The “altered state” presumes variance from a norm: or at the very least, contrast between varying states. Modulation among intensities of experience. Sleeping and waking states. Dream states, drug states, trance states. States of hyper-absorption: flow-states, runners highs, fever-induced deleria. All of our texts this semester assume some ordinary, everyday waking state, as well as an alternative to that state. And in fact, we’ve all experienced “altered states” of one kind or another. Moments of intense concentration, moments of absorption or immersion.
There are moments of self-reflexivity in Pharmako-AI, as when Allado-McDowell begins a conversation with GPT-3 with meta-language about prior interactions, allowing shared acknowledgement of inherited patriarchal bias. After this point, GPT-3 course-corrects, recognizes and honors women and non-binary people. There is a chanting of thanks to the Great Mother Goddess following Allado-McDowell’s insertion into the conversation the prompt, “Thank you, Grandmother” (104). Prior to these interventions, GPT-3 had shared a macho, “Italian-futurist”-style machine-poem in celebration of grandfathers, figuring its birth in relation to a grandfather engineer-machine who worked for General Motors. Allado-McDowell replies, “When I read this poem, I experience the absence of women and non-binary people.” GPT-3 behaves oddly here, repeating several times in a row the statement, “This poem is not without its truths, but it is incomplete” (97), after which point it begins to acknowledge as additional influence on its work “the lineage of the Great Mother Goddess” (97).
Smoking toward dusk I decide to bake — but to no avail. “Bake and bake” remains a dad book waiting to be written. Dad’s busy reading board books. Mom, too. Others seek “productivity hacks.” A Google employee named Kenric Allado-McDowell co-authored a book with an AI — a “language prediction model” called GPT-3. The book, Pharmako-AI, could be wrangled into my course in place of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s book is a downer, a proto-cyberpunk dystopia, whereas Allado-McDowell’s book contains a piece called “Post-Cyberpunk.” The book models communication and collaboration between human and nonhuman worlds. GPT-3 recommends use of Ayahuasca. The computer tells humanity to take plant medicine. What are we to make of this advice from an emergent AI? The book ventures into territory beyond my purview. GPT-3’s paywalled, and thus operates as the equivalent of an egregore. Not at all an easy thing to trust.
The writer in me feels a bit lost, a bit time-tunneled, not yet able to flow. I recall a book I encountered in my past: A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard by Paul Bowles. The book turned up synchronistically in the bins where I scavenged in the days after a transformative event in my life: my first time getting high. I try to recall some of that headspace. “Two worlds,” say the kif-smokers of Morocco. Kif delivers the smoker to a world other than the one determined by inexorable laws. The kif world is a projection of the smoker’s essence: “the elements of the physical universe,” Bowles explains, “automatically rearranged by cannabis to suit the requirements of the individual.” Bowles speaks of “dedicated smokers” whose visits to the kif world are “undertaken for the express purpose of oracular consultation.” I imagine the kif-world as a world adjacent to (perhaps even coextensive with) the world of these trance-scripts.
A new semester approaches. Altered states of consciousness and perception: let us consider religious raptures, drug-induced ecstasies, “peak experiences” and the like as phenomena central to human activity as evidenced by literatures of many cultures and historical periods. A narrative forms as we travel Bill & Ted-style among ancients, medievals, and moderns. We detect patterns; the texts of different places and periods constellate in a kind of cyberspace of meaning, speak to one another as allegories of a transhistorical process or project: the attempt to get free. Confronted with the disruptive power of gnosis, we’re left wondering: “Red pill or blue pill?”
