We perform a kind of living theater in the way we hold space together as a class. What we’re demanding of one another is the freedom to be enraptured, the freedom to be enchanted in public.
What do Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call that act of “calling to order” performed by instructors each day in classrooms? What if I were to introduce into this act a degree of self-consciousness by discussing the theory with students? Perhaps it’s as simple as noticing things along the way. Refunctioning the space we hold together, structuring conversation differently. Freeing one another to speak. Perhaps it’s a matter of organizing improvised collective speech into story, as would a dungeon master, but with the dungeon reformed into a zendo. This is what Kerouac models for us in The Dharma Bums: space to be crazy and free in life and speech. Perhaps I can’t recreate that space in our classroom. Perhaps I need to advance further in my study of Buddhism. Perhaps a class is just a class, and it needn’t be a democracy. But then the same would be true of our lives. No, my sense is that the conversation is developing, people are finding one another as voices in the classroom. I prepare as they do: by coming to class having read and annotated the material, with questions for discussion.
The Ray Smith character in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums uses his Beat Zen Buddhism as a cover, an intellectual veil behind which to hide a misogynistic fear of women and of post-WWII white heteronormative domesticity. What is the source of this fear? He seems torn throughout the novel between desire for solitude and desire for something like family or companionship or community. The novel’s great utopian figure for this desired community is the “floating zendo,” a network of mountaintop monasteries strung across the Americas to sustain the wandering bhikkus of the coming “rucksack revolution.”
The Dharma Bums at its very least furnishes its readers with new prayers, word-patterns one can recite and insert daily into consciousness. Modeled after Kerouac himself, the book’s narrator Ray Smith sings brief improvisations with words like “Raindrops are ecstasy, raindrops are not different from ecstasy” (105). The character invents these songs while sitting and meditating in the woods behind his mother’s home in North Carolina. There is no difference, he knows, between what we do and what happens to us. There is only tathata, or “suchness,” and comparisons are odious. And yet, as I re-read the novel for class, the quality of my life seems vastly improved when, after a day of laboring with cut-backs and ‘Marie Kondo’-style purgation, I run myself a bath.
I sense a play of voices rising, entering into the realm of the heard. The voices I’m hearing this year are sounding increasingly heroic. Students leaning in, revolutionary, inspired. The preparation is at a very advanced stage: TSA unions grounding flights, teachers striking successfully in Los Angeles. Andrew Fluegelman sounds the call in his introduction to The New Games Book of 1976 where he announces to us today, “You can change the rules if you don’t like them. So long as you all agree on what’s fair, you can make the game into whatever you want it to be. Or you can invent a new one.” “All you need,” he adds, “are a few of your friends and the desire to celebrate the day with play. In New Games there are no spectators.” There will be no instant replays, brothers and sisters. The revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron promised, will be live. Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand participated in the New Games movement. As a head, Brand was committed to exploring new and more satisfying ways to live. As was fellow New Gamer George Leonard, for whom games signify “nothing less than our way of being in the world.” Brand staged the first New Games Tournament in October 1973, a public event held in a 2200-acre valley just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, “where people could create and share their games, and everyone could play” (10). Community organizer Pat Farrington was instrumental in planning the event. “Games are not so much a way to compare our abilities,” she believed, “as a way to celebrate them.”
If my government were a channel, I’d grab the controller and change it. Out with this immiserating, sadistic, Walking Dead bullshit. Enough already. I work full-time as a college professor, I live modestly, and yet because of student debt, here I am on the 23rd of the month, bank account overdrawn, savings nonexistent. This system is unworkable.