What is a Fnord?

The following essay is reprinted from the Premier Issue of Fnord.
It was originally titled Neurolinguistic Hacking for Dummies.

"The first conditioned reflex was to experience the panic reaction (the activation syndrome, it’s technically called) whenever encountering the word "fnord." The second conditioned reflex was to black out what happened, including the word itself, and just feel a general low grade emergency without knowing why. And the third step , of course, was to attribute this anxiety to the news stories, which were bad enough in themselves anyway…The fnords produced a whole population walking around in chronic low-grade emergency, tormented by ulcers, dizzy spells, nightmares, heart palpitations, and all the other symptoms of too much adrenaline…All my left wing arrogance and contempt for my countrymen melted, and I felt genuine pity. No wonder the poor bastards believe anything they’re told" (Shea, Robert and Wilson, Robert Anton. The Illuminatus Trilogy. 439).

The above realization is that of Illuminatus Trilogy character, Joe Malick, Publisher of Confrontation Magazine, on returning from a trip in the flying saucer of Libertarian pirate, fearless enemy of the Illuminati, and fifth Illuminati Primi, himself, Hagbard Celine. He remembers Hagbard hypnotizing him, telling him not to be afraid, that when he wakes up, he will see the fnords. Joe initially looks out his window, imagining alien monsters, but it is when he looks in his morning newspaper that he sees the fnords. They are right where they have always been, but until Hagbard deconditioned him, Joe could not see them. Fear caused him to black out the word. Once Hagbard exposes the fear as a lie, Joe can face it calmly and see it for what it is. Just a word meant to scare him. To see a word, or an image, and know that it’s only intended purpose is to frighten, causes that tool to loose all of it’s effectiveness. This is why seeing the fnords is so important. It is a turning point. It is the point where a person looks manipulation right in the eye, knows it, and tells it to piss off.

I have not found the word "fnord" in any dictionary. Any use of the word is subsequent to its appearance in The Illuminatus! Trilogy. But how did it get to be there? Perhaps the fnords arrived on a wave of uncensored thought, like the auditory hallucinations one might experience in the moments before falling asleep. This is surrealism according to André Breton: "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought" (Breton. 26). Wilson was undoubtedly aware of the surrealist movement, and even mentions Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism in The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Considering the twisting and leaping narrative, and the manner of introduction of the first fnord, it is possible that the word began as "psychic automatism" (Breton. 26), an unpremeditated auditory hallucination, or, perhaps, a premeditated one. The following is the first appearance of a fnord in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, as well as the sentences surrounding it: "I am not saying what you are hearing. The only good fnord is a dead fnord. Never whistle while you’re pissing" (Illuminatus. 280). Thirty pages later, Barney Muldoon cries "I can see the fnords" (Illuminatus. 303). Next appears the text: "WEISHAUPT. Fnords? Prffft!" Still not making any sort of sense, but setting us up to look back later and realize that the fnords have been around, since Aaron Weishaupt was growing his marijuana and masquerading as George Washington.

An alternate postulate is that Wilson and Shea were completely aware and in control of the idea from it’s inception. In which case, they dropped these cryptic hints already plotting the punch line. "Nowadays, I skip the search for a point and find, instead, the punch lines" (Principia Discordia. vii). Or if they were not so brilliant as to be able to keep track of the dozens of subplots and fantastic twists, they could have perpetrated a William S. Burroughs prank, with a pair of scissors and random restructuring of words and paragraphs, all cut up and put back together. The narrator of the Illuminatus Trilogy is an omniscient super computer named FUCKUP. When this is finally revealed, it makes sense how the narrative could leap so acrobatically between minds, times, and places, realities, and hallucinations. The book begins with an immanent Eschaton and the bombing of a building containing the office of Confrontation magazine, but the story reaches back thirty thousand years, to Atlantis, where a scientist named Gruad first conceives of good and evil, and invents punishment. And the trilogy ends with Hagbard saving the world and FUCKUP finding love with the notorious deep sea creature, Leviathan: a joining of two lonely minds so large that neither before had found any peer.

There is no specific culprit seated with responsibility for all those fnords. The conspirators are a vague and shifting conglomerate. Or, rather, the conspirators are the Illuminati, but since it is impossible to know who the Illuminati are, and since they might be everybody, and they absolutely control the whole world, any finger pointing in the Illuminati’s direction has to wave around a lot. The teachers, the media, advertisers, the government, and other concerned parties conspire against personal autonomy. Joe Malick remembers the spinning wheel and the hypnotic voice of his first grade teacher: "IF YOU DON’T SEE THE FNORD IT CAN’T EAT YOU, DON’T SEE THE FNORD, DON’T SEE THE FNORD…"(Illuminatus. 438). "No wonder we all hate those teachers so much. We have a dim, masked memory of what they’ve done to us in converting us into good and faithful servants for the illuminati" (Illuminatus. 440). We do hate them, and it is because they have conditioned us, and hidden from us our greatest weapon: autonomy, "the ability to say No and take the consequences" (Illuminatus. 695). To see the fnords means realizing that it is our autonomy being conspired against, and realizing it means it can be stopped. There are many to whom the terms "socialization" and "brain washing" are synonymous. They are all in on it, everyone who conspires to control. Even if they do not understand the meanings of their actions. "Perhaps the final secret of the Illuminati is that you don’t know you’re a member until it’s too late to get out" (Cosmic Trigger, Vol. 1. 88).

