Strolling through Hampstead Heath wondering about the differences between heaths and moors (my knowledge of the latter drawn largely from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of them in the third of his Sherlock Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles), I observe dogs and magpies exploring hills of grass and gorse. A raven issues two sharp calls from a branch above the path. From there it’s just a short walk to Highgate Cemetery and the Tomb of Karl Marx, where I place a small stone worn smooth by time atop the headstone as a kind of offering. The Social Darwinist philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” lies buried just a few feet away from Marx, the two thinkers locked in permanent struggle on the far side of the River Lethe. But no one treks hundreds of miles to leave flowers and light votive candles in honor of shitbags like Spencer. Anticommunists may have dubbed Marx “the God that Failed” during the early days of the Cold War, but like the spectre invoked in the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, Marx remains an active presence here in the 21st century — a patron saint of the planet’s dispossessed and prophet of the world to come.
With its large, curtain-less, floor-to-ceiling window facing out onto a public street, my meditation room is a place of display, equal part studio and stage, wherein I perform and exhibit my daily being for others. It is in that sense much like these trance-scripts, which I imagine, by the way, to be a kind of Acid Communist variant upon the Prison Notebooks, the mind partaking in consciousness-raising and revolution while the body sits in a box. I know, of course, the absurdity of that comparison. I, for instance, lack accomplishment in any memorable, “world-historical” sense, unlike Gramsci, who headed the Italian Communist Party. My life unfolds in the long American slumber at the end of history, whereas the final years of Gramsci’s unfolded in one of Mussolini’s prisons. Did he, while “doing time,” as they say, ever abscond from the office of public intellectual? I hope he did. I hope he allowed his thoughts to dwell now and then upon the Self as consciousness and condition. Perhaps not, though. Perhaps he refused himself the luxury of “mere subjectivism,” as some of us might say—perhaps even “on principle,” as a “man of science,” his writing free of all trace of the personal. The moments I most admire in the Western Marxist tradition, however, are precisely the opposite: those “trip reports,” those brief phenomenologies of individual everyday being that we find, say, in Fredric Jameson’s report of his encounter with the Bonaventure Hotel in the famous “Postmodernism” essay, or in the confessional poetry in all but name of certain post-WWII French intellectuals like Sartre and Lefebvre. Devising a theory of Acid Communism will require a reappraisal not just of Gramsci and these others, but also of the so-called “Lacanian” turn, the late-60/early-70s moment of Althusserian Marxism in Europe and the UK, with its self-espoused anti-humanism and all of its other insights and peculiarities—all of this re-envisioned, basically, in light of the ideas and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Stanislav Grof. Because today’s heads, after all, exist amid vastly different circumstances. Why look for answers in so distant and so marginal a past? By the time Jameson was writing the “Postmodernism” essay for New Left Review in the 1980s, revolutionaries in the US operated largely in isolation, affiliated in many cases with academic institutions, but no longer able to identify with the consciousness of a party. Where does that leave us today, those of us sitting at our windows, wishing to act up as an oppressed class? How does the singular monadic debtor household in post-Occupy USA (by which I mean “me,” the first-person author-function, the Subject of these trance-scripts) live intentionally? How else but by the yoga of writing and zazen—sitting through, enduring, persevering, so as to instigate change both in one’s own life-world and in the life-worlds of others.
I perform a mind game wherein I imagine a psychoanalytic interpretation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel not just seen through the eyes of its half-Native American narrator, Chief Bromden, but somehow also set in the character’s head, his paranoid delusions causing him to hallucinate — by which I mean “literalize,” or “externalize” — the internal struggle between his Superego and his Id as a struggle between the characters of Big Nurse and Randle Patrick McMurphy. Then again, instead of psychoanalysis, we could sub in Marxism as our master discourse and read the novel as a Cold War allegory and/or a satire of the postwar order. Like all good political allegories, the work can be read on several levels or scales of being: the personal, the spiritual, the national-historical, and the world-historical all somehow homologous. The Nurse’s effort to cast aspersions on McMurphy’s motives resembles the progressivist critique of industrial robber-baron capitalism, just as the incident in the shower room represents the Zoot Suit Riots. If interpretation of this sort places me in the camp of the novel’s wheelchair-bound WWI veteran Colonel Matterson, so be it.
