Instrumentalization of consciousness. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Rule-based ideology imposed upon the many by the few. Where might we apply agency? How might we change the game or rewrite the narrative? Perhaps Surrealism contains the doorway out of this purblind, disaster-bent assemblage. Described by Roger Shattuck as “a sustained artistic adventure extending from 1885 to 1939 and reaching a paroxysm of public demonstration in the Twenties,” Surrealism warded off instrumental reason by juxtaposing amid the latter’s prison reality dream materials, chance as compositional technique, nostalgic reimaginings of childhood, and “acknowledgement of the essential ambiguity of experience” (The History of Surrealism, p. 13). I read with awe Shattuck’s distinction between “two contrasting ways of grasping experience”: one as a realm of continuity and significance, parts held in place by “lines crossing and interweaving’; the other a mere mechanical temporal sequence, where “any effort at insight or sympathy ends in despair” (19). Surely these are the poles between which we vacillate, “blind chance dogging conscious effort at every turn” (20). Between these poles, the Surrealists charted a middle passage into the hidden order of what they called “objective chance.” Shattuck characterizes this latter as “the most reticent of creatures” (21). Yet out it came, with Breton and crew at the peak of their powers juggling “chance and destiny, passive automatism and active revolution, optimistic faith in man’s future and pessimistic doubt over the disasters of civilization, the conviction that ‘life lies right here’ and the conviction that ‘life lies elsewhere,’ the marvelous and the absurd” (22). In juggling these, Shattuck concludes, the Surrealists succeeded where most of their contemporaries failed. They preserved within life a capacity for love and laughter.
The mind is, in the words of The Dhammapada, “the beast that draws the cart.” Mind is the primary operator, the seat of agency, occupied simultaneously by self and other. Teaching plays a pivotal role in one day’s shaping of the next. Mind in real-time recreates self and other. Our goal shouldn’t be reason asserting itself over passion. The non-human, daimonic dimension of reality is not to be tampered with. It is a realm of inexhaustible wonder. It is to be revered. A dimension of dynamic unrest: concealment, de-concealment, discovery. Good News. Truth alongside the Mountain of Seven Vultures. Can reverence and wonder co-exist with the kind of wish where you write it down and make it happen? Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to think so. “Once you make a decision,” he claimed, “the universe conspires to make it happen.” Let us wish for Jubilee. Or whatever leads to Satchidananda. The Dhammapada, however, counsels me to conquer thoughtlessness by watchfulness. “Tell the Truth,” commands a sign on a wall. Speak a few words and then live them.
Blue jays, sparrows, robins, squirrels: beings with whom I cohabit a rented plot of land, among similar plots of land, in a residential grid laid atop the hills of a small urban settlement. Behavior-control within these settlements benefits from a traitorous science, instrumental reason turned back upon consciousness, nature Elon-Muskified so that even the buzz of one’s cellphone has been market-tested, designed by corporate-governed Others to rattle nerves and redirect awareness. Time for a cleanse. Healthy living. Grapes grow over a neighbor’s fence, near-ripe as Sarah and I case the usual several-block radius around our house on a gummy, ninety degree evening. My thoughts cycle back to the horrors of our time: armed fascists, detention camps, trade wars, corporate control of most facets of life, entrapment via student debt. Big Data capitalism’s deliberate negation, in other words, of nearly all utopian possibility. With effort, though, I can steer my concentration back to my breath and the beauty of my immediate surroundings. This redirection of thought through interaction of set and setting with volition reminds me of the virtues of form.
This miserable totality is driving me stir-crazy. I conjure on my telescreen an episode of The Mike Wallace Show from May 18, 1958 featuring Aldous Huxley, described by Wallace during the episode’s intro as “a man haunted by a vision of hell on earth.”
What I find, with some surprise, in this broadcast is a description of twenty-first century reality, especially if by that I mean reality here in the United States under the current Trump regime. Yet this world of ours also isn’t quite the one Huxley imagined, due to his misunderstanding of the logic of capitalism. Unlike Brave New World, for instance, it isn’t so much a world of “people happy where they oughtn’t to be.” Fear and anger, rather, are the dominant emotions in this world, whipped into being through omnipresent policing and gun violence. Given the structure of the built environment, one rarely experiences other people, one rarely experiences any kind of “group dynamic,” except via mediation, thanks to the ubiquity within the society of money, cars, and cellphones. Members of the dominator class drive around under these undemocratic, unfree circumstances communicating their dominance with their GOP bumper stickers and their MAGA hats and their open-carry firearms, while the rest of us hunch over steering wheels or stand alongside busy highways waiting for city buses, growing harried and bitter as we rush back and forth between rented or mortgaged living spaces and corporate-governed sites of production and consumption. In fact, I begin to wonder as the interview proceeds if it isn’t ultimately some deep-seated fear of rhetoric, of “verbal boobytraps,” as he says, that drives Huxley’s evolution, his turn in the final years of his life toward mysticism and psychedelics. Hope depended for him upon the possibility of direct, unmediated access to and experience of truth. Rhetoric maintains its victory, as it has in all hitherto existing societies, turning all of history into a forced march toward “thoughtless pleasure and ordered efficiency,” only to the extent that it succeeds in distracting us from the truth of the injustice of servitude, the truth that murmurs up from within. For what is “applied science,” what is “instrumental reason,” after all, if not rhetoric?