As a thought experiment, let us take seriously a current of twentieth century thought that regarded Marxism and Utopianism as “political religions,” and more specifically as “Gnostic heresies.” This current arose in 1930s Germany among thinkers of the right like the philosopher Eric Voegelin. It also found articulation in the work of the Martinican surrealist sociologist Jules Monnerot. I write as a Marxist or some derivation therefrom — yet upon my first encounters with these writers, I admit recognizing something of myself in their accusation. “The shoe seems to fit,” I reasoned. “Perhaps I’m a Gnostic!” The term had been applied as a slur when used by Voegelin, but the qualities of thought that he linked to this alleged heresy against church orthodoxy were in my book virtues, not vices. What it comes down to, basically, is suspicion of the system. It’s a heresy that persists, says Voegelin, well after the suppression of the OG Gnostics of late antiquity. Gnosticism is perennial; it reawakens to haunt Christendom every few centuries. Movements that purport to be secular like Marxism and Nazism, argued Voegelin, are in fact upstirrings in the twentieth century of this same ghost, this same spectre, this same political-religious “archetype” or “mytheme.” For these movements all share the same goal, Voegelin warned: they want to “immanentize the Eschaton.” What happens, however, when we read Voegelin’s hypothesis in concert with Black and Indigenous authors: figures like Leslie Marmon Silko, Russell Means, and Ishmael Reed? Each of these authors narrates a secret, “occult” history of the West similar to Voegelin’s. Yet unlike Voegelin, the writers of the left recognize that capitalism, too, is part of the Gnostic current — as is Western science.
“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.
“Against work, for utopia,” announces a podcast I’ve listened to of late. Give it a try: sex worker Conner Habib, the show’s host, interviews Marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work. Weeks is an investigator of “Antiwork Politics” and “Postwork Imaginaries.” See especially her book’s fifth chapter, “The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope,” where Weeks proposes “a utopianism without apology” (175). To defend the latter, Weeks draws upon the ideas of the great German Marxist “philosopher of hope” Ernst Bloch. Her account of Cold War anti-utopianism covers ground I covered in my dissertation: Karl Popper, Francis Fukuyama. All of it now dust in the wind. Let Utopia rise again from the sea of the possible as it did for More.
Dereliction of dung heap. Data-driven dumbwaiter at your service. Chronically correct I effect my own cause. Alpha Dog to Omega Man: can you read me? Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around…Comes Around” saddens me, so I head outdoors. I gather sticks. I stand among the trees, finding in the sky above me the crescent moon. The night’s songs are sad ones: Dolly Pardon’s “Jolene” and Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity.” And just this morning arrived the words of artist-friend Irving Bleak, speaking of owls as characters in world mythology. Characters in the lives of children. Guardians, protectors. I think of the Tesseract from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Owls appear as a ‘theme’ or ‘motif’ throughout the evening. For work, meanwhile, I’ve had to reconsider Freud. Prep for an upcoming lecture. “Aggressiveness was not created by property,” he asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents. “It reigned almost without limit in primitive times, when property was still very scanty, and it already shows itself in the nursery almost before property has given up its primal, anal form. […]. If we were to remove this factor…by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there” (61). Aggression is for Freud an “indestructible feature of human nature.” Do those of us with children know otherwise? Freud is a cultural chauvinist, a bourgeois moralist, a critic of communism and an apologist for capitalist imperialism. I think now of his critics: Left Freudians like Herbert Marcuse, but also the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro. Most of all, though, I think of anticolonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. How might we put Freud to radical use today amid Black Radical critiques of Western subjectivity and the rise of psychedelic science? I’m reminded of the opening remarks in Slavoj Žižek’s book The Ticklish Subject. “A spectre is haunting Western academia,” he writes, “the spectre of the Cartesian subject. Deconstructionists and Habermasians, cognitive scientists and Heideggerians, feminists and New Age obscurantists — all are united in their hostility to it.” Žižek himself, however, defends the subject — from these and other of its critics. Ever the provocateur. I’m teaching a gen-ed lit course. My task is to introduce Freud to students new to him. Let us establish the subject before we critique it. During breaks from Freud I watch the new Adam Curtis series Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021) and read bits of Principia Discordia. In whatever book is finally written on acid’s arrival into history, there will be a chapter on Discordianism and Kerry Thornley, “Operation Mindfuck” figuring prominently therein. Colonization of the last free outpost, the human mind.
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.
It’s a daunting task: trying to talk to one’s colleagues about consciousness. Is it a quality? Is it a substance? Do we wield it — or is it the nature and seat of our being? And what is its relationship to this sphere of action known as language? Consciousness trance-scribing itself for others. I want to say thought, consciousness, language, narrative: all are simultaneous, intermixed. I walk around, stare at three orange and white daffodils beside a small creek. Water runs across rock as a runner runs past as cars drive past, the world a series of concentric rings through which consciousness vibrates, even as with a body, with fingers typing on technology, words are produced. It all happens temporally and simultaneously. Consciousness is what allows us to perform these tasks. We move among sights, sounds, movements, actions, words, interactions with other beings. But then I also wish to say that consciousness is an awareness, a state into which one awakens gradually and intermittently amid cycles of sleep. We can put ourselves into better states through achievement of consciousness. Lukács uses the term in this sense in his book History and Class Consciousness. And for many Marxists, this achievement is to be sought against a backdrop of “false” consciousness. In a racist society it can transform into what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” And of course it’s what second-wave feminists addressed when they organized themselves in the early 1970s into consciousness-raising groups. How does one say this for friends and colleagues? I practice the yoga of baby-holding while simultaneously listening to birds and crows, contemplating a solution. A way of saying, so as to facilitate shared awareness. What is this thing, this abstraction, this manifestation of mind that persists amid disruptions?
