I hear myself hissing in syncopation with taps of a ride cymbal on Jeremy Steig’s “Sure Shot”-inspiring psych-flute classic “Howlin’ for Judy.”
The 2008 compilation of that name gives the mind-body a good workout. But since debt remains like a concrete block atop my speculative horizon, I read while listening to “Nardis” Annie McClanahan’s mapping of my subjection in her book Dead Pledges where she writes, “Put simply, for many students today, the cost of an education is greater than the lifetime income gains it enables, making human capital a rather dire form of speculation indeed” (193). I picture myself as a character, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster — the proletarian subject awakening to consciousness of itself as undervalorized, hyper-exploited wage-slave. In other words, awoken to its place in hell, where student loan debt and its consequences lasts forever. But because awoken, this subject can use music, meditation, reading and writing to steal back moments each day for beauty and freedom to love. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, my people sold me off into debt-slavery — but because it’s the 21st century, they can contact me from time to time via cellphone. Electromagnetic salt for speculative wound. Is it “cruel optimism” that makes me write? Is it wrong to go on fantasizing given these circumstances? I have yet to find anyone able to suggest to me another viable way to be. Of course, to default is also a form of political action. A secret power by which to reckon with the totality. In moments like this, “theory” opens up to me as a special communication creating grounds on which to gather in solidarity, as Chris Nealon says, with “those for whom the regime of capital only spells suffering” (as quoted in McClanahan 196).
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 sometimes sort among aporia: irresolvable questions, internal debates, cosmological Rubik’s Cubes, beanstalks into clouds of abstraction. I feel pulled along sometimes, burdened by daily conditions and daily demands on my labor. Sometimes I think of it as “capitalism” — these conditions, my condition. How do we cheer ourselves? How do we transform the cognitive map into something enjoyable, something we can dance to, some sweaty tie-died daydream? By what games might we reinvent labor as play?
One of capitalism’s most effective tactics of late is its placement of knowledge workers into permanent states of emergency and precarity. Each day churns up a new threat, a new outrage, a new lame letter from the university president, lackey of the university’s racist alums and trustees, many of whom remember fondly the days when they used to pose with confederate flags hung proudly in front of their fraternities. I defend myself by meeting with workers and comrades, groups of us planning and strategizing over tacos. We who operate in the Undercommons. Somehow in the midst of this, I also find time to practice radical loving kindness: watching, hoping, reading cookbooks, cooking. As a character notes in a recent episode of High Maintenance, “Life is funny — bees make honey.”
The problems hippie modernists proposed to address through their prophetic interpretation of the future have not gone away at all. The violence of capitalism is still all around us. We’re living amidst crisis. We’re living together amid these challenges. Utopia has already been modeled for us; those who modeled it waved to us from the past and asked us to come join them. What are we waiting for? Let’s do it. Each of us struggle for Utopia. It’s the same story for every individual life. Let us imagine the hippie modernist vision as our collective future. The members of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture have prepared us for what is to come. These are the two levels of historical and religious allegory. They’re shouting, “Join us! Join us!” with great joy in their hearts, like the crowd surrounding the police car at the dawn of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, remembered via Berkeley in the Sixties. The image reminds me of Bosch’s famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s triptych is the global-cosmic totality unfolding all at once. Think of it as the map of an ongoing, universally participatory Oculus-style MMORPG. It contains within its ambivalent central panel reality’s mysterious core. As audience members, we get to choose our own adventure. Is the air of perfect liberty an intoxicant or a solution to the riddle? In all of Bosch’s triptychs, one can read the work allegorically by viewing it — exercising perception — either sequentially, left to right, each life played out between Eden and Last Judgment, or in toto, viewed abstractly, like the Whole Earth from space. Atlantis is another era’s name for the West Coast. Time is a mere alteration undergone and endured by consciousness. Sun Ra saw this, broadcasting his music from “after the end of the world.” Let each of us create within ourselves a world-picture of like nature, and interesting things start to happen. Contain all elements within a magical-circular perspective and one has a world-picture, a cognitive map, functional on a level similar to ancient devices of such nature like the Tarot and the I Ching. All are devices allowing us to toggle consciousness from local, timely perception to perception of a kind able to observe constellations of meaning, one’s inner spinnings aligned with the timeless, universal spinning of the cosmos. Let us all find our places amid the stars even as now we race apart.
Blue jays, sparrows, robins, squirrels: beings with whom I cohabit a rented plot of land, among similar plots of land, in a residential grid laid atop the hills of a small urban settlement. Behavior-control within these settlements benefits from a traitorous science, instrumental reason turned back upon consciousness, nature Elon-Muskified so that even the buzz of one’s cellphone has been market-tested, designed by corporate-governed Others to rattle nerves and redirect awareness. Time for a cleanse. Healthy living. Grapes grow over a neighbor’s fence, near-ripe as Sarah and I case the usual several-block radius around our house on a gummy, ninety degree evening. My thoughts cycle back to the horrors of our time: armed fascists, detention camps, trade wars, corporate control of most facets of life, entrapment via student debt. Big Data capitalism’s deliberate negation, in other words, of nearly all utopian possibility. With effort, though, I can steer my concentration back to my breath and the beauty of my immediate surroundings. This redirection of thought through interaction of set and setting with volition reminds me of the virtues of form.
This miserable totality is driving me stir-crazy. I conjure on my telescreen an episode of The Mike Wallace Show from May 18, 1958 featuring Aldous Huxley, described by Wallace during the episode’s intro as “a man haunted by a vision of hell on earth.”
What I find, with some surprise, in this broadcast is a description of twenty-first century reality, especially if by that I mean reality here in the United States under the current Trump regime. Yet this world of ours also isn’t quite the one Huxley imagined, due to his misunderstanding of the logic of capitalism. Unlike Brave New World, for instance, it isn’t so much a world of “people happy where they oughtn’t to be.” Fear and anger, rather, are the dominant emotions in this world, whipped into being through omnipresent policing and gun violence. Given the structure of the built environment, one rarely experiences other people, one rarely experiences any kind of “group dynamic,” except via mediation, thanks to the ubiquity within the society of money, cars, and cellphones. Members of the dominator class drive around under these undemocratic, unfree circumstances communicating their dominance with their GOP bumper stickers and their MAGA hats and their open-carry firearms, while the rest of us hunch over steering wheels or stand alongside busy highways waiting for city buses, growing harried and bitter as we rush back and forth between rented or mortgaged living spaces and corporate-governed sites of production and consumption. In fact, I begin to wonder as the interview proceeds if it isn’t ultimately some deep-seated fear of rhetoric, of “verbal boobytraps,” as he says, that drives Huxley’s evolution, his turn in the final years of his life toward mysticism and psychedelics. Hope depended for him upon the possibility of direct, unmediated access to and experience of truth. Rhetoric maintains its victory, as it has in all hitherto existing societies, turning all of history into a forced march toward “thoughtless pleasure and ordered efficiency,” only to the extent that it succeeds in distracting us from the truth of the injustice of servitude, the truth that murmurs up from within. For what is “applied science,” what is “instrumental reason,” after all, if not rhetoric?