Collective Unconscious and The Fourth Wall
The Borgeisan Conundrum
We return to our examinations on “The New Weird” while pondering the very basis of narrative. Do we tell stories? Or do they tell themselves through us? That’s the challenge known as “The Borgesian Conundrum”, a potent tool in a genre with prophecy, visions and congress with alien powers in its collective toolbox. Made all the more relevant by The SCP Foundation‘s collective font of stories.
A few years back, I happened to be in the middle of one of the longest consecutive periods of unemployment in my life. As one does when one has gone through all of the available job listings, sent in resumes to all the likely ones, and is enduring the mind-numbing wait for responses, I sat at home in my boxers, firmly ensconced in front of my computer.
Now I get it, we’re hot on the heels of 2020, and no one wants to hear about being cooped up at home in front of a screen. Well, I was doing it before it was mandatory and/or cool, so there! Do I have a point? Yes! I had to go through this twice!
Most of that time I spent reading web comics, wiki-surfing, looking for writing ideas, or even delving into that deeper pit of lost time, TV Tropes [ 1 ]. However, late one night somewhere in the middle of that lost nine months, I stumbled across something strange, wonderful, and terrifying. My first experience was a website that started by telling me it was protected by a memetic kill virus. Not exactly the friendliest of welcomes, but I was an unemployed father of two young boys continually growing out of clothes, very little scared me more than the very real terror of homelessness and starvation. Girded by the horrors of reality, I ventured into the world of the SCP Foundation [ 2 ].
Secure, Contain, Protect
Different people come by the Foundation in different ways. Some get pulled in by a friend’s post on social media. Others find artwork dedicated to one of the site’s entries and begin asking more questions (a certain being with feathers that eats sound is an entry point for several friends of mine).
I wasn’t really prepared for everything I found on the site, but then I doubt anyone really would be. Over the course of a week, I binged on the collectively created, anonymously crowdsourced meta-universe that contained this fictional organization that had a single job: to “Secure, Contain, and Protect” the world from anomalous artifacts and creatures [ 3 ]. I learned the Foundation’s Secure Containment Procedures, the difference between Euclid and Keter Objects, and the tantalizing fragments of story contained within the addenda to the SCP listings (this was before the Tales section was a thing). It was the first time I’d run into something so steeped in the Borgesian Conundrum, and the Foundation sits squarely at the center both of the Conundrum and the genre-defying genre which is the New Weird [ 4 ].
Along with being New Weird in all the “traditional” senses of playing with existentialism, horror, fantasy and sci-fi, the SCP Foundation also, for the most part, eschews traditional storytelling methods [ 5 ]. Instead of presenting itself as a book, a novel, or even an anthology, The Foundation’s stories are delivered almost entirely in the form of a series of web pages, each of which is primarily focused on the methods the Foundation uses to Contain items which defy conventional physics. While there is a robust “Tales Hub” in the site, the main course of the Foundation is and always has been the Secure Containment Procedure documents themselves. Not to be content with breaking with tradition in delivery method and presentation, the Foundation is entirely crowd-sourced, meaning there is no “author” for the SCP as a whole, allowing it to grow organically.
Earlier I mentioned the Borgesian Conundrum. Traditionally, the Conundrum is stated as “whether the writer writes the story, or it writes him,” with the understanding that Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges is talking both about the idea that a story, by informing us about the artist who created it, creates a mental image of the author in our minds, which can echo back and create a persona for the writer in turn [ 4 ]. Until an author has completed a work, had that work read, placed, and compared to other written art, and subsequently connected those pieces in much the same way a child connects its parents, the works the readers and critics consider formative influences on the author’s writing may not previously be considered related in any meaningful way. The reason for this is that the work cannot stand in isolation of itself; instead, it needs outside interpretation to make it whole. Just as the act of writing is insular and isolating, the act of reading is the opposite—while one can write for oneself and be gratified, it’s the sharing of that work with others that brings it to life and completes its ability to exist. It’s not just one meaty philosophical subject, it’s a pair of them, and the SCP Foundation manages to shed light on both of them while remaining a stunningly good example of crowd-sourced non-traditional fiction.
Layers Upon Narrative Layers
In the former case, regarding the writer being in many senses created by their own creation, the Foundation manages to qualify in multiple fashions. First and foremost, many of the attributed authors of the Special Containment Procedures appear as characters referenced by the SCPs themselves. As each of the attributed authors is not only described by the author primarily using that particular pseudonym, but also by other authors who use the character as part of their stories, each of the characters described by the SCP Foundation Procedures, who are themselves the purported authors of the procedures, rapidly develop their own personas entirely separate from the original author who created the character as a pseudonym. In short, the story creates its own author by forming the idea of who the author is in the audience’s head.
This shared universe is similar to the way that many stories in the Cthulhu Mythos contain characters, settings, and events that may have been created by one author initially and then built upon, altered, or added to by subsequent authors. While the authors of the SCP universe are largely anonymous, the comparison is fitting, as the Mythos an obvious inspiration for the SCP Foundation considering the mind-bending horror that many SCP artifacts have—and the number of characters in both universes that end up insane or worse.
