The Labyrinth of Stuck Desire

Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.

Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:

Prayer is the little implement

Through which Men reach

Where Presence — is denied them.

They fling their Speech

By means of it — in God’s ear—

If then He hear

This sums the Apparatus

Comprised in Prayer—

“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.

“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”

What Kind of Monster Are You?

Self-fashioned life. No more a monster than Lovable, Furry Old Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book.

“Why should I be scared of you?” asks DC punk guitarist and vocalist Christina Billotte near the end of her band Slant 6’s song “What Kind of Monster Are You?”

Several more of the group’s songs turn up on the eternal mixtape soon thereafter.

“Ladybug Superfly.” “Babydoll.” “Partner in Crime.” “Don’t You Ever.”

Am I a victim of my own desires?

The lyrics to a song of theirs called “G.F.S.” stand out to me today, causing me suddenly to hear the song anew, its references to “stars going retrograde” and “recollection starting to fade” far stranger now than I ever knew them to be before.

The perfect guitar solo on “Time Expired” leaves me mulling my past in the hours afterwards, the song’s words forming a hieroglyph, echoing if not quite rhyming slant with the words on your necklace.

The Akashic Records

To access past lives, the Hero of my tale consults the Akashic Records.

Derived from Sanskrit, “Akashic” means ethers or “that which holds all.” Vogue writer Shabana Patker-Vahi asks us to picture at one and the same time a massive library and a celestial mirror. Akashic reader Simrin Gregory likens it to “an energetic database that stores every choice we have ever made as individual souls.” As our hero is to learn, the records help us release energetic blocks retained from the past. To access, says Patker-Vahi, set intentions, develop clarity around questions one wants answered, and try reiki. She also suggests tarot readings and/or guided meditations paired with binaural beats set to 963Hz.

Hero shrugs his shoulders and thinks, “Accessing an imaginal technology on the scale of the Akashic Records is not unlike inheriting a time machine. Only the Records do time machines one better, as they steer us clear of butterfly effects while nonetheless enabling anamnesis.”

“Besides,” he confides, speaking across dimensions now to his companions. “At this point, I’m willing to try anything.”

Severance

“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”

The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.

As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”

And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.

A Friend Recommends Bernardo Kastrup

Noting my views regarding consciousness, a friend recommends I read the computer engineer Bernardo Kastrup. Kastrup and I both reject the idea that physical reality exists independently of the minds that observe it. Ours, we agree, is a “participatory” universe, involving interplay between mind and matter.

Mind is the one thing, I would say, that is not of this world. Nor is it a static substance. It identifies, it disidentifies; it remembers, it forgets. It undergoes changes of state.

And by “mind,” I mean something more than just the ego. Local, individual, waking consciousness is but one part of what Kastrup calls “mind-at-large.” (The same phrase, by the way, used by Aldous Huxley in his book The Doors of Perception.)

Kastrup rejects panpsychism, however, whereas I find the latter attractive, at least in some of its formulations. And Weird Studies podcaster JF Martel has issued a critique of what he calls Kastrup’s “monistic idealism.”

What I like most about Kastrup, though, is his explanation of how “mind-at-large” becomes reduced or fragmented into semi-autonomous parts. “Kastrup’s answer,” writes Martel, “is that we are all ‘alters’—fragmented, amnesic parts—of mind-at-large.”

Newport Beach in Hindsight

“Here I am again, in this next memory,” says the Narrator. “On the beach. Only this time, it’s a new one: Newport Beach, site of my brother’s bachelor party. Imagine me in dialogue, in a sense, with the one who was there.”

Spacetime shifts here as the character reenters the memory.

***

“Well, what’ll it be?” wonders the Traveler. “If spacetime is reducible to a game of multidimensional correspondence chess, then what’s our next move?”

Rising in the sky above him there at the beach house, the new moon in Leo provides the Traveler a chance to ask questions. He communes with the moon, engaging it in silent dialogue, and sets his intentions for the months ahead.

A ghostly third figure joins him in the course of the evening. It shimmers into being like a hazy wonder there amid the rocks and the waves, and in so doing, intervenes in the Traveler’s thoughts. “Let us be careful what we wish for,” warns the Ghost, “as this is a powerful, wish-granting lunar cycle.”

***

“Warning taken, it was with great care that I made that wish,” interjects the Narrator from the future. “And in retrospect, I regret nothing.”

