Thinking with the Pyramid; Listening to the (Grateful) Dead

Laura L. Sullivan


01 In "Thinking About the Pyramid: An (Un)Called-for Proposal" (Tripp, this volume), a collaborative project conducted with colleagues Stephanie Tripp and Michael Laffey is outlined and an experiment in consultation—the fate of the Pyramid Arena in Memphis, Tennessee—is its object. Constructed in the early 1990s, the Pyramid is no longer operating as a commercial venue, and debates abound about how the building should be used and by whom. Tripp, Laffey and I are developing a public wiki on the Web as a potential site for collective, creative proposals for alternative uses of the Pyramid. Our project also includes another approach—thinking with the Pyramid and applied to a specific form: hypertext. As Gregory Ulmer emphasizes, "In electronic logic," unlike that of literacy, "it is necessary to reason from 'thing' to 'thing,' from particular to particular, supplementing the inferential detour through conceptual reasoning" (Heuretics 195). [1] What happens when we use the case of the Pyramid Arena in Memphis as the basis for an associative electronic text? A hypertext that supplements the original "(Un)Called-for Proposal" takes this question as its starting point. [2]

02 This hypertextual digital experiment is an example of what Ulmer calls "mystory," a textual form that addresses the "problematic relationship between ideology and critique," which "concerns the place of the individual in collective history" (T 85). The feminist response to this predicament, an "insist[ence] on the value of oral history and popular autobiography" (Ulmer T 85), grounds this hypertextual endeavor. As Ulmer notes, "The legitimation of the personal and the popular as knowledge within the domain of historiography is an important precedent for mystory, making available experience as an alternative to the rule of method" (T 86). Recognizing the potential of the autobiographical and the experiential for an alternative method to consider the Pyramid, I decided to research, develop, and create a mystorical hypertext as an element of our larger project. As a native Memphian who has spent most of my life in the city (including during the Pyramid Arena's initial years of operation), I feel an emotional connection to this subject matter, one that is ripe for exploration. To use Margaret Cohen's terminology, the city and this building are part of my "material unconscious" (51). [3] Thus, during our project's initial stages, I have been thinking about what such a hypertext originating from my own relationship to the Pyramid might look like. I call my version of Ulmer's mystorical method "alchemical," a designation that marks many of the innovations in research, textual production, and reception that exemplify my larger research and artistic agenda. First, the alchemical method indicates that the researcher will combine perspectives not typically thought of together, such as the Ulmerian post-structuralism and the Marxism that I bring into dialogue. Second, alchemical writing necessarily involves the mixing of many genres and various strategies of composition, and such mixing results in something larger than and different from the elements of which it is comprised. Third, alchemy invokes the idea of transformation—both material and spiritual—and thus serves my desires to include political transformation as a central concern and goal of my work and to draw upon mystical realms in my research process as well as in efforts to envision and create a non-exploitative society. In this sense, the idea of alchemy reflects my location in the tradition of what Cohen calls "Gothic Marxism," which has a "genealogy fascinated with the irrational aspects of social processes, a genealogy that both investigates how the irrational pervades existing society and dreams of using it to effect social change" (1-2). Finally, "alchemical" indicates how the processes of research and writing are powerful and unpredictable, changing the creator in ways she could not have anticipated, and also producing, one hopes, a corresponding transformative experience for the receiver of the alchemical text. In what follows I outline the parameters, plans and implications of my nascent—as yet untitled—alchemical hypertext about the Pyramid.

Writing with the Paradigm: A Transpositional Process

03 Following the "strategy of writing with the paradigm" outlined by Ulmer, the alchemical textual producer works to "include the 'set' of possible terms collected under the heading of a given concept or category, rather than to select one part and repress the remainder" (H 87-88). Ulmer underscores that the "emerging mode of hypermedia writing" is "a transpositional process" and "a complex, unstable hybrid" (H 176). Writing in this way "is a kind of dreamwork . . . drawing not only on condensation and displacement (metaphor and metonymy) but especially on a third process—"the passage from one sign system to another" (Ulmer H 176; citing Kristeva Revolution 59). The technique is to take the initial concept or topic and read it laterally, across levels of discourse.

04 Utilizing this associative dimension of invention, I bring together several relational aspects of this specific Pyramid, as well as various inflections of "pyramid" in general, into a digital art context. My alchemical hypertextual mystory gathers this particular "set" of dimensions and items invoked by the P/pyramid. First, there is an autobiographical dimension: my only experiences inside the Pyramid Arena—two unforgettable concerts by the Grateful Dead on 1-2 April 1995. The social and historical dimension comes in the form of Memphis's history of slavery, to which the street names near the Pyramid attest (e.g. Auction, Exchange). Considering political economy brings the place of the Pyramid within neoliberal urban "redevelopment" policies and the city's specific efforts to "regenerate" downtown Memphis. A mystical dimension appears in the form of the crystal skulls deposited at the top of the Pyramid during its construction (Graham; Murtaugh) and is also echoed in the figure of the Egyptian pyramids (and their shamanic messages). Finally, looking for the "remainder" in the concept of "pyramid"—reading it figuratively—brings to light two popular U.S. uses of the pyramid as a metaphor: the "pyramid scheme" of businesses such as Amway and the pyramid as the shape of the (increasingly unequal) distribution of wealth.

05 The juxtapositions in the Pyramid hypertext will ultimately exist on three levels: (i) various types of discourse will be juxtaposed; (ii) verbal and visual elements will be juxtaposed on one "page" or screen (collage); and (iii) "pages" will be juxtaposed via links (montage). Presently, as I brainstorm about the nature and character of the hypertext using a mystorical approach, the first type of juxtaposition is being explored and explicated. As the plan for the text's organization (thematic and structural) becomes clearer and the construction of actual pages and links proceeds, numerous juxtapositions at the level of collage and montage will be imagined and created. I will elaborate on the juxtapositions suggested by the process of textual creation thus far, but first I will briefly describe each of the domains—various registers of 'P/pyramid'—to be included in the hypertext.

