I relish the multimedia composites featured at the start of Wormwood, the new Netflix series from Errol Morris about the mysterious suicide of CIA employee Frank Olsen, one of the casualties of Project MK-Ultra. The series makes abundant use of screens within screens, the mind left straddling levels. In this act of mirroring, we find ourselves. My sister-in-law and her husband, however, unimpressed by Wormwood, recommend I watch an anime series called One Punch Man. Eventually we settle on Gremlins, as if choice of film is of some moment. I listen bewitched to the song of the Mogwai: a metaphor, no doubt, for the importation of drugs and electronics devices from the Far East into American society. Revenge via “gizmos” and heroin. With Wormwood weighing on my mind, I find myself projecting onto Gremlins a “War on Drugs”-era narrative of the psychedelic revolution gone haywire — drug culture as national nightmare. This was of course one of the key allegories hammered home to me during my childhood via D.A.R.E. and Narc. But like so many films of the 1980s, it also emphasizes the cruelty of the rich and of people in general. Think of the father character as Daddy CIA, bringing home to his teenage son a shiny, brightly-wrapped package, gotten at a “junk” shop in Chinatown. After an explosion of Orange Sunshine, kids like Corey Feldman start running around dressed like trees. Like a wired artichoke, out pops the comic book Id.
The term “mogwai,” remember, refers to a kind of “devil” or “demon” in Chinese culture. So sayeth the purveyors of ancient myths. What happens, though, when the African-American scientist character starts to inject these mogwai with hypodermic needles? It’s as if someone left the culture’s brain exposed in a darkened laboratory. “Do you hear what I hear?” asks the television. “Do you see what I see?” Coming this Christmas: Takeover by foreign power. All the invaders need do is suspend the postal service, fuck with traffic signals, and seize the airwaves, and the nation is theirs. Note, though, that in the movie, the forces of anarchy don’t succeed at overpowering the community until the gremlins find their way to the water supply.
Notes diminish slowly, like particles falling through space across brief durations. A friend’s voice, heavily masked, brings light. Does my focus increase or diminish when I convince myself that the object-world is no more than a single, alien form of consciousness: one, however, that will grant me the power to decode the messages it sends me, so long as I let it? And say this conviction were a fiction, however much the external world might seem to confirm it. Would that in any way lessen its therapeutic validity as an orientation toward being? Experience is often like a pull toward a hesitant positivity — until something terrible gets in the way. Let us turn our gaze toward the means of worship pioneered by Akhenaten. As if in reply, Alfred Bruneau performs Verdi’s “Requiem: Dies Irae & Tuba Mirum.”
How much do I wish to read into that? Is it wrong to think that Rochester has become a fun place to visit while stoned? Bars, bookstores, restaurants. Diverse neighborhoods. Homes and storefronts lit for the holidays. But I worry — albeit only in a distant, abstracted way — that I’ve become the kind of person who prefers to withdraw, to subtract from extended community with others. Perhaps this is the lesson one learns when visiting with family under capitalism. Dull, shiftless, emptied of concern: these are words I project preemptively into the thought bubbles of others. My sensitivity to a certain kind of anxiety leads me to imagine those around me acting the part of the killjoy, the spoilsport, the moralist. In thinking this, I grow cold, I go brittle. Morals are not the rules we invent by which to live; nor are they the rules we obey simply so as to attend to the cares of others. Rather, they’re the rules we follow for no reason other than that some part of us desires to uphold tradition — traditional biases, traditional prejudices — as lifestyle, as aesthetic. Thinking this strips me of volume and capacity. “Step back,” I say, ears awakened by fireworks. “Get up and try again.”
The ignorant are down on another level. They hoard matter, gathering it up behind walls and gates (“no trespassing!” they shout), claiming as theirs the means of subsistence so as to harm those on whom love redounds. Houses offer themselves as compromise-formations made of ticky-tacky. To deflect, I imagine myself penning an essay titled “From Hosers to Gozer: Rick Moranis and the Spazz Sublime.” Thus we bear the ills we have, man-child archetypes making cowards of us all. “Oh come let us…this word,” says Alex Trebek. “What is ‘adore,'” replies the contestant. “Correct for $1000.” Helicopters, government assassins hunting small-town stoners: ’tis the season. “Such behavior,” a woman objects, “makes no sense.” One’s angel, I conclude, is a bit like one’s handler. We acquire gnosis via allegory, but the drones are on their way.