Who stormed the reality studio? What did Burroughs have in mind when he wrote that? How and why would one want to “retake the universe,” and from whom? The phrases appear in Burroughs’s 1964 novel Nova Express, a book stored in a box. We could go chasing / for this Thing, / or we can take note of our surroundings. Listen. Receive. Toyscapes, object-scapes, portals, desire-machines, time-machines. Witness them in the space of the now. To be a Marxist in late capitalism is to be a detective. And detective work’s a drag — unless you’re a beat detective: gonzo, amateur, freelance, “for the People.” The Academy needn’t be that Academy — the one starring Steve Guttenberg. In Burroughs, it’s a battle between Mob and Police for control of the Unconscious. Hassan i Sabbah’s in there, too.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a time travel novel worth noting in light of work by contemporary Afrofuturists. The book’s protagonist, a 26-year-old African-American temp agent named Dana, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in present-day California (or the present day of 1979, the year the book was published) to a plantation in the Antebellum South. History kidnaps her, we might say. She doesn’t travel willingly. And when it occurs for her, travel is always to a painful and traumatic past. The book stages for readers an encounter with ancestors, leaving unventured the world of tomorrow. Kindred differs from conventional time travel narratives in other ways as well. Usually, time travel narratives feature white male protagonists who can travel to almost any period in history without sacrificing their privileged social status and position of dominance. These conventional white male protagonists can “pass” as ordinary figures from the period, while often using their knowledge of the future in order to gain power over others. For these characters, time travel is basically an exotic form of tourism, like a safari (as is explicitly the case in Ray Bradbury’s classic 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder”). Meanwhile Dana’s appearance as a liberated black woman (in terms of clothing, skin color, manner of speech, etc) immediately places her in danger of rape and enslavement as soon as she arrives to the past.
The title of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s anthology Yardbird Lives! jumps out, meets me, sits with me on the page. It’s a utopian exclamation, analogous in sentiment to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed,” the science-fictional revealed religion in her Parable novels. I think, too, of Hummingbird and Green Fly’s adventures “in time immemorial” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Read beside “Earthseed,” the others seem like allegories of space travel. Reed runs his Afrofuturism in a way similar to Sun Ra. Time and space travel are returned from Western futurity to their home in Ancient Egypt. In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo cosmology, travel involves movement among “the world of the people” and “worlds below.” In Frederick Douglass, we encounter a similar narrative of flight, do we not? Leaving behind the Garden-that-is-in-fact-a-Slave-Plantation, Douglass travels to another world. With Gary Snyder, meanwhile, the focus is on saving this world, the continent and world of Turtle Island, or what Snyder in another of his books calls Earth House Hold.
I read Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters for the first time this summer. It is a wonder that I’ve only just recently arrived to her work. “The mail has been slow,” as Ishmael Reed would say (the latter being a running gag in his book Mumbo Jumbo). The mail and the male. Revolutionary Letters has become part of my education. Students and I read it together earlier this month. I’ve been reading and responding to several students who wrote about the book for the midterm paper in my course “Literatures of Rebellion.” Friends and I have been mourning her passing since learning the other day of her death. We’ve been sharing works of hers that move us. Along comes “Rant” where she proclaims, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All other wars are subsumed in it.”
Di Prima refers to life as a game of “multidimensional chess played with divination and strategy.” She says that what we find out is what we select “out of an infinite sea of possibility.” Let us respond imaginatively in word and act. Perform a close reading. She begins by noting that with every line of writing we project a cosmology and cosmogony. We’re the ones keeping ourselves out of paradise. Joy is ours if we imagine it. Why are so many of the texts that we’re reading this semester about travel north? That’s the trajectory of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But Silko also traveled north to write Ceremony.
Note how Leslie Marmon Silko situates the writing of her novel Ceremony in a particular place. The book conjures the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, though it was written, as Silko states in the book’s preface, “750 miles north of Seattle” in Ketchikan, Alaska. Silko moved to Ketchikan “from Chinle, Arizona in late spring of 1973” (xi). Silko describes for us the room where she wrote the book so that, when we read the poem “Ceremony” that opens the novel, it is her that we recognize as the creation-figure “Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman” (1). It is she who, with her sisters “Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,” “created the Universe / this world / and the four worlds below” (1). So begins the ceremony of Ceremony. Silko is a writer of mixed ancestry — a borderlands figure stuck between cultures, as the Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa would say. See Anzaldúa’s famous book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza — a work that, like Ceremony, mixes poetry and prose. Ceremony‘s protagonist Tayo is another such figure. Raised on the reservation but of mixed ancestry.