On our final day of class, in concluding discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a novel, as the title suggests, involving scanning and surveillance), I introduce Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism,” applying the latter to the architecture of the digital classroom, the Zoom environment in which we’ve worked this past year due to pandemic. After ascent from Plato’s Cave in search of higher states of consciousness (Plato’s text being the one with which the course began), we lay bare the medium of our being-together as a class. I speak as one there in a cell with others. Here we are, I say: “Gallery View.” I call awareness to the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Through Dick’s title, I then trace us back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul stresses the importance of “charity” or love. Without it, he writes, one is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” In its final moment, then, the course ends thus: with a synthesis of Zen and a kind of gnostic-psychedelic reimagining of agape. One must accept the prison, or at least return to it willingly, despite knowing that one will likely be misunderstood and crucified — but only so as to impart through the medium of one’s being the words “Love one another”: a message of congeniality and goodwill.
I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.
NYC producer Cofaxx’s “Isles” sets the scene.
I read around a bit as clouds roll in. A book passed briefly through my lifeworld today: The Complete Van Book, filled with images and descriptions of shag-carpeted nomadic 70s utopias on wheels. Vans with names like The Sun and the Moon, with instructions in back for how to custom-build your own. Time to sit at a red table eating Chinese takeout. Time to revive myths and legends. “What we are seeing as we look straight ahead to the back wall,” writes Frances A. Yates as if she were Socrates speaking to those who live in the Cave, “is the tiring house wall at the Globe, not the whole of it but only the two lower levels; the ground level with the three entrances; the second level with the terrace and the chamber. We do not see the third level because we are under the heavens which are projecting invisibly above us from below the third tier of the tiring house wall” (The Art of Memory, p. 347). How’s that for a cognitive map!
My imagination roves, like a cursor directed by an unseen, other-dimensional stylus. The one—an abstract, digitally mediated, floating point of view—sits across from and mirrors the other, the active ongoing envisioning of Being. About which, we somehow wish to write. Thus the following. To “project,” in the Freudian sense, is to turn reality into a metaphor. Parts of the object-world are substituted, refashioned, reimagined. And these actions are performed by a subject. Indeed—projective doings are not just done by accident. In the Freudian universe, everything is significant, everything has meaning. Yet the “I” who projects, Freud says, is still largely unconscious of its being, occulted from itself, its thoughts and feelings forgotten as they happen, buried, submerged, stored outside conscious awareness. The party responsible for projection is that preconscious part of us that wishes and dreams, Freud says, not the part of us that remembers afterwards having done so. Freud likened the mind to a landscape, a topography, a surface and a depth, as did precursors like Plato and Coleridge, the former in the Allegory of the Cave, the latter in “Kublai Khan.” What happens, though, when the unconscious arrives into consciousness as a thing? Both are transformed, are they not? Assumption of the unconscious is necessary, Freud says, to explain acts presupposed: acts of dreaming, acts of spontaneous self-governance that happen without any remembered, conscious deliberation. “Our most personal daily experience acquaints us,” he wrote, “with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how” (“The Unconscious,” 573). The happenings of the mind exceed what is known to consciousness—so, upon that excess, we bestow the title “Unconscious.” Energetic, creative, erotic, Dionysian: these are its attributes, this original portion of ourselves, deepest and most essential, guided by what Freud calls “The Pleasure Principle.” The Unconscious is the home of the Id: the pre-socialized self, the “Self in its infancy,” motivated only to seek pleasure and fear pain. This early self is later shackled by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the Ego and the Superego; but the Pleasure Principle remains operative throughout our lives, in all subsequent stages of psychological development. The Ego and the Superego enter onto the stage of the psyche through our interactions with our parents. The Ego is the conscious portion of the individual, the part that thinks itself the star of the show, whereas the Superego is the culturing force, the Law of the Father, parental authority as it becomes internalized.
A cat has been sitting on a chair on our deck these last few days, napping midday. I like having it around. Deck chair cat. Classes are going well. After a full day of teaching (a pretty magical performance, I must say), I hang out with colleagues at a department party. Once home again, I splash water under my arms and rinse my feet. I spent the day talking with students, dialoguing about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where the freed prisoner ascends toward sight of the sun, much as the philosopher ascends toward knowledge of the good, and by evening, I’m attending a show by the band Sunwatchers. Life assembles into these weird coincidences, these synchronicities. I share Gabriel Marcel’s view: “Hope is a memory of the future.” As Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox note, “Memories of primal pleasure are alive and well in the unconscious; all we need to do is call them forth.”
