Whole mind emulation

The music of Jandek has been described as "a 33-volume suicide note" but is it really more than that, the simulacrum for the post-war citizen defined by externalities?

Jandek is an expression of the core validity of a theory of semantic externalism; an artist can try, but rarely will succeed in defining their iconography, the language used to interpret their work, etc. it will be defined by externalities, and in the case of Jandek, the projection of an entire mythos onto his minimally-defined character to begin with.

In 2011, at the Menil Collection in Houston, TX I had the opportunity to see Jandek perform on the rare cold evening, right before I went home for the holidays. I don’t think I fully got it at the time— I was the guest of a friend who was a fan, but declined to share anything of his music with me beforehand, but admittedly it was transfixing. As I left, I was walking along the exterior hedges of the gallery, which were blocking the glass-walled back office. Sitting alone, sitting motionless, slouching in a white chair, with his arms crossed and wide-brimed hat lowered over his eyes, which were fixed on a plated sandwich on the table in front of him, was Jandek. I held onto this memory for a long time, because it didn’t make sense to me as performance—and while it was probably still schtick, he probably didn’t even know anyone could see him, or what he was projecting as himself-, and I didn’t get how anyone who had played to a packed gallery, dozens of people sitting on the floor after the seats were filled, simply just exuded this energy of being a complete non-entity, it was as if he wasn’t really there.

That Jandek is seemingly, the more I learned, an entirely separate entity from Sterling Smith, the named operator of Corwood Industries, is telling about how this art has manifested— almost like an astral projection of who only can communicate the sound of one’s own brain. It’s dissonant, it’s a little scary, it’s disorienting, but it’s also coherent— you understand what you’re hearing when you hear the blues, albeit in a form consistent with the post-war century, and now being experienced by a new generation of fans experiencing their own post-modern experience of growing up in the shadow of the American hegemon, where a “fight or flight” reflex has been replaced by the awareness that you’re only looking at a simulacrum of citizenship, and that you, in some form or another, can become something, or someone, else.

Though the consensus among critics is that Donald Davidson’s Swampman thought experiment fails on varying levels, I think its applications to outsider art are pretty useful; in said experiment, “we are asked to imagine a situation in which a lightning strike in a swamp reduces Davidson’s body to its basic elements, while simultaneously transforming a nearby dead tree into an exact replica of him. Although the resulting ‘Swampman’ behaves exactly like the original author of ‘Radical Interpretation’, Davidson denies that the ‘Swampman’ could properly be said to have thoughts or its words have meaning – and the reason is simply that the Swampman would lack the sort of causal history that is required in order to establish the right connections between itself, others and the world that underpin the attribution of thought and meaning.”— Jandek is something of an example of this experiment, however, the aeriform nature of the physical universe is explained by the internal understanding of intuitive mechanics: “We can’t deny there are spirits in this house / You shut the door, the wind closes two more” sings Jandek in Down In a Mirror. The biography of Sterling/Jandek, I believe, mirrors this almost instinctual structuralism to a certain extent as well—seeking an outlet, Sterling pens several novels, all rejected by New York publishers (noted as one of the few biographical details known about him), clearly identifying prose as the “wrong” outlet, instead he becomes a folk artist, and in some ways, something of a folklore figure of Houston, TX in the process.

The legend of the man, himself, is almost this interesting kind of audience participation; many know his name, birthdate, he performs live regularly, so they know what he looks like, but for many years, the man on the album covers was merely suspected of being Jandek, ditto his government name used in documents re: his first album. Experiences like my own are, evidently, not uncommon— people collect these memories, a sort of oral tradition, since minimal audio record exists of them, but many, myself included, remember sonic indicators when they resurface. The interesting thing to me is that because so little is known about him as a man, fans project this mythology onto the man— the simulacrum, this construction of Jandek, takes on a life of its own, and, as with any simulacrum, it might share its creators brain and experiences, but one’s character, under different circumstances, even the same circumstances, given multiple chances to act on the same feeling, become unpredictible.

“[Years later]. . . Jandek is still here . . . And his detractors, well, they all work for Sony now, don’t they?” — C. Coon, Yet Another Fanzine, from Irwin Chisud’s Songs in the Key of Z

In The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer, the protagonist Dr. Peter Hobson is faced with a cascading series of metaphysical concerns as a result of his research into life after death— he can establish that something happens (the “soul wave” leaving the body at the moment of death, a visible and provable phenomenon) but can’t say why or how. Hobson, also, at one point, decides to transfer his consciousness into three simulacra—one of pure intellect, one of pure feeling of immortality, and one of simply Peter’s experienced up to the point of the experiment- and while running “in the background” they are given access to the Internet and, while Peter believes himself incapable of these things, the desire exists, and one of the 3 becomes a murdered through the ability of an imagined-future (the novel was written in 1995, takes place in 2011) Internet. When presented with this complexity, and how the plot evolves, Hobson is left with the conclusion that he’s arrived at what is known as Hobson’s choice; a real world application of the problem described in the book originating with Englishman named Thomas Hobson (no relation), when faced with a problem with many potential answers, a realization emerges that there was only ever really one choice—Dr. Hobson is left with only the decision to unpack his own psyche to understand the actions of the guilty simulacra and stop it, but the question of who he is, what he becomes, given the right circumstances is what ultimately drives the plot; where an action becomes possible, the threat becomes perceivable by those around him.

