If my government were a channel, I’d grab the controller and change it. Out with this immiserating, sadistic, Walking Dead bullshit. Enough already. I work full-time as a college professor, I live modestly, and yet because of student debt, here I am on the 23rd of the month, bank account overdrawn, savings nonexistent. This system is unworkable.
Life unfolds in installments of day and night. For work I review the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, a film I’ve watched and taught many times over the years. The first section of the film is titled “Confronting the University.” Berkeley President Clark Kerr appears before an audience attempting to rebrand the public university as an appendage of the “knowledge industry” and a focal point of fiscal growth for the state economy. Against him rise students like Jack Weinberg and Jackie Goldberg, young people who arrived to the university looking for truth and meaning. The university came to operate for them and for the other members of the Free Speech movement as a site for live, immediate, direct, hands-on transformation of society. As viewers we watch with some surprise as the movement succeeds in growing and repeatedly mobilizing a large coalition of members. The “children of affluence,” the future managers of the society realize in the thousands that their education has been designed to ruin them. The battle over free speech evolves into something more generalizable, something much more meaningful and appealing: a battle against dehumanization. The war of humanity against unchecked bureaucracy. Students at Berkeley made the radical choice to live, to revolt, to actively push back and participate in co-creation of the future through occupation of buildings. They gather in the agora of the auditorium and laugh and boo at and surround and confront the bald head of the head of the university, President Kerr. They talk about sitting down together and re-planning the whole structure of the university with a new conception of the purpose of education. They realize that the mechanisms that the Free Speech movement attempted to change are mechanisms operating throughout the society. As audience members, we realize the same is true today. Their story thus confronts us with the question, “What would WE say, how would WE behave, if we abolished hierarchy and suspended authority? What if we did that, here and now, in our classrooms?”
I sit in a chair in my office attending to words and phrases as they well up inside me. There are moments each day when exposure to social media translates into spells of sadness, hopelessness, and despair. A friend and I text about the election of Brazil’s far-right “Trump of the Tropics,” Jair Bolsonaro. Historical agency is consolidating into the hands of the “Tough Guys,” the well-armed, militarily-unstoppable few. How do we turn this around? By what behavior might we resurrect in this world a world dedicated to love and play? We just do it: we listen, we dance, we read signs. We communicate to others our vision of a joyous cosmology. We project this cosmology outward. We enliven. We embolden. We embrace the anomalies of the particular and our subjective feelings as observers. Following philosopher Paul F. Schmidt, we imagine “feelings” to include “thinking, acting, observing, believing, willing, remembering and hoping, in all their modes and moods.” We channel our hopes into radical concreteness, the “true-for-me,” Sartre’s “being-for-itself.” Let us confess to our thinking. When we allow the voice of the loving individual to be heard, we heal. Schmidt’s book Rebelling, Loving and Liberation is astoundingly good, by the way, as is the view of time expressed in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” Both are instructive of how to preserve concrete being in an administered society, if by “concrete being” we mean living in a present that contains many presents, many single concrete inclusive complete wholes, each one lived in the here and now of its own happening.
Walter Benjamin’s desire for “profane illumination” rhymes through my mind, resonates through inner canyons, fills me with desperation. If the world we demand is one with no more fears, no more superstitions, then why are we so nervous, so skittish? Is it the ever-present policing, the techno-capitalist speed-up of society, the political horizon blocked by a metal-faced THX 1138 Big Brother Trump Leviathan? Is that why we disappoint ourselves, never quite able to live free, spontaneous, liberated, loving lives? What do we want? How do we get it? Is it the divine in us, this rebellious impulse? Or is the divine, rather, that which wants us to live grateful for each day despite hardship and circumstance? What about 2-year-old migrant children enduring the Kafkaesque procedural absurdity of immigration court? Is there no way to reverse this slide into utter abjection? Wherefore the new force, the new sway in intellectual life, of concepts like destiny and judgment? Why do we dare not venture far into liberated terrain? How do we teach ourselves to live in the faith that each event is a doorway through which walks the Messiah? How do we think the world into what we want it to be?
Bang! I’ve got enlightenment. Time to use it and change the world. Augment storytelling capacity. Change consciousness. Otherwise it’ll be 40 years into what was once just Reagan’s “New Lame America,” but is now, at certain moments in our seeing, a 24/7 corporate-fascist, logistics-driven, policed and self-policed carceral state. Live differently, motherfuckers! At which point I remind myself, “Breathe. Let go of the anger. Release it. Forgive. Return to the Dhammapada. ‘Go far into the Void,’ as the Tao Te Ching counsels, ‘and there rest in quietness.'” Thus enabling us to act gratefully and compassionately toward others, as we “Flight of the Bumblebee” around town. In return, we get to learn about the meaning of “Mu,” a concept from Zen Buddhism. Moten teaches us to think of such concepts as props or toys. “If you pick them up,” he explains in his interview with Stevphen Shukaitis, “you can move into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop” (The Undercommons, p. 106). What matters now is what we do with concepts, how we use them in our relations with others. Intellectual exchange can be practiced, here and now. Come on, folks — let’s do this. Let us use these words and participate in study.
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.
The good shepherd, whom I pause before to contemplate, appears as a better self, a majestic higher order. I stare at it fearfully, struggling to keep up as its visual-sensual-conceptual being grows, looms, enlarges, steals our breath, overwhelms us with its complexity. “That is not I,” we have to say to avoid becoming Jesuit. The feeling then relaxes a bit, goes quiet. We imbibe earth, nut, matter. This lends us weight, we become caught by a planet’s gravity, our journey as ray of light captured into life, made to inhabit human form for a stretch of time: it is like having to endure soul-flattening, soul-crushing pressure. We mustn’t watch as others are judged, tried, executed, given greater than their due share of suffering. I find myself staring in confusion at the alien customs, the tolerance for oppression, among my countrymen. Let us not become crueler, coarsened by feud, faction, quarrel. Don’t allow groups to organize, lest we plot destruction of kings. Religion is an able resistance to the ways of some dominant Other. It brings judgment, the latter being a kind of power, into politics. Radical believers deny one another the right to live by free means in community with like-minded others. That is the future toward which we are led. Don’t let us get caught in games of conversion and conviction by others who believe themselves lords over the lives of others. Religious wars of this sort are fraught with grave dangers. Political fictions make for dangerous games. Desperate people become led by acts of desperate men. That is becoming common again: states that toy with public perception, inventing stories to command the attention of weaponized masses, turning neighbor upon neighbor. Isn’t that the void into which certain public storytellers, writers of history, wish to plunge us? I mean the Bill O’Reilly’s, the Sean Hannity’s. Sadists who derive pleasure through imaginative identification with the State in its role of public executioner. In the past we called them inquisitors. We mustn’t let them thrive.