Robert Anton Wilson Fans, the biggest RAW archive on the Internet, has made a comeback.
The site went dark for much of last year. Joseph Matheny did a fine job of hosting and running it for years. Now the site's founder, Mike Gathers, has reclaimed it and relaunched it. The artwork, above, was created by Bobby Campbell for the relaunch. Note that now it's rawilsonfans.org; the rawilsonfans.com site has been taken over by someone else.
To celebrate, here is my interview with Mr. Gathers, a relationship therapist in Colorado, on the history of the site, chasing the Wilsonian White Whales, and other matters:
RAWIllumination.net: How did you get interested in Robert Anton Wilson?
Mike Gathers: Looking back, it seems like a long circuitous route. I remember being into Tim Leary in high school. I don’t know how he found his way into my life, but I felt intensely curious about him. His attitude towards psychedelics as spiritual sacraments caught my attention. So in college, I actually started experimenting with psychedelics, chasing the Grateful Dead, and getting deeper into Leary, which led me to folks like John Lilly, Ram Dass, and Carlos Castenada. Eventually the internet became more of a thing, and I stumbled into the deoxy.org website somewhere around 1997. Back then deoxy focused more on 4 or 5 specific people rather than a whole spectrum of areas and ideas. Leary and Wilson shared the same web page and so I was confronted with Wilson head on. And there was something too shocking about Wilson at first – specifically the whole immortality thing, which was the first idea featured on deoxy: “Robert Anton Wilson (1932-NEVER).” That and to a lesser extent, the space migration thing — it was too much for me to wrap my head around. So I steered over to the Terence McKenna page instead. As I digested all the McKenna I could, I slowly warmed up to Wilson. And then once I went, I went whole-hog.
RAWIllumination.net: When did you start collecting RAW documents? When did Robert Anton Wilson Fans debut as a website?
Mike Gathers: The site was born out of the confluence of three things.
Somewhere in 1998, I discovered the usenet group, alt.fan.rawilson, which was really beginning to take off at that time. There were all sorts of interesting characters and intelligent people posting, including Wilson himself under the pseudonym Mark Chan (which I didn’t realize until much, much later). A German, Marc “elymr” Lutter, put together a FAQAFUQ - Frequently Answered Questions And Frequently Unaswered Questions. He asked Mike “RMJon23” Johnson to write a bio of Wilson and with the help of the community, he collected links to any and all Wilsonia we could find on the internets. Another member uploaded it to a cybercities.com website, but the site was down a lot and never really functioned very well when it was up. I always thought it was an important collection and deserved a solid home on the web.
And then somewhere along the line, around 2001 with the whole Napster thing, I came across a few songs from The Chocolate Biscuit Conspiracy, the punk rock album that Wilson frequently noted being on. That was something that sombunall at alt.fan.rawilson commented on – “would love to hear that...” So I really wanted to share it, but didn’t know how at the time.
The final piece was an essay on Aleister Crowley that Wilson wrote for Paul Krassner’s The Realist. Mike Johnson told me he was looking for a copy, and I found it on some obscure website (Monkey-something?) that stocked back issues of the Realist among other oddities. I bought the issue. The essay was broken into chapters based on the Tarot trump cards. Every Friday I typed up a chapter and posted it to alt.fan.rawilson. This was early 2004.
So the point being that all of these things sort of built on each other and the FUQAFAQ hadn’t been updated in a few years and eventually I discovered that I could host a website on my ISP account. I updated the FUQAFAQ and broke the different sections into different pages. Using MSWord, I saved the pages as .htm files and uploaded them to an ISP hosted web page – RAW23.comcast.net – along with the .mp3 files I had collected, and RAWilsonFans was born.
So that’s a long winded way to say that the collection was started on usenet with Marc “elmyr” Lutter and the alt.fan.rawilson community in early 1999. I collected a few mp3s via Napster in 2001, and then started collecting and digitizing documents in early 2004. I put all three things together and the site launched in June, 2004.
RAWIllumination.net: How did it come about that Joseph Matheny hosted the site and took charge of its presentation?
Mike Gathers: Joseph used to run the Grey Lodge Occult Review, which started out as an online ‘zine and morphed into a blog feed. In 2007 when Mike Johnson and I came into possession of the Politically Incorrect episode with Wilson as one of the guests, it was a pretty big score and I wanted to spread the word. So I reached out to Grey Lodge and let them know. Joseph posted the video to Grey Lodge and asked if I wanted to be a contributor. I didn’t have much left to contribute at that time, and so nothing happened there, but we stayed in touch.