The book centers heavily on the idea that a neural network— algorithms that surface and interpret relationships between the data processed by said algorithm in an attempt to understand the way the human brain functions (something not at all well-understood, highly experimental, not very successful so far)- can be successfully rendered from a human brain; the technological feasibility is less the point of the novel than the idea that this action, itself, would carry untold amounts of metaphysical implications about how human nature, not just the human brain, functions.

A secondary theme of the novel is, like I referenced early, the Swampman experiment, which poses the philosophical problem that “My replica can't recognize my friends; it can't recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place.” says Davidson. The relevance here is what if this reconstitution were only substance? Does this violate the principle of the experiment, or does it expand on it by supposing that one can never truly predict how one’s own self would choose to act or rationalize a course of events, even if the knowable parts of one’s beliefs and impulses are shared between the control and the clone. What influences this divergence? Society? Experience? The self simply responding differently when an impulse is triggered?


  • from “Same Road”

Irwin Chusid, when writing on Jandek, in Songs in the Key of Z says:

“What Garth did for country,Jandek could do for suicide hotlines…His album covers reflect visual entropy: the front usually sports an out-of-focus, black-and-white snapshot of Jandek’s expressionless face, or maybe aguitar or a piece of furniture; the text-only back covers list song titles, timings,and the label mailing address, but are otherwise devoid of liner notes, person-nel, lyrics, or useful clues. Jandek has never issued a press kit and has neverperformed in public. He rejects all requests for interviews. They found the Unabomber, but Jandek remains at large.”

This is all to imply something about Jandek—a man without any real character, because we know so little about him, and the persona lives apart from Sterling- that almost rises to the level of ideology, something Chusid implies “primitivism” would be reductive to attach to Jandek. If you want to get in touch with Jandek, or (get this), pay him money to perform, “Corwood has a post office box and a phone book entry.” I won’t say this is a construction or performance as much as it is letting the public define this character more than Sterling ever would care to— we, consumers, are the (distributed) neural network in this case, just like any cult fandom might be, doing the labor of processing and interpreting what any of this is supposed to mean because, well, all we have are innuendos and raw information about what is literally happening in the recordings and on stage. In this way, Jandek is not a construction, or a simulacrum, of Sterling, but of his fans and how they consume the parsimonious biographical data and spin that into a complete mythology. This is doubly fascinating because, as one Jandek fan site moderator puts it, “Smith is pouring a lot of money into a deep dark hole” and fans, just as much energy into seeking the resources out. Richie Unterberger writes:

When it comes to idiot savants with mystique, no one can beat Jan-dek...who has self-released over two dozen albums featuring spooky,slightly demented stream-of-consciousness rambling and guitar play-ing which rarely strays from s et notes and chords, none of which pickout anything close to a melody. His voice can range from a hushedwhisper to a Janovian primal scream; unsettlingly, he hardly evermines the wide territory between those extremes. Sometimes the gui-tar is acoustic, like a deathbed Neil Young; sometimes he sounds likethe 13-year-old who’s just gotten his first electric for his Bar Mitz-vah.... The albums are issued in plain sleeves with no liner notes, andenigmatic cover photos with a ll the attention to framing and focus ofthedo-it-yourselfstallsatWoolworth’s.

For a guy with virtually no publicity, that’s a lot to dredge out of the stream of releases and live performances.

Chusid tells a story about contacting Jandek via Corwood:

Two weeks later, Sterling Smith called. He rambled in a halting monotone,his speech punctuated byaposiopesis(the sudden breaking off in mid-sentenceas if the speaker is unwilling or unable to continue). I asked questions; hegaveobliqueanswers.He wouldn’t explain what he did for a living.He’d pressed one thousand copies of Ready for the House—and sold two. He’d recorded enough material for ten albums and hoped to release them all. He’d writtenseven novels, but after they’d been rejected by New York publishers, he’d burned the manuscripts. He had no friends, but didn’t seem concerned.


A deranged loner had my phone number and home address.

He goes onto explain that this basically concluded with helping distribute pressings of the album, which turned into a friendship, wherein correspondence remained oblique, but more focused, like his lyrics, on the people and things around him than his experience of them, the relationship dynamics he observes. However, as much as one can glean of the man from these exchanges, Sterling Smith makes clear how Jandek, Corwood, and the whole construction is to appear, as a separate self defined by others, rather than himself, as seen in this response to a request for an interview:

This is what I mean when this is a simulation of the sort of character or depiction of himself Jandek is supposed to be, and what is meant by it being shaped by the audience; Smith is aware that this projection of himself shares his body, his visage, potentially even all this thoughts and feelings, but his actions and the actions and worldviews the audience believes him capable of are beyond all control.

This framework, this understanding of how serving a fandom works, speaks to the core criticism of thought experiments like the Swampman, but also to its core premise, that intuition about one’s actions and motives and beliefs lack utility when there’s a sufficient distance between the theorhetical world where this occurs and the real one. The problem is that this distance has never truly existed; sure we don’t have clones, but simulacra have existed in some metaphysical form or another, if not literally, for many years.



Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

The CIA's Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A 'Poisoner In Chief'

Booting from a Vinyl Record

The Strange Case of Jandek

What Does RISC and CISC mean in 2020?

The Birth of Unix with Brian Kernighan

Habibti Please - Episode 10, Noam Chomsky

The Code That Controls Your Money

Art You Can’t Get To

Jandek, John Trubee Interview

As always, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@jmarhee), Mastodon (@jmarhee@cybre.space), or via email at strangeattractors@krebstar.biz.