A TV set tells me to let out my “inner child,” so I settle back into an armchair in my in-laws’ living room and prepare to watch some crappy-looking movie called American Ultra. Cardi B interrupts, though, cuts me down, says “Don’t get comfortable.” Tastemakers toss out “year’s best” lists, ’tis the season, but the bests they tout are all boastful belligerents, earnest Garbage Pail Kids, self-assertive jerks. The competitive dynamic of the capitalist star system rewards the most cutthroat, the most rapacious — those among us who, thinking they possess royal blood, fashion themselves fully in the image of capital. No more music from these suckers.
Tobacco’s “Yum Yum Cult” tunes me in, helps me switch on to life in an alternative future, the psychedelic machine-in-garden paradise of Richard Brautigan’s “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.”
Long-haired commune-dwellers sit on grassy hillsides worshiping the moon with cups of wine, the night sky a thing there for them to ponder while listening on headphones to Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra.”
Shapes drift across an inky cosmos. Here in the other future, the one in which you and I reside, where ordinary folk are born to be hurt, the words most appropriate are those of the Talking Heads song, “Born Under Punches.”
The tea leaves that show up sometimes in my Facebook feed suggest that in the days ahead, we may be facing another constitutional crisis. Imagine a harrowing chase scene. Will we take to the streets and participate in work stoppages? Or, like dogs, will we roll on our backs and submit? For answers, I look to John Berryman’s “Desire is a World by Night.” The poem’s reply is none too reassuring. “If anyone could see,” he writes, “The white scalp of that passionate will and those / Sullen desires, he would stumble, dumb / Retreat into the time from which he came / Counting upon his fingers and his toes.” Jingle bells, morality tales, big webworks of meaning. Hissing voices whisper. Recruit the right words, intones a booster, and we can give and take — everything multiplied sevenfold.
Without willing it so, I nevertheless recall to consciousness that version of myself employed in my teen years: washing dishes, breaking down cardboard boxes, condensing the remains with a baler. Let us endure again brief clips from these episodes—the hot summers, the cold winters—but let our minds drift as these clips unfold, consciousness regrouping to ponder in a featureless inner elsewhere the star system’s relationship to the class system. Hands wave in symmetry to re-center hemispheres. Saicobab steps in, instructs us anew, with “aMn nMn.” I listen anxiously as voices multiply. Sound translates into something I can see. I still myself, I hold my breath. I land uncomfortably in a new book by Irwin Leopando on Paolo Freire. Leopando identifies three mid-20th century French Catholic humanists—Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—as leading influences on Freire’s thought. Together, he writes, these thinkers inquired into what it means to be “fully human.” Wary of Catholicism’s neurosis of sacrifice, however, I soon replace “Paolo” with “Roberto” and delve into the world of “somatherapy.” Quickly, though, I intuit a schism internal to consciousness, or perhaps to the universe: I am a self, imagining myself to be real, while aware as well of my apartness from, my adjacency to, the full potential of ways of doing or being. The human “person” performing its self-authoring awaits a transmission from an absolute Other. The stories persons tell themselves, their mysticisms, says the Other: these are proper vocations, forming threads by which selves are sewn.
Old traditions, habits — in a word, reflexes — can be restructured, re-programmed, self-creation aided by sacred herb. No more body stuffed with cotton, head empty, life terrible. Life becomes now the more proper “Lab for New Systems.” Self-organization of consciousness through introduction of arbitrary information. What would it mean to place great stock in one’s high school years as one’s model social community? Reality would seem to confirm or disprove a particular story, a particular morality, wouldn’t it? A little bit darker. Not so luminescent a day as last. A wary faith, newly discovered, fresh hatched. I take to fretting. I fret about children receiving neoliberal upbringings, deprived of space for wilding. To “correct” — or in other words, to employ education as a counter-power — I stage in my classroom an implosion for demonstration purposes of inherited capitalist thought systems, after which point I open and make available to students doorways onto more sensitive forms of personhood. Distractions removed, we get down to the doing of what persons do: we read books together. While reading, though, we remind ourselves that we cohabit with squirrels and birds. Like them, we enjoy sunlight, moderate temperatures, food and water. We’d all rather eat than go hungry. They, too, in other words, are persons. Capitalism’s worship of individualism, meanwhile, coincides with its indifference to persons. It mass produces the former, while eradicating the latter. We ride around, the sky gray all day, opaque both to ourselves and to others. Ecosystems are met with wanton acts of destruction; persons are starved and incarcerated and killed. Yet those who attain personhood behave in an opposite manner. This is why we must do away with capitalism. Let us become, finally, a beloved community of persons, one that personalizes the world around it, recognizing persons in others where before it seemed there were none.