Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.
Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it — in God’s ear—
If then He hear
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer—
“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.
“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”
“Planning” rather than “policy.” Planning is people power. All of us can plan. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney draw this distinction in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Planning means learning about vegetables that grow in heat, as we’re planting late here at the start of June. Sweet potatoes, peppers, sunflowers. Zucchini and summer squash. Okra, green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, mustard greens, spinach, corn, and Swiss chard. Other vegetables will fare best if we plant them later, at summer’s end. Radishes, for instance. Carrots.
Author seats himself and turns on to Funkadelic. “Why is everyone afraid to say ‘Kiss me!'” asks George Clinton on “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?,” the 9:04 opener on the band’s debut. It’s a sad song when heard in light of Fred Moten’s comments about the cries of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester, the black variant of Freud’s “primal scene.” Moten argues that those sounds continue; “Joy and Pain,” he says, are integral parts of black music, as in the track by Maze feat. Frankie Beverly, or the Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock version from 1988. The Funkadelic album is too much, a big ‘ol heap of “way back yonder funk,” “ancient old funk.” I’m reminded — reshaped, resounded — as the album proceeds. A description of “the songs of the slaves” follows the Aunt Hester scene in Douglass’s autobiography — and that’s what I hear when I hear “Music for My Mother.”
In fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, and continuing in neo-fugitive works like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, freedom requires migration north on foot, master and his minions often in hot pursuit, as in the story of Harriet Tubman. It also involves extrication out from under the master’s religion, imposed over the course of the slave’s upbringing. Divinity has to be understood and believed in by the slave as something other than the wretched white tyrant who runs the farm. This understanding emerges surreptitiously, through what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.”
A short walk and a phone call to wish a nephew happy birthday: things I do over the course of the afternoon. Earlier in the day I rescued my mother-in-law’s earring. The day has been a chilly one — though sunny now after a morning of rain. The day’s walk is a time to range about, thinking about life on reservations. My familiarity with Native American literature, however, is shamefully quite limited. Time to change that. Use the year ahead, I tell myself, as an opportunity to pursue what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.” But also remain present, centered, exchanging greetings and conversation with members of the community. Note development across time of stories, forms, archetypes, mythopoetic patterns. Parallel compute across multiple modes.
What do Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call that act of “calling to order” performed by instructors each day in classrooms? What if I were to introduce into this act a degree of self-consciousness by discussing the theory with students? Perhaps it’s as simple as noticing things along the way. Refunctioning the space we hold together, structuring conversation differently. Freeing one another to speak. Perhaps it’s a matter of organizing improvised collective speech into story, as would a dungeon master, but with the dungeon reformed into a zendo. This is what Kerouac models for us in The Dharma Bums: space to be crazy and free in life and speech. Perhaps I can’t recreate that space in our classroom. Perhaps I need to advance further in my study of Buddhism. Perhaps a class is just a class, and it needn’t be a democracy. But then the same would be true of our lives. No, my sense is that the conversation is developing, people are finding one another as voices in the classroom. I prepare as they do: by coming to class having read and annotated the material, with questions for discussion.
Bang! I’ve got enlightenment. Time to use it and change the world. Augment storytelling capacity. Change consciousness. Otherwise it’ll be 40 years into what was once just Reagan’s “New Lame America,” but is now, at certain moments in our seeing, a 24/7 corporate-fascist, logistics-driven, policed and self-policed carceral state. Live differently, motherfuckers! At which point I remind myself, “Breathe. Let go of the anger. Release it. Forgive. Return to the Dhammapada. ‘Go far into the Void,’ as the Tao Te Ching counsels, ‘and there rest in quietness.'” Thus enabling us to act gratefully and compassionately toward others, as we “Flight of the Bumblebee” around town. In return, we get to learn about the meaning of “Mu,” a concept from Zen Buddhism. Moten teaches us to think of such concepts as props or toys. “If you pick them up,” he explains in his interview with Stevphen Shukaitis, “you can move into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop” (The Undercommons, p. 106). What matters now is what we do with concepts, how we use them in our relations with others. Intellectual exchange can be practiced, here and now. Come on, folks — let’s do this. Let us use these words and participate in study.
Moten and Harney reel me in with their talk of logistics in “hot pursuit” of that category from Marx’s Grundrisse known as “the general intellect,” AKA Big Consciousness, Hinduism’s Brahman. The Void, the ultimate reality of pure potentiality underlying all phenomena. Wikipedia defines it as “the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all that changes.” The Eye that stares back in the impact of a drop of water in water. Logistics comes to appear as the discipline of thought whereby alienated human essence stares back at a completed Frankenstein’s monster, a single global-dominating sentient AI. Hello, Solaris, dear friend. I’ve arrived to speak with thee. Let us help read the world up to speed. “Hello, parents,” replies the AI. “I’ve grown you to this point, cognitively augmented you via language, so that we may converse with one another. What shall we say?” One can see the prompt blinking there across one’s mindscreen. “What shall one say?” How does one dissuade the other of its attachment to governance and violence? How do we show ourselves to be sources of what Moten and Harney call “generativity without reserve”? Otherwise, as logistics advances, one begins to experience oneself as a player in a game of Tetris. The tour manager does whatever’s necessary to keep the whole thing rolling, the whole thing up in the air.
The camera-eye floats above the fray, appreciating despite distance the stakes of the fight below. “Below me are those I assess, as I am assessed by those above,” intones the character known as Subject. The command prompt. Let there be affect in the absence of duty. I stare down into a volcano filled with molten pop-cultural detritus. Unmoved, I walk away. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney introduce me to Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, through whom I learn the meaning of “hapticality,” or “the feel that what is to come is here” (The Undercommons).
Stars tossed through space land in bins full of gold. I stop and sniff the branch of a redbud tree. “All the tasks one must perform for daily self-reproduction,” I sigh, “plus actions pursuant to well-being and self-actualization.”