On Joseph Mosconi’s Ashenfolk by Eric Schmaltz

A box of poems, pamphlets, and postcards that gesture towards the porous boundaries between the real and virtual spaces of cultural formation.

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Joseph Mosconi’s latest book, Ashenfolk (Make Now Books), is housed in a box containing an assortment of carefully designed, colored, and printed poems drawn from the language and visual aesthetics of fantasy, science fiction, horror, technocapitalism, and 1960s/1970s countercultural movements. The box (codesigned with poet Holly Melgard) holds, among its many beguiling items, a booklet of Arthur Machen’s nineteenth-century horror story The White People, which is typographically translated into the Black Metal G typeface; a booklet detailing the genealogy of “corporate elves;” a fold-out poster that recounts a conflict between Sylvester the Cat and Elmer Fudd (told from the perspective of Fudd); and a postcard that ponders on the happy ending of Inside UFO 54-40. With meaning dispersed across these various components, Ashenfolk extends the tradition of the multimedia assemblages of the 1960s like Phyllis Johnson’s “three-dimensional magazine” Aspen. In that spirit, Ashenfolk, too, is a book of dimensions––the virtual and real (and related categories of the cultural and subcultural, digital and analog, fantasy and reality, material and immaterial, etc.). Mosconi maintains his interest in the language, design, and ideology of varying social formations within these dimensional contexts to investigate their porousness and their role in processes of world-making.  

Take, for example, Mosconi’s booklet that compiles, in Tolkien-fashion, a “genealogy of corporate elves” who are said to dwell in and around California. As found in other fantastical tales, the booklet details the wars, loves, births, deaths, and special traits of these elven-folk. Among them, there is Felecindor, “son of Furufir, fifth son of Thëanor,” who pioneered “a brainwave kit” used for “meditation, emotion regulation, learning enhancement, and improved sleep.” Mosconi also includes Minthis, the “first child and daughter of Thinwël, the High King of Ashenfolk,” who founded “a global dance movement that created healthy morning dance party experiences all of the world with over 150,000 community members waking up to dance their faces off before going to work.”  

The seemingly incongruous languages of the fantasy genealogy and of California-based entrepreneurial-types is united by their role in building niche communities––fantasy enthusiasts and technocapital futurists. These subcultural languages, though seemingly specialized and strange for some, are deeply meaningful for others. On the one hand, Mosconi may be parodying the works and lifestyles of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs by fusing their colloquialisms with the epic, mythic, and fantastical language of elven-folk––pointing to a detachment from reality within their ideological position. With that being said, and considering the generous spirit and curiosity of Mosconi’s work, this booklet might not cut as deep. Rather than undermine the work, he points to the ways in which subcultural languages participate in the formation of real-world microcommunities, especially language––as seen in both cases––that is otherworldly.

An untitled pamphlet in Ashenfolk does this kind of work more incisively and, again, features elves. It focuses on a persona referred to as “The Total Tin Woodsman” who relays the taxonomy of the word “Ashenfolk,” the name of a “new elf clan.” With deep gratitude, Woodsman describes this begetting by detailing the individual contributions of online persons––including players “OldRubberGod46,” “LilGhoulGirl82,” and “Dwelf-98”––who suggested words or meanings that contributed to the final designation. Thus, a new online community is born. It’s fitting that Mosconi borrows this same name for the title of his book. Like the Woodsman, Mosconi’s book is comprised of labor at the line between seemingly separate dimensions. In this specific instance, Mosconi gives us a glimpse at the real intellectual labor, occurring within online communities, of the Woodsman and others that ushered in the arrival of a new community that undoubtedly offered these players a sense of belonging online and offline.  

Mosconi’s book arrives as the North American news cycles––both in the U.S. and yes, Canada––are relentlessly preoccupied with subcultural currents and their disruption of mainstream social and political formations. There is a great deal of speculation on how virtual subcultural spaces, like online forums and video streams, foster a sense of belonging for persons who feel disenfranchised and draw empowerment from dangerous ideological positions that have until recently lurked outside of the mainstream. These topics don’t necessarily inform the work of the book but they do bear on the implications of the text.  

Ashenfolk demonstrates that the virtual and subcultural––along with the personalities, languages, ideas, and feelings that circulate within these dimensions––have real impacts on material worlds. The material and seemingly immaterial spaces cannot be conceived as separate from one another. The binary broke down long ago. What seem like the ephemeral activities of closed-off communities online (or elsewhere) actually have effects that ripple toward successful, or at times failed, projects of meaning-making. I suspect that for Mosconi, this, too, is the work of poetry. 

Eric Schmaltz is a poet, critic, and educator. He is the writer of Surfaces (Invisible, 2018). Find him on Twitter @eschmaltzzz or at ericschmaltz.com.

From Liquidation by Joey Yearous-Algozin Holly Melgard
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