The Grateful Dead Return to Memphis

06 Formed in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead were one of the top-grossing touring bands in the U.S. during their thirty-year history. Followers of the band, known as "Deadheads," were drawn to the highly improvisational music as well as to the vivid "scene"—alternative economies and ways of life that accompanied the band's prolific tours. I belatedly discovered the music and culture of the Grateful Dead in the late 1980s. Having briefly followed the band through the mid-western states on their summer 1994 tour, I was thrilled when the Grateful Dead announced that after more than a twenty-year absence, they would return to my hometown of Memphis for two shows on the first weekend of April 1995. Trouble with police—possibly even a drug bust, according to one thread of rumors—had led them to stay away for so long. (What is known: during their concert in Memphis at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1970, the band was frightened and frustrated by the police, who, during the opening act, "turned on the house lights so they could see people they thought needed busting" (Gerald). Whatever the reason for their shunning of the city, Deadhead lore has it that the band expressed interest in returning to Memphis once the Pyramid Arena was built. With their long-time interest in mysticism, it seems understandable they would find the idea of playing in the pyramid space appealing.

07 I attended both Memphis shows and found the whole weekend to be extraordinary. For one thing, the police behaved in a fashion notably different from the way they had during the Dead's visit to Memphis in 1970. It seemed clear that there had been some direction from "high up" within the city government, as the cops just allowed the scene to unfold, all along the sidewalks of downtown streets and the banks of the river. The following fan's description of "the true spirit of the fans and the traveling drug circus community" attests to the libertarian ethos that seemed to be shared:

During the show, there were probably twice as many fans outside of the show as there were inside. The biggest party I ever saw in my life. Drugs everywhere and the police did not care, even if they did, they could not do anything. The Hippies took over the streets of Memphis. The people of Memphis loved this because there was money to be made from the thousands of fans, plus it was very exciting to be involved in the craziness. . . . The parking lot scene at this show was like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. . . . That night we went to the campsite which was right on the Mississippi River. There probably were about 5,000 or 6,000 "Heads" on the campgrounds that night. The party lasted all through the morning. The hissing sound of PSSSSSSSSSSS from the laughing gas tanks went on all through the night. They built a 20-foot bonfire in the center of the campsite, and there must have been a hundred drummers around it playing all night. They even had a disco run by portable generators. (Loftus)

Although I did not spend time at the campsite, I enjoyed the magical scene before and after the shows, dancing to impromptu drum circles and even receiving a hair wrap (colorful threads and beads embroidered into a section of my long hair) at one of the dozens of "booths" spread out along the streets of downtown.

08 On the second night, the Dead played two songs that made me feel nostalgic about home, place and youth. As the band broke into "Tennessee Jed," I was surprised to find myself singing along loudly and feeling great pride in my "home" state. And the band's playing of native Memphian Al Green's "Take Me to the River" was one of the highlights of my life. As it was, given that the Arena and the whole Deadhead scene were located along the banks of the Mississippi, the river seemed alive, an important presence adding to the weekend's energy. And that the band's video footage of this scene all along the river and downtown from earlier that weekend was playing on large screens behind the stage that night only added to the magical quality of experiencing that song. During the concert that night, I danced in the aisles of the Pyramid Arena's floor, 40 rows from the stage, until I entered an altered state of consciousness. Blissed out with the energy of the music, the dancing, the crowd, the band and the whole weekend's cumulative effect, I felt intrinsically happy. It was the quintessential moment of "Deadhead" experience for me, reflecting what I often told people when I tried to explain why I was so into the band and their scene: during the first half of the 1990s, I only felt hope for the planet (for society) at Grateful Dead shows. (This was true for quite a while, though I now have other moments and sources of inspiration for feeling hopeful about changing the world.) As David Macgregor Johnston puts it, Dead shows, with their "awesome sound" and "energy" truly inspired "ecstatic heights," providing an opportunity to "revel in the primordial unity of existence" (58).

Memphis and Slavery

09 After coming to teach at the University of Memphis, a nineteenth-century American literature professor from UC Berkeley decided to organize an academic conference on slavery, with particular consideration of the historical situation of slavery in Memphis. When she approached university and city officials with her idea, she was shocked to find that no one wanted to support the conference. They were appalled at the suggestion that any attention be drawn to this aspect of the city's history. They refused to provide any help and actively discouraged her from pursuing the conference idea. As a graduate student hearing this story, I thought, Why is there so much resistance to deal with the slave history of this city?!

10 Walter Benjamin's relationship to Paris provides an important relay for my hypertext. In treating the city of Paris as a text, "what Benjamin is concerned with," Samuel Weber clarifies, "is not simply 'the streets' of Paris but rather their relation to their 'names'" (22). "Here, as always, language for Benjamin marks a certain movement of convergence, of simultaneity, transforming what otherwise might be taken as being self-contained into a dynamic and elusive relationship to be read" (22). Such dynamism recalls Ulmer's imperative to read across discourses. Additionally, Benjamin insists upon "the unconquerable power in the names of streets, squares, or theaters, a power that endures notwithstanding all topographical displacement." [4] Acknowledging this power, we "read" the fate of the Pyramid Arena in the context of the names of its nearby streets. "[T]he task," Ulmer elaborates, "is to rethink the association of invention with place before 'place' was. . .emptied of personal and social feeling" (H 71). Thus, if Memphis' "four original town squares–-Exchange, Market, Court, and Auction—are a grim reminder of the slavery that helped build the city" ("History"), in the spirit of Ulmer and Benjamin, we ask, what feelings do they engender and what do they have to teach us? To undertake what Cohen designates as "nonmonumental historiography," one which "cannot rely on realist methods of representation" (80), our starting point is the recognition that AndrĂ© Breton had about Paris, yet transposed to Memphis: "The uncanny effects of Parisian places," Breton suggests, "derive from effaced historical memories that continue to cluster around the place of their occurrence in invisible but perceptible form" (83). Again substituting cities, this alchemical experiment seeks to reveal "the mysterious and hidden way past [Memphis] appears in the present," producing a text that "resituates the interpenetration of past and present in the soul of the [Memphian] inhabitant" (Cohen 85). Such alternative historiography clearly warrants the inclusion of the history of slavery and its status as a "ghost" of Memphis.