We can heal ourselves by placing ourselves in the presence of beautiful aesthetic objects like the new Dire Wolves cassette, Shootout at the Dildo Factory.
Or even better, given our mood at the moment, how about the new cassette from Lake Mary & Talk West on Cabin Floor Esoterica? Lo-fi improvised folk by a midwestern American guitar duo.
What I settle on, however, in my restlessness, in my hunger for uplift, is The Magicians Saw by Alex Meets Sand.
I see sand, fuzz, whiskers, sliced grapefruit, etchings of a state from memory. Bars of sunlight atop a grey carpet. While listening, I begin to eye Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an American adaptation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. McMurphy shows up, a new Admission to the cave, with pants and shirt from the Pendleton Work Farm “sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk” (12). Dude’s been out in the SUN. The Cave has been updated; it’s far more brutal than it was for the philosophers of ancient Athens. They’ve added a “brain-murdering” room called the “Shock Shop.” And the freed individual, the one who ascends and returns — he, too, has changed. Where once he was a philosopher-king, now he’s a psychopathic “fights too much and fucks too much” capitalist. The men in the cave, we’re told, are like sleepwalkers “wandering round in a simple, happy dream” (16). From the moment of arrival onward, however, McMurphy charms them and helps them wake.
Re-reading Plato’s “cave allegory” from The Republic in preparation for tomorrow’s class, I’m struck again by the distinction drawn by Socrates between “that which is coming into being” and “that which is” (Bloom translation, p. 197). Because of what I’ve been reading lately, however, (especially various mystical texts, including Ram Dass’s Be Here Now), I’m tempted to interpret “that which is” as another name for what Terence McKenna called “the transcendental object at the end of time.” As I imagine it, this object or divine being would possess the power to operate upon the dimension or construct we call “time,” pulling toward it those who allow themselves to be pulled. The spiritual journey, then — the climbing of the Holy Mountain, the ascent toward the true and the just and the good — all of this would involve the rediscovery of what we once knew and will come to know again. Plato, of course, refers to this process as “anamnesis.”
How would one operate a dialectic of identity and nonidentity when that which wields the form of this sentence knows no designation? Alteration of consciousness produces a “before” and an “after” self, the presence staring at the absence as if across a mirror, across the divide of a tablet or a screen. The Unconscious is that which operates the Dream-Work: everything in one’s experience, the entire world, minus that which occupies the place of “I” at this moment in the discourse, the speech act, the trance-script. We become like the siblings in Poltergeist, you and I, even as we also think of ourselves as ones who exist apart from Poltergeist, watching from our chairs in the caves of our minds, each actor, the beings on either end of this sentence, communicating across the glass dividing the one and the other into compartments. “It’s a strange image, and strange prisoners you’re telling of,” says Glaucon. Socrates rushes to add, “They’re like us.” What, then, of those of us there, who find ourselves amid the terms of the allegory? Does one of us just tap the other, saying to that which appears as a splintered, refracted, Legionized symbolic totality, “Rise up, dear reader; time to wake”? My hunch is that if, before we sleep each night, we feed our minds better symbols, we’ll wake to better worlds.
After admiring joyous birdsong at sunset, the rumble of a motor heard far in the distance, I turn and face the entrance to a cave. Is it wrong to feel forever dubious of that which remains, that which fails to go away, despite my having lost belief in it? (Wasn’t that Philip K. Dick’s definition of “reality”?) Assuming no reply, I step inside, cave walls alive with claymation lichen. This cave of which I speak is a kind of mirror-world, like the interior of a screen. No matter how carefully I inspect its contents, I always depart it afterwards feeling conceptually and linguistically inept. Dominated by people with backgrounds in STEM and finance. At times, this cave resembles language — the cultural surround. Yet I at all times also feel language’s absence. I lack the words, for instance, to operate consistently within a science fictional universe. Psychedelics free us temporarily from the first of these sensations: the sense of language as a prison house, a confine, an enclosure. (Or not, if we believe Lacan.) But then what? Once out of the linguistic construct, how do we communicate with those still in it? What is the content of this gnosis that we wish to deliver back into language?