I begin to craft and draft a spell called “TO BUILD A FENCE.” I watch videos, I weigh methods, I note down a list of required tools and materials. Even as I do this, though, I remain on the fence: “To fence or not to fence?” Must we commit to enclosure? The garden also needs an irrigation system, I tell myself: some combination, perhaps, of water harvester and drip. With drip, I can attach a timer, allowing us to water the garden when out of town. As for what to plant, I refer myself to Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables. Part of me, though, still wants to pay attention to Silicon Valley and is easily distracted. “Attention being,” as a friend notes, “the one hero that might take us through the web, the webs, and leave us semi-intact at the end of the day” (Forms of Poetic Attention, p. 2).
Friends gather for a gala get-together on my front porch, all of us vaccinated and thus able now to be with one another after our year apart. Spring is lovely here this year, trees budding, the yard awash in constellations of blue, white, and purple: wildflowers and patches of clover. We celebrate the publication of a friend’s novel, an historical romance just out this past week from Berkley, everyone wanting to read it, cheered too by the arrival of her parents, new in from up north. When last we saw each other, F. was new in as well: a newborn, a wee lass just home from the hospital. Amazing how much she’s grown these past fifteen months. Our friend’s dad is an artist, as is another of the party’s attendees. Both draw beautiful illustrations in colored chalk on our cement walkway. I admire these on my evening wanderings about the yard come dark. ‘Tis a starry night, across which flies a ship, discernible here below only as Morse code flicker: modest dots of red and white light. I resolve to read Black Quantum Futurist Rasheedah Phillips’s book Recurrence Plot (and other time travel tales), at the heart of which is a character named after the scarab-faced Egyptian god Khepri. This character is, like me, a frequent thrift-shopper. Let us, like Khepri, donate something each time we thrift.
Space beings sit with me: E.T. and an astro-person with a surfboard. Together we form a circle, here in the memory palace, the archive, the library — each raising to the other a sturdy thumbs-up.
Awaiting the evening’s discussion, I return again to Octavio Paz’s book Alternating Current, a collection of essays written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 1967, with an English translation released by Viking Press in 1973. For Paz, the fragment is “the form that best reflects the ever-changing reality that we live and are” (Foreword). What might we learn from these essays — especially “Paradises,” on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception? We would be reminded of the myth of the Teotihuacán paradise of Tlaloc. Huxley finds in the mescaline experience, says Paz, a “universal myth” of “an enchanted garden” where “birds, beasts, and plants speak the same language” (90-91). Light and water are special presences in accounts of paradise. The “instant of equilibrium” formed between these presences is what Paz calls “the precious stone,” by which he means not just earth or the ground of being but rather jewels, emeralds, minerals that sparkle and behave like water in the presence of light. Other essays in Alternating Current point us to Henri Michaux, the French surrealist who, like Huxley, published books in the 1950s about his experiences with mescaline.
I sit in the sun room at the back of the house listening to birds, wondering about the status of the statue, a Native American chief holding a peace pipe across his knee, an item I accepted as an “inheritance” after the death of my grandparents. It was an object that fascinated me; I remember sitting with it, contemplating it with reverence upon encountering it in my grandparents’s “rumpus room” as a child. How else is one to act in this being’s presence? Is what Ken Kesey does through his invention of Chief Bromden, the “half-Indian” narrator of Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a form of “literary redface”? The Western was a popular genre in the culture of Kesey’s childhood. The novel imagines an encounter between Bromden and a “red-faced Irish brawler” named Randall Patrick McMurphy. Both men are war veterans committed as patients in a mental institution run by the novel’s communist-matriarch supervillain, Nurse Ratched. Communism is figured as an emasculating threat, an overly demanding mother, a superego intent upon world-ordering through replacement of nature with machinery. Capitalism, meanwhile, appears via McMurphy as a kind of confidence trick. It allows patients to enjoy sex and alcohol. It gets them gambling and making bets. And best of all, it’s willing to sacrifice itself like Christ so that natives like Bromden can be “made big again.” Bromden is the one saved by novel’s end. He smothers the lobotomized and defeated McMurphy, throws a control panel through a window, flees the ward, and returns to nature.
I read an article about “zozobra,” a concept devised by Mexican philosophers of the early 20th century. Zozobra names a type of anxiety. For the philosopher Emilio Uranga, “Zozobra refers to a mode of being that incessantly oscillates between two possibilities, between two affects, without knowing which one of those to depend on.” “Zozobra,” write the article’s coauthors, “is a soul-sickness,” a “gnawing sense of distress” due to “cracks in the frameworks of meaning that we rely on to make sense of our world.” Figures like Jorge Portilla proposed what the authors call a “nationalist” solution to this crisis, with leadership intervening to construct “a coherent horizon of understanding at the national level…a shared sense of what is real and what matters.” Is the US, as these authors suggest, afflicted with zozobra? Is zozobra another name for what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”? Haven’t frameworks of meaning always been sites of struggle between dominant and subordinate groups — classes, sects, tribes, etc. — as per Gramsci? To understand zozobra as a distinct affect, I hear myself thinking, one needs to situate it amid what was happening in 1950s Mexico, this being the moment and place of the term’s theorization. With spring underway, though, the concept slips away from me and evaporates — for my mood is less one of anxiety than one of excitement.
“Against work, for utopia,” announces a podcast I’ve listened to of late. Give it a try: sex worker Conner Habib, the show’s host, interviews Marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work. Weeks is an investigator of “Antiwork Politics” and “Postwork Imaginaries.” See especially her book’s fifth chapter, “The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope,” where Weeks proposes “a utopianism without apology” (175). To defend the latter, Weeks draws upon the ideas of the great German Marxist “philosopher of hope” Ernst Bloch. Her account of Cold War anti-utopianism covers ground I covered in my dissertation: Karl Popper, Francis Fukuyama. All of it now dust in the wind. Let Utopia rise again from the sea of the possible as it did for More.
There were deer in the yard when I arrived home from “the Teet.” And a stinkbug that needed rescue, and a toilet that whines and may need a new valve. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll mow the lawn and grade. In the days ahead, we hope to build our garden. As Roy Morrison said of the Mondragon cooperatives: “We Build the Road as We Travel.” Let these trance-scripts be spaces of hope. Signposts to an alternative modernity, like the one reported from firsthand by Richard Fairfield, reports gathered in his book The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities of the ’60s and ’70s. If I could time-travel, the countercultural communes would be a destination to which I would journey. Let us be drawn toward collective living, enriched by conversation with others. We can begin by taking Fisher’s course on Postcapitalist Desire. Read the assigned readings, including work by Ellen Willis. Fisher gets his assessment of the reasons for the failure of the communes from Willis. Fellow ’60s rock critic Richard Goldstein included Willis among Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman as members of a lost tradition of “radicals of desire.” Somewhere in my basement is a collection of Willis’s writing on rock music, Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Also the book with the material Fisher assigned: Beginning to See the Light.
We rejoice upon word of the rapid, successful birth of our niece. My sister FaceTimes with us: she and baby are well. We care for her boys until her return, while teaching and caring for each other. The boys are into lightsabers and Fortnite. I race after them, pushing Frankie in a stroller, as they bike to the neighborhood park on the bay. They request “Lava Monster,” where I roar and give chase.
Laws are changing in both the state of my birth and my current state of residence. The states that house most of my lived experience. Decriminalization of marijuana where I reside, and legalization up north for the people of New York. Think of it as “tools returned to the people,” “medicine for the people,” people able now to receive plant wisdom without fear of persecution. In some locations, these projects have been “articulated,” in Laclau and Mouffe’s sense, with police abolitionism and reparations for communities of color.