The Pyramid's Place within Downtown "Renewal"

11 Recent efforts to "revitalise" the downtown area of Memphis reflect a "general shift towards entrepreneurial modes of city government" (Oudenampsen) occurring the world over. In particular city officials and their business allies have sought to create "a spectacular—physical and symbolic—tourist-oriented downtown" (Silk 350). Michael Silk explains how Memphis, "a prototypical 'comeback' city," has sought a neoliberal strategy where "the previously decaying remnants of the industrial city are renovated into branded consumption spaces for (suburban) tourists" (352; 355). Silk draws our attention to the relationship between the economic, the spatial and the representational in building efforts such as those in downtown Memphis, including the Pyramid. In the shift to "urban imagineering," we see how "city building, at its very core an activity involving capital investment and land use, is also very importantly an effort at image creation or preservation—a representation of reality" (354). These representations, whether pre-existing or new, attempt to "mobiliz[e] every aesthetic power of illusion and image in an attempt to mask the class, racial, and ethnic polarizations going on underneath" (354). Certainly the Pyramid is situated within this context. It was positioned as both a means to "economic growth" as well as a nifty element of the city's new brand identity, a positive image to counter the feeling that the city is like the step-child to the "real" and important cities in the U.S., reinforced, for example, when Memphis lost the bid to host the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum to Cleveland in 1986 (Farley). [5] The failure of the former goal—jumpstarter of the downtown economy—led to the (perceived) failure of the latter, the Pyramid as symbol of pride in the city. Hence citizens' nicknaming of the Pyramid as the "tomb of doom" metaphorically extends beyond this one building effort, as many residents have a sense of doom and negativity about the city as a whole and its political machinations in particular. Moreover, the debates about the future of the building neglect to mention the racial politics at stake; for example, the prime contender for the site, Bass Pro Sports Shop, has a shopper demographic that is overwhelmingly suburban and white. Thus, the Pyramid's creation, demise and uncertain future are part and parcel of the city's handling of its downtown in ways that encourage social and racial cleansing, a dynamic which goes unacknowledged and thereby unchallenged in narratives about urban planning in Memphis, including discussions about the fate of the Pyramid.

12 This hypertext, in contrast, brings into the conversation the class and race dimensions of local government's approach to downtown Memphis. The abandonment of the Pyramid and the subsequent construction of the FedEx Forum in another downtown area reflect the "new spatial expression of the logic of accumulation" (Silk 353). The hypertext also exposes realities about the people targeted by these new urban regeneration policies. As Silk outlines, "[T]o attract middle-class, suburban consumers back into downtown areas and lure the (corporate) tourist, specially designed, sanitized entertainment districts concentrated in small areas have emerged—physically bounded spaces that cordon off and cosset the desired visitor while simultaneously warding off the threatening native" (355). This description certainly applies to Memphis and the "renewal" of downtown. However, we need to keep in mind that there is always social struggle around the production and maintenance of all social space, including urban space. Some of this kind of struggle is evidenced in the tensions around Beale Street and the surrounding area, where many Memphians, predominantly African American, drive and hang-out; the city passed an anti-cruising ordinance for this area in 2002 which specifies fines for cars that pass the same point in a certain period of time (Thayer). It also set forth a dress code (Thayer) that bans clothing styles traditionally associated with African American subcultures. Despite such measures, cruising persists and the downtown presence of many non-white and non-middle-class individuals continues, as people not courted by "renewal" imperatives refuse to be marginalized.

Mystical Aspects of the Pyramid(s)

13 During the construction of the Pyramid Arena in the early 1990s, the local newspaper, the Memphis Flyer, broke the story that there were crystal skulls implanted at the top of the structure, reportedly of Mayan origin. According to the Commercial Appeal newspaper, the idea for a crystal skull came from Isaac Tigrett, son of original co-financier John Tigrett (Graham). The media reported then-mayor Dick Hackett's displeasure upon encountering the crystal skulls and his request for their removal. There was also some general outcry from members of the public, though many folks just saw the news of the skulls as another bizarre twist in an already labyrinthine story. [6] Another writer describes a "crystal skull time capsule" that "was retrieved within a year of the Pyramid's opening, creating both an ownership controversy and ruining the marketing surprise [the developer] had planned" (Murtaugh). Although media reports claim that the skulls have been removed, anonymous sources have revealed to our research team that there are still some crystal skulls at the top of the pyramid. Sources tell us that some city politicians belong to secret societies (in the Freemason tradition), divided along racial lines, and the crystal skulls are an attempt to exert influence and consolidate power. Crystal skulls, ancient objects of indigenous societies, are used as tools to direct energy and as channels, facilitating communications from spiritual realms and ancestors (Crystal). In Memphis, these Masonic-leaning politicians (and even one of our sources) believe that the remaining crystal skulls in the Pyramid are still "working" energetically.