A rainy evening. Streetlights help us symbolize a mood. Slim branches of bushes bend beneath weight of falling water. I sit watch and bear witness beside a window, dazing, dreaming, pondering the relationship between Ernst Bloch’s theory of an eternal utopian spirit and Aldous Huxley’s presentation of that spirit as a will for self-transcendence. How do we who find ourselves here in language preserve what Fredric Jameson, in a book of 48 years ago, saw fit to describe as “the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea” (Marxism and Form, p. 116)? How do we pry this idea out of the clutches of a total system that even then, as Jameson could see, “may yet ultimately succeed in effacing the very memory of the negative, and with it of freedom, from the face of the earth” (115)? Huxley called this system the Brave New World. To forestall that outcome, let us imagine freedom and then go there! “Complete the thoughts of the past,” as Marx wrote in his “Letter to Ruge” of 1843. This has always been our duty: to develop a clear idea of what the world has long dreamt. Let us confront Huxley’s mystical consciousness so as to awaken in it an Egalitarian Giant. Let us restore to the dreaming subject the political direction which rightfully belongs to it. I do this in my classroom with my assembly for students of “a hermeneutic which offers renewed access to some essential source of life” (Jameson 119). For Paul Ricoeur, Jameson claims, this source is the sacred. What about for Huxley? Is the latter’s positive hermeneutic secular or religious in its orientation? Who or what is it that winks at us in recognition in the wake of ego-dissolution? We could ask the same question of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Who is the woman who escapes from the yellow wallpaper? Identification shifts over the course of Gilman’s story. Of course as readers, we, too, are in the same position as the story’s narrator: observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who herself is observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in the yellow wallpaper. All stories are the same story. But it matters, I suppose, whether the prison from which we dream ourselves is to be transcended or transfigured. “This to that,” or “that in this”?
Language is the domain wherein we learn our way in the cosmos. Without ignoring that preference for listening that sometimes makes me reticent to speak, I nevertheless feel moved to affirm here that by discoursing with others, we evolve our reality. It is in this spirit that, kicked up into dialogue by the music video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” I land upon one of performer Donald Glover’s other recent accomplishments, the TV show Atlanta. Graced by an ability to improvise without worry using the Entirety of Being, one becomes if not quite a god, then at least a medicine. Or, in a further act of diminution, an interesting thought experiment, as the experience is akin to discovering “Thou Art That.” Especially if by “That” we mean a dialectically-evolving ensemble of objects. Because of the persistence of injustice, however, the revolutionary in me deems the new worlds I wake to each morning insufficiently distinct from the worlds of yore. Marxism remains for me the discourse I call home, in the sense that it rarely any longer challenges me to revise myself, it rarely any longer situates me as subject within an actionable project of individual and collective self-betterment. Yet along its trail of thought I still thread the sentences of my days.
What is the ontological status of what others call falsehoods? Are they simply inaccurate statements housed in material form? A friend invited Sarah and I to his house the other night to celebrate his fortieth. While there, some comrades and I stood beside a carpeted cat tree drinking beer debating amongst ourselves our beliefs as Marxists. I suppose that what prompted this debate was my desire to defend terms like “wellness” and “mindfulness.” It is by now a common procedure on the Left to show how these ideas have been put to use by neoliberalism. (Barbara Ehrenreich performs this argument, for instance, in her new book Natural Causes.) But to me, some of the practices associated with these ideas, practices like yoga and meditation, provide benefits to practitioners such that they transcend the uses to which they’ve been put. Up with survival strategies. Up with coping mechanisms. Up with the perennial demand, the one demand that class societies can never fully satisfy: collective joy, collective reconciliation with Being.
Something new begins now, bursting forth in kaleidoscopic profusion. Neoliberal governance reaches new heights of absurdity through the invention of “lunch debt.” But the teacher strike in West Virginia points a way forward, a first win, to be followed as early as next month, perhaps, with a strike by teachers in Oklahoma. The path for wildcats intersects there with a key choke point for social reproduction: tests that qualify states for federal funding. By placing federal funding into jeopardy, the strike jumps levels and has the potential to capture full national attention. Together, teachers, parents, and students can dictate the terms of a new deal. For the Trump administration, the goal will be to crush teachers the way Reagan crushed PATCO, while maintaining a semblance of economic populism among the base. Notice the administration’s reluctance to engage the West Virginia action’s illegality. They’re wary of trying to uphold an unpopular and unenforceable law. But of course, they’ll have to intervene eventually. His fans already love watching him say, “You’re fired.” Yet this runs the risk of intensifying antagonisms and contradictions. With solidarity walkouts, one could begin to imagine coordinated strikes, extension of wildcat tactics into public higher ed, systemwide stoppages, the reactivation of class power among the dispossessed.