“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”
The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.
As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”
And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.
A lovely beach day, the first of the summer. I can’t help but feel as though I’m living a dream, the latter made manifest by happenstance in ways that are both thrilling and strange: movie reel dude-with-metal-detector, heart opening, circle of love expanding, the whole bit.
Frankie’s down for a nice nap after a morning at the pool. Sarah saw to matters related to the air unit — so I remove my feet from my socks and think. The narrative we write is important, yes? For narrative is the stuff of which cosmologies are made. World-pictures. Cognitive maps. The shape of the world is determined at the quantum level, much like Schrödinger’s Cat, by the struggle to determine the shape of the world-picture. Unless, of course, struggle and determination are not part of that picture. By “shape of the world” I mean the mutable present’s arrangement toward the imaginal realms we call “past” and “future.” Origin and telos. The present’s mode of appearance alters according to the previous night’s dreams, and the previous night’s dreams are shaped by memory and desire. Those who wish to steer the world toward Utopia take these latter as the prima materia of the great work. Kim Stanley Robinson, meanwhile, steers us back to work of a more literal sort. The climate crisis demands reorganization of labor. Certain chapters of Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future are written in the style of “notes,” “minutes” kept by an international working group: the Ministry, the book’s actant or protagonist. Work thus finds its way back even in our hours of leisure, as this is what we read when we read by the pool. The book itself is work; its utopia begins with a disaster, a heat wave that kills several million people in India. From this disaster come a pair of nova: the Ministry itself, of course, but also a direct-action group called the Children of Kali. This latter group intrigues me, given its alignment with the famous Hindu goddess of time, creation, destruction, and power. After the disaster, it is she who speaks to us: “I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive” (13). Kali is the persona Robinson dons to give voice to Nature. Kali, with her long terrible tongue. Kali, with her necklace of severed heads. Several of the book’s experts prognosticate “civilization kaput” before century’s end (55). It’s all rather bleak: countless species facing extinction in the years ahead. Against the backdrop of that abyss, the book conjures its hyperstitial alternative future of geoengineering and rewilding.
Robin D.G. Kelley carries forward a remarkable defense of fantasy in his book Freedom Dreams — one I might consider as I design a course on fantastic literature for the year ahead. Kelley quotes from Paul Garon’s book Blues and the Poetic Spirit. “Fantasy alone,” writes Garon, “enables us to envision the real possibilities of human existence, no longer tied securely to the historical effluvia passed off as everyday life; fantasy remains our most pre-emptive critical faculty, for it alone tells us what can be” (as quoted in Kelley 163-164). Garon sees the blues as revolutionary in nature due to “its fidelity to fantasy and desire” (164). Fantasy is one’s remembering of the past on behalf of the future through a kind of dreamwork, in accordance with a desire that draws reality toward the “as if” and the “can be.” Others have called this desire Eros and the Spirit of Hope. In his retelling of the story of surrealism in light of anticolonialism, Kelley reveals a side of Jules Monnerot that was unknown to me. I’d known him before as a member of Acéphale, a secret society formed by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. After WWII Monnerot drifted to the right and denounced Marxism as a political theology akin to Gnosticism. What I learn from Kelley, however, is Monnerot’s prior involvement with surrealism. Martinican by birth, Monnerot arrived to France in the early 1930s. By 1933, he’d published a critique of the “civilized mentality” in the Surrealist periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Monnerot was one of several black intellectuals attracted to surrealism. Kelley argues that these intellectuals “found in surrealism confirmation of what they already know — for them it is more an act of recognition than a revolutionary discovery. […]. Aime Césaire insisted that surrealism brought him back to African culture. Ted Joans wrote Breton that he ‘chose’ surrealism because he recognized its fundamental ideas and camaraderie in jazz. Wilfredo Lam said he was drawn to surrealism because he already knew the power of the unconscious, having grown up in the Africanized spirit world of Santeria” (184-185). For the abovementioned figures, and for others like Watts poet-activist Jayne Cortez, “Surrealism was less a revelation than a recognition of what already existed in the black tradition” (187).