Time to welcome Spuren into the discourse, a concept central to the writings of Western Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. The essential scheme of these writings is as follows: Bloch finds in the world evidence of “the imperceptible tending of all things toward Utopia” (121). Spuren is his name for this evidence. Fredric Jameson translates the term as “traces, spoor, marks, and signs, ‘signatures of all things I am here to read'” (Marxism and Form, p. 121). The trace isn’t just an external object; it happens, it is a noetic experience, an alteration of consciousness. We pause in astonishment, Jameson says, before these Spuren, “these glowing emblems in which some urgent yet utterly personal secret seems to be concealed” (122). Real philosophizing begins with this lived experience of astonishment. An astonishment born in Bloch’s view from an encounter with “the concrete new in its unimaginable plenitude” (127). The Spuren intervenes, disrupts the ideological slumber, wakes the sleeper from a state of forgetfulness, causing not just remembrance or anxiety but hope. For these reasons, we might liken Spuren to those events Jungians call synchronicities. Spuren are meaningful coincidences, only instead of just realizing psyche in cosmos, they hint prophetically of happier states ahead. One becomes possessed or pulled inwardly by the urging not of the Freudian unconscious, but by a Blochian not-yet consciousness, a beneficent spirit that wishes well. One is driven, steered by unconscious forces, Jameson says, into “the not-yet-existent, rather than back into the endless repetition of childhood fixations” (130). Bloch regards the utopia as a form that reveals this movement of reality toward the future. They educate us to our heart’s desire. “The meaning of Being…comes into being, if at all,” Jameson writes, “only at the moment when the world passes over into Utopia, and when that final Utopian destination returns upon the past to confer a sense of direction upon it” (Marxism and Form, p. 131). I step outside to birds everywhere, the world alive with song. Anxiety can be transformed into positive anticipation — a lifting of the world with hope.
Modernist art and literature gain viability — become possible — only when there are social movements afoot vying for control of the production of reality. Such was the argument Marshall Berman made in his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, is it not? (Book out of reach, I settle for Berman’s essay of that name.) He complains early in his essay of “primitivist romance” among his fellow former SDSers following the latter’s disintegration in 1969. He accuses these former comrades of nihilism and anti-Americanism. Berman’s views are silly; I bore quickly of his rash judgments. His admiration for Marx’s “developmentalism” leaves him cold to the pleas of Indigenous resistance movements and anti-colonialists like Fanon. Berman is no ally to those of us who demand an end to the money-form. His humanism excludes from its circle of care nonhuman relatives and kin.
Once one encounters a theory of the Unconscious, once one recognizes oneself as internally divided, how does one integrate this knowledge, how does one reconstitute a sense of Self? The Surrealists arrived at one solution, the Althusserians another. Fredric Jameson absorbs the best of both of those solutions, synthesizing the insights of the whole of the Western Marxist tradition in his theory of the “political unconscious.” Once Marxism undergoes an encounter with psychedelics, however, its understanding of ideology changes, as does its relationship to language, other people, everything. Consciousness regains a degree of semi-autonomy, having pierced the veil, having escaped for a time, returning only to save the others. Capitalist economies as rendered by number-crunchers like Doug Henwood are still just a bunch of reality tunnels — and paltry ones at that. Why disabuse people of their ideologies if all one can offer in place of these is the anger and perpetual dissatisfaction of struggle against what has thus far been an unbeatable foe? I’d rather think about allegory and its relationship to the art of memory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” Who put the Hermes in hermeneutics? That which is Unconscious, that which escapes knowability: the complex system, the totality. By developing new allegories to represent these, Jameson argues, one can participate again in the production of reality, or the coining of the realm. This thing around us, Jameson says, this vast social construct, “needs to be converted and refunctioned into a new and as yet undreamed of global communism” (Allegory and Ideology, p. 37). Jameson’s approach strikes me as a bit reckless, however. It makes the accelerationist wager, refusing to grant nature any kind of prior or autonomous being, viewing it rather as a thing always-already mixed with human labor and thus fit to be terraformed, transformed — humanized through collective effort.
Cars drive by as I sit at a picnic table in a neighborhood park. A house across the street from the park contains among its Halloween decorations a sign stating, “Eat More Veggies.” The letters appear painted in red beside a red hand, and beside the sign stand ghosts and tombstones. Appropriate seasonal attire, I think to myself, my mind drifting off to contemplate the coming holiday. There’s work to be done; the basement of our house remains an issue. I’m reminded of the old “base-superstructure” construct, hearing in it now, after all those years reading about it in grad school, a set of moral abstractions, a marriage of contraries equal in power to Freud’s reality and pleasure principles or Blake’s heaven and hell. As societies of both matter and mind, we can arrange ourselves in a variety of ways; we needn’t always be arboreal and hierarchical. Yet we do need to deal with capitalism and climate change, and their local, existential correlates.