14 Linking the Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee, to its iconic inspiration, the pyramids in Egypt, we can consider the spiritual purposes of the latter. In a detailed study, Jeremy Naydler argues that "the earliest corpus of ancient Egyptian religious literature—the Pyramid Texts—gives voice to a mystical tradition that has strong affinities with shamanism" (8). The purpose of his research is to add to the traditional interpretations and understanding of the messages of the Pyramids: "to show that they were also mystical texts and could—and did—serve mystical as much as funerary ends" (8). Death, a recurring theme in this evolving hypertext, is the pivotal concept in the reformulation Naydler outlines:

The reason why it was possible for these texts to be both mystical and funerary is that the realm of death, was, for the Egyptians as for so many other ancient peoples, a realm of invisible forces, powers, and beings. It was a spirit realm that existed in a more interior way than the outwardly manifest world that we perceive with our senses, but it was nevertheless regarded as completely real. (8)

Naydler's articulation encourages us to take this "spirit realm" seriously. Moreover, his effort to show another, conventionally ignored use of the Egyptian Pyramids validates our effort to think about, propose and explore other uses for the Pyramid in Memphis.

Metaphorical Resonances

15 The process of inventing and envisioning an alchemical hypertext, like the "mystory" delineated by Ulmer, involves synchronicities. For example, when I was first mulling over the possibility of a hypertext inspired by "the Pyramid" and my emotional relationship to it, and I was thinking about the various elements that could comprise its discursive levels, whilst watching a re-run of the popular syndicated television program, Will & Grace, I was struck by the following scene:

SCENE VI: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Exhibit


KAREN: Welcome to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Stanley Walker Foundation Benefit. Oh. Stanley loved ancient Egyptian culture. They invented the pyramid, [beat] which later became the pyramid scheme... A way to fool poor people into thinking that they can be rich. Oh. Enjoy your evening.

("Friends with Benefits")

Thus, Karen's characteristically sarcastic introduction to this benefit in the name of her now-thought-to-be-dead husband, Stanley Walker—notably taking place in the Egyptian area of an art museum—was the "eureka" moment (Ulmer H 140-141) that took me from "Pyramids" to "pyramid scheme" as another inflection to be registered in the text. And thus this passage from the sit-com's transcript goes into the evolving "database" of particular items potentially to be included in the hypertext. During construction of the hypertext, if any aspect of this dialogue fragment seems relevant, I will create a page that uses it. The same goes for another figurative application of "pyramid" as the shape for visualizing the grossly unequal distribution of wealth (at all levels: city, nation, and global), where those at the "top" possess most of the wealth and people with the least access to basic resources comprise the larger base, a figure which may turn out to be linkable to other levels of the hypertext.

Process / Design / Construction / Benefits

16 The process of visualizing, designing and constructing an alchemical hypertext is unique and profound. In the initial stages of planning and designing, as with a mystory, "Each part of the whole is written separately" and then "each plateau. . .is entered into the data base" and "the parts are arranged into a pattern" (Ulmer "Unthinkable"). In this process, conducting research "is more like discovery than proof" (Ulmer H 56). Presently, fragments relating to each domain of the hypertext are being gathered—images as well as snippets of text and ideas. As the alchemical hypertext producer assembles fragments from each of the discursive levels to be juxtaposed, she begins to see what Yvonne Rainer calls "points of convergence" between them (Blumenthal and Horsfield 17), that is, "the repetition[s] that appear. . .when the discourses [are] juxtaposed" (Ulmer H 143). [7] As Ulmer notes, this process involves "the cross-modal transfer and transposition across emotional sets" that is reminiscent of intuition (H 143). When we undertake "[w]riting as intuition rather than analysis," as Lisa Gye aptly puts it, we "find a direction through writing rather than writing coming 'after the fact,' so to speak" ("Halflives"). In constructing the field of his textual experiment in Heuretics, Ulmer follows "leads" and explains that when he discovers a linguistic connection among the levels of his exploration—French theory and his family history in Montana—he "knew [he] was on the right track" (51). When I learnt that the Grateful Dead formed in the year I was born (1965), I had a similar sense of confirmation of my process.

17 During this initial stage of the process, some relationships between the elements emerge and possible combinations of text and image suggest themselves. Yet the majority of the construction will come after discerning the text's thematic structure or overall organizing principle, which can be a metaphor, simulation, or connotatively rich echo through all the domains to be included. For example, Beautopia, my hypertext that considers cosmetics advertisements, the beauty industries and my autobiographical and unconscious connection to them, is organized in the form of a cosmetics "makeover." The reader-viewer proceeds through the "steps" of the "makeover," which applies both to the woman's face and to the project of "making over" society into a non-exploitative one. The Pyramid hypertext needs a similar organizing principle. Once the "frame" has been chosen, it becomes a filter, a way of determining what from the large database of items that has been amassed goes into the actual text and in which combinations. Creating collaged pages and linking them together in associative ways will then show the connections that are spelt out straightforwardly here. At that juncture, the highly imagistic nature of hypertext will come into greater play.

18 One early candidate for the frame of the Pyramid hypertext draws upon the echoes between the "the cycle of value creation and destruction in real estate" (R. Weber 521) and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as emphasized by indigenous, shamanistic cultures. Rachel Weber discusses Joseph Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction" that "captures the way in which capital's restless search for profits requires constant renewal through galelike forces that simultaneously make way for the new and devalue the old" (522). In Memphis, the city's powerful worked hard to declare obsolete the Pyramid Arena, less than a decade after its opening, and to insist that a new building was needed (the FedEx Forum) to host sporting and entertainment events. This treatment of the Pyramid demonstrates how, as Weber points out, "Obsolescence has become the neoliberal alibi for creative destruction, and therefore an important component in contemporary processes of spatialized capital accumulation" (532). In the discourse of the city government and media reports, the Pyramid itself was to blame. The context of such discursive reassignment of responsibility is economic: "Functional obsolescence is simply the spatialization of turnover time; it is time given material expression in physical space. Obsolescence takes the agency from the owner-investor-tenant and relocates it in the commodity itself" (R. Weber 533).

