In the second book in the Parable series, Parable of the Talents, Earthseed’s status as a religion places it into conflict with neighboring creeds, especially hostile, intolerant ones like US President Andrew Steele Jarret’s Christian America. With Earthseed, Butler creates for us a black feminist reimagining of John Africa’s group MOVE and its 1985 conflict with the Philadelphia Police Department during the reign of Ronald Reagan. Butler projects that earlier conflict forward into a twenty-first century America presaged by the LA riots of 1992. If one teaches this book, one should encourage one’s students to sit with Earthseed. Read its verses. Try it on, test it out as a belief system. Which aspects of it appeal to you? Which, if any, trouble you, and why? My attitude toward Earthseed is a bit like Zahra’s when she tells Lauren, “I don’t care about no outer space. You can keep that part of it. But if you want to put together some kind of community where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around, I’m with you” (223). After reading Nick Estes, I also find myself pondering Lauren’s relationship to settler-colonialism. Is Earthseed settler-colonialist, both in its establishment of Acorn (a literal settlement intent on growth) and in its advocacy for the spread of a “survivalistic” earthly biology into outer space? Or is its pursuit of multiracial community in fact the only real alternative to settler-colonialism? Settler-colonialism has already, for the past 500 years, been the case here on Turtle Island, and will remain so, unless and until groups commit to decolonization and antiracism. With Earthseed, Butler imagines for us a movement that does this. Earthseed resists the white settler-colonialist project, given that the biology Earthseed wishes to propagate is ethnically and racially diverse. All are welcome. To join, one simply agrees to live by Earthseed’s creed: a belief system that demands only that we serve and protect each other and come to each other’s aid — no more and no less.
Earthseed isn’t the first religion invented within the context of science fiction. Scientology comes to mind as another, invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. I’m also reminded of Discordianism, a religion of sorts propagated in part by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy. Like Hubbard’s Scientology, Earthseed is nontheistic — at least in the sense that the latter’s god is simply “change,” a process said to lack consciousness, yet capable of being “shaped” toward humanity’s “destiny” among the stars. Earthseed refuses to console with any promise of an afterlife. (A bit like Stoicism, in that sense.) As a belief system, I find it overly grim.
Earthseed, the religion founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine who narrates Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, resembles other faiths (including the Baptism of Butler’s upbringing) in its evangelical cast. Lauren spreads the word and seeks converts, her church being a kind of mutual aid society. Together, she and her followers form a traveling, changing community — a “team” or “tribe” of sorts, decisions made organically based on the group’s capacity to survive amid thieves, murderers, cannibals, junkies, wild dogs, and arsonists. Lauren’s view of the world is paranoid, but it’s a paranoia borne out by lived events of trauma. She “experiences” and “shares” the pain of others due to what she calls “hyperempathy syndrome.” She has an ability that makes her vulnerable, and thus cautious of who she can trust. We needn’t think of this as mere delusion. The reactions to bodily harm sometimes manifest physically, another’s pain sometimes drawing blood. However we view this aspect of Lauren’s experience, it leads her to seek followers. She wants others to believe her, offering in exchange a path toward survival.
This is a story wherein culture learns to behave lovingly. Animated anthropomorphic cocktail glasses wearing party favors raise cocktail glasses while dancing at a party. Next thing I know, my eyes are open and I’m speaking unashamedly, meeting the gaze of the Other with an expression of goodwill despite the capital-relation that binds us and brings us together. No matter how we interpret it, we’re always here, called upon to occupy this subject-position on this phenomenological plane. Let us do so each day as best we can, drinking juice guilt-free. I used to worry that guilt was something I carried, like a sentence of unknown extent, causing me to cower in fear of a temporarily-absent-but-due-to-return “Big Other.” For those who have ears to hear, say the Christians, this Big Other has already expressed willingness to forgive—but only upon certain conditions spelled out by fallible earthly translators, emissaries, bearers of sacred word. Who could help but fall astray under such conditions? Let us accept their fallibility—theirs, as well as our own—as the essence of the message. For this acceptance constitutes a freedom, a horizon opened up before us, judgment stayed. To live otherwise would be to live in fear. I acknowledge I’m not much of a narrator. I wander, I digress, losing myself in forests and labyrinths, out of which I rise occasionally to otherworldly heights like a self-styled Captain Marvel. This is as it should be, I suppose, for the stories that save me aren’t the Christian ones. They’re the ones involving X-Factors and New Mutants, where latent powers and hidden potentials suddenly become manifest. The psychedelic experience arises alongside this mythos. The world we live in is the one where the change already happened. For better or worse, human societies have birthed a new era of augmented consciousness, have they not? There’s something apocalyptic about the event itself, a kind of veil-lifting — the arrival of a new phase of history. Suddenly we’re in the worlds of Grant Morrison’s Supergods and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. (Another name for all of this, perhaps, is the Anthropocene.)
According to the Old Raja, the philosopher-king in Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian society would be a society in which “most good doing is the product of Good Being” (42). Through the fictional persona of the Old Raja, Huxley asks readers to know who in fact they are, while also knowing, moment to moment, who they think they are but in fact are not. We must be aware in every context, the character suggests, at all times, no matter the manner of the particular doing or suffering. The excerpted passages from the Old Raja’s “small green booklet” end with the author championing “Faith…the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are,” rather than Belief, which is absorption in the Word — the projected symbol, the reified name. I see Belief, for instance, as the disposition fostered not just by churches and organized religions, but also by obsessive-compulsive daily exposure to social media. The latter’s “Gestus” of swipes and clicks is a kind of genuflection, is it not? Social media’s economy of “likes” establishes through aggregation of ritual blessings a pantheon of mythic minor deities to whom users then become subject.
