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Making Mischief in the Modern World

Kembrew McLeod

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eBook - ePub


Making Mischief in the Modern World

Kembrew McLeod

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About This Book

From BenjaminFranklin's newspaper hoax that faked the death of his rival to Abbie Hoffman’sattempt to levitate the Pentagon, pranksters, hoaxers, and con artists have causedconfusion, disorder, and laughter in Western society for centuries. Profilingthe most notorious mischief makers from the 1600s to the present day, Pranksters explores how “pranks” are part of a long tradition of speaking truth to powerand social critique.

Invoking such historical and contemporary figures as P.T. Barnum,Jonathan Swift, WITCH, The Yes Men, and Stephen Colbert, Kembrew McLeod showshow staged spectacles that balance the serious and humorous can spark importantpublic conversations. In some instances, tricksters have incited social change(and unfortunate prank blowback) by manipulating various forms of media, fromnewspapers to YouTube. For example, in the 1960s, self-proclaimed “professionalhoaxer” Alan Abel lampooned America’s hypocritical sexual mores by usingconservative rhetoric to fool the news media into covering a satirical organizationthat advocated clothing naked animals. In the 1990s, Sub Pop Recordsthen-receptionist Megan Jasper satirized the commodification of alternativemusic culture by pranking the New YorkTimes into reporting on her fake lexicon of “grunge speak.” Throughout thisbook, McLeod shows how pranks interrupt the daily flow of approved informationand news, using humor to underscore larger, pointed truths.

Written in an accessible, story-driven style, Pranksters reveals how mischief makers have left their shocking, entertaining, andeducational mark on modern political and social life.

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NYU Press

This Is the Dawning of the Age of Enlightenment … and Pranks

Pulling a prank is like throwing a rock in the pop-culture pond. Observing the ripple effect can help us better understand how the modern world was formed—though that raises the question of why modernity has been so tangled up in trickery. The short answer is that media technologies made it easier to misrepresent reality. Through tape editing, 1940s radio producers could add applause, cut out risqué jokes, and place laughs over ones that bombed. This shifted recordings away from being a fairly straightforward “record” of a performance, opening the doors to all kinds of studio trickery. “Magnetism itself may be a universal truth,” Greg Milner observes in Perfecting Sound Forever, “but magnetic recording taught music to lie.” The invention of photography created other blind spots, largely stemming from the privileged role that vision plays in our society (seeing is believing, after all). “Photography allows us to uncritically think,” documentarian Errol Morris argues. “We imagine that photographs provide a magic path to the truth.” What we can’t see is the process that led to their creation, from unconscious decisions about image composition to calculated, staged hoaxes. Moving back further in time, the printing press created radically new ways of consuming information. By the 1600s, an increasingly literate public was interpreting texts without the intervention of a priestly authority. This new media environment muddled the epistemological question—“How do we know what we know?”—by pushing many people to sputter, “Are we really sure we truly know what we think we know?”1
Jean Hardouin, for example, was fairly certain that everything everyone else knew was a lie. This Jesuit scholar, who lived from 1646 to 1729, wrote a head-spinning magnum opus titled Ad Censuram Scriptorum Veterum Prolegomena. It asserted that the vast majority of classical Greek and Roman art, coins, and written histories were outright fabrications. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a shadowy network of atheistic pagans planted forged archival documents in monastic libraries. Hardouin claimed that this cabal was led by Severus Archontius, a dastardly fellow who pulled the strings from behind the scenes. In order to undermine the faith of believers, his followers subtly altered early Christian writings and mixed them with blasphemous counterfeit documents that were attributed to Church fathers. Hardouin insisted that only the works of Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Cicero, and some—but not all—of Homer’s and Virgil’s writings were authentically ancient. The writings of Plato and Aristotle? Augustine’s Confessions? The Hebrew text of the Old Testament? All fakes! While these ideas might seem a bit deranged, Hardouin did have a sharp mind and was revered for his erudite writings on the classical world. He was no crackpot fringe figure.
The Jesuit scholar’s revisionist history was a desperate attempt to tame the contradictory range of ideas that erupted from print culture. Hardouin reacted to this information overload by forging order out of chaos, an impulse that continues to this day. His ideas are nearly identical to contemporary conspiracy theories—which can be understood as explanatory narratives that arise in response to a complex, unstable world. English professor Harold Love whimsically suggests that this pioneering conspiracy theorist can also be remembered as an early modern media theorist—one whose writings foreshadowed the work of a more significant Jesuit scholar named Walter J. Ong. “Hardouin regarded the period when religious knowledge had been transmitted largely through the oral medium as in every way preferable to the age of print,” Love writes, “and would have liked to see it return.” He wasn’t the only one. Christian theology had been shared for thirteen centuries in an unbroken line from pope to pope, believer to believer, through the living imitation of Christ. This spoken-word tradition ensured ideological stability because communication could be directly surveilled and managed by Church authorities. Then came those satanic forgers and the diabolical printing press—a menace to faith and the first weapon of mass deception. Three decades before Hardouin was born, the printing press played a key role in spreading a satire that caused a massive amount of prank blowback after a small group of rabble-rousing Protestants invented a fictitious secret society. It cast a long shadow over the Jesuit’s imagination and, for that matter, modernity itself.2