19 This cycle of valorization and devalorization followed by re-valorization is reminiscent of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth embraced by a shamanic orientation to spirituality. Even Rachel Weber's language brings to mind this connection when she points out that "Uneven development sets the stage for the movement of capital in the relatively fixed environment as new opportunities for value arise from the ashes of the devalued" (523; emphasis added). Although both economic and spiritual perspectives include this cycle of creation and destruction, we can question the naturalization of the former type of cycle and bring to light the other kinds of destruction, which the rampant property speculation of urban regeneration leaves in its wake. Using the birth-death-rebirth/creation-destruction-(re)creation analogy as an organizing principle for the hypertext could produce many revelations and re-evaluations of such naturalizations (including ones we have unknowingly internalized).

20 Although the overarching structural idea is not yet pinned down, the process of discovery in envisioning this hypertext has revealed many points of convergence thus far. One revolves around Egypt and the D/dead. The P/pyramid as a figure resonates with me on a deep level, although I do not as yet entirely understand the nature nor the implications of this resonance. When I was eight or nine years old in the early 1970s, I used to take out the Worldbook Encyclopedia and write "reports" for fun. The topics of these reports: first and foremost, ancient Egypt (the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Nile, the Aswan Dam and so on), and also the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inca, the Navajo, and the Pueblo. (Not coincidentally, all shamanic cultures—another link in the alchemical experiment being conducted here.) The Grateful Dead, too, have their own important associations with Egypt. Amongst the different explanations for how the Grateful Dead came up with their name are stories circulated by band members that Jerry Garcia randomly discovered the term in a dictionary one day, as well as claims that the name comes from a passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a connection which the band later took up and promoted ("Dead FAQ"). One version of the passage reads:

We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead.

—Egyptian Book of the Dead ("Dead FAQ")

It turns out that the Grateful Dead played concerts in Egypt on 14-16 September 1978, significantly at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza ("Grateful"; "The Archive"). And "dead" resonates also in the death of Jerry Garcia on 9 August 1995 (only four months after the band played the Pyramid in Memphis), an event that devastated me and thousands of fans across the country (and which, effectively, meant the "death" of the band).

Crystal Skull and Grateful Dead Skull Logo

"Two Skulls," Crystal Skull and Grateful Dead Skull Logo.

21 A related convergence is to be found in two images of skulls (See Fig. 1). On one hypertext page, I have juxtaposed an image of a crystal skull with one of the central icons of the Grateful Dead, a skull with a lightning bolt through its head ("Two Skulls"). Like Marcel O'Gorman, I am interested in how the visual materiality of (new) media enables us to use "the image as a tool for knowledge acquisition" (76). These skulls in juxtaposition "speak" to one another, with a range of possibilities for what they "say." For instance, the crystal skull invokes the idea of an ancient technology that, in its use as a tool for divination, points us toward the future. Yet from our standpoint in the present, the skull logo for the Dead—a band that no longer exists—can evoke grief and sadness for the passing of a way of life that most of us who experienced it have yet to find elsewhere. Benjamin's characterization of history resonates with this connotation of the second image: "History, in everything it displays that was from the beginning untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, expresses itself in a face—no, in a skull" (Arcades Project; quoted in Buck-Morss 161). Susan Buck-Morss summarizes Benjamin's understanding of history via the "emblem of the skull," which "can be read in two ways": "It is human spirit petrified; but it is also nature in decay, the transformation of the corpse into a skeleton that will turn into dust" (161). In their juxtaposition our two skulls have different inflections at the level of temporality; perhaps the crystal skull's simultaneous situatedness in past and future suggests some hope for the Grateful Dead skull's lament over a lost past?

22 Another "link" revealed by the juxtapositions of these various levels concerns the superceding of public property and values by private ones, as regards both the Pyramid and the Grateful Dead. In contrast to the state's previous welfare-oriented approach, "neoliberal ideology dismisses most forms of public ownership as socially and privately unproductive" (R. Weber 535). "Indeed," Weber notes, "neoliberal urban development strategies. . .have sought to privatize the city's property holdings and increase the pace at which they are acquired and subsequently disposed" (535). Both the development of the Pyramid Arena and its subsequent declared obsolescence were products of this attitude. Changes in the position of the city within the larger political economy have led to a shift in the search for sources of profit, one that reflects an increasingly greater embrace of privatization:

As the federal-grants economy that funded urban renewal efforts has been dismantled, entrepreneurial cities have sought to distance themselves from prior welfarist commitments, reclaim obsolete spaces, and find innovative ways to make costly redevelopment projects 'pay for themselves.' Devolution increased cities' dependence on own-source revenues, namely property tax revenues, which in turn made them more dependent on those that create value: the private real-estate market. Neoliberal redevelopment policies amount to little more than property speculation and public giveaways to guide the place and pace of the speculative activity. (R. Weber 537)

In short, "urban property" is a prime site "for the deep excavation of value" (537). However, as the Pyramid debacle demonstrates, "speculative risks expose the fact that control is costly in neo-liberal regimes where value in the built environment depends on the circulation of fast, fictitious money and an unruly web of politicized and marketized relationships" (537).

23 Hypertext is a medium well suited to illustrating and learning from this "unruly web." And the tensions around the neglect of previous public needs (health, safety, housing) in an increasingly privatized urban space resonate with the uproar and bitterness invoked by one of the most shocking developments within the history of the phenomenon that is the Grateful Dead: the insistence by representatives of the band's corporation that the high-quality archived recordings of the band's shows be removed from the Internet in 2005. For almost a year and a half, the Live Music Archive ( hosted "almost three thousand recordings of Grateful Dead concerts, from their goofy acid-pop beginnings in 1965 to the decayed grandeur of the end-year of 1995 and all the boundless glories in-between" (Sweeney "Requiem"). "The recordings, most of which were taken from the band's soundboards," Cullen Sweeney explains, "were freely available to all—a stunningly vast repository, a collection open and evolving" ("Requiem"). The Dead had always been a respite from the crass commercialism of every other rock-and-roll tour. In contrast to the proprietary stance of almost all other rock bands, the Dead had not only allowed taping of their performances, they had encouraged it. Jerry Garcia insisted that, "once the band was through playing the music, it belonged to the fans" (Sweeney "Requiem"). As Sweeney laments, in November 2005, at the decision of someone in the Grateful Dead organization, "All soundboard recordings were removed [from], a decision that hacked away about two-thirds of all available recordings and more than decimated the availability of sources from the band's most prime years. Audience recordings, often of markedly inferior quality, are now all that remain" ("Requiem"). Such a blatant privileging of profit was counter to the co-operative ethos of the band and its culture during its entire existence and reinstated an extensive commodification of the band's music that had been undercut by the previously widespread exchange of live Dead recordings for free. Rachel Weber's analysis of how value is extracted from the built environment in cities shows how "The contract state operates through decentralized partnerships with real-estate capitalists, and what remains of the local state structure has been refashioned to resemble the private section, with an emphasis on customer service, speed, and entrepreneurialism" (531). The Grateful Dead world, too, has been "refashioned" to exhibit a reverence for the private over the public, the commodification of control over democratic interaction.

