Individual Work
The Incunabula Papers

The Incunabula Papers is a series of online documents related to “Ong’s Hat,” a conspiracy theory that emerged on the Internet in the early 1980s. The “Ong’s Hat” meme began online and evolved to include Xerox catalogues, printed books, radio broadcasts, television shows, CD-ROMs, and DVDs. The Incunabula Papers, written by Joseph Matheny in 1987, contains concepts from popular science, conspiracy literature, and past fiction. Its documents are made up of fact and fiction that narrate theories of parallel universes, alternative sexualities, and applied quantum physics—all intermingled with heretical Eastern Orthodox philosophy.

A Xerox brochure on the Incunabula website describes the history of “Ong’s Hat” and presents interviews and journal entries which describe the events. The brochure depicts a heretical Islamic sect that evolved over a century into a misfit group of renegade Princeton professors. After forming the Institute of Chaos Studies, this group began researching quantum mechanics and chaos theories. Their research led to medical advances such as rapid healing, absence of disease, and control over the aging process. By using a trans-dimensional mechanism called “the Egg,” the scientists learned how to control the chaos of the mind. After upgrading their technology, they were eventually able to open the Gate—a portal into alternate universes. This portal, and the theories surrounding it, grew to become a multifaceted, online enigma.

The Incunabala Papers thus began as a science-fiction fantasy and a commentary on modern hoaxes, but it eventually bred myths of its own. Its somewhat factual history—such as the existence and accurate location of Ong’s Hat—obscured the line between fiction and reality. The meme grew into a narrative that promised to reward further research with greater truths; the more users read into its many forms, the higher their level of understanding, and further they step into the “fold.” Seemingly unrelated material and confusing riddles have been revealed to be a part of the puzzle. The concept grew in popularity due to its evolving nature and secretive aura. Upon concluding the project, Matheny revealed the work to be a concoction.

A kind of historiographic-conspiracy metafiction, The Incunabula Papers advocates for independent thought. A tagline to the work states: “Think for Yourself, Question Authority.” The work encourages the questioning of historical authenticity and the excavation of hidden truths in general.

Michael Willems was a student of Dr. Kiki Benzon for a course in Contemporary Fiction taught at the University of Lethbridge, Canada during the Winter term of 2011.