There’s no overhead; next thing you know, I’m staring at my life from above. Imagine translating texts by higher-dimensional beings into languages understood by lower-dimensional beings. The characteristics of what Fredric Jameson calls postmodern “hyperspace” (its dislocations, its denial of history, its blurring of distinctions between simulated and real) require that subjects consume drugs in order for such spaces to even seem comprehensible, let alone open to critique and transformation. Time-space compression makes a mockery of our inherited categories of perception. In response, we have a tradition dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with writers like Blake already urging fellow moderns to de-reify experience. Remove the categories, they shout, cleanse the doors! As Foucault notes, “The stability of a thing is only its movement indefinitely slowed down” (“Of Other Spaces,” p. 23). If the self, the observing subject, is no more than a temporary amalgam bounded by interpellation via language, then what remains when we open this subject to outside influence? When Aldous Huxley borrows Blake’s “doors of perception” metaphor and, under the influence of Henri Bergson, likens these doors to a “reducing valve,” a faucet one can adjust so as to regulate the mind’s exposure to raw being, one begins to detect the co-presence of a spatial metaphor informing Huxley’s intervention. This spatial metaphor — involving, in its simplest form, a distinction between inner and outer — enables Huxley’s individualized ethic of chemically-aided perception to perform double duty as a secret analogue of sorts for nation-states. Just as individuals should use drugs like mescaline to throw open their “doors of perception,” thus exposing themselves to authentic experience, so too must the imperial metropole open its borders to enable exposure to the “Perennial Philosophy,” i.e., the cultures and teachings of the periphery. Afternoons have been kind of lovely these last few days. Air crisp, shadows long. Perfect for small outings in the hours before sunset. The grim national reality intervenes now and then, especially in conversations with others. “Preppie ex-frat-boy douchebags are corporatizing and Swiss-cheesing higher ed,” we rail, on our way to a farm to pick pumpkins and pet goats. What scares me, though, is my sense of helplessness. Honestly, I’m at a loss as to how to fight off this latest assault on the humanities. I used to follow Michael Bérubé‘s work in the early 2000s, his interventions into the culture wars, his defenses of the humanities, his navigation of the so-called “canon debates” — but I lost much of my respect for him during the tail end of the Bush years, and I grew too demoralized to keep paying attention once I completed my PhD and landed in non-tenure-track debtors prison hell. Why spend what little leisure time remains in one’s possession reading about one’s dismal circumstances, if reading about those circumstances won’t change them?
Lest I be accused of mere nostalgia, let me begin today’s post by explaining how I see the relationship of our moment to what some are now calling “hippie modernism.”
Following the logic informing the Walker Art Center’s exhibition of that name, I take “hippie modernism” to designate a countercultural formation of unsurpassed Utopianism that flowered unevenly in a wide range of national contexts in the 1960s and early 1970s. This formation was never just a reflection of its time; rather, it actively dreamt and desired a future that, by remaining unrealized, continues to make demands on us today. Postmodernism, meanwhile, is that which emerged in hippie modernism’s aftermath. A product of post-60s Prohibition (here in the Americas, the moment of the highly militarized War on Drugs), postmodernist culture coincides with active state suppression of hippie modernism’s technologies of consciousness. Of course, drug wars have never had much success in eradicating supplies of psychedelics, and so the ongoing era of Prohibition has long been haunted by revivals of hippie modernism’s ghosts. Nevertheless, when I look to hippie modernism today, I see a cultural formation the totality or full international breadth and extent of which has only just now become mappable by individuals, thanks to the art-historical archival efforts of reissue labels and museums. As a result, the time is right, I think, not just for a Marxist account of the history of psychedelia, but for the creation of an openly, unashamedly Gnostic-themed, psychedelia-inflected Marxism, one that presents the raising of consciousness as the relay switch between previously competing or previously antagonistic codes. But enough of that. In what follows, I will not think but do. Returning home after visiting my family, I arrive briefly at the impression, before self-correction, that neighborhoods in the places I’ve lived all look the same. With that, I prepare myself for admission before the court of my town’s public pool. And the self I prepare is a mischievous little child. A scheming little imp. Well, not really. I’m just a sun child. And it feels good, I declare, to lay out in the sun while high — if not for you, then at least for me. I associate all of this, in fact, with the photo on the cover of Kantner and Slick’s otherwise unmemorable — indeed, practically unlistenable — Sunfighter (“Million” being the only song on Sunfighter that I would recommend to others).
There were many pictures of me worshipped like that as a baby. I ate strident dreams of that sort for breakfast. The Guitar Army peered at me with its harmonicas at the ready. Hence my love of sun and pool. Watch me swim now: a swamp thing, a rangy plant-like consciousness, floating at the water’s surface. Hold fast to this image, for in it lies the key. The sunlit sky, the cool body of water, and the public at play: these three shall form the pillars of my religion’s temple. My Hippie-Communist Temple of Joy. It is THIS for which we strive. Justice has been and so will continue to be our rallying cry — but a justice on behalf of pleasure. The world must be made pleasureful and fully present for all those who want it so. To the haters, I reply with the immortal words of Edward FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam: “Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring / Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling: / The Bird of Time has but a little way / To flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing. […] Some for the Glories of This World; and some / Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; / Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go, / Nor heed the music of a distant Drum!” And one more for good measure, to drive the point home: “Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit / Of This and That endeavor and dispute; / Better be merry with the fruitful Grape / Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.”