Is there a Mr Kaplan In the Building?

From the Virtual Institution to Virtually Nothing.

Joe Coleman

'Anyone who looked upon the ruins of the tower was believed to forget everything they ever knew'

In his book The New York Trilogy Paul Auster makes the point that the myth of the tower of Babel, in the Juda-Christian tradition, is the last myth before history kicks in (following this incident in genesis the history of the Jewish people begins to unfold as a chronicle of the Hebrews). The myth of Babel stands as 'the last image before the true beginnings of the world'. In the myth of the fall Adam was entrusted with the naming of the animals, he spoke things into existence, after the fall language divided man from nature. The words and the things, which were previously synonymous, became detached from their physical manifestations, but still before the fall of Babel: 'the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech'

Three characters: The kaplan, The Dupe and the Trickster.

Who is Kaplan ?
In Hitchcock's North by North West Roger O. Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is mistaken by the soviets for a CIA agent named George Kaplan.
Kaplan has been invented by the CIA as a front, to draw attention from the activities of the real CIA operatives and from their true strategies. The CIA go to elaborate lengths to validate the existence of Kaplan; booking him into hotels, pressing his suites, buying him plane tickets &c, but Kaplan remains illusive. In the minds of the soviet spies Kaplan becomes their nemesis, the master spy who knows too much and who must be killed. As Thornhill gets drawn into the world of espionage he in some way becomes Kaplan. For the soviets he becomes Kaplan because he claims to know nothing, which Kaplan would claim to do, and he becomes Kaplan for the CIA because he ends up fulfilling their mission for them . The Kaplan is therefore always in some way a secret agent; his agency is in connecting people with their desires or fears. The Kaplan is never a real individual but is given semblance and agency by those who desire or fear him. The Kaplan exists, like God and money, because he needs to exist.

The Kaplan figure appears again in the movie The Usual Suspects. Here The Kaplan goes by the name of Keyser Soze. Kysar Soze is a master criminal who rules the underworld with fear, his connections are multifarious from the cheap street hustler to the international criminal cartels. His domain acts as a sort of anti government, he has equal power and influence and his power and influence run parallel to it. But the tale of Keyser Soze is hogwash, a labyrinthian runaround told by an informant who, for the price of the tale, walks away free. He disappears and proves as illusive and mysterious as Keyser Soze himself. The informant fills in the empty space created by Kyser Soze. So why did the cops buy into the Keyser Soze story? Perhaps because the colossal figure of Keyser Soze orders crime and because a fear or desire is more endurable if it is given a name.

Dorothy's dog Toto pulled back the curtain which revealed the Wizard of Oz (our third Kaplan). It turns out that the all powerful Wizard is nothing more than a Kansas snake water salesman. But to give the snake water salesman his due he did supply the Lion with courage, the Tin Man with a heart and the Scarecrow with brains ( even if they were placebos) Again The Kaplan is an agent who acts as intermediary between The Dupe and their desire.

The kaplan is never far away from the Trickster, con artist and snake water salesman. But how can the Trickster call into existence The Kaplan that 'works', that fulfils the desire of the Dupe ?
In David Mamet's House of Games the con artist maintains that the confidence trickster gives confidence . Perhaps only for a moment confidence is transferred; this is more valuable than the money, the car keys and the mortgage deeds on the poker table because there is a moment when the dupe is in control, which is why the inveterate Dupe will always be back for more. Unlike Dostoyevsky's Gambler (who gambled, we are told, to lose) Mamet's gambler or Dupe risks everything because he is in love with the thing he cannot have, he is in love with the promise of having it.


One object:The MacGuffin.

"...and once you get what you want, you'll only want what you can't have.."