“Come sunrise, in fact,” remembers the Narrator, “and a commune of sorts assembled itself down near the shore. Members set out mats and, posing silently amid squawking seabirds, practiced yoga on the beach as I wrote.”

Back to the Future / By Way of Recursion

“Next on the block is ‘recursion,’” says the Narrator, “a concept discussed at length by philosophers Armen Avanessian, Pete Wolfendale, and Suhail Malik in Christopher Roth’s 2016 film Hyperstition.

“Recursion explains how the New enters existence,” says Avanessian. “Where reflexivity is a sequence of stacked meta-reflections, as in a pair of mirrors, recursion involves an integration of parts into a whole, changing in the process both the part and the whole.”

Roth employs cinema both recursively and dialectically. Parts of Hyperstition are thus able to speak to one another via montage in the style of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Godard.

So it is that Suhail Malik appears in the wake of Avanessian, arguing from the year 2026 that recursion is how those of us who code encounter time. “Recursion,” he states, “is what the operation of coding does when, meeting up against the inexorability of time, it tries to compensate for that inexorability and produce memory.”

HYPERSTITION from Christopher Roth on Vimeo.

The Structure of the Device

It’s an odd thing, this device, is it not? With its levers, it’s like a clock or a timepiece. Spun or turned, the levers grant the Traveler safe passage through forthcoming years as counted by Western calendars. The future is reified, captured in a count by an imaginal technology that converts time into a measurable dimension.

Wells’s Traveler assumes in the very structure of his time machine an imperial temporality: the Western linear temporal orientation, with its obedience to “the Master’s Clock.”

But for more recent Travelers, especially people of color, travel is undertaken not so much in obedience to the clock as in exodus from its dictates. Travelers consult stars and return to sidereal time. Or they create music. They keep time with drums rather than clocks. As Moor Mother notes, “Music created by Black people has been used throughout time and across space as an agent of time and memory” (Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice, p. 9). She and the other members of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective take this longstanding practice a step further, their self-professed goal being “to collapse space-time into a desired future.” Tracks of theirs are self-creating, self-causing sound-events from the future made to happen in the minds and bodies of those who listen.

Love and Marriage: A Discourse

“There I was,” recalls the time traveler. “A married man, despite my vexed relationship to marriage as sacrament and institution.”

“Okay,” nods the narrator, eyebrows raised, trying to intuit from what he knows of the traveler’s past what might lie on the other side of “vexed” if that word was hyperlinked. “You’ll have to say more at some point—but go on.”

“Sarah and I had exchanged our vows seventeen years prior,” explains the traveler, “outdoors, in a state-sanctioned but otherwise nonreligious ceremony, with the blessing of friends and family.”

The traveler pauses, proceeds haltingly here in his telling, reliving again the flowers, the arbor, the sunshower afterwards. “I wasn’t seeking to marry,” he adds. “That wasn’t part of any future I’d imagined for myself in my youth.”

Narrator considers this, nods again approvingly, asks what he’d imagined in its place.

“As far as I can remember,” muses the traveler, “all I’d wanted was to write.” He smiles, picturing himself hunched over his notebooks in years past.

“But you and Sarah fell in love?” asks the narrator.

“Yes,” confirms the traveler, “no denial of that on my part. And there we were, in the final months of our Master’s program: both of us wanting to pursue PhDs in English, with hopes of earning a living, despite already mounting debt, by continuing to teach courses at the college level.”

“Fair enough,” says the narrator, elbows propped on the arms of his chair, fingers arched to form a pyramid. “But how did you get from there to the decision to marry?”

“The immediate stress in those days,” breathes the traveler, voice achieving new resolve, “was that we were drawn toward different programs. Mentors dear to us at the time advised us to go our separate ways. ‘Sarah should go to Buffalo,’ they told us. ‘Matt should go to Brown.’”

Narrator purses his lips, tries to conceive the traveler’s dilemma.

“I remember us crying afterwards upon leaving those meetings,” murmurs the traveler. “Neither of us wanted to live apart.”

Traveler looks up here in his telling, eyes glinting. “And so it happened.”

“Just like that?” inquires the narrator. Traveler nods. “Just like that,” he replies, snapping his fingers as if to illustrate. “Over dinner one evening: we agreed to marry.”

Monday May 18, 2020

We arrive at a digital labyrinth, without memory even of our name. “Your guess as good as mine,” says somebody to somebody. “Here, inside our walls,” begins an orator, “what exactly is taking place? An anamnesis? A catabasis? A war against psychic repression?” Audiences shift in their seats and begin to type.