Another way the Foundation embodies the Conundrum is the effect it has on readers of the Containment Procedure archives. While many readers will be inspired to write by a particularly evocative piece of literature, few, if any other pieces of literature not only inspire, but outright encourage the readers to pick up a notional pen and engage in the act of creation of the very work which inspired their creative urge in the first place. While this usually takes the form of creating a new Special Containment Procedure document for a new anomaly, it can and has on multiple occasions inspired readers to rewrite the very same Special Containment Procedure they initially read, adding some additional information or sub-procedure. In other words, by its Creative Commons/Crowd Sourcing nature the Foundation literally creates its own writers by converting readers into co-authors of the work.
A Spider’s Web of Connections
Stepping away from that interpretation of the Conundrum, we get to the idea of a work creating connections between hitherto unrelated previous properties. The examples referenced by Borges are the precursors to Russian author Franz Kafka, who prior to Kafka writing his stories were not considered related works, but afterward are related via their mutual connection to Kafka’s work. In other words, writing a new piece of literature can irrevocably change our mental perception of the landscape of literature itself, even if there are no overt connections between the two pieces of supposedly independently existing texts. The Foundation, of course, thrives on this idea, although given its nature it occasionally is creating connections between tropes rather than works, which can then create previously unmade connections between any pair of stories containing those tropes [ 3 ].
As an example of this, many of the attributed authors of the Special Containment Procedures combine the Tropes of Scholarly Adventurer (Indiana Jones from the eponymous movie series), Mad Scientist (Doc Brown from Back to the Future), and Agents (Smith, Jones and Hill from The Matrix or J, K, and Zed from Men In Black, choose one from each column and blend until smooth). Meanwhile the Foundation itself combines “Shadow Organization” tropes as they appear in much of modern media, with one particularly telling example being the one pulling the strings in Cabin in the Woods, a film that demonstrates its own ability to subvert tropes for narrative glee on its own.
While the Foundation may not have been the first to have made these combinations, it is definitely in the position of having done so with so much élan and panache that those concepts will become inextricably linked in the minds of anyone reading enough of the Foundation’s Procedures. Another example would be the disparate myths of Cain, the man cursed to live forever by God for his sin, and the Golem, a being animated by the words in its head. While these myths are related by both being part of the Judeo-Christian mythos, there is little to no connection otherwise between them until the Foundation first listed each as a Secured anomaly, then added an addendum regarding repeated interactions between the two. Over and over again the Foundation does this, first obliquely referencing some myth, urban or otherwise, then following it up by connecting it to other myths, tropes, or ideas in such a way where the connection which has now been perceived can no longer be unperceived—not without the Foundation’s Class A Memetic Amnesiac Drugs, at least. Leave it to an organization that thinks Santa and the Easter Bunny need to be contained but seeks to utilize the mind-erasing effects of being exposed to Chthonic multidimensional space to turn “Brain Bleach” into a real thing.
Beyond the Borgesian
At the end of the day, however, it’s not the Borgesian Conundrum that makes the SCP Foundation such a great place to start your journey into the New Weird; it’s how firmly it sits in the center of the genre. It draws on every thriller and science fiction story that references some form of secret agency, posits those selfsame agents as the only thing standing between life as we know it and the forces of chaos, whether those forces are comprised of fantasy creatures, aliens, AI, or malevolent humans equipped with super-science only found in fiction, or the most typical SCP of all, any one of the many, many things that go bump, crunch, or squish in the night from horror. Its method and delivery even feed into the questioning that is the root of existential horror; presented as a dry, government knowledge-base style wiki, never acknowledging its own status as fiction, it prompts the reader to wonder if it is, indeed, entirely fictional, or whether the universe is a far stranger place than we have been led to believe.A final note regarding the Foundation before I sign off; if you have ever lost time to the likes of Wikipedia, TV Tropes, or other similar troves of tasty, tasty information, be wary of SCPs. The Memetic Kill Agent may not kill you, but the Secure Containment Procedures it protects will certainly kill any free time you have. And did I mention that one of the entries is an actual game? Yes, there’s one on the site you can download, run, and play, just in case you still had a social life after perusing the contents of SCP like it was a bargain bin of comics on the curbside. So say goodbye to your sanity, and we’ll see you next time as we continue to Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “Do we tell stories? Or do stories find and alter us, as vectors to be channeled through? That is the essence of ‘The Conundrum’.”
- “The originator of the concept, as posited in his book Kafka and his Precursors, .Jorge Luis Borges is credited with massive influence on the Latin American magical realist movement of the 20th century.” Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jorge_Luis_Borges_(crop).jpg
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- “TV Tropes.” TV Tropes, TVTropes Team, tvtropes.org. Accessed 25 July 2021.
- “About The SCP Foundation.” SCP Foundation, Creative Commons, 19 Oct 2020. scpwiki.com/about-the-scp-foundation. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
- “SCP-4445-J,” SCP Foundation, Creative Commons, 3 Oct 2019. scpwiki.com/scp-4445-j.
- Alexander Atkins, “What is the Borgesian Conundrum?,” Atkins Bookshelf, Atkins Bookshelf, 3 May 2020, atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com/2020/03/05/what-is-the-borgesian-conundrum/. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
- “Wiki / SCP Foundation,” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 7 May 2020. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Wiki/SCPFoundation. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.