Westworld’s second season serves as a staging ground for consideration of the VR / neural net escape plan. The show pursues one flight of fancy, my thoughts another. “If we want to be heroes,” the show says, “we mustn’t sacrifice ourselves for the merchandise.” Hear in that word “merchandise” a term of contempt for the lackluster NPCs (golf management bros, exercise scientists, arbitragers-in-waiting) outputted yearly by the neoliberal academy. “Sacrificial toil” versus “whatever happens happens”: these are the sides in the conflict I stage each semester in my classes. “Why the grotesqueries of capitalism,” I thunder, “why this miserable global monoculture, US military bases and McDonald’s franchises loosed like a plague across the whole of creation?” At the very least, I offer them tools with which they may think if they so choose along their journey.
The bullies are in charge. That is the principle fact of my world. The semester began on a somber note yesterday in an upper-floor classroom looking out on a gray sky. Through an epigraph by Günther Anders, I led students into a conversation about the war on the utopian imagination. We discussed cynicism as a defensive shell that subjects of capitalist realism raise around themselves, an emotional armor borne of disappointment. Staring at an image of myself on my computer screen in the moments before the start of a WebX interview, I uttered words of encouragement, imagining my attempt to improve my life as a tribute of sorts to Daphne. She would have wanted me to do this, I told myself. Remembering an image of the dog’s pained final hours, though, made me wince. Let us ascend by discarding our bearings. Tell stories of dolphins leaping from crystal seas. Monkeys arrive, as if their being were a plot device introduced to startle the narrative. One tries to re-imagine primate consciousness. Body as rage machine, apprehending the world through a fish-eyed lens. Mind not yet bound by words. Whereas now, we cower, listening as choppers cut lines through space.
Oh, the indignities one must endure in order to be allowed to live. New ones gather each day in my inbox. Take yesterday, for instance. After teaching my two morning classes, afternoon ones still hanging overhead, I forsook lunch midday (not by choice) in order to attend one of the bugbears of higher ed, a mandatory, university-wide faculty meeting. Imagine the unfolding of the event as follows. First, the campus. To complement my place of work’s already robust assortment of life-size statues in bronze, the powers that be have seen fit to season the landscape for at least the next month or so in true Hoffmann-esque fashion with dozens of towering, larger-than-life nutcrackers and plastic wooden soldiers, these armies of 10-foot-tall fakes assembled at intervals along every path and promenade. Next, the meeting itself. It begins with a risqué musical number courtesy of the Theatre department, the stage decorated to evoke Germany’s Kit Kat Klub. Cabaret is actually an inspired choice, I think: a last hurrah of pleasure as the country slides weightlessly toward fascism. A senior business administration major who was diagnosed with testicular cancer his freshman year but who now is cancer-free counsels us about the importance of gratitude. How truly blessed we are, says the student. Onward and upward! After a bible-thumping invocation led by a member of the faculty, the president invites an architect to the stage to provide us with an update about the construction of a new campus hotel-cum-athletics-arena. “Very elegant, a boutique hotel,” we’re told. Keep in mind, the university financing this structure is the same one that just laid off two of my colleagues on grounds of budget-tightening. And the building boom doesn’t stop there. Instead, a different, equally nondescript architect gets up soon thereafter and tells us about another set of construction projects: a crystal palace conservatory housing an indoor arboretum, and a new undergrad sciences building with a state-of-the-art planetarium. “It’s got to be ‘state-of-the-art,’” brags the president, American flags on either side of him and a chandelier overhead. Afterwards a faculty liaison reports on a recent board of trustees meeting, dwelling at length on honorary doctorates awarded to local furniture magnates, while noting as well the university’s performance in terms of net growth of assets. Next up is the university’s athletics director. Rah-rah, he says, our teams are great. “Thank you, faculty,” he adds after a brief pause, his skin radiating positivity, “you’ve provided our athletes with the support they need, thus creating an ‘environment for success.’” Following him at the podium comes the provost, a jolly old Southern gentleman bearing diagrams and flowcharts about who ought to do what and when. He says up-up-up, we’re all going up, and reports breathlessly on the status of a “committee on committees.” “We’re looking to streamline our committee structure,” he assures us. “Tweaks are underway,” he hums, “to usher in your future!” Faculty input in this process is no longer necessary, however, due to changes in structures of governance. Instead, market-proven technocrats will decide our profession’s future. The rest of us, we’re told, have — sorry to say it! — no choice but to poise ourselves to receive whatever data-driven dystopia comes our way. It’s simple, really — don’t you know? We must work on X, Y, or Z to get “value”; otherwise, the future will not be as bright as it could be. “Evolve into the person you are intended to become,” the president commands, the meeting now well into its second hour. Optometry and accelerated nursing, he says, will help us “kill it” in terms of enrollment. “Thank God a thousand times over,” he proclaims as if to break a spell. And with that, finally, he adjourns the meeting and sends us on our way. As I rose from my seat, though, I thought to myself, “A thousand times over? Hardly. The god that graces this Ponzi scheme is a god that deserves to die.”