24 Setting these different domains into juxtaposition brings into relief aspects of the relationships between them and also further illuminates the topic under investigation, in this case, our public art consultation over the fate of the Pyramid Arena. Alchemical hypertext construction relies upon the fact that "Any two systems when juxtaposed create a commentary effect in which each explains the other" (Ulmer "Unthinkable"). That is, juxtaposition produces new insights. "The effect," Ulmer points out, "is generative rather than representational: it is not that sound explains color, but that their correspondences create a pattern that produces intelligibility" ("Unthinkable"). For instance, the shamanistic component of Egyptian mysticism that is central to the analysis Naydler undertakes, the "conscious crossing of the threshold between the world of the living and the world of the dead" (8), is also a model for research, writing, and artistic practice. Ulmer observes that "this shamanistic method is still operative in the forces producing the electronic apparatus" where we want to go "into this zone between" ("Unthinkable"). "The effect of the mystory," he explains, "is to set in motion a flow across boundaries (perforations), to write across the division separating inside from outside (personal from collective, private from public)—to bring into visibility the situation of the person within the social order" ("Unthinkable"). Such a journey is a shamanic one, for not only could the shaman "cross over into the realm of the dead," uniquely, "the shaman could return again to the living and make use in this world of what had been learned from the dead" ("Unthinkable"). In the case of the Pyramid hypertext, shamanistically, we also learn from the Dead.

25 By putting the historical and political-economic context of the Pyramid Arena next to the event of the two-night Grateful Dead appearance at the venue in 1995, romanticization of the latter experience is dampened. That is, understanding the Pyramid as within the larger context of downtown Memphis' "redevelopment" in the explicitly entertainment-as-provider-of-value vein (Silk), illuminates the seeming about-face of the Memphis police force from their 1970 harshness. Although the behavior of police that April weekend at first glance looks benevolent, now we can understand the city's "understanding" and allowance—nay, even encouragement—of the scene, including parking lot and sidewalk underground sales of tapestries, T-shirts, jewelry, and food, as reflective of the city's desire and need to woo tourist-consumer dollars to the area, to re-brand downtown and sell it as a "destination" (see Silk). In 1995 after four years of operation, the Pyramid was still in need of consolidation as a viable mega-venue, to the extent that several thousand hippies scattered along the river were welcomed with open arms.

26 Examining the city's history of slavery next to the Grateful Dead Pyramid concerts also draws our attention to the racial dynamics of the entertainment events. Undeniably, attendees of the Dead shows, like most Deadheads the nation over, were overwhelmingly white. And this whiteness needs not to be apologized for in itself, but it does have to be acknowledged and learnt from. Considering this entertainment event in its racial dimension along with the economic dynamics, again, leads to important recognitions: it is hard to imagine the same benevolence of police and city officials being displayed for a parallel crowd comprised primarily of African-Americans rather than white people. In fact, dynamics around hip-hop and rap concerts in the city—traditionally attended by mostly African-Americans—reinforce this conclusion. In 1998, police hassled and ultimately arrested hip-hop artist Method Man when he signed autographs for fans on the street (Davey D) and the prohibitively expensive insurance costs for hip-hop acts continue to limit their bookings at city venues (Sheffield). Reversing the direction of reading and considering the city's slave history and struggles with race relations through the lens of the Grateful Dead has other implications. The magical, healing energies produced at Grateful Dead concerts and the near-universal experience of love and connection in the subcultures surrounding the Dead suggest possibilities for collective gathering and closeness that need to be brought to bear on the pains of the brutal slave past that Memphis and its inhabitants still carry.

27 Recall that this alchemical method is a way of writing the "unthinkable" (Ulmer), for accessing the "material unconscious" (Cohen 51). If we follow Naydler's recognition that "the possibility of certain individuals entering into a more conscious relationship with th[e] spirit realm, bridging the gap between worlds in an altered state of consciousness" (8) was the foundation of the messages of the Pyramid Texts, then writing with the Pyramid is also an invitation to explore such altered states and to bring back what is revealed to the project at hand.

28 During a meditation one day, I asked for thoughts about the P/pyramid; here is an excerpt of the response:

the pyramid is not only a powerful symbol for your home city. it was sought after as a healing tool and none of the absurd twists and turns during its building nor in its having been rejected for public uses take away its status and its ability as a healing tool. but right now, this healing capability is being ignored and is not being nurtured.

the idea to make a memorial to the hurts from slavery makes sense. whether or not it happens officially, just putting out that intention—energetically and in terms of literal communication—will have an effect and a positive one and on many levels.

