Huxley’s “reducing valve” metaphor renders the self or the Ego porous through a kind of sense-awakening, like the opening of a third eye. Growth of a new organ, as the Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson said, “to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions” (Postmodernism, p. 80). Jameson’s visit to the Bonaventure Hotel reads like a trip report — an account of an anabasis, with its ascent up the Portman building’s remarkable elevators. These elevators grant their riders the ability to cross realms, as Jameson does. After traveling up from the building’s interior atrium, one is launched out, in a glass-windowed capsule, up the building’s exterior shell. The ride allegorizes space flight. Riders shoot upward and land safely upon return into a dizzying postmodern hyperspace connected only by way of ascending escalators to the streets of Los Angeles. The pools at the base of the elevators simulate NASA’s trademark “splash landing.”
There’s a story here to be told. Let there be magic. Note the power that Ishmael Reed grants to “Rev. Jefferson,” father of “Woodrow Wilson Jefferson” in Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo. Can I find my Text and become articulate? When asked to justify his power, Rev. Jefferson cites John 2:14. Christ booted the businessmen from the Temple. Let’s give Trump the boot. Fredric Jameson observed a use of pastiche in art and fiction produced under “postmodernity.” Postmodernism is a “cultural logic,” a “condition” felt and lived in our current historical period, the era of “late capitalism.” Pastiche is a style or mode adopted by artists in this period — a kind of “blank parody.” Reed’s novel, however, is satire of a critical bent. The book is a pointed, powerful criticism of Western civilization. Jameson included in his essay on “Postmodernism” a famous phenomenological description of his experience of a hotel in Los Angeles. Reed lived in Oakland, taught at Berkeley — lived the historical moment differently, constructs a rich elaborate allegory of the Nixon years. Reed decolonizes consciousness across millennia. Western ways of thinking are shown to be products of a racial policing of consciousness. It is a product of a certain kind of schooling, a cultural, religious, elite-controlled linguistic system. Reed turns economic events, depressions and the like (period markers for Marxists like Jameson) into signs of Voodoo Warfare, spells cast upon the Atonist imperium. Colonized people continue to wage war because the opponent, the white-supremacist adversary, poses a threat to survival, making it difficult to breathe. The latter group’s rituals of capitalist development and production are destroying the planet. Money is the Atonist order’s currency — the god to be worshiped above all others. The thing that money’s chasing, however, the thing it’s trying to “bop” or “co-opt” is an “anti-plague,” a source of cultural vitality and invention imagined to be “carried” by people of color (but capable of spread to others). The “contagion” metaphor that fuels Atonist thought, the white racist fear of a spreading blackness, the fear of becoming a “white minority”: this entire style of thought is absorbed into Reed’s novel. The result, though, is not “pastiche” or “blank parody.” Reed “signifies with a difference,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues. Contagion is blanked of its negative connotations, as what spreads is what saves. “Jes Grew” is the spirit of Osiris seeking to reassemble the pre-Atonist ancient Egyptian past. People “catch the spirit”; they’re moved by it. They’re lifted up, buoyed by the likes of Bobby McFerrin. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” is the letter sent, the message received. So I think as I ponder the day.
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.”