Is it Faustian to wish joy and happiness? Are Utopians Faustian? What about those of us who wish alleviation of suffering through escape from capitalism? Or through religion, education, spirituality, cultivation of land and consciousness — all of which are at least Promethean, if not Faustian, in their defiant aims and ambitions. Projects waged against fate. The Faust character is distinct from the others, though, as he practices magic. Faust visits a crossroads. He makes a deal, sells his soul. The Devil features as a character in the Faust narrative, as does a demon named Mephistopheles. The latter name appears in the late-16th-century Faust chapbooks, stories concerning the life of the historical figure on which the Faust character is based, an ambitious scholar named Johann Georg Faust. The author of these chapbooks remains anonymous. The proper response to Faust, I suppose, is the one offered by Fatima Bhutto: “nothing on earth can be gifted to compensate for injustice.”
Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.
Upon finding employment on his third day in the Northern city of New Bedford, Frederick Douglass declares himself his own master. “I was now my own master,” he writes. This is a “happy moment” — one of the few such moments in Douglass’s narrative. Its rapture can be understood, he says, “only by those who have been slaves” (78). The scene leaves me wondering: at what point is there no longer someone robbing us of the rewards of our work? The employment Douglass has found is a form of wage slavery, is it not? Is the reward not taken in the setting of the wage by the capitalist? Are Marx and Engels wrong? In what sense is the wage relation not a form of slavery? Labor hours remain at the command of external masters under capitalism. The economy one faces is manufactured by the State, and the State is a mere police-backed conspiracy of land developers and financiers. All of us are in some way or another pressed into its service. Those of us in entertainment and education — those of us manning the ISAs, as Louis Althusser would say — we’re the functional equivalent of PsyOps officers. Yet we can always rebel — and many of us do. Wizards needn’t always be their wizards. There are fugitive histories to be learned, memories of fugitive ancestors awaiting remembrance through fugitive study. Because if the past isn’t past, as Faulkner wrote, and the demand on the streets is “NO COPS / NO JAILS / NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME,” then abolitionists are among us today, their cause as just as it was a century and a half ago.
Some of these recent trance-scripts have been addressing and will continue to address for the remainder of the summer the course I’m planning to teach this fall. The idea is to sit with texts and think with them. Texts belonging to a rebellious current — particular expressions that leap across time, appearing throughout American history in the nation’s literature. Placed in dialogue, these texts reveal the Empire, the settler-colony in its pattern of continuous struggle with the land and its people. Rebellion occurs in these texts in open opposition to settler histories, settler temporalities, settler cosmologies. This course, of course, is a work in progress — and also a critique of progress. Yet here I am also learning to make pizza, dough and all. Or so was my hope before the baby woke. Sarah and I collaborate on a pair of dueling Sicilians.
The story that writes itself and needs to be written is the story of black life — multiple, joined with others, protesting, demonstrating, rioting against systemic racism and Trumpism and white supremacy and police murder in cities across America. “We have our masks and we’re ready,” says the voice of the collective subject. Reception of the Event is always mistranslated by journalists — yet awareness is growing, consciousness is changing. We’re learning our way toward insurrection and rebellion against injustice. My hopes are, as always, with the struggle. Mike Davis and Jon Wiener walk me through the Watts Uprising of August 1965. As Horace Tapscott exclaimed, “The Giant Is Awakening.”
Tapscott’s Underground Musicians Association (UGMA) formed at the heart of the Watts Renaissance. They were a jazz commune like Sun Ra’s Arkestra — but unlike the autocratic structure of the latter, Tapscott’s group was, as Davis and Wiener say, “an anarchist participatory democracy” (Set the Night on Fire, p. 245). The feeling today is much the same: giants awakening, people assembling. What has needed to happen is happening.
A self-deputized overseer whines helplessly about my unsanctioned use of his ship’s crow’s nest. Heads when high turn mutinous, he mutters, preferring I keep below deck with the others in the brig. Knowing that my ascent offends his cop-mind fills my heart with glee.
Time to head back to work, where remote / distance pedagogy is the new condition, the newly imposed norm, “until further notice.” A friend’s QuickTime lecture, “hot off the press,” as they used to say, sets me thinking about Queer responses to the AIDS crisis, that part of history surfacing again into consciousness. Another friend’s course description evokes Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Mine, meanwhile, traces a “path of resistance” in American history as manifested in literatures of rebellion across the centuries. Even as we remember trauma, let us remain champions of hope. Think of it in terms of genre. Some raise consciousness; others deflate it. Inboxes can be filled with event cancellations or broadcasts from radio outlaws. Joe Strummer broadcasting from Radio Clash, Felix Guattari broadcasting from Radio Alice in the red Bologna of 1976. Sit outside in early evening, an hour or two before sunset, though, and it’s the same old birdsong, beautiful as ever, cars well in the distance. Do we scale up from this afterwards into tribes? An owl hoots; dogs bark; crows caw; two squirrels work cooperatively in a tree, plucking tufts of evergreen for a nest. Doom is not my thing.
What do we mean by rebellion? Government by election is illegitimate, the numbers and the games played with them suspect. Time for ontological rebellion, refusal of consent to another’s determination of reality. Time to write and perform alternate scripts. Take value-determination away from the money-form. Reject the count en masse. By that I mean the Census. That which can’t count can’t rule. Collectively, in groups, drop out of the count. Drop out of buying and drop into giving. Create an alternative narrative reality. Turn every house into a freehouse, a treehouse, an Undercommons, a tribal encampment. Those who have land, give land. Start communes. Queer language. Historicize it, romanticize it, poeticize it, improvise with it, cast spells with it. Disobey those who police it. Craft new states of being. Provide for the needs of others. Teach. Parent. Use love and generosity to coordinate local gift-exchange. And support those who take to the pipelines and the streets. Water defenders, metro fare protestors. Rise up, act out. Decolonize this place.
The “heroes” that we encounter in literatures about altered states are individuals and groups, authors and movements, creators of counterculture, figures who rebel against systems stacked against them — because some of us can’t breathe. Some of us feel trapped economically. Others of us feel trapped educationally, betrayed by those trained in STEM. And yet we must practice love anyway, despite, because. Time to revisit the debates internal to counterculture, among the Whole Earthers and others, about technology and ecology. Bring ecofeminists and cyberfeminists and Afrofuturists into account when re-examining these debates. But do so while staring at crows atop a pine tree. Allow time to admire patterns of sunlight and shadow amid fallen leaves. Then up and about: gather the books, assemble the argument. Defend pluralist methodologies and anarchist epistemologies. Critique capitalist science and its institutionalization of consciousness. But do so as an Eco-Marxist, acknowledging climate crisis as a real condition of existence — the Pascal’s Wager of our time.