your city is in pain. it operates from a sense of shame. there is a heavy energy that has not been lifted, from all the trauma of the past and especially around race divisions. of course these were most pronounced, and most encoded in public and legal ways, during the time when slavery was happening. but they have continued, and people are like walking wounded in the wake of the hurtful actions and behaviours that were the norms for so long, and the policies and behaviours now that are rooted in prior hurts and mis-seeing of people. the treating of people as less-than-human has long-lasting repercussions. the reaction of denial only serves to build up the heavy, shaming energy and to press together the grief that has no way to come to expression, to 'back it up', energetically, so that the whole city and its inhabitants function with this 'stopped up' quality, and the energy is not flowing, and so many struggles and hurtful behaviour patterns stem from that. what needs to happen is that the energy needs to be unblocked. there are those who will have a tremendous amount of fear about this energy unblocking, on the one hand because they fear losing their (falsely sensed) power (and destructive power at that), and on the other, because they fear actually feeling what is being repressed and blocked and denied. yet there are and will be those who will so appreciate efforts towards this unblocking, because they welcome the moving out of denial, and the healing that so needs to occur.

the pyramid is a symbol of hope and possibility and it is also a literal energy chamber, an alchemical chamber, that enables energetic and spiritual transformation. the pyramid can help in the literal emotional and energetic healing that needs to happen. the pyramid also itself has an energy and can be contacted. the dysfunctionalness of those who oversaw its construction and use/dis-use does not diminish its power and energetic qualities and capability. it has a life of its own, in this sense. [8]

The information from this meditation, coupled with other ideas from relevant readings, points toward thinking about and with the energetic dimension of the P/pyramid. Perhaps a performance that utilizes it is in order, as I speculate below.

Public Art, Engagement with the Collective, Collaboration, Performance

29 The danger in undertaking a public art project from the "outside" is to create an elitist intervention couched in the rhetoric of "helping others." Timothy Luke raises important questions all public artists should consider: "one wonders how fully art can respond to social situations, and why it might appeal to a sense of collective responsibility in the housing project and street" (684). We want to be thoughtful when working with people on the ground, which means first being aware of our own identity positions—e.g. race, class backgrounds, even level of formal schooling—and how these might affect our interactions with interested community members, including their perceptions of us and oppressive assumptions that we might, unawares, impose unless we are sufficiently reflexive. In this regard, this exercise in collaboration is a learning experience. Second, it means thinking through our own ideas and pre-conceptions for the project in the light of the response and suggestions that come out of the collaborative spaces we set up (both virtual and face-to-face), that is, a willingness to be flexible and revise on the go. Currently we are in the process of reaching out to several relevant artists, activists and grassroots groups in Memphis to see who is interested in collaborating and on what levels. These groups include MPACT Memphis, a coalition that in 2007 hosted a film festival and concert organized around the theme of "The Abolition of Modern Day Slavery"; a community development center in an urban neighborhood; the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center; and a local urban media arts collective.

30 Several aspects of the overall project have the potential for input and collaboration. First, there is the wiki that is in development (Tripp, this volume), which will be designed for verbal and visual contributions from interested parties, including counter-proposals for the use of the Pyramid other than the Bass Pro Shop promoted by city officials. Second, the mystorical hypertext as outlined here shall serve not only as a supplement to the wiki, but also as a trial run of a particular media arts component, a model, so that collaborators (whether artists, activists, and/or community members) can see an example of this highly imagistic, associative, personal-meets-political kind of hypertext. If participants then want to create similar hypertexts themselves, whether individually and/or collectively, they will have some idea of what this type of textuality looks like and what this form enables. If there is any desire to create other hypertexts of this sort, they can either be added as separate texts or—depending on what the group decides and how the hypertexts relate thematically—put together and linked purposefully in some fashion. Third, to complement our virtual sites, the Pyramid locale itself could host some kind of collective action—what might such an alchemically and hypertextually inspired action look like? [9]

31 Collaboration invites performance, and shamanism—an important "node" within the field of the evolving hypertext—invokes ritual. Activism invites protest and new thinking about activism specifies the form—what Steven Duncombe calls an "ethical spectacle" ("Imagine an"). Luke recommends that public artists show "how communities might organize or at least host many meaningful forms of collective action beyond those experienced as mass production or mass consumption" so as to "reawaken the enjoyments of ritual, festival, carnival for contemporary society" (683).

32 We have learnt from Naydler that the shamanic dimension of the Pyramid Texts contradicts the traditional, hegemonic belief that the texts are simply funerary in function and as a relay, Naydler recommends that we apply shamanic methods and insights to our "problem" of what to do with the Pyramid. The shamanic realm is initiatory. Similarly, we want to rework the "tomb of doom" mentality surrounding the Pyramid by appropriating the shamanic in this sense: how can the P/pyramid be used as/in a process of initiation? Initiation, Starhawk explains, is "a rite of passage leading to a fuller state of being" that always "begins with a challenge, a task that we take on" and that "becomes a journey that requires leaving a comfortable state of being for danger and risk" (xxi-xxii). Thus, we need to accept the challenge to collectively imagine alternative proposals for the use of the Pyramid Arena recognizing both the dangers such a challenge poses as well as the "fuller state of being" we seek on the other side of this shamanic journey.

33 This approach is encouraged by Ulmer's formulation of "the shaman's position" as "provid[ing] a frame within which philosophy may be rethought" (AG 232). Specifically, we attend to "the relevance of shamanism to the poststructuralist effort to displace the old categories of self" (AG 231), as the shaman in ritual experiences the self not as "writer" but as "written" (AG 231-232), and in this way provokes the realization that "much of one's thinking takes place 'outside' the 'self' and within the symbolic order" (H 181). And just as this shamanic model speaks to the social nature of subjectivity, it also makes us attend to our (collective) power to remake the social; as Starhawk points out, a shaman is "one who can restore balance and justice to a world made ill" (Twelve Wild xxii).

