“The kid who’s into Althusser”: that was one of my identities as an undergrad. I read Althusser in my first English course, first semester of my freshman year. Newly hatched from the egg of the family. So coming to “consciousness” has been quite a journey. I spent most of my adult life questioning it or denying it, focusing instead on categories like “false consciousness” or “class consciousness.” Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” knocked me over the head when I read it. The repetitions of Althusser’s prose enchanted me. Yet his story is a tragic one, and so one must become other than Althusser, through rejection of his scientism and determinism. One must find instead a practice of love and joy.
Awaiting a therapy session with a gestalt psychologist, I reflect upon psychoanalysis. Coleridge imports the Unconscious into English after study of German philosophy. Freud sets this concept at the center of his project, his newly-founded science, psychoanalysis. The latter attempts a secular-scientific grasping of the Unconscious. Freud had a practice. He was a therapist. He was paid by clients. He treated patients. Psychoanalysis is a technology of the self. The therapist is one who applies a treatment, a cure for individuals suffering new illnesses of modernity: neuroses and psychoses. Before psychoanalysis, treatment of mental illness was a duty performed by clergy, or by “madhouses,” institutions invented by the State. Freud’s “talking cure” is an attempt to heal individuals who, in other times, would have been handed one-way tickets to board Ships of Fools or subjected to some other means of solitude and confinement. Psychoanalysis happened: it was put to use as a state apparatus, it was absorbed into institutions, it became part of the technocratic machinery of Western modernity. The mid-twentieth century was the age of psychoanalysis. The latter shaped the way the century thought itself. Freud fed into the development of public relations and advertising, especially through the influence of his nephew, Edward Bernays. According to French Marxist Louis Althusser, however, these uses were all betrayals of Freud’s revolutionary discovery. “The fall into ideology,” he writes, “began…with the fall of psycho-analysis into biologism, psychologism, and sociologism” (“Freud and Lacan,” p. 191).
Upon finding employment on his third day in the Northern city of New Bedford, Frederick Douglass declares himself his own master. “I was now my own master,” he writes. This is a “happy moment” — one of the few such moments in Douglass’s narrative. Its rapture can be understood, he says, “only by those who have been slaves” (78). The scene leaves me wondering: at what point is there no longer someone robbing us of the rewards of our work? The employment Douglass has found is a form of wage slavery, is it not? Is the reward not taken in the setting of the wage by the capitalist? Are Marx and Engels wrong? In what sense is the wage relation not a form of slavery? Labor hours remain at the command of external masters under capitalism. The economy one faces is manufactured by the State, and the State is a mere police-backed conspiracy of land developers and financiers. All of us are in some way or another pressed into its service. Those of us in entertainment and education — those of us manning the ISAs, as Louis Althusser would say — we’re the functional equivalent of PsyOps officers. Yet we can always rebel — and many of us do. Wizards needn’t always be their wizards. There are fugitive histories to be learned, memories of fugitive ancestors awaiting remembrance through fugitive study. Because if the past isn’t past, as Faulkner wrote, and the demand on the streets is “NO COPS / NO JAILS / NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME,” then abolitionists are among us today, their cause as just as it was a century and a half ago.
One comes to a point in one’s life, I convince myself, when one ought to hear Handel’s Messiah. Wouldn’t it be more fun, though, I think, to confuse Mrs. Dalloway with Mrs. Doubtfire? Regress to high school, participate in a cafeteria food fight. “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”: ’tis but a character preserved in stories handed down across millennia. No matter: across these trance-scripts shall be built a highway fit for a god. It is from the fruit of great sorrow that change is wrought. Knowing, though, the shortness of the remaining hours of day, let us hasten our walk below this grim gray sky. Dead plants fire miniature spears at me. I pause and listen to a branch of dead leaves, brown and dry, shivering above in the air in the wind. Sarah recalls to consciousness a book called Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. Those who travel with the cross ought to stay in their fucking lane, we growl at an aggressively-driven neighboring bus. It’s hard to ascertain the shape and contents of another’s discursive universe. To my countrymen, I ask, “What cognitive maps have you built of our home, our oikos, Spaceship Earth?” I fear for what will be left of it by century’s end. Why can’t we collectively turn our backs on matters of law and business? Are we drawn toward these as one is drawn toward a bitter destiny? Ants and spiders in a vast webwork, life’s maze. State-forms and modes of production ruin freethinkers by subjecting them to mandatory schooling. Althusser called the educational system capitalism’s dominant ISA. And now they will tax students further for this miserable imposition. To compensate, I drop the needle on Ritual Tension’s Expelled.
Songs spill across a graceless eternity until voices speak to me. Give these voices a listen, I tell myself — don’t drown them in the soundtrack. The universe puffs out its cheeks and exhales speech at me. I find a soul-mate of sorts in the narrator of Alberto Savinio’s Tragedy of Childhood, Mister Why. But the voices, rather than leading me, sing to me. Like doctors and teachers, they live by obscurity. They practice the latter as if it were their profession. Their words, mere humming noises, demand of me an externalized awareness, a focus outward of consciousness, and in doing so, lull me toward sleep.
I am achievement-minded and acquisitive only in pursuit of knowledge. And “pursuit” is perhaps misleading, as I’m more a gatherer than a hunter. “Behave with due reverence for Nature, and thou shalt receive” has become increasingly my motto of late. As soon as one doubts, the power stops working. But otherwise, it’s a gift. Sarah’s parents arrived for a visit the other day, and their plan is to stay until Sunday. Touring them around, I realized my city comports poorly when set before the eyes of strangers. Especially when one is not loaded — and I mean that in either sense of the term. At least the sky is still blue. I excused myself midday yesterday and made a point of blasting Milk Music’s new album Mystic 100’s along the length of my commute to campus, your humble narrator surrounded on all sides by beautiful autumn foliage.
The world appeared to me as if I were viewing it through textured glass. Upon my arrival home, my father-in-law and I conversed at length about our frustrations with students and with education more broadly, our mutual profession. My frustrations are compounded, though, by a pessimism that far outstrips his. My faith is apocalyptic, where his is not. I believe slaves should rise up against their masters. Neuro-hypnosis FTW. What are we unlocking? Some non-referential non-recollection of thought. Why did Althusser’s theory of interpellation make intuitive sense to me? How did part of me already know that the world as it appears is a lie? The sky can be singed away. Too many eyes captured by too many screens. To discipline, I object.