I want my Age of Aquarius! “Grab passion,” sings the radio. “Make it happen.” Next thing I know, I’m listening to “Ride My See-Saw” by The Moody Blues and digging it, entering through doorways new states of mind.
Thinking truly is the best way to travel. Floating like a kite and then grounded again, eyes open, the world brighter, sharper, and superimposed atop it a corridor of integral concepts. That album of theirs, In Search of the Lost Chord, allows for quite an experience. I follow it with Moby Grape’s Grape Jam — a relaxing listen, though a bit sloppy and indulgent. But that’s what’s so wonderful about it: “This music happened,” as the group says on the back cover of the LP, “when we could escape for awhile the intimidations of the virtuosity and perfections demanded by posterity. Relaxed, free, unselfconscious — Just laying down some music when the mood struck.” Bellbottomed legs leap and spin among a tribe of hippie whirling dervishes in Milos Forman’s Hair, which I watch afterwards while I practice breathing.
I wish I could convince others to enjoy birds whistling, the tap of a woodpecker, dogs barking. But students prefer Ozzy Osborne’s angsty theatrics, several of them requesting we listen to “War Pigs / Luke’s Wall.” I can hold off, soak in some rays of sunlight, wait until the time is right. Sit beside trees and practice breathing. Expand consciousness into new modes of sensitivity and sensibility. One way I do so is by listening closely to “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Berkeley-born John Fogerty sings from the standpoint of a critical working-class subject suffering persecution at the hands of hawkish militaristic elites. He calls the latter out, naming them for what they are: hypocrites / phony “patriots” who wave the flag but send others off to fight in their stead. (The rich were able to exercise influence to receive deferment from the draft, while working-class males had no choice but to fight or flee the country. One thinks here, for example, of former US president George W. Bush and other warmongers who themselves never served.) Drums and guitar notes shimmering with reverb, the song kicks into action. It starts marching at you, picket sign aloft, hips swaggering. On the album cover for the band’s fourth studio album Willy and the Poor Boys (1969), they’re seen performing like an old-time jug band on a sidewalk before an audience of African-American children. When Fogerty says, “I ain’t no senator’s son, son,” he’s damning benefactors of nepotism, he’s damning multi-generational elites, he’s damning the entire American anti-democratic system of inherited privilege.
The light tapping of a pick across the muted strings of the guitar on Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” reminds us as listeners that a clock is ticking. Dylan’s lyrics are in part about remaining cool despite the pain of mortality, the pain of accepting one’s wounds in order to live. What about those initial verses, though: they reference the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, don’t they? Doesn’t the Cold War form the song’s political horizon, “eclipsing both sun and moon”? I worry, though, that the song is also somehow an indictment of me, the teacher who teaches that “knowledge waits” — one who “must obey authority,” one who does not respect it “in any degree,” one who despises his job and his destiny and “speak[s] jealously of them that are free.” The same figure Nietzsche condemned, in other words, for being moved by a politics of ressentiment. But is Dylan singing as the voice of a student who can’t please me, or am I the one who can’t please them? “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” comes up a few tracks earlier on Bringing It All Back Home, and it’s a riotous, rowdy picaresque — the story of a poor sailor who dodges his way through the nightmarish slapstick of my country ’tis of thee.
All of those communes, those seedlings of joyful community: why did so few of them take root? Are there lessons to be found among the memories of these vanished experiments? Might we not organize to try something similar today using our own far more advanced technologies? What steps would it require? How might we organize ourselves into a cybernetic communal family? How about a crowd-funded reality experiment? Maybe the Revolution should be televised! By the end of Brand’s essay, Spacewar comes to operate as a grand metaphor. It’s no longer just the name of the first videogame; it’s a parable about cultural revolution, a metonym for real-time video- and computer-assisted reinvention of society through play. Brand also describes it as “a flawless crystal ball of things to come” (78). But what is this future state, this twenty-first century that the game ushered into being? Are we more empowered today or less? Unfortunately Brand was ultimately a libertarian, his optimistic views on the “heroism of engineering” roughly similar to the “heroism of enterprise” imagined by followers of right-libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. In Brand’s scenario, individuals live and work “communally” in the sense of “side-by-side” or “physically proximate,” but their bodies and minds don’t do much together. Computers and screens and related kinds of machinery mediate our interactions, and capitalism as mode of production remains unchanged. Individuals feeding back but otherwise “doing their own thing” form a subconscious consensus, and a stable teapot reality — a one-world Oikos — locks into place around them.
Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” leads me into the mirror-world. I drop down into a seat and scry. One of the oldest known forms of divination. Our social media empires have attempted to capture the worlds on the other sides of our scrying mirrors. This is what shows like Black Mirror have tried to teach us. Students and I have returned to head culture’s first encounters with electronic black mirrors in the budding early days of videogames and personal computers as reflected in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a report Stewart Brand wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972. The piece begins with the conviction that the world is windblown and that change, technological modernity — in a word, “computers” — all of these have been foisted on “the people,” regardless of whether or not “the people” are prepared for it. Within less than half a century following the piece’s publication, most of us would be clutching these objects like gods. Brand’s advice was, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This is the meaning of his Whole Earth Catalog. The medium in that case was indeed the message. The Catalog is significant primarily in terms of its form. A functional blueprint for Revolution is one that provides “Access to Tools.” But why was Brand so nonchalant, I wonder, as all of this began to unfold? Why was he so nonchalant about the effects on neighborhoods IRL as heads began to spend their night-time moments “out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens” (39)?
A rich new vein of countercultural history sees light of day thanks to the 2015 documentary Here Come The Videofreex. The archival footage used in the film is chaotic and messy, capturing with all of the power and potential of new media the revolutionary movements of the early 1970s. Watching the film today, I can’t resist wishing for a chance to restage the Revolution, the first attempt’s energy and conviction guided now by the lessons learned from half a century of culture war. Let the forces of magic and of miracle triumph where before we succumbed to our frustrations and our desire for vengeance.
In its final scene, the Netflix television series Russian Doll allows its time-looped protagonists, Nadia and Alan, to reunite as their best selves amid a parade of party people waving red flags of revolution. Given our current slime-pool polis, it seems reasonable to regard the show’s Groundhog Day purgatory as an allegory of that era of reaction since the defeat of the Sixties that Americans on the Left took to calling “neoliberalism.” The show boldly imagines that those who wish to live will one day get it right. In it I see a spirit similar to the one that animated Mitchell Goodman’s 1970 anthology The Movement Toward a New America, a book I wish I could somehow integrate into my classes. Let’s be straight with ourselves. “The Movement,” as Goodman defines it, “is the act of getting ourselves together. Clarity. Coherence. Community. It is also a vision” (vi). As if hearing a voice speaking out of myself, I read passages written by a man once known as Peter Marin. He tells me, from the future, to look for a book of his called The Free People. At the start of an essay of his featured in The Movement Toward a New America, Marin offers a description of a method of composition eerily similar to the one animating these Trance-Scripts. “Shuffling through my notes,” he writes, “I feel like an archaeologist with a mass of uncatalogued shards. There is a pattern to all this, a coherence of thought, but all I can do here is assemble the bits and pieces and lay them out for you and hope that you can sense how I get from one place to another” (vii). Like Marin, I am “impatient with transition, the habitual ways of getting ‘from here to there.’ I think restlessly; my mind, like the minds of my students, works in flashes, in sudden perceptions and brief extended clusters of intuition and abstraction — and I have stuck stubbornly to that method of composition” (vii).