Fnord is a weird and silly word, though not awkward, and its usage as a psychological weapon parodies the notion that nothing and no one is to be trusted, not common sense, not even our own perception, because that is so unreliable and easily manipulated, "and the only terror that is truly absolute is the horror of realizing that you can’t believe anything you’ve ever been told" (Illuminatus. 280). This is, of course, the punch line because "it’s not true unless it makes you laugh. That is the one and sole infallible test of all ideas that will ever be presented to you" (Illuminatus. 250). This idea arrogates truth on the basis of clever wording. It proves itself, but it is more trickery. It’s speaker, Hagbard, despite being the world’s last hope for survival, is a clown and a liar. The statement is repeatedly contradicted by the goings on of The Illuminatus! Trilogy itself, yet it rings true in a way that does make you laugh. So, for a moment, this lie is true. Even the truth in one’s own laughter can be misleading. It would seem that, if there was one idea to be sure of, it would be the existance of evil, one of our most formative ideas. Lives are based on the ideas of good and evil. Every person has a relationship with evil. Some live to battle it. Some work philisophical puzzles to discover what it is, or whether it exists. Some seek to experience it. Yet good and evil are the inventions of a nervous Atlantian scientist, who might, in one of his incarnations, have actually been Satan. The Prince of Darkness himself , Lucifer, was a Discordian, and therefore nothing more destructive than weird, and he spread all those nasty rumors about himself after he repented, mostly because he wanted to be left alone. "He gave us the light of reason and, seeing how we misused it, he repented" (Illuminatus. 696). The truths are lies, the lies are lies, and all of it is a book narrated by a smitten computer named FUCKUP. Says Eris Discordia: "Now you have come to the Great Doubt and you are free" (Illuminatus. 489).

André Breton says: "the mere word ‘freedom’ is the only one that still excites me" (Breton. 4). The key to freedom is reaching a certain level of understanding: Illumination, or what Hakim Bey (who, according to some people, is actually Robert Anton Wilson anyway) terms "the temporary autonomous zone," where socialization and social manipulation no longer hold. Freedom may be the hope for a better world. "When the last cop in our brain is gunned down by the last unfulfilled desire - perhaps even the landscape around us will change" (TAZ. 33).

Hagbard chooses Miss Portinari, a wise, arrogant, teenage girl, as his replacement as spiritual advisor. She immediately proposes that the Tarot is backward. The last card is really the first step. Trump 21 is "The Abyss of Hallucinations. This is where our attention is usually focused. It is entirely constructed by our senses and our projected emotions, as modern psychology and ancient Buddhism both testify - but it is what most people call ‘reality.’ They are conditioned to accept it, and not to inquire further, because only in this dream-walking state can they be governed by those who wish to govern" (Illuminatus. 716). This misconceived "reality" creates the fear which has us all arrested before we can commit any crime. "It isn’t only political power that grows out of the barrel of a gun. So does a whole definition of reality" (Illuminatus. 150). This gun can be a gun, or it can be informational sabotage, like the fnords, as those who want control, have given ten times as much thought to the matter as many of those who wish not to be controlled. The power they build on psychological and sociological levels enable them to get away with extreme force. Fnord scared masses will never have the courage and confidence to stop a government from commiting disgusting criminal acts. They ignore or refuse to believe it, because they think relinquishing control gains them protection. They bury themselves in consumer goods for protection. They are led to believe that there is safety and comfort to be found in purchases. This is because there are no fnords, and therefore, no fear in advertisments.

The truly illuminated care nothing for control. They do not need it, because they are in control of themselves. It is only the false Illuminati who want to dominate and destroy. The real Illuminati wish only to illuminate the world or leave it alone. As Hagbard explains, "we are the people who have said Non Serviam , and we’re trying to teach others to say it" (Illuminatus. 697). Hagbard is one of the true Illuminati, masquerading as one of the false Illuminati, masquerading as a Discordian enemy of the Illuminati, and he can dance between these roles, because he understands himself well enough to be any and everything. Hagbard is so tricky, nobody even knows there is a benevolent, true Illuminati until he peels the layers off his deception. The truth comes out, and some do laugh.

