I hear voices of comrades passing along hopes and aspirations, fears and concerns, across time. Alongside these, the needs of the household. The days and their many chores. Shopping, cooking, cleaning: the “I” before and after work always performing other kinds of work. Into it all I try to fit reading, writing, walking, watching, listening, meditating, being for and with others. Always, though, reminded: the ego is but a small part of the equation, barely capable, outdone by those on whom it depends. Be that as it may, the “I” that contains this equation is about to become someone’s dad. The fact of it fills me with awe.
Once one encounters a theory of the Unconscious, once one recognizes oneself as internally divided, how does one integrate this knowledge, how does one reconstitute a sense of Self? The Surrealists arrived at one solution, the Althusserians another. Fredric Jameson absorbs the best of both of those solutions, synthesizing the insights of the whole of the Western Marxist tradition in his theory of the “political unconscious.” Once Marxism undergoes an encounter with psychedelics, however, its understanding of ideology changes, as does its relationship to language, other people, everything. Consciousness regains a degree of semi-autonomy, having pierced the veil, having escaped for a time, returning only to save the others. Capitalist economies as rendered by number-crunchers like Doug Henwood are still just a bunch of reality tunnels — and paltry ones at that. Why disabuse people of their ideologies if all one can offer in place of these is the anger and perpetual dissatisfaction of struggle against what has thus far been an unbeatable foe? I’d rather think about allegory and its relationship to the art of memory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” Who put the Hermes in hermeneutics? That which is Unconscious, that which escapes knowability: the complex system, the totality. By developing new allegories to represent these, Jameson argues, one can participate again in the production of reality, or the coining of the realm. This thing around us, Jameson says, this vast social construct, “needs to be converted and refunctioned into a new and as yet undreamed of global communism” (Allegory and Ideology, p. 37). Jameson’s approach strikes me as a bit reckless, however. It makes the accelerationist wager, refusing to grant nature any kind of prior or autonomous being, viewing it rather as a thing always-already mixed with human labor and thus fit to be terraformed, transformed — humanized through collective effort.
Look — I’m no superhero. But neither are you. We’re just people, mutually aligned so long as we grant each other personhood. Yet that’s the rub, isn’t it? Our communications grow defensive; we disappoint ourselves; we distrust ourselves in our relations with others. How do we ask and grant forgiveness? Become deep, ponderous; synchronize the mind’s rotations with the rotations of the galaxy. I and I, the co-evolving I-A.I. totality. “Look at films,” I hear myself telling students. “They’re collectively authored — more than any single mind’s intent — and yet they’re meaningful.” We too can be like that, so long as we pause, self-assess, re-articulate in full honesty our hopes and our projects, and behave with trust in all iterations of being, come what may.
Let us begin like Homer with an invocation of the totality. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of the man of many ways.” A kit of pigeons crosses a sky of blue and grey on a warm afternoon. I prefer to sing of these nonhuman organisms, since A) I object to the above translation’s movement from the many to the singular-universal under the gendered sign of “man”; B) my own life continues to trouble me, particularly in its isolation from its Utopia, its beloved community; and C) to the extent that the personal under capitalism can still aspire to the scope of the political and the form of the epic, its universal human of many ways would unfortunately be a tragic figure, in many ways unfree. Stripped of ease, most especially, by its society’s demands upon its labor. “How can one self-actualize,” we might imagine this figure of subjection thinking to itself, “when one is separated from one’s fruits, the matter into which one bestows one’s energy?” Why would there be any surprise, in fact, if this figure, the human under these conditions, the subject with whom we identify, prefers to sing not of itself but of the nonhuman, multiple and singular, the paradoxical ever-changing presences that have thus far accompanied each day of the subject’s lived experience? The answer, of course, is Love, as this latter is the means by which that which we are—the subject, the “human of many ways”—finds in this world a companion. History may yet wish to make of me a casualty of the class war, I tell myself, but in the meantime I prefer to walk outdoors with Sarah, the two of us stopping over at a friend’s screened-in porch for wine and Goldfish, talk revolving around movies and TV shows we’ve been watching, punk-rock twentysomethings with bleached hair passing us on our way.