The Kaplan is the agent to The MacGuffin.
In the Graham Green book Our Man in Havana the hero, an operative for British Intelligence,wants to continue the comfortable life he had made for himself in pre-revolutionary Cuba. He takes the plans of the interior of a vacuum cleaner and pretends that they are plans for a weapon of a foreign power. The plans are The MacGuffin, they excite the desires of those that wish it to be true.
The MacGuffin is a nebulous desire which is given form, which is framed, by The Kaplan. In the mind of the Dupe the MacGuffin becomes an actual object of desire. Circumstantial evidence is often more than enough to put The Dupe at ease, to give a motivation to The Dupe to pursue their desire.


"Mirrors and copulation are an abomination because they increase the number of men."

I'm describing a hole around a very apt allegory. In Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges a group of individuals set about creating an invented country called Uqbar. They insert a number of pages about the country into a real encyclopaedia, it is left there to be discovered, it burns like a slow fuse eventually entering the consciousness of people as a real place. The project is expanded into the construction of an entire planet. In the end the narrator encounters artifacts from Tlon, some cones made of an unfamiliar metal which are small but incredibly heavy. These cones, with the diameter of a button, make a deep indentation in the skin of his palm. Tlon has taken on a real substance and the narrator warns us that soon: 'the world will be Tlon'



It might be argued that the mercenary artisan Daedalus ( the builder of the first labyrinth) was the first artists/trickster.There is also a story of artists playing tricks on each other in Pliny (61-113 ad) Here two artists compete to make the thinnest line possible: one creeps into the other's studio and draws a thin line within the boundaries of an already impossibly thin line. This painting survived for several centuries as a curiosity, and arguably the first consciously minimalist art work, in Ceaser Trajan’s Palace.
In Boccaccio's (1313-1375) Decameron we meet the two artists/tricksters Bruno and Buffalmacco *. They are portrayed by Boccaccio as very contemporary figures, urbane, confident, holding an ambiguous social status, adapting well to the social changes within an increasingly secularised Florentine society. They contrast starkly with Giotto who, long since dead at the time of Boccaccio's writing, is depicted reverentially as monkish; our tricksters are materialistic, opportunistic and fly by comparison.
The Trickster's Dupe is the painter Calandrino* who is tricked into believing that in the area of Nomansland – where you would find a mountain made of Parmesan cheese, a goose for the price of a penny (and a gosling thrown in free), streams of wine and vines tied up with sausages – there are also some magic stones which make their owner invisible. The tricksters convince Calandrino that he could help himself to the coins from the money changers tables if only he was holding the stone of invisibility. They make the trip and Calandrino collects a bag full of stones . The tricksters then pretend not to see Calandrino who assumes that one of the stones in his bag must be the stone of invisibility, he then takes the arduous journey home and walks through Florence without being acknowledged by the gate keepers or a single inhabitant of the city ( they all knew about the joke, of course). The spell is finally broken by Calandrino's wife, because as the tricksters explained, wives cause magical things to lose their virtue and Calandrino should have instructed his wife to cover her face when he returned.

(* Buffelmaccio's frescoes can still be seen in the church of Badia in Florence, the Camposanto of Piza and in Arrezzo Cathedral. Calandrino was the nick name of the painter Nozzodi Perino.)


Elements of the above (The Trickster, The Kaplan, The MacGuffin, The Dupe, The Virtual Country/institution) can be seen in Rachel Baker's Tesco/ Sainsburys project, Heath Bunting's Boitec Hobbyist (both at irational) and the Gala Committee's Melrose Place Project (melrose) and Rod Dickinson's work with crop circles . Where this art differs from a lot of contemporary practice is that its field of discourse is not situated primarily within the art world but rather with an audience, or series of audiences, outside of it. It is still the case that there is a strong element of 'reporting back' to an art audience through exhibitions, talks, articles and dialogue through mailing lists &c. This is also true of the Gala Committees Melrose Place Project, (interventions into the set and script of a US TV soap). Gala effectively employed The Kaplan, operating under the name of Eliza, to leak the activities of the Gala Committee to the fans of Melrose Place through her web site and then, after the project had been discussed at various conferences, to the art world. It would appear at first sight that the final resting place of each of these projects would have to be within the channels which discuss and display art and that its point of reception would always be one of pointing back, but this is not entirely true as it is possible to have parallel discourses continuing in the separate fields. Dickinson's work is well known within the art world and equally well known within the fraternity of ceriologists and yet each sphere has a different interpretation on what the significance of the project is. All might be following their MacGuffin but the MacGuffin might have a different character in each sphere. The MacGuffin is not a constant commodity, it is an absent space surrounded by the conjecture and speculation ( the surplus desire) of the person/s who desires it, this is why it survives even rational arguments which gain say it.


