of their Hand-Job. Failure to obey these rules results in the offending Pioneer’s being branded as a Known Collaborator. Known Collaborators are locked in their bedrooms and lose their lunch, dinner, and drug privileges for the whole of The Covered Wagons. Known Collaborators have access, in their bedrooms, to enough food and water to remain alive until Gambling begins, and they are, of course, still expected to enter The Casino at that time.
The attempt to distinguish between the kinds of Miracles that are possible begins in earnest with The Hand-Jobs, the completion of which instigates a vigorous debate at every level of society. This debate will continue for the next three months; by the time Gambling begins, spectators will have a generally agreed-upon sense of what kind of Miracle it is they are about to lose interest in.