John Olson







Shadow Zone


Tear yourself away from the hum of gastric intimacy to spin there, there where you are, perceptive and sympathetic, a bit like Baptiste Debureau performing on the Boulevard du Crime. You have to play millions of games before you win them. It provokes without warning the most violent passions and she, the epitome of all that is eponymous and epic, epicurean, alliterative, epidemic and ecstatically episodic, is all the more deceitful than she always is. It allows inventors to consider the new and unexpected and to understand the substantive marrow of the canvas. Do you do so, even assuming responsibility for this death? Will people switch to the autonomous car only if it always saves its passengers or even when it is immoral?

A coherent utilitarian will accept that a non-negotiable deontological rule is adopted here – cars will always protect their passengers – in order to maximize collective welfare. The problem with autonomous cars – which I see as an opportunity – is that they force us to put everything to one side. We will have to agree on principles, identify where these principles are unsatisfactory, discuss them and decide. So here we are forced to enter the shadow zone, which we were relieved so far to maintain.

Except that, I object, a decision can only be taken in context. Suppose I go to the bedside of my dying wife and I am the sole financial support of my children, do I not have good reason to refuse to sacrifice myself, even if I have to mow down three or four people?

You have to consider all the cases now, even this one, and decide. We are in the process of moving from a situation of flexibility or, more precisely, of hypocrisy, where we are always free to put forward the best reasons in the world to justify our arrangements with morality a posteriori, an ethical decision a priori.

The autonomous car leads to rethinking a lot of things. Considered as a priority, in terms of grease, and hanging, and blood, it colors the psyche with maneuverability.

On the other hand, I see few examples of military commands that would have sacrificed any of its advanced technological equipment. And what if it’s a civilian only picking up a stone and throwing it on the tanks out of anger? Or would it be at all obvious, indicated by the way of moving on the ground, that someone is executing the task of a military command? The law of war allows targeting only civilians directly involved in combat, but machines cannot identify civilians. They don’t make decisions based on suffering. They don’t assume any moral or ethical burden. But what if they were employed in the theatre of war? Would drones and robots make war more acceptable, killing easier, or would they act as a deterrent, since – without the messiness of human emotion – the scope of their lethality would be that much more powerful?

Wittgenstein gives a striking example: a man who would cut the arm of his neighbor off to see if it would grow back is not an experiment, but the work of a madman.

Alas! When we’re a little more precise and say that a machine can never do this or that, we risk being heard by a clever, artificial intelligence researcher who, appearing distractedly indifferent, will take our disdain for a challenge. The next thing we know we have a computer playing Go (and winning) and Harrison Ford gazing longingly into the eyes of an angelic robot.




The Time Of The Manifesto 


Sip the sugar slowly and groan. Unrivalled secretions swim through my arm creating sensations of life. The farm stove is crackling into being. Indispensable hauls of tangled emotion promote tremors of intuition. Fencing makes us thirsty. Spirit dazzles the candy. The hinges are active and slightly subjective. I believe words are mostly abstract but sometimes they clank with the chained suspension of theocratic concerns.

Even the hairbrush has a shape. The house muses on its interior space. How can a house do otherwise? Because the house itself is dedicated to amusement. Houses are museums of the recent clay on which they rest. Repose in cement. The hammer impresses the nail into wood. The wood palliates the step of the nail. And so a structure appears. The clouds spread themselves into a mackerel pink. Trouble visits the heart and becomes a house of alchemical empathies.

When a house is lived in, it is alive. When it is empty, it dies. Its walls become elegies. Smudges become redolent with ghostly ecstasies. Geometry confesses its waltz through time. For however great a space may be, we can conceive of one greater, ad infinitum. And the contrary to this is infinitesimalness. We can imagine a smaller and smaller proton and so on, ad infinitum, without ever arriving at one indivisible tininess of proton, which gets us into quarks, which aren’t even things, they’re flavors, up, down, top, bottom, strange and vanilla.

Meaning something can be so tiny it’s colossal and so colossal it’s breast milk.

Let’s linger in approval of the vertical. The bones sag in grief. Structure buckles into the veracity of a gospel omelet. The butter blazes into transformation. The bread is a hill of prospect teasing the appetite into locomotion. The stream bends its spirits into glittery outline. The sublime is stitched together by a cerebral envy. Life is pathos. It fulminates in the heart and mind like an Icelandic fumarole.

Consciousness springs into language. The infrared panic of the picnic wasps is tied to an outlaw novel. The army stops to inflate its balloons and sharpen their blades. The roots go deep into the ground and emerge as a laughter plunged into heaven.

Creosote smells of opinion. The train tacks shine. The scene is lucid and peremptory, lustrous and nickel like a poem by Arthur Rimbaud.

I’m hooked on the pragmatism of rope. Knots are testimony to the perception of pain. I protect each haunted memory with a flint chest and a capacity for shame.

I consider anger to be the holy equivalent of ink. No fire is ambiguous. No cloud is completely unambiguous. Ambiguity is a hobby, not an effluent. Eggs are one example. The company layoffs do matter after all. The cracks may be investigated for longhand.

And then we can all go home, wherever home is. Home is something you need to decide for yourself. Sometimes you can hear someone crying in another room. Sometimes the rooms smell of fornication. And sometimes the incense mingles with the faint smell of mustard.

I’m not introverted, are you? Let’s be clippers and sail across the coffee table exchanging textures of ourselves. Remember mimeographs? Remember how they smelled? Then you’re my age. And what age is that? That would be the age of the manifesto. The time of rebels. The time of tingling and cheap thrills and Brian Jones’s silly grin.




Notification about:


“Shadow Zone.” I noticed that the translated phrases seem to cohere in a way that made its own unique sense. I used this paragraph to open the poem, and continued adding phrases, some translated from the article, some of my own invention. The article from which I drew these phrases is in a French magazine called Philosophie Magazine, whose editorial offices are in Paris. This month’s featured theme is artificial intelligence. The specific article is titled “Les machines vont-elles nous faire la morale?,” by Alexandre Lacroix, and concentrates heavily on the ethical dilemmas associated with self-driving cars and the use of drones and robots in warfare.


“The Time of the Manifesto” is a translation of my own writing, first in French, then translated into English.  I’m following Samuel Beckett’s lead. A lot of the strangeness – the acute sense of otherness – that is intrinsic to his writing is largely the result of his practice of first writing in French and then translating it into English. I find that thinking in a foreign language dramatically alters my perception and heightens my sense of things. And it’s fun.


My work has been published in numerous books including Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy, and Backscatter: New and Selected Poems, from Black Widow Press. My novel Souls of Wind, about the fictional exploits of poet Arthur Rimbaud in the American west of the 1880s, was shortlisted for a Believer Magazine book award in 2008. In 2004, Seattle’s popular weekly The Stranger awarded me their annual genius award for literature.











John Olson is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy, and Backscatter: New and Selected Poems. He has also authored four novels, including In Advance of the Broken JustyThe Seeing Machine, The Nothing That Is and Souls of Wind, the latter of which was shortlisted for The Believer Magazine book award in 2008. In 2004 Seattle’s popular weekly The Stranger awarded Olson their annual genius award for literature. He lives in Seattle with his wife and cat.



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