The British Empire — a thing culled from Arthurian legends whispered between Faerie Queenes and court astrologers — stood for a time as proof of magic’s power. ‘Twas a rabbit pulled from the hat of Elizabeth I’s wizard-friend John Dee. The same rabbit that draws Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Enlisted as Her Majesty’s spymaster — indeed, he was the original secret agent, Mr. 007 himself — Dee stormed the reality studio, made Elizabeth a Time Traveler, conversed with angels.
And this thing Dee dreamt into being was of course a terrible thing: an expansionist project armed with ships of fools and launched outward to seize others — other persons, other worlds — for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
Literary greats went on to reimagine Dee just as he himself was a reimagining of Merlin. Shakespeare figures him as Prospero, and against him imagines the colonized subject Caliban. To overthrow Prospero, says Caliban, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot.”
Christopher Marlowe supplies the more influential imagining of Dee, however, by casting him as Doctor Faustus.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, Western science is both a literary-artistic experiment and a religion. Upon the doors of its church of realism I nail my theses.
Thesis #1: Magic is a feature of some/most/all indigenous cultures. It predates colonization, and survives the latter as an ongoing site of resistance: spells cast to break spells of Empire.
Thesis #2: Magic is a paralogical retort, a way of knowing and doing that persists and evolves alongside Imperial Science, refusing and contesting the latter’s bid for supremacy.
Thesis #3: Magic is one of the elements most commonly associated with fantasy. Yet it’s woven as well into whatever one might pit against fantasy. It is as apparent in our natures as it is on our screens, equal parts imaginary and real. Cf. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Thesis #4: Science is a subset of magic.
Twenty-first century subjects of capitalist modernity and whatever postmodern condition lies beyond it have up to Now imagined themselves trapped in the world of imperial science. The world as seen through the telescopes and microscopes parodied by the Empress in Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World. That optical illusion became our world-picture or world-scene — our cognitive map — did it not? Globe Theatre projected outward as world-stage became Spaceship Earth, a Whole Earth purchasable through a stock exchange.
Next thing we know, we’re here.
Forms from dreamland awaken into matter.
Early on in the semester ahead, we’ll need to discuss magic, positing the latter as a paralogical retort to the patriarchal Royal Society and its imperial science. Also a coping strategy, a response to lives disrupted by war, authors displaced and dispossessed, as in the case of Cavendish. Magic is a way of knowing and doing that persists and evolves alongside the New Science, refusing and contesting the latter’s bid for supremacy. Tolkien takes up much the same cause in his poem “Mythopoeia,” written following a discussion with C.S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson. In the course of this famed discussion, Lewis is said to have denounced myths, describing the latter as “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien’s poem replies in character, its words spoken by “Philomythos” (or “myth-lover”) to Lewis’s “Misomythos” (or “myth-hater”). Tolkien composed the poem in heroic couplets, the preferred meter of British Enlightenment poets, so as to critique the latter on its own turf.
When thinking about Freud, we should think also of one of his most important successors, Frantz Fanon. Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925 and studied medicine in France, specializing in psychiatry. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he rewrites Freud, positing in place of the latter’s Western imperial Ego a black psyche: a diasporic, anti-colonialist Orphée Noir or “Black Orpheus,” as Sartre would say, seeking to liberate itself from a white world. Fanon is angered because the French Empire imposed upon him through colonial schooling the Master’s language, “the mother tongue,” the language of the core. The anticolonial subject takes possession of the language and talks back — though not, as he says, with fervor. Fanon tells us he doesn’t trust fervor. “Every time it has burst out somewhere,” he writes, “it has brought fire, famine, misery…And contempt for man. Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 9). What Fanon performs instead is a kind of radical psychiatry upon Western consciousness. His books are psychotherapeutic treatments for those whose heads have been shrunk.
Pantheism is a condition of democracy, is it not? Athens is a many-voiced cosmos. I imagine it would be a condition of any polis built atop slavery and conquest, no matter the imperial ambitions of passing and changing monotheocratic regimes throughout history. Even “secular” states, monotheocratic in their own right, possess those who believe in angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, ancestors. Western rationalism demands adherence to a realism that denies these realities. The West imagines itself to be superior — more “Enlightened.” It brandishes its weapons and says “Might Makes Right.” Police keep a bloody peace, the latter maintained through ritualistic violence. The poet Allen Ginsberg recognized this; America worships a bloodthirsty god — a god like Moloch, the deity denounced in the second section of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Yet rebellion persists; people rise up, riot, live communally, wage culture war, reclaim land. To win, we must ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence.
Aggro roadways, Trump paraphernalia, landscapes crusted with ill-gotten wealth: up from these like a seagull I rise and take flight. Goodbye America, and good riddance. The mere fact of you bankrupts the world of justice. No theodicy could ever correct your persistence there on the other side of the Atlantic, burning the earth, melting the poles, laying waste to all prior ways of being. Yet here I am, a product of this spoiled history: an American abroad.
Smoke from a neighbor’s fire-pit filled the air. It was a crisp autumn night. I sipped a martini at a local bar, Clover’s references to the Commune reverberating unexpectedly, creating an updated sense of reality. A friend sitting across from me explained the work he does as the head of a local food consortium. When I asked him how I might plug myself in and make myself useful, he directed me to read up on a project called Cooperation Jackson. These are the first steps, I think, toward the creation of the Riot’s successor. Another friend, improving my head in a different way, recommended I watch We Bare Bears. A third friend recalled for me “Transcen-dune-talism,” a spontaneous, off-the-cuff coinage of Clover’s referring to the weedy metaphysics distilled via the famous Frank Herbert novel. Speaking of weedy metaphysics: I spent last night getting stoned in the woods beside a campfire. Owls came and spoke to me. Crickets, mosquitoes. At times, a kind of pressure from all sides. The universe inspires an awe laced with terror. A push back into an attentiveness toward matters of survival. A becoming-responsible again with regard to one’s daily self-reproduction. I sat in a lawn chair thinking, “I haven’t really challenged myself like this since Boy Scouts.” Hiking, collecting wood, assembling a fire on which to cook one’s dinner. All mixed with an ambient apocalypticism. Reality augmented via the nightmare of precarious employment. We’ve arrived at the dawn of the idea of global imperial civil war. How are we to navigate our way in this ever more paranoid environment? Heavy self-scrutiny: perhaps the problem is that I was raised as a second-generation American suburbanite. I lack social skills, street smarts, wilderness literacy. I survive on pizza, french fries, hot dogs, burritos. How do I prepare myself for the Commune? Where does one even begin if one’s hope is to lay the groundwork for collective extraction from the formal economy? I look upward in search of answers, but (for better or worse), what I encounter instead is a night sky filled with stars.