The modern era was ushered in by a prank. In 1614, a mysterious tract appeared in Kassel, Germany, announcing the existence of an Invisible College of mystical adepts. Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis, or “The Fame of the Brotherhood of the Rose Cross,” told the tale of a man named Christian Rosencreutz. Among other things, he acquired ancient insights from Muslim scholars (Islamic knowledge began seeping into Christian Europe beginning in the twelfth century, bringing alchemy and astrology with it). Rosencreutz founded the Brotherhood in 1408, and it met yearly in the mysterious “House of the Holy Spirit.” The trope of a young Christian who traveled east and gained new wisdom was not uncommon within the popular culture of the time, though the story of a hero’s journey and homecoming has much older roots in myth. Within that context, Fama clearly reads like an allegory, though that didn’t stop many people from taking it literally. This first tract—combined with an anonymous 1615 pamphlet titled Confessio Fraternitatis and 1616’s The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz—formed the core of what became known as the “Rosicrucian Manifestos.” These documents claimed that the Brothers of the Rose Cross were engineering a coming Golden Age that would transform all existing political and religious institutions. Not only could these men bring about global utopian harmony; they could make themselves disappear! Readers who wanted to meet a Brother were told that if they concentrated really, really hard, one would probably drop by for a visit.3
The Fama manuscript initially circulated in rarified circles, stimulating thoughtful debate and contemplation. The published version, which took the prank public, was reframed as a full-blown politico-religious diatribe that downplayed the original’s subtlety. It blew up like a massmediated bomb. This had the comical effect of sending people scrambling in search of an invisible fraternity, even though Fama clearly made the hippy-dippy claim that one could only realize the true nature of the Brotherhood by looking deep within oneself. The authors of the Rosicrucian Manifestos were primarily drawn to esoteric learning, science, and technology. They also shared an irreverent or outright hostile attitude toward Catholicism—a belligerence that was on display in the first published edition of the manifesto. It was paired with a popular satirical essay called The General Reformation of the Whole World (whose title echoed a line from Fama, which promised “a general reformation, both of divine and human things”). It further stoked partisan passions by including a report about a man, Adam Haselmeyer, who was incarcerated by Jesuits for commenting on the original Fama manuscript. The second manifesto, 1615’s Confessio Fraternitatis, made it even clearer that the Brotherhood stood against the papacy. This had the catalytic effect of splitting public opinion down religious lines: Catholics blasted these heretics, while others sought to join, claimed they were already members, or knew someone who was.4
What started out as a playful experiment in publicity transformed into a powerful, history-making myth. The Rosicrucian Manifestos rocked Europe by triggering a highly charged set of cultural, religious, and political associations. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many German thinkers were in the thrall of millenarian and messianic thought. Protestants had long been waiting for a redeemer figure who would complete the work of the Reformation and banish the papacy’s “evil empire.” The start of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 exacerbated Catholic anxieties about the Rosicrucians, who were thought to be Protestant supermen intent on conquering Europe. Germanic states were consumed by a power struggle between the political powers connected to the Catholic Church and the popularly elected Frederick V of the Palatinate, who was associated with Protestant England. Some Protestants found their savior in Frederick V, whose heraldic animal was the lion—an important signifier that circulated within the popular culture of that time. (Confessio Fraternitatis, for instance, had previously declared that the pope “shall be scratched to pieces with nails, and end be made of his ass’s cry, by a new voice of a roaring lion.”) In 1623, a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter formed the sign of Leo, which was seen as an omen at a time when astrology was enjoying greater cultural currency. With Leo the Lion roaring high in the sky, a second wave of panic about the Rosicrucians swept the land.5
Reports from the period spoke of a “hurricane” of excitement, both pro and con, whipped up by this imaginary secret society. The Catholic Church insisted that the Rosicrucians were devil worshipers (whose promise of enlightenment was clear evidence of a diabolical agenda). The Brotherhood’s self-proclaimed shape-shifting abilities let them infiltrate political and religious institutions, and their interest in “natural philosophy”—a precursor to modern science—was assumed to be wicked bait used to twist the minds of Christians. The lines between occultism, esoteric knowledge, and natural philosophy were quite blurry in this era. Even Sir Isaac Newton spent more time on alchemy than on gravitational science, and he was also a proponent of “natural magic.” This term referred to a rational understanding of nature’s laws that could help reveal the workings of God’s universe (Fama claimed that “in Theology, Physics, and the Mathematics, the Truth doth manifest itself”). René Descartes was rumored to be a Rosicrucian, something he famously had to deny. Nevertheless, the mathematician was excited enough to write in his notes about “the distinguished brothers of the Rose Croix in Germany.” Descartes sought after them in 1619, but it was a fruitless quest. As the manifestos instructed, one could only find a Brother by entering a world of imagination or a new consciousness. As the Beatles sang, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” (Appropriately enough, The Alchemical Wedding was the title of an infamous 1968 performance art “happening” by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who spent the entire show hidden inside a large bag.)6
