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.
River of cars, sleepless night. Mississippi combustion engine goddamn. How are we to sit, how are we to practice loving-kindness, amid the unbearable moral burdens of our time? This question haunts me, prompts torrents of words. I lie awake in bed mulling it over, unable to fall back asleep after a fire alarm goes off at 5:00am. Perhaps I’m already dead, I think to myself. Perhaps I’ve been so for some time, my soul consigned to some after-the-end-of-history purgatory, the rotten world of princes and principalities. All it takes, however, is the sight of a pair of pigeons to convince me otherwise. I refuse to mire myself in the needless suffering of an overly grim worldview. Sunlight, temperate climate, free parks and museums, diverse assortments of humans, air filled with the music of many languages: Eden remains in potentia all around us.
I wake from a series of vivid anxiety dreams and Trump-inspired apocalyptic nightmares. The first reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island retold in the style of Angela Carter. A grifter drives her car off an embankment into a stand of trees. Still a bit woozy from her crash, she wanders into an enchanted garden, at the center of which stands the twenty-first-century equivalent of a witch’s cottage. When the grifter learns that the cottage is for sale, she poses as a potential buyer. In a second dream, by far the more frightening of the two, a pair of middle-aged shock jocks wait in a hotel room preparing for a visit from the president. The shock jocks look oddly similar to one another. Picture Sir Richard Branson as a pair of coke-addled stringy-haired Texans. Close-up of a swastika carved into the bun of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. The POV withdraws to reveal my dream-self watching the shock jocks on a monitor, as if they were part of a feed from a surveillance camera. A woman enters the room and with infinite care suggests that I get my plans in order for the time ahead — at which point I wake.
Harried with work, days and days of grading midterms, I stumble free mid-afternoon into observation and contemplative reading of the Afros of the White Panther Party, dining on a side of green lettuce. How compartmentalized the days become under capitalist wage-slavery, I think with a sigh. Oscillations, electronic evocations of reality. Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair in the midst of the last civil war represented themselves on the stage of history as revolutionary superheroes. But department stores are weird trips, man. Compartmentalized to the nth degree. Objects hung from racks in one thinly-populated zone, dense diverse clusters of people and sound elsewhere. How might we reconnect? I pick up a faceted wood vase and tap at it, questioningly. A voice in a nearby aisle proclaims, “it feels so real!” Materials when touched, not what they seem. And these motherfuckers no longer carry my Heinz Jalapeño Ketchup. Reality becomes ever more standardized, with me too jittery and anxious to connect, strike up conversation with others. As in the song, I become “lost in the supermarket.” It’s at least in part a fear of race and sexuality. But mainly it’s a fear that to others I might seem a weirdo, a creep, a stoner. I wish we could somehow become heads together. How do we re-establish communication across the plastic dome?
I panic, respond with a sense of claustrophobia to circumstance. How does one catalyze, how does one activate, live intentionally via will and wish? My Theravada Buddhist mentors suggest I think in terms of “dark night” and “spiritual abyss.” Is it foolishly egocentric of me to long instead for bliss and joy? Must we always obey the dictates of work and suffering? I wish to be outdoors sometimes, listening to the language of birds, dogs barking occasionally in the distance. Yet I also long for the company of Sarah. Train horns, police sirens, cellphone-chatting neighbors: no matter. Let us learn to live happily and helpfully toward others. Trust it, I tell myself. Trust the process. Trust whatever is happening — this haunting, this spell of fear. Let moments fall around us like rain.
I pull air into my lungs with long, extended breaths as I come to. Stabs of low-range electric organ. Lawn mowing forms a new container-act into which I spill my beans. And that’s not the only way in which my life now resembles a reboot to a ’90s VR horror thriller. I’m thinking here of The Lawnmower Man, with my face buried in a pint of fried rice. The old man, after eating like a chimpanzee, belches and groans contentedly. His dog, an elderly dachshund with Cushing’s, adjusts her failing legs and licks the scraps at his feet. Allow me to remain deliberately blasé, though, dear readers, especially when rendering something vacuous and unmemorable like liberal humanist subjectivity. Don’t you want something better? As in, wouldn’t you prefer to be a psychedelic superhuman? When the dog pees on the floor, I stomp around the living room and speak down to her in an angry British accent. Teaching sometimes grants me a platform from which to denounce corporate news media as capitalist propaganda. On those days, rare as they may be, I get to spring on students tried-and-true head-busters like Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. But even on these best of days, teaching can still end up feeling like a mere teeth-gritting exercise. Laurie Penny and Plan C both think anxiety is the relational mode of our age, and I suppose they’re right; but rage and depression are close runners-up. All the more reason to smoke weed and zone out. It’s like replacing the competitive self-promoting self with a neon air dancer. Or as the Situationists used to say, “Sous les pavés, la plage!” Claire Cirocco soundtracks the day’s affect with “Clear Base Living,” a new track by her project Comme À La Radio.
It angers me to no end to have to show up, semester after mind-rotting semester, to teach classes of students who will never be as financially fucked as me. Friends and I formed and met regularly as members of an Adorno reading group in grad school. Yet what do I have to show for it? How has my character or circumstance been in any way bettered? There we go: head to head, with cracks of thunder ’round our sides. My winning move: pass through history unscathed. Map the ground covered, and then get back in there and hustle, keep going, advance ever further into the game’s interior.