34 Duncombe describes an "ethical spectacle" as a progressive form of activism that values pleasure, invites participation, mobilizes desire and embraces transparency ("Imagine an"). He acknowledges that the anxieties around conventional associations of spectacle are concerned with conservative politics and fascism, yet he asserts that we can reclaim spectacle for different ends: "By insisting on popular participation in both the production and consumption of the spectacle, we can transform a political and aesthetic form used to control and channel popular desire into one that can express it" (133). Describing several examples, such as the monthly collective bicycling parades through major cities called Critical Mass, Duncombe advocates for an "open spectacle" that is "planned, guided, and artfully created, but open to modification, indeterminacy, and contingency at both the level of form and meaning" (136). Importantly, ethical spectacles, such as those created by the spoof group Billionaires for Bush, "speak to our dual desires to be entertained and to know" (149: original emphasis).

35 A shamanic approach leads us to acknowledge that "The tools of magic—the understanding of energy and the power and use of symbols, the awareness of group consciousness and of ways in which to shift and shape it—are also the tools of political and social change" (Starhawk 263). Activism and spirituality are closer in understanding than is traditionally thought; as Starhawk points out, "A demonstration or a direct action is a ritual, a conscious use of symbolic and real actions to direct energy toward an intention" (267). A source close to city politicians asserts that there is still a crystal skull at the top of the Pyramid and thus the building is still "working" energetically. This perspective is in contrast to seeing the building as purely empty and of no use, or of no value in the terms of capitalist accumulation. We need a ritual to activate its energy even more; the meditation quoted above supports this idea.

36 At the next stage of our project—and feeding back in the lessons of the alchemical hypertext, wiki exchanges and both virtual and face-to-face community interactions—we can collectively brainstorm about possibilities for this performance-ritual, perhaps even collaboratively writing out a provisional "script." Although the specific nature and structure of our ritual are yet to be determined, following the advice of Starhawk, our ritual performance shall be site- and context- specific and based upon clear intention:

In looking for structure, we might think about organic order, the structure that arises from the needs and energies of the work. Just as our muscles are formed and shaped by the work we do, so too the particular form a ritual takes is determined by our intension, by the work of transformation we hope to accomplish. (Starhawk and Valentine 167).

In thinking about what our goals might be in terms of what the process of creating the mystorical hypertext has revealed thus far, perhaps we might even go as far as occupying or producing a performance at the Pyramid. We could perform a protest or sit-in, some kind of politicized "ethical spectacle," for example, a ritual with drumming. It makes sense that now the site of protest or occupation, rather than city hall or any state/city government buildings, would be a site that epitomizes the sports-entertainment-regeneration complex, as we would be protesting its creation of exclusion and economic inequality, among other damaging effects. Such an ethical spectacle in the form of a shamanic collective ritual would be a part of the negotiation over the privatization of formerly public realms, including battles over space and property. And that context suggests that our performance could also be a riff on the way that folks in New Orleans were shuttled off to the Superdome, calling attention to the politics of these spaces in a more general sense as well. Proceeding hypertextually, the associative ideas continue...


[1] Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (1994), H hereafter. Two of Ulmer's other books, Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys (1985) and Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (1989) are abbreviated AG and T throughout.

[2] Still untitled, the hypertext will be published at: «».

[3] In her discussion of Walter Benjamin's relationship to Marxism(s), Cohen distinguishes between the critic's understanding of the "material unconscious" and the "collective unconscious" (51). "Material unconscious" applies to the process Benjamin undertakes, reminiscent of the project of André Breton in Nadja to "displace a psychoanalytic account of the unconscious toward the forces of material determination at issue in Marxism" (60).

[4] From Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project Notebook P, cited in S. Weber p.22 (Weber's translation).

[5] As Wikipedia reports about the controversial city choice:

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was created in 1983. However, it had no home. The search committee considered several cities, including Memphis (home of Sun Studios and Stax Records), Cincinnati (home of King Records), New York, and Cleveland. Cleveland lobbied hard to be chosen, citing the facts that one-time Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed is widely credited with promoting the new genre (and the term) of "rock and roll," and that Cleveland was the location of the first rock and roll concert. Civic leaders in Cleveland pledged $65 million in public money to fund the construction. A petition drive was signed by 600,000 fans favoring Cleveland over Memphis, and a USA Today poll which Cleveland won by 100,000 votes. The Hall of Fame Board voted to build the museum in Cleveland.

Although there is some debate among music fans over why Cleveland ended up being chosen, most industry professionals agreed that it is because the city offered the best financial package. As Plain Dealer music critic Michael Norman noted, "It wasn't Alan Freed. It was $65 million... Cleveland wanted it here and put up the money." From "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame". The quotation is from Christopher John Farley's Time magazine article, "Forever Rockin'."

[6] For the entire saga, see the three-part article by Louis Graham, "Pyramid Dreams, Pyramid Schemes."

[7] I borrow the phrase, "points of convergence," from Yvonne Rainer's description of one section of Terrain, a dance her group performed in the mid-sixties:

We learned the story independently and learned the sequence of movements, and I had no predetermined notion of where the movement would mesh with the image. There were lines like "My grandfather told me that his grandmother baked huge round cookies; and, whatever animal my father asked for, my great-grandfather could quickly bite the cookie into that shape." Of course, whatever shape the dancer's body was in then or traversing, you were immediately able to make this connection. With the coherence but also the diversity of detail in these stories, I had no doubt that there would be points of convergence that would make themselves manifest to the audience. Sure enough, there were. (Blumenthal and Horsfield 17; emphasis mine)

Like mystorians, Rainer and her dance company eschew "predetermined notions" and allow the connections to emerge in process.

[8] Meditation 23 February 2007. In meditations about mystorical topics, I ask a question and write what comes in response, which is always in the second person, in lower-case italics, and in a particular font, in this case, Garamond. (The British English reflects my having spent most of recent years in London doing research and writing.)

[9] I have long been interested in the application of Ulmerian principles and methodology to activism. For a description of a pedagogical experiment involving Ulmerian hypertext projects in courses I taught on Media Activism, and an analysis of the endeavour's theoretical and political implications, see Sullivan "Resistance through Hypertext: ACTing UP in School."

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