"To the creative mind, there is no right or wrong. Every action is an experiment, and every experiment yields its fruit in knowledge" (Illuminatus. 280), and one must admire the fnord as an awesome tool of manipulation. However, a mind with the intelligence to experiment with this kind of ruthless manipulation is doomed to regret it, especially when HP Lovecraft’s Cthulu, which holds the distinction of being the greatest evil ever known, is headed toward said brilliant, cruel mind. Such is the case of Robert Putney Drake, who in his last living minutes, realizes exactly what he has done. "Say that I betrayed my country and my planet, but worse, say that I betrayed Robert Putney Drake, the giant of psychology I murdered when I used the secret for power and not for healing" (Illuminatus. 354). Mr. Drake, a supporter of the fnords, believed every interaction to be a struggle for dominance, but this mistake caused him to finally realize that he committed what is possibly the only sin: betrayal of himself.

Autonomy : Automaton

It might be of some worth to examine the idea of the automaton. André Breton believes the writings of the psychic automaton to be the expression of true thought and dialogue. Noam Chomsky understands Descartes’s central idea as language separating the sentient from the automatons. I think this is less an intelectual opposition, than it is differing definitions of automaton, and beliefs about what makes up the most important part of humanity, "body" or "soul." The answer is neither and both. In the natural state, body and mind work in synchronicity. Lately, there has been a lot of work done to separate the two. There is religion with it’s proposition that mind exists to rise above the base desires of the body, and that the body exists to entertain, or tempt the mind. While really, mind and body are one being, whether it is called the Programmer, the Robot, or the Super Ego, it is you, and you are in charge. True thought is when you let it come from the Robot, rather than the sentient construct who thinks about thinking, thereby censoring thoughts before they even have a chance to develop. The fnords work on the level of the lonely mind, the ego, the censoror without the knowledge of what it censors. The fnords are neurolinguistic hacking, a term used by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash, a book in which he portrays ideas as a viral, biological and technological, residing in a host and spreading. His neurolinguistic hackers hack the hardware, the id, the robot, the organic brain, with the most basic, binary code. If the brain is a computer, this is its most elementary workings. Computer hacking can be done on the hardware or the software level, by going directly in with a series of ons and offs. Chemical reactions in the brain are translated into the more "reasonable" level of the operating system; thought, and language. The Id is a physical systems of ones and zeros, ons and offs. The ego is a language created to explain the brain with language binary system in logical terms. The fnords hack the program using its own language, which is insulting. Yet all things which are insulting are also surmountable.

Shea and Wilson evoke the Robot, describing it as the repressed half of the whole. "Reconciliation was the word. Reconciliation with the robot, with the Robot, with himself. The end of the war was his surrender, the only possible end to that war, since the Robot was three billion years old and couldn’t be killed." The end to the war between Id and Ego is Super Ego. The Super Ego is both. The Robot contains the repressed and the conscious halves, the robot and the self. Just because you repress the Robot, doesn’t mean the Robot is repressing you, which means the Robot is more powerful. The Robot has always seen you, one day you wake up and see the Robot, perhaps the same day you wake up and see the fnords. And that day, you will no longer fall prey to the old, dirty, mind versus matter trick, because the mind is matter, but matter is not the mind. In Descartes’ Error, Antonio R. Damasio suggests that emotions are physical. The brain is an organ in the body, not to be mistaken for anything other than an organ in the body. This organ maintains "direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ, thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning…The essence of a feeling may not be an elusive mental quality attatched to an object, but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body"(Descartes’ Error. xii-xiv ). Therefore, a person does not feel nostalgic because he or she thinks of old friends, but the opposite. The feeling comes before the thought, and the feeling is generated by the body. Rather than a function of the repressed aspects of Ego, Id is the generation of Ego. Never Whistle While You’re Pissing. Hagbard has his submarine stocked with copies of his manifesto. He explains that "if you whistle while you’re pissing, you have two minds where one is quite sufficient. If you have two minds, you are at war with yourself" (Illuminatus. 405). And that’s when the fnords eat you.


Breton, Andre. Manifestoes on Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor Paperbacks. 1972.

Chomsky, Noam. Language and Mind. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. New York, NY. 1968

Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, NY. 1994.

Peckham, Morse. Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior. The Seabury Press, New York, NY. 1979.

Shea, Robert and Wilson, Robert Anton. The Illuminatus Trillogy. Dell Publishing. New York, NY. 1975.

Stephenson, Neal. Snowcrash. Bantam Books. New York, NY. 1993.

Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger Vol. 3: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. New Falcon Publications. Tempe, AZ. 1995

Younger, Malaclypse The and Ravenhurst, Omar Khayyam. Principia Discordia. IllumiNet Press. Lilburn, GA. 1991.