Yunkaporta describes his book Sand Talk as “an examination of global systems from an Indigenous perspective.” This is what we need, is it not? The Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson proposed that we call this thing we need a “cognitive map,” but Yunkaporta calls it “a template for living.” Reading the latter’s book, I’m reminded immediately of “songlines,” or “maps of story carrying knowledge along the lines of energy that manifest as Law in the mind and land as one, webbed throughout the traditional lands of the First Peoples.” Yunkaporta’s is a cosmology that allows for Elders and Ancestors, as well as “sentient totemic entities” and non-human kin. That cosmology clarifies, its form shimmers into being, when he writes, “Beings of higher intelligence are already here, always have been. They just haven’t used their intelligence to destroy anything yet. Maybe they will, if they tire of the incompetence of domesticated humans.” Most of us, he argues, have been displaced. History is a narrative of global diaspora, as most of us are “refugees” severed from the land-based cultures of origin of our Ancestors. Progress or healing occurs by revisiting “the brilliant thought paths of our Paleolithic Ancestors.” The ancients possessed cognitive functions that remain part of our evolutionary inheritance, but most of us remember no more than a fraction of these functions, our capacities stifled by our separation from the knowledge systems of Indigenous, land-based people. Through reading Yunkaporta’s book, one encounters “yarns.” Oral culture provides a lens through which to view the print-based knowledge systems of the Empire. Yunkaporta recognizes the challenges involved in such a project. “English,” he writes, “inevitably places settler worldviews at the centre of every concept, obscuring true understanding” (36). To communicate with the global system, Yunkaporta must write with “the inadequate English terms of his audience” (38) — but he makes the language work through “the meandering paths between the words, not the isolated words themselves” (37). “Dreaming” is an example of such a word: necessary, Yunkaporta notes, “unless you want to say, ‘supra-rational interdimensional ontology endogenous to custodial ritual complexes’ every five minutes” (38). Yunkaporta introduces “the dual first person…a common pronoun in Indigenous languages” (39) — and just like that, the Cave is behind us and we’re beginning to see the light. He translates it as “us-two.” Us-two’s fingers type those letters while with our mouths we say ngal.
The Unconscious talks across the divide. Through dreamwork it produces aspects of itself, events and encounters of each day “affected,” given to rise amid the lifeworld of the Ego, the Cogito, the “Subject.” Facets of the Akashic records surprise as they arise like flowers from the soil of routine. The process I’m describing is a bit like “hyperstition,” CCRU’s term for the way fictions make themselves real. (One could also liken it, though, to those acts of “time-walking” or “time-spinning” practiced by the creatures in the Deborah Harkness-inspired TV series A Discovery of Witches. Bodies of past selves inhabited by future minds.)
The “altered state” presumes variance from a norm: or at the very least, contrast between varying states. Modulation among intensities of experience. Sleeping and waking states. Dream states, drug states, trance states. States of hyper-absorption: flow-states, runners highs, fever-induced deleria. All of our texts this semester assume some ordinary, everyday waking state, as well as an alternative to that state. And in fact, we’ve all experienced “altered states” of one kind or another. Moments of intense concentration, moments of absorption or immersion.
A dream: Sarah and I ride with our friends S. and M. in the back of a FedEx truck stuffed with packages. Soon students join us, as if we’re all traveling somewhere for a field trip. Several students consume mushrooms. Part of me wants to partake, but when they offer, I decline due to personal and professional obligations. Eventually we arrive at a house. Some guy from the truck begins to chat with me in the basement about a wild trip of his and a course he teaches at the Center for Integral Something-or-Other. Buffalo emerges as a shared point of reference, at which point Sarah peeks her head down the stairs. “The kids have arrived — time to come upstairs.” I wake to find Sarah lying beside me, breathing through a series of contractions.