Joe always seems to have some ideas brewing and at one point he was discussing revamping the platform for all his websites (greylodge, alterati, gSpot, and probably a few others) and I suggested he throw RAWFans into the mix. The site had gone stagnant and sat on a really archaic platform (SiteStudio) and I didn’t have the technical know-how to do much with it at the time. I didn’t understand exactly what Joe had in mind and I’m not sure he did either, but I transferred the domain, hosting, and database over to Joe.
The site sat unchanged for a while, perhaps 2 - 3 years, and then in early 2012 Joe created a customized WordPress theme for the site and loaded up the main navigation pages. I converted each of the individual documents into WordPress posts, updated all the broken links, added some new material, and we re-launched the site.
Things were humming along and then last year Joe hit a major life SNAFU. He took all his web content down and put it into cold storage. While he was dealing with what he had to deal with, the RAWilsonFans.com domain renewal fell through the cracks and so I lost my domain to a Chinese Royal Jelly distributor. Once Joe re-emerged, we were able to reconnect and we both agreed it best if I reassumed hosting and maintenance of the site, so what we are launching today is back to being 100% owned and operated by me.
RAWIllumination.net: Who are some of the people who deserve credit for finding the documents posted on Robert Anton Wilson Fans?
Mike Gathers: I’d like to acknowledge a variety of people who played a variety of roles. As I mentioned, the site started out as a FAQAFUQ at alt.fan.rawilson. Back then it was more of a collection of links to other material, particularly interviews, and it was a community effort. Marc started the FAQAFUQ in January of 2000 and with each update (roughly monthly), the community would add more and more links that they dug up on the interwebs. That went on for about a year, and then things went quiet for a year with one final update in January 2002.
From there, Mike Johnson, Dan Clore, and Eric Wagner typed up a few things and posted them to the usenet group. Wagner digitized and posted the “Brain Books” article from Trajectories #16/17. Clore digitized and posted some articles from Critique and Magical Blend. Johnson tracked down and digitized ”Joyce and Tao” and ”The Relativity of Reality” and a possibly a few others I’ve forgotten about. Brian “BS” Shields probably contributed as well, but I can’t remember specifics. I do remember him helping with digitizing at one point in time. (When I say digitizing, I mean either typing the whole damn thing or scanning the article, running it through optical character recognition (OCR) and then editing all the errors. Either way, it’s rather labor intensive as you know from direct experience.)
So then, when I launched the site, I incorporated those articles and went deep into google to find whatever links I could. At that time, Johnson and Wagner snail mailed me copies of whatever else they had in their possession and I began the process of digitizing everything I could. Mike also emailed me a bibliograpy of items he was searching for and that helped me target specific searches. In fact, I’ve added to and updated that list over the years and still maintain it as a sort of “fishing” list for the site. I began scouring eBay on a daily basis and purchasing whatever looked promising. Probably at least half of the content unique to the site consists of stuff I purchased off eBay. Later on, I discovered periodical collections through the library systems in both hard copy and microfiche form.
At Wilson’s “meme-orial,” Johnson met a fellow named Kurt Smith who knew Wilson when they both worked together at Playboy. Kurt digitized his VCR copy of Politically Incorrect for us, and he also lent Mike his extensive collection of letters from Wilson, one of which he scanned for me to post on the site.
Other submissions came from various places. Folks would contact me out of the blue and offer what they had. I wish I had kept better records, but someone sent me copies of the first three issues of Trajectories. A Russian lad sent me scans of his Russian book covers. Jesse Walker of Reason magazine sent me all his New Libertarian back issues. Iona Miller had posted on the tribe.net RAW forum that she had a bunch of letters from Wilson, so I contacted her and she sent me a copy of one.
At the Maybe Logic Academy, Wilson would occasionally post something I hadn’t seen before, so up it went on the site. One day he simply posted, “my first interview with a Russian Magazine” which turned out to be one of his last interviews.
And of course you, Tom, have dug up several things yourself and done a great deal of the dirty work in digitizing many of the magazine articles I have sent you.
