What is my relationship to US settler-colonialism? For historian Nick Estes and the members of the Red Nation, the US is not a “nation of immigrants” but a “nation of settlers.” My ancestors are said to have arrived to North America from Ireland and Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — after the Civil War. They settled in apartments in urban ethnic enclaves in New York and New Haven, another group in Memphis, TN. After service in the two World Wars, they purchased homes in the new postwar suburbs of Long Island — though “purchased” is perhaps a misnomer, as the banks retained portions of these mortgaged properties, debt in that way a permanent tool of extraction. Both grandfathers launched and ran small businesses. Before I was born, however, both were dealt charges of tax evasion. One settled quickly by paying a fine; the other refused, and may or may not have had minor mafia connections, my parents always denying involvement of that sort (though maybe also hinting at it in secret?). All I know is, expenses ate away at his always-no-more-than-modest wealth, leaving my parents and I no inheritance other than debt. Since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve lived in rental homes on land that was several centuries ago stolen from Native people. My parents sent me off to a settler-colonialist boarding school, a “university,” so that by boarding school’s end I was left with the bill, a bill that in its form as debt has sentenced me to life as the equivalent of Staff at another of the system’s boarding schools. Can a person of my circumstance join the Red Nation? What would that mean? What would that entail? The struggle, after all, is worldwide, is it not? All of us occupy a place in it. Time to decolonize the world, from within and without Occupied Territories. (There’s your microcosm and your macrocosm. There’s your cognitive map. There it is: the totality and one’s place in it. It was there, in a sense, in Brave New World and its reservation system, albeit distorted by the particulars of Huxley’s standpoint and powers of vision.)
Freud imagined an inner class war of sorts between two competing principles, Reality and Pleasure. The bourgeois subject arises in the midst of this war and constitutes for itself a set of properties, the ownership and worth of which it then endlessly renegotiates through politically adjustable, rule-based, contract-bound transactions with fellow subjects. As such, this subject emerges compromised in its commitments from the start. Unlike Freud, however, the humanistic psychologists who succeeded him in the 1960s operated in a postwar context; for them, a settlement had been reached. The future was to be divided into time for Reality and time for Pleasure, each given their due, with reconciliation achieved through individual and collective quests to self-actualize. For someone like me, of course, living after the 1960s, during an era of global neoliberal domination, neither of these conceptions fits. I am neither the Freudian subject nor the humanistic subject. As a debtor, I live in a present of ongoing precarity, opportunities both for pleasure and self-actualization severely limited. Others share my predicament, the “scandal” of Debt. Yet what are we to do? Aside, that is, from sitting around listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing the Jerome Kern Songbook. I’d put word to the experience if I could. Horns with a bit of sass. Shimmering bells.
I set to work reorganizing my office into a sanctum. I handle old books, rearrange them in space. I eye the parts of the space, asking each object that my attention happens upon how it might give me joy. I peek through piles of paper. I pretend to think for a moment in character as a “life coach.” “What do I want with this stuff?” I ask myself while staring at the contents of a tall metal filing cabinet, each hanging folder neatly labeled, organized mostly in accord with topics I studied in grad school. Much of it seems distant and dated: political pamphlets, neighborhood bulletins. Paper-media objects of the past. How much of it is worth holding onto? At the very least, the file cabinet tells a story: eyeing a drawer’s contents, one moves from dissertation chapters and professors’ comments to a final folder (the only one with which I interact anymore) overflowing with bills. That’s why I took to climbing Mystic Mountain. Yet now I’m here, sitting beside a spider on my front stoop at dusk, watching it weave its web. I sit awed by all the little live things, all my kind, beautiful companions, breathing, centering, seeking to do well by all.
We are everywhere and we are growing. We withdraw consent and demand concessions. First, we demand control of the social surplus. We produced it. It is ours. Each receiving adequate share of total world production. Give us our daily bread — by which I mean space and time for mutual collective joy. Let us be plentiful, gracious, generous — open and transparent in our ways. No more cowardly Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each of us, here and now, must walk away from Omelas. But what if we’re debtors? There can be no freedom until we receive our Jubilee.
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).
“Hack the code.” That seems to have been the final utterance of the counterculture before dispersing out onto what cyberpunk Bruce Sterling called “islands in the net.” But who among us cave-dwellers possesses the capacity to hack? How do we who are landless debtors hack back into the biosphere and become communally self-sufficient? How do we rewire and reboot world operating systems? For me, it’s by reading Thom Gunn’s wonderful poem written under the influence of acid, “At the Center.” Formally composed into three numbered sections, each containing two six-line rhymed stanzas of iambic pentameter, the poem is nevertheless heady and psychedelic. Filled with wonder. The one commons we do possess as heads, I suppose, is language. Poets like Gunn remind me that that, too, is a code we could hack, though “hacking” as a metaphor for practice seems far too intrusive and masterful, too contra naturam, for the work that lies ahead.
Improper machinery, loss of greenery. It’s the difference, flesh-wise, between an avatar and a cyborg. We need personhood — hence our qualms with the State. Medical bills, student debt — these have got to go. I don’t just want us all alone in our basements wearing Google Glass or some near equivalent.
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.
Do I sometimes feel like a spy or an alien in a foreign land, and do I sometimes behave so? Indeed, I do. Joy is contraband for members of my class. Debtors are expected to work constantly to prove their right to live. And yet, once we deprogram ourselves, joy is easy to come by, easily ours. As easy as raising our arms to accept the light of the sun — a gesture I learn from the branches of bushes beside my office window on an uncharacteristically breezy 77° August afternoon. Self-actualizers, as Maslow says, “sometimes find emotions bubbling up from within them that are so pleasant or even ecstatic that it seems almost sacrilegious to suppress them” (Motivation and Personality, p. 158). With appropriate tools, one can expand into a sense of self empathetically absorbed into the nonhuman environment. Trying to place the brand of “techno-thriller” to which Ingo Swann’s Star Fire belongs, my mind lights upon the early works of Michael Crichton. Seeking info about the latter, I discover Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, a 1970 novel Crichton co-wrote with his younger brother Douglas under the pen name “Michael Douglas.” The book was adapted into a movie in 1972 featuring Barbara Hershey and John Lithgow in his screen debut as a campus drug dealer. Imagine Easy Rider set among the Boston and Berkeley freak left.