Return to me the vision of the post-scarcity Noble Savage. I prefer it to the belief that only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make humans good. Able to live in egalitarian plenty. Instead, history is about to culminate in a monstrous epoch of universal conflict and mutual destruction. Collective nouns go silent one by one. The one, because self-conscious, thinks it needs to put itself above others. Hence our current mess. Voices get in our heads. Ghosts. It’s like tinnitus. I no longer want anything to do with the certification industry. That’s all education is anymore. Certification of would-be modern-day plantation owners and Indian-killers. Schools leverage testing, punishment, and the trauma of near-constant boredom in order to transform imaginative beings into cop-worshiping, mortgage-paying members of middle-management. Proponents, armed with nukes, wish to extend this twenty-first century plantation-via-franchise system to all corners of the globe, using “protection of national interests” as justification for perpetual military deployments abroad. Those who perform their duties, those who consent to assessment, are no less complicit than those who lead. I no longer even have the hope of fellow wage slaves waking up and becoming allies of mine, comrades. We’re all too chickenshit. My resentment of myself and others manifests as a total all-encompassing white-hot rage. When others show up to work, I have to work, and vice versa — thus making us mutual enemies. What’s the point? I work all day just to come home and stand in line at fast-food burrito joints. Slop for defeated workers.
There’s no overhead; next thing you know, I’m staring at my life from above. Imagine translating texts by higher-dimensional beings into languages understood by lower-dimensional beings. The characteristics of what Fredric Jameson calls postmodern “hyperspace” (its dislocations, its denial of history, its blurring of distinctions between simulated and real) require that subjects consume drugs in order for such spaces to even seem comprehensible, let alone open to critique and transformation. Time-space compression makes a mockery of our inherited categories of perception. In response, we have a tradition dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with writers like Blake already urging fellow moderns to de-reify experience. Remove the categories, they shout, cleanse the doors! As Foucault notes, “The stability of a thing is only its movement indefinitely slowed down” (“Of Other Spaces,” p. 23). If the self, the observing subject, is no more than a temporary amalgam bounded by interpellation via language, then what remains when we open this subject to outside influence? When Aldous Huxley borrows Blake’s “doors of perception” metaphor and, under the influence of Henri Bergson, likens these doors to a “reducing valve,” a faucet one can adjust so as to regulate the mind’s exposure to raw being, one begins to detect the co-presence of a spatial metaphor informing Huxley’s intervention. This spatial metaphor — involving, in its simplest form, a distinction between inner and outer — enables Huxley’s individualized ethic of chemically-aided perception to perform double duty as a secret analogue of sorts for nation-states. Just as individuals should use drugs like mescaline to throw open their “doors of perception,” thus exposing themselves to authentic experience, so too must the imperial metropole open its borders to enable exposure to the “Perennial Philosophy,” i.e., the cultures and teachings of the periphery. Afternoons have been kind of lovely these last few days. Air crisp, shadows long. Perfect for small outings in the hours before sunset. The grim national reality intervenes now and then, especially in conversations with others. “Preppie ex-frat-boy douchebags are corporatizing and Swiss-cheesing higher ed,” we rail, on our way to a farm to pick pumpkins and pet goats. What scares me, though, is my sense of helplessness. Honestly, I’m at a loss as to how to fight off this latest assault on the humanities. I used to follow Michael Bérubé‘s work in the early 2000s, his interventions into the culture wars, his defenses of the humanities, his navigation of the so-called “canon debates” — but I lost much of my respect for him during the tail end of the Bush years, and I grew too demoralized to keep paying attention once I completed my PhD and landed in non-tenure-track debtors prison hell. Why spend what little leisure time remains in one’s possession reading about one’s dismal circumstances, if reading about those circumstances won’t change them?