I would also like to note that many, many folks in the online communities, particularly Eric Wagner and especially Mike Johnson have been incredibly supportive and provided a lot of the fuel that kept me going.
Michael Johnson, visiting Robert Anton Wilson in Wilson's apartment, Feb. 18, 2003.
RAWIllumination.net: Can you explain the relationship between Robert Anton Wilson fans and RAW's excellent last book, Email to the Universe?
Mike Gathers: Well, here’s what I can tell you for sure. Eric Wagner emailed Mike Johnson and me a copy of the Table of Contents of Email to the Universe before it was published. (Wagner was close with Wilson, so I assume he got it directly from the man himself.) I took one look and realized that every single essay in the book was already available on the web, half of them on my site. So I reached out to Nick Tharcher of New Falcon and said something along the lines of, “Hey, this stuff is out there, would you like for me to take it down?” Nick said, “Yes, please,” and so I took down the essays that were hosted at RAWilsonFans.com and let him know, but also mentioned that the other half of the book was still available on other websites beyond my control. Nick said thank you and offered to send me a free copy of EttU when it was released, and sure enough a few months later the book hit the shelves and I received a copy in the mail.
Now beyond that I can only speculate, but I’m fairly confident that Wilson was aware of the website. I would post something new on the site and announce it on alt.fan.rawilson and often within a couple days, Wilson would circulate said article through his personal “group mind” email list. So whether he gathered up the material for EttU directly from my site, or indirectly from others, I really can’t say - probably a mixture of both. But the fact is that a good chunk of the material in EttU is stuff that we, the online Wilson community, brought from obscurity to the internet. And I’m sure the income from that book helped Wilson live a little more comfortably in his final two years.
RAWIllumination.net: Do you think there's any major unpublished RAW material out there that would make a good book, or two?
Mike Gathers: No, I don’t think there’s anything significant out there that hasn’t been previously published in a periodical or a book.
I had hope for Wilson’s final opus, Tale of the Tribe, but after speaking with Eric Wagner at Wilson’s Meme-orial, I don’t believe that anything exists outside of the “preview” in the back of TSOG, and a couple MaybeLogic Academy courses. A super ambitious project would be to take the scattered remnants and mix in commentary from fans like Wagner, Johnson, Steven “Fly” Pratt, and Toby “Bogus Magus” Philpott and see what comes of it.
I could also see a book of letters assembled and including Discordian Abnormail and such. Some old Discordian correspondences have been making appearances on the Robert Anton Wilson Fans Facebook group and I think that with the illustrations and historical context, a very interesting coffee table book could be put together.
Now as far as material not previously published in a book, there’s a few fascinating options (to me at least), but again, nothing I would consider major.
There’s still a lot of great stuff from the 60’s and 70’s that could reach a wider audience. Just as Email to the Universe was a compilation of existing material, a couple more books like that could be assembled. I could see a book on Crowley, magick and the occult as well as a book sociological-political-cultural commentary. The magick book could be assembled from relevant articles previously published in Gnostica, Green Egg, and other sources, while the political book could be assembled from previously published essays taken from sources such as The Realist and Critique.
A more complex project would be to compile all the existing Wilson interviews into one book such as what Semiotext(e) did for Burroughs Live. However, I shudder to think of the complications that must come up in securing the rights to publish several dozen interviews from several dozen sources, many of which are now defunct.
RAWIllumination.net: I've written more than once about the possibility of publishing a book of RAW-Robert Shea correspondence, as RAW suggested in Cosmic Trigger 3. The Shea folks tell me they aren't aware of any correspondence left behind. The RAW estate is less helpful in responding to inquiries. Do you have any thoughts on this? Has the RAW estate cooperated in your hunt for unpublished writings?
Mike Gathers: I am familiar your personal White Whale of Wilsonia and appreciate your persistence in the matter. I can certainly relate to chasing after Wilsonian White Whales. I have had very little correspondence with the RAW estate, and none of that concerned unpublished writings. Based on conversations with others, particularly Eric Wagner and Mike Johnson, my impression is that Wilson wasn’t one to hold onto such things – at least not in any sort of organized fashion – and I doubt what there was has survived. I suspect that now, 8 years after Wilson left us, very little, if anything remains of the estate beyond the book rights. So no, I highly doubt the Shea-Wilson correspondence still exists, but who knows, maybe it will turn up in an episode of Storage Wars one day.