The Rosicrucian Brotherhood wasn’t the only fantasy flowering at the time. Interest in Atlantis was being rekindled by Europe’s encounters with the New World, prompting people to float all sorts of wild theories about the lost continent. Most imaginative was a professor named Olof Rudbeck, who insisted that its ruins could be found in … Sweden! His three-thousand-page tome Atlantica grew more bizarre with each turn of each page, and it provoked ridicule from his Uppsala University colleagues. One snapped, “In theology as well as jurisprudence, as well as medicine, chemistry, philosophy, Herr Rudbeck knows nothing.” The nutty professor responded to this accusation in the fall 1679 lecture catalog by announcing a brand new class. “Olof Rudbeck is going to treat his listeners to a very useful, very intricate, and very subtle subject that is never praised enough: Nothing.” University administrators (who aren’t known for their senses of humor, then and now) were not amused by Rudbeck’s “tasteless gesture.” However, he was revered by England’s Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, whose journal published a glowing review of Atlantica. He was invited to join this esteemed group, but Rudbeck was far too busy with his important work to bother responding. The Royal Society’s interest in his research was partly rooted in the fact that its guiding spirit, Francis Bacon, wrote a classic utopian essay titled The New Atlantis—which was steeped in Rosicrucian thought. Fantastical ideas about Atlantis were later embraced by nineteenth-century occult revivalists such as the Theosophists, who were also influenced by the Rosicrucian Manifestos.7
Some incredulous observers believed that the entire Rosicrucian affair was nothing more than a hoax. “The invisibility of the Brothers, their apparent refusal to give any sign of their existence to their disciples,” Frances Yeats writes in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, “naturally encourages this view.” Despite the manifestos’ shadowy origins, some consensus has formed about who authored them. A radical German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae later confessed to writing The Chymical Wedding, and he was also the probable author of Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis. (Andreae was twenty-three when the latter was published, though he wrote it a few years earlier when he was in college.) The fact that Fama began as a handwritten manuscript, rather than a printed document, indicates that he did not initially intend it for general consumption. It circulated privately among a handful of university classmates and professors, but by 1610 it spread outside their orbit. Differences in handwriting and changes in the text suggest that Fama passed through many hands before it came to the attention of the Jesuits. Authorities soon began arresting “adherents of the same sect … to prevent the spread of their heresies.” In response, a provocateur printed a mass-produced version, and that’s when all hell broke loose. The relatively new technology of the printing press was key to the prank’s success, especially because Fama invited “all of the scholars and rulers of Europe” to “declare their minds in print.” In a stroke of marketing genius, no return address was given. European intellectuals tried their best to attract the Brotherhood’s attention, and within a dozen years imitators (and detractors) produced several hundred pamphlets, books, and broadsides—an astounding amount for the period.8
Andreae characterized what he did as a youthful “ludubrium,” or a joke with a serious objective. In his autobiography, he expressed shock that people took his parody seriously, claiming that the Chymical Wedding was intended to trap the credulous. Andreae explicitly used theatrical and gaming metaphors to talk about his prank—describing how he wrote the script, set the scene, and watched the drama unfold. “When … some on the literary stage were arranging a play scene of certain ingenious parties, I stood aside as one who looks on,” he recalled. “As a spectator, it was not without a certain quality of zest that I beheld the battle of the books and marked subsequently an entire change of actors.” By wrapping Fama’s cry for spiritual revolt in a dramatic tale about a quest and discovery, it pulled a curious public even further into this web of intrigue. Andreae hoped this theatrical game would encourage people to be more accepting of new ideas about science, philosophy, and spirituality. But by 1619, he grew exasperated. “Listen ye mortals,” Andreae advised, “in vain do you wait for the coming of the Brotherhood, the Comedy is at an end.” He also called it the “parent of all follies.” Despite those fair warnings, many people continued to believe that this Invisible College was quite real. Five years after Fama’s publication, Andreae noted that the Brotherhood was now a “fantasy” that had become “the heart and scandal of occultism” in his time. The pranksters lost control of the narrative, and the resulting furor ended up obscuring their intended message. It was the first in a long line of pranks that took on a life of their own, going viral in ways the original authors/actors/directors never intended.9
Tensions rose in Paris after a series of mysterious placards appeared in 1623. “We, being deputies of the principal College of the Brothers of the Rose Cross,” one sign declared, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “are making a visible and invisible stay in this city through the Grace of the Most High.” The posters mocked the occult backlash that was sweeping Europe, especially in the French capital, and it inspired several sensational publications. Horrible Pacts Made between the Devil and the Pretended Invisible Ones claimed there were thirty-six Invisible Ones who ruled the planet (six international groups each contained six deputies, six of whom came to Paris to spread their devilish...

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Citation styles for Pranksters
APA 6 Citation
McLeod, K. (2014). Pranksters ([edition unavailable]). NYU Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
McLeod, Kembrew. (2014) 2014. Pranksters. [Edition unavailable]. NYU Press.
Harvard Citation
McLeod, K. (2014) Pranksters. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
McLeod, Kembrew. Pranksters. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.