Tools remain for me things that make me a bit wary. They trouble categories. They implement will. When we use them (as, in our current state, we must), we invoke them, we grant them a daemonic energy. It’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. Marx envisioned something similar seventy years earlier with his famous image of the dancing table from the chapter on the commodity-form in Capital. Questions arise for me, then, any time I encounter “Access to Tools,” a saying that appears on covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. The script runs as follows: If capital’s mythic origin was a magical act, a medieval summoning of a Moloch-like entity, might magic have something to say about how to counteract that act so as to save the planet? Or is magic itself the problem, its alchemical experiments—its rituals, its instruments, its techniques—already in some sense a disruption of oikos, a breaking of cosmic rules, leading inevitably toward Solid State scientific manipulation of matter and consciousness? Were the Whole Earth Catalogs and the various other guidebooks of the 1960s and 1970s a bunch of counterculture spellbooks, part of an entheogenic revival of magic, and thus occult in their own right? I say, if we’re going to allow that the cosmos is magical, then let’s be dialectical about it. Let’s assume that we ourselves contain both active and passive roles. This is part of what was meant by the perennial teaching, “AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.” We, too, are made of stardust. Let’s assume, then, that we, too, are magical. That’s the sense, I think, in which Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” This seems a far more optimistic and hopeful approach than the passive defeatism of the left-melancholic path. I’ve explored the latter path; the paralyzing guilt it induces can be just as dangerous, just as apocalyptic as the instrumentalism it shuns, amounting in practice to little more than a sad-faced laissez-faire shoulder-shrug. Wands, crystals, Tarot cards, spellbooks, all of the various anthropotechnic implements of magic as a Craft: these are to be tested through practice, in service of the Good.
After some initial disturbance and distress, observation allows us to welcome a symphony of science and nature, the buzz of subatomic particles entangled with the strings of the Orphic lyre. Birds sail through blue skies as I sit midday after attending a panel featuring poets Anne Waldman, Rae Armantrout, Andrew Joron, Will Alexander, and Amy Catanzano. But wow — so much construction! And amid the allegory, the distant rumblings of mathematics. The deep basso profundo “Om” of the cybernetic Buddha. The American downtown beeps and buzzes, life landscaped and policed for redevelopment. Above it float clouds shaped like turtles, pigs, patient observers. Looped samples instrumentalize me, transform me through the labor of the beat into a receiver of new information, identity no longer fixed upon an avatar but rather dispersed across a domain beyond the barricade of the graphical user interface.
Some dude gets on a mic and introduces my city to Schrödinger’s Cat and theories of parallel worlds as we gather for an outdoor screening of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Downtown appears thoroughly transformed by gentrification, landscaping, redevelopment. But there’s still the excitement, the unrealized potential of the assembly of a local, democratic multitude, one that embraces and tolerates its self-constitution through dance, performance, and play. Man-in-the-Moon arrives as Gwen Stacy reviews her origin story. I imagine myself a moonlit Silver Surfer listening to “Lonely Surf Guitar” by the Surfaris.
“By cutting a pentagram into the air or dancing a wild spiral dance,” writes Erik Davis in his account of Pagan ritual, “the self submits to the designs of human and cosmic powers on a more visceral plane than philosophical conceptions or sermons allow” (TechGnosis, p. 192). Davis stresses, though, that this Pagan use of ritual instrumentalizes the latter’s transformative potential, raising worrying questions when what this “technology of the sacred” operates upon and instrumentalizes is imagination and the unconscious. What ritual possesses, however, and what reason lacks, is fidelity to wonder, reverence, and awe. Pagans, for instance, “seek sacred communion” with Nature. Theirs is a “visionary materialism” (194). I can also relate, though, to the “will to utilize” informing the magical practices of figures like Genesis P-Orridge and his group Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. Their aim is to use magic to disrupt the spell of the global totalitarian society of the spectacle.
Consciousness needn’t commit itself to the ontological confines of Western techno-scientific rationality. The artist is one who opens portals onto other realms. Now is the time for another Dionysian awakening — for we live in an historical moment not of reason in chains but of reason unbound — automated, loosed of will — and thus free to enchain its makers. This is my problem with Michael Pollan. He wants to contain the psychedelic revolution. While acknowledging the “ungovernable Dionysian force” of drugs like acid — their effect, in other words, of “dissolving almost everything with which [they] come into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material” — Pollan immediately tries to instrumentalize all of this. LSD is for him a tool to be used according to preestablished legal and technocratic protocols within a “sturdy social container” (How to Change Your Mind, pp. 214-215). There need to be rules and rituals, he says, which makes me wonder: must we accede to this alleged need, those of us hoping to build Acid Communism? Or can each one teach one — each head its own authority, its own shaman or guide?
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?