I roll down the passenger-side window and sit in my wife’s parked car beside a prickly bush, bothered by my historical moment but trying to breathe, trying to find joy and cheer despite the gridded, hyper-branded environment. A kiss and I feel much better. Roses, rainbow umbrellas, Moses Boyd’s “Rye Lane Shuffle.” Or better still: Yussef Kamaal’s “Black Focus.”
The relationship to capitalism is one forced upon me, my consent squeezed out of me every time I share space with others, i.e. every moment of every hour. How do I shed the anger I carry about, so as not to be troubled by headlines, flags, courts, markets, affairs of state — the recklessness and hostility of the American present? One way is to discover a secret history of underground resistance, like the one featuring Michael Aldrich, author of “Marijuana Myths & Folklore,” the first Ph.D dissertation on cannabis in the US, completed at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. Aldrich founded the first college chapter of LEMAR in 1967 and was co-founder of Amorphia (1969-1973), the organization that sponsored the first California Marijuana Initiative in 1972. Download issues of old counterculture newspapers like Oz, Gandalf’s Garden, the Ann Arbor Sun, and The Marijuana Review. Allow magical meanings to reveal themselves day by day. By that, I suppose I mean synchronicities and sermons heard in birdsong. Leary associate Art Kleps seems to have preferred something more than that. For him, “ideas of reference” are where it’s at, as he claims in The Boo Hoo Bible (161). But mine is the path of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Aparigraha, and Brahmacarya: the five principles of Yama.
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 have long been a fan of the American independent filmmaker Jem Cohen, so it was a source of some pleasure to watch his recent film “in fifteen chapters,” Counting.
Early on, the viewer is made to wonder, Why is Cohen’s relationship to the city (like it is for so many of us) that of a silent, alienated, spectating/observing bird-watcher? What conditions have stripped life of joy in common? Why do the citizens of the twenty-first century global metropolis live as burdened, isolated monads? Is it, perhaps, because of the way we’ve organized our relations with others? Cohen intervenes in this reality about ten minutes in with the emotional intensity of Dirty Three’s “Furnace Skies.”
The film’s second chapter, titled “A Day Is Long,” takes us to a drab, lonely post-Soviet Moscow where statues of dead labor rot amid cars, ads, litter, lonely pedestrians on cellphones. Bring back the culture war, the cultural revolution, styles of radical will exercised in speech, hair, and fashion. It will be my duty this semester to recall for students the shapes and horizons of political action during what Michael Denning called “culture in the age of three worlds.” I’ll present Abbie Hoffman’s “talk-rock album” Woodstock Nation as the hippie modernist equivalent of a blog. Topical writing, filled with a sense of immediacy. Nowadays it’s tear gas and pepper spray for protesting in a park, as it was then. A dog stares up at the sky, sad and confused, in a city in Turkey. There is at least a dense, lively quality to Istanbul’s streets, a bustle, at least in the shots Cohen includes in Counting. Cats, birds, people eating outdoors, street markets. Of the film’s cities, the ones in the US and Russia are the most miserable. Like The Evens song featured on its soundtrack, the film asks us to stop repeating defeated being. Thus afterwards, to welcome a new dawn, I listen to Jefferson Airplane performing “Volunteers” at Woodstock. As Sly Stone says on the track that follows, “Time to get down.”
A curving rainbow path extends from a tiger’s eye viewed in profile against a starry background. In the time it would take for these stars to blink, the eye’s lower half morphs into the Millennium Falcon, out of which emerge tentacles composed of rows of cutouts of mechanically reproduced bees. This more fundamental language—visual signifiers assembled from scraps of pop detritus—is the one we think with. A conspiracy of forces, however, has stolen from us the various alternative modernities of our dreams. Our tastes as a culture have led us instead to remake reality into sequences of Apprentice episodes, Disney films, and bleak first person shooter franchises. How do we return to futures of nomadic tribes of ‘peace pipe’-packing hippies, hitchhiking and trucking along networks of cybernetic socialist settlements and encampments?
Everywhere I walk, I’m surrounded by boring, meaningless garbage, interrupted only by the beauty of birds, leaves, and sunlight. My neighbors splay across the bumpers of their cars stupidities like “I’ll Cheer for Duke When They Play Al Qaeda.” Cargo boxes and credit form a world. Horrified bodies raise arms to the sky, their lives reduced to mere drudgery on account of machines. Capitalism, blind in its judgment of quality, turns our labor-power against us, chains us to programs and institutions; buildings, infrastructure; protocols; systems of assessment. We live aboard and help service a planetary totality every bit as oppressive as the Death Star. Such is the perspective achieved in Allan Sekula’s devastating portrait of the global economy, The Forgotten Space.
Relentless toil, interrupted only briefly: ’tis the fate of the global many under capitalism. Twenty-first century realism consists of stories of people coerced into building around themselves labyrinths they can never escape.
If the totality desires mystical mumbo-jumbo, who am I to deny it? Mind combined with grind, and still I came up short. Boxed in on all sides. Few remaining lines of flight. The powers that be turned down my request for parole. My mobility, my financial freedom, modest influence over the content of my days: all have been stolen from me by a tribunal, a committee of three, performing without so much as a murmur of regret their bit part as Träger of an unbrotherly totality. The value-form is quite literally a cancer run loose through the universe. The rhythm of it leaves me paralyzed. I become convinced of curses, ill omens. Powers, and the arc they apply to history, are perhaps less benevolent than I’d once assumed.
Our journey north having reached its conclusion, on the books as a two-week endurance test, a struggle, self-realization limited, Sarah and I head home to our southern clime, stopping off for the night in a filthy roadhouse inn. The world everywhere lonely and desolate. Trucks pull in their wake as they speed past a fearsome howling void, air torn apart from itself as podcasts blather on, chewing at one’s ears about some dismal bit of capitalist reality. Cops flash constantly in and out of view along the highway in this wretched country. As common a sight as birds along telephone wires. Cultivated heads, beware. I wish to assemble in place of this reality a world where strangers can live amiably with one another, going so far even as to tolerate hitchhiking without fear of harm. And there is in fact some leeway. One can always transform the world as one finds it through guerrilla ontology. Devise new games involving roles for oneself and for others, and voilà: one can see patterns where before there were walls.