Given this information it is no surprise to learn that for some time a group of artist/tricksters have been engaged in the construction of a cult. The cult leader takes The Kaplan form which leads The Dupes toward their MacGuffin. This writer has found it impossible to untangle the labyrinth of false trails which serve as the foundation to this cult. It differs from all others in that it is purely an experiment in cultural mediation and agency, any material gain is plaughed straight back into the project . It is the first religion of artifice and inverts the traditional relationship of art being in the service of religion into religion being purely at the service of art. It seems to embrace the idea that a cultural virus can be constructed for a purely critical purpose to make a series of speculations active within the field of actual human relations. The cult has yet to make its activities known to the art world but it is believed that when it does the display and discussion about the artistic practice and the activities of the cult will run on parallel and distinct paths.


I've been told by a Masonic heresiarch that the highest mysteries of the Freemasons are opaque even to the most elevated within the Masonic structure. There is nothing, he said, at the end of trail but the Masonic structure itself. The Masons have either forgotten the secrets over time, maintaining the litany of empty rituals whilst the content of their faith turned to dust, or perhaps the secrets and the structure represent nothing more than The MacGuffin. A third formulation would state that the story has been put out that there is no substance to the structure in order to protect the true secret of the Masons. This last formulation would assure the continuation of the institution of Freemasonry because it confirms to the logical grammar of paranoia (which I will outline in a moment).
My own feeling is that there is nothing inside the shell of Freemasonery, but that those excluded from the Masonic circle and the Masonic historians (many in the higher strata of the Masonic Hierarchy, who search for the meaning of the signs and rituals under which they labour) will ensure the perpetuation of Masonic practice as a spiritual force. Think also of all the forgotten Kaplans who have passed under the door crowned with the square and compass.


This grammar of paranoia can be written up in a number of ways; here is a more abstract example (from everything 2:1):

'I don't know if there are monsters, they might just be a rumour that’s been spread to keep us away from the site of the explosion, and maybe , as some people say, an explosion didn't occur at the site an something else happened, in which case the monsters were invented to keep us away from something other than the explosion. Maybe the site –which in any event we will no go near because of the possibility of monsters -is a decoy, created to divert our attention from the site where something did occur. I consider myself to be relatively well informed and I tend to believe that there is nothing at that particular site , that the cordon describes a void , the watch tower surveys only those curious about what might be within the site. I believe there is another site which is much more significant. Whatever it is must be really hot for them to create such an elaborate system to keep us away'

You may have noticed that the structure of the paragraph above is similar in almost every respect to the paragraph about the Freemasons which preceded it ('A third formulation would state that the story has been put out that there is no substance to the structure in order to protect the true secret of the Masons'.). The same thing would occur if you were to explain the plot of any episode of the X files, or the intricacies of area 52. The explanation forms itself almost automatically into a certain shape. It must be said that there is something aesthetically satisfying in the way in which the words congregate so conclusively around an absence. The form is complete and yet the content is incomplete. Perhaps it's this tension that makes the grammar of paranoia so compelling.


One night you pass a group of people looking down a dark hole. You join them. There is nothing to see but a dark hole. On reflection there must be something to see because otherwise why would you and these other people spend so much time and energy looking into it ?