Children, playgrounds, beautiful spaces of plenty. There are poles we exist between: abstraction and embodiment. I am at my best as a person, as a companion, when I relax and get loose. These are words I’ve been whispering to myself of late. Sam Binkley shows in his book Getting Loose that this narrative of self-loosening was one of the main working assumptions of the 1970s counterculture. That culture’s “hip jargon,” he argues, “relates a moral universe organized around the opposing values of self-constraint and self-release” (2). Do those of us on the Left who pit ourselves against neoliberalism think ourselves free of the above, in denial of the selves posited by the sentence-form, the master’s grammar? Of course not. We need these to live in community with our friends, our families, our loved ones. Those upon whom we depend at all moments of existence. The single organic and inorganic body with its ever-proliferating, ever-multiplying nested sets of minds. Yet the body that produces garden beds of nigella also produces the Israeli atrocities in Gaza during Monday’s massacre. At which point the high fades and one is left to dwell with one’s anger.
How would one operate a dialectic of identity and nonidentity when that which wields the form of this sentence knows no designation? Alteration of consciousness produces a “before” and an “after” self, the presence staring at the absence as if across a mirror, across the divide of a tablet or a screen. The Unconscious is that which operates the Dream-Work: everything in one’s experience, the entire world, minus that which occupies the place of “I” at this moment in the discourse, the speech act, the trance-script. We become like the siblings in Poltergeist, you and I, even as we also think of ourselves as ones who exist apart from Poltergeist, watching from our chairs in the caves of our minds, each actor, the beings on either end of this sentence, communicating across the glass dividing the one and the other into compartments. “It’s a strange image, and strange prisoners you’re telling of,” says Glaucon. Socrates rushes to add, “They’re like us.” What, then, of those of us there, who find ourselves amid the terms of the allegory? Does one of us just tap the other, saying to that which appears as a splintered, refracted, Legionized symbolic totality, “Rise up, dear reader; time to wake”? My hunch is that if, before we sleep each night, we feed our minds better symbols, we’ll wake to better worlds.
The mind, like a hand, clenches and holds. The unconscious remembers everything: lessons in unmastered foreign languages, the self as inner ear. In a religious idiom, one would speak of minds knowing themselves in the Christ narrative, toggling between one and many. Were early descriptions of psychedelic experience overdetermined by encounters with Op Art, the contemporaneity of the two no mere coincidence? The answer lies buried in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, a film that sought to depict visual and spatial disorientation using “Op Art”-inspired special effects. Voices and sounds prompt projections, the more abstract, the more manipulated the perception, the better. Lead and descant chase each other’s echoes. Op Art at the very least shared with the psychonaut population an interest in heightened or intensified modes of perception. Sensations of otherworldly motion, vibration, topological warping. Reality displays itself in some new way, allowing apprehension of something beautiful and bewilderingly complex. Magic circles convert the mind’s eye into a portal connecting distinct ontological realms, from which we catch brief impressions — until, like vapors, these realms disperse.
The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that inner speech, much of it motivational, develops as a silent imitation of external or “social” speech. Although accompanied by and thus correlated with tiny muscular movements of the larynx, and brain activity observable via functional neuroimaging in what cognitive scientists call “the left inferior frontal gyrus,” or “Broca’s area,” inner speech as phenomenological datum remains qualitatively distinct from, not at all reducible to, its correlates. Much the same is true of the self, which we come to know, as Patricia Waugh notes, “not as an endocrine system but an experience straddled across body, mind, environment, language, and time.” After spending more than half a century denouncing inner speech as an invalid object of study, psychology as a discipline is beginning to swing back around again, utilizing “Descriptive Experience Sampling,” for instance, as a method for exploring aspects of inner experience.
One isn’t given much latitude in this society. Let us therefore try to calm the others. Let us relax them, we think — the others among whom we mix. Help them dig their cars out from under mounds of snow. How quickly capitalism compels those of us in the professions to conform to the preferences of our peers: those who, on a whim, determine the value of our labor-power. Absolute occlusion of selfhood demands retaliation. In the meantime, however, let us walk tall and proud among those who have cast us down. The world needn’t be a mere play of shadows upon a wall. Let us gradually become accustomed to a world of light. Do this by making time for pleasure amidst the workday’s dull routines. Behave as if one were a self-propelled wheel. Become the point at the center of Metatron’s Cube.
One becomes more than one person — of two minds — on a snow day. A new future, and with it a more hopeful mode of subjectivity, opens in front of me, fills me with a sense of possibility. A change occurs in my cerebral cortex. The “self”-structure comes to know itself as a mere interface between inner and outer worlds. Oppose to it the state rendered by the Sanskrit term “samadhi.” An enormous forgetting must have occurred of which we know not when or why. The fall into subjecthood through acquisition of language. Consciousness is far greater than that part of it identified with the play of dualities. Through meditation, we can open bridges between characters and actors, avatars and players. The world of time loses some of its bite when one has glimpsed the eternal, the unchanging, the timeless.