In the second episode of its second season, Westworld reaches dizzying new heights of allegorical richness and complexity. Through sympathy, or sympathetic identification with characters, consciousness gives itself to other points of view. We witness Being from the standpoint of the commodity, the proletariat. Created beings piece together truth by eavesdropping upon conversations they overhear among the god-beings they’ve been made to serve. The West is a world that seeks the end of history, the show suggests. A world that seeks to destroy itself in order to puzzle out the meaning of its making. And where Westworld ends, The Blazing World begins. We are immaterial spirits cloaked in material garments, says Margaret Cavendish — our true selves, I would add, as invisible to us as video game players are to their avatars. Identification, I would remind readers, is the principle that allows this forgetting, this trance-formation that occurs, the self’s ability to merge in imagination with what was formerly other. One could easily extrapolate an imaginary but plausible heretical form of Christianity based on these beliefs. We are each of us the Christ, might go its teachings, each of us the Creator-Being made incarnate, entered into the Creation in order to save it. Let us imagine ourselves thus. Let us feel rapid and jittery upon our evening walks as we exalt in prefiguration of our approaching freedom.
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.
A gradual softening or loosening occurs as subjects slip free of programming. But it is as if in doing so, we become possessed. Drink tea with loved one while meditating in yoga pose, we tell ourselves. Receive galaxies of information incomprehensible to linear minds. The self imagines at this point absent causes known only through their effects. Fears set in, assault us from all sides. Magic utilizes symbols to reprogram consciousness. We become game-makers, risk-takers, driven toward an unknown end. “Unknown” bothers me, however, so I imagine several potential endings. Apex-of-pyramid gnosis. Transcendence of what the show will mean and how it will be structured. Capitalist modernity’s decay. The self-discipline needed to abide by self-chosen ethical norms. In other respects, though, existing identities will no longer anchor Being. But worry not, friends. As Roland Kirk says, “It won’t get any lighter.” Hoo-whee, let’s hear it. Volunteered Slavery, folks. I gas it, I accelerate, I lay betwixt floor speakers and roll with it.
Kirk smoked so much beforehand, he says, he came out onstage blind at the Newport Jazz Festival during the live performance on the B-side. Unearthly Looney Tunes-style cartoon violence. Nose flutes, whistles, the works. Next we join the Explorer Series for Golden Rain’s hardcore Balinese Gamelan proto-techno.
White walls, guillotines. An elephant mask melts into a DayGlo torso. Around this time, a friend texts and he and I reflect on our religious upbringings — his more “Cold War action movie,” mine more “death by boredom.” The true Utopia, I tell him, was too close at hand to believe in cloudy realms full of angelic nuns. I always wanted to squirm from my pew and head outside to play, hang around, seek light with other kids. My policy, from an early age, was to tune out the adults and ignore all their death-obsessed bullshit. I came to distrust, and later, to scorn the other congregants. But I loved the architecture, organs on occasion transported me to other worlds, and I loved silent prayer. And I more or less remain that person today.
I release hold of my ego, or maybe I just re-leash it. Emails sound like military bugle calls. The gift of meditation and prayer. The black hole, the abyss that throws up memories. Churches are major structures of social discipline. They create prisons of doubt and fear. But ISAs are everywhere. Clues left behind in the minds of individuals. Drugs can help us release the devils from our brains. Massive criminal conspiracies. Have I mentioned that I became friends recently with a Marxist Baptist pastor? I am excited by the arrival of this figure on the world-stage. Churches remain giants; and as my friend said, “Theology never goes away.” Can churches be reformed so as to help usher in the Kingdom of God? It’s still cops and robbers — but maybe the robbers can act again as Robin Hoods. Perhaps religion is the staging ground for the launch of a new counterpower. We must re-approach the adults who believe the secrets, and for whom the spell has been cast. So many damaged people out there in our midst. Haunted by demons. Survivors of skirmishes in modernity’s and postmodernity’s culture wars. One needs to maintain a distinction, though, between art made for a trip (as a kind of tool or supplement), and art made to re-present in place of a trip. Play “Sensory” by Kill Alters, though, to illustrate reality’s defiance of the above distinction. And follow this with “Ego Swim” as the next phase in our sequence.
What a time to be alive, I proclaim, arms raised to the sky. And the illusion, I should say, looked many-eyed and sang back to me, clothed both in “The Holder” and Do Pas O’s “History of Comedy,” where the universe melts like taffy.
Fierce grotesques profiled as by Diane Arbus. One must command a choir of alternate personalities, each waiting to overtake the others’ transportive ecstasies. Eyes that reveal eyes within. All of us are angels with amnesia, living as humans in the void or simulation we call “embodied presence.” Some of us are pouring fondue on ourselves online. Which makes a lot of sense! Altering, leveling, getting THERE to THAT, begins with our behavior toward one another. It means placing productivity on hold midafternoon. Flip-flops descending a staircase. The world reverberates in affirmation when we allow ourselves entry again to the garden. Calm, deliberate enjoyment as one treats oneself to existence. Uncommunicative, reserved, and quiet, but filled with joy.