"Every time I hear a new born baby cry, or feel the sun, or see the sky, I know that's why ... I believe "

Philosophers and priests make bad comedians, perhaps because philosophers and priests, unlike the best comedians, tell jokes in order to make a point. There is a passably good chicken joke in Slovoj Zizeck's Sublime Object of Ideology about a man who thinks he is a grain of corn. The man spends a lot of time with a psychotherapist who, over time, manages to convince him that he is not a grain of corn. The doctor and patient part company, both happy with a good result. A month or so later the man runs into the psychoanalysts office in a panic: "I'm afraid that a chicken is going to eat me." he says.
"But we’ve been through this.." says the psychoanalyst reassuringly "..you no longer believe that you are a grain of corn" "Yes" the man replies "but does the chicken know that?"

The joke is used to illustrate a point about belief. Belief, in Zizek's version, rather than being something which is interior (whereas knowledge is exterior), is radically exterior: 'embodied' says Zizek 'in the practical, effective procedure of people.' There is a sense in which the presence and function of things generate and perpetuate belief. Things, in this case, think belief. Belief systems can operate independently and people can plug into them. The prayer wheel may turn on the Himalayan mountain side, powered by the wind, spooling off perpetual prayers to the gods, the canned laughter in a sitcom can do our laughing for us, they are both machines waiting for us to respond.
Stories, films and TV shows are littered with devises that activate or reactivate belief. Often the belief system has laid dormant, or carries with it the fiction of dormancy, until the hero or heroine becomes drawn inexorably into a narrative by one of these devises: The box in Hellraiser, The vampires ring in Dracula Returns, The Mask in the Jim Cary movie, the teeth of the Hydra, the scarab of the Pharaoh, the amulet of the Aztec king, the broken pentogram in Faust, the staff in Raiders of the Lost Arc, the Grail in the sequel, the lamp in Aladdin. All these objects, sometimes passing through the hands of Kaplans, reactivate belief systems and all provide a doorway into the unknown, the dangerous, desirable MacGuffin.

If it were not the case that belief is in some way radically exterior and that objects solicit belief responses in us why would we become party to rituals which have no meaning? Why would we invest our fascination in phenomena which we know have no empirical justification?
I'm dispensing with the term Dupe because it would seem that we are all Dupes and that the problem isn't just faulty science, politics or religion, it isn't people too stupid or self deluding to believe the truth but rather the problem is to do with our misunderstanding of the nature of belief. The fact that different audiences have totally different expectations and responses to Baker's, Dickinson's and Gala's work underlies the point that each system has its own structure which perpetuates itself, in part, outside human agency. If things didn't think our belief we could resolve the matter rationally, the battle would simply be a matter of being right.


I've been describing a hole, or a series of holes, around which speculation thrives. Perhaps we feel the inadequacies of language, we know that language is creating systems which control us, that language is in some way outside of us and that we sometimes feel, like Burroughs, that 'language is a virus from outer space'. We sense an absence and we construct a virtual absence which is a model of the absence we feel. We have succeeded in creating The Nothing. The Nothing is a necessary construction because it proves our division from language but it makes us feel anxious. This hole has become a sacred place and we crowd its edges with speculation, conjecture and a collection of notional and real objects. We feel sure that 'the truth is in there' somewhere but we know that the truth cannot be articulated, that it must always be deferred, pushed back to the edges of the hole. If it were spoken the hole would be made only of those arch dissemblers; words.

The character of Kaplan (in North by North West) and the concept of MacGuffin are sited in Slovoj Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso 1989) pp112 and pp 182 respectively.

*On the Masons: Their history is largely retrospective. The Free and Accepted Masons formed the first grand lodge in London in 1717. Its links to the mediaeval guild of itinerant masons are probably grafted on along with the pantomime rituals and obligations of loyalty. Another interesting example would be the Theosophical Society (est 1878). Both this, and Anthroposophy which sprang from it, can be described as truly modern religions. The Theosophical Society coopted the mystical past in its entirety in the name 'theosophy', which means any religious or philosophical system based on intuitive insight into the nature of the divine. Anthroposopy seeks to give access to knowledge not attainable through scientific means, through intuition.